Ric Savage spent seven years honing his skills in the wrestling business. It was a dream job that allowed him to pay his bills while also helping him earn a college degree.

Although he performed mostly on the independent circuits, Savage also got a taste of the big time, working shows for the NWA, WCW and ECW.

But in 1997, when it became painfully apparent that he was never going to achieve stardom in the grappling game, the 6-5, 400-pound behemoth decided to hang up his tights and pursue another dream

“It was getting to the point where it just wasn’t worth it anymore,” he says. “So I figured I’d get out and get a real job. Once you’ve been on the circuit for seven years, it’s hard to get a real job. That part was a real culture shock.”

In hindsight, says the North Carolina native, the career change was one of the best things that could have happened to him.

That was nearly 15 years ago. Today Savage, whose real name is Frank Huguelet, leads a team of artifact hunters who scour the countryside for relics of America’s past. He and his team also are the main characters in a new show, “American Digger,” that premieres Wednesday night on Spike TV.

The show is described as an unscripted series that uncovers “hidden treasure found in the back yards of everyday Americans.”

Savage’s crew is comprised of recovery expert Rue Shumate; battlefield historian Bob Buttafuso; his wife, Rita, who manages the business; and their 25-year old son, Giuseppe, who provides tech support.

The modern-day relic hunter’s interest in history and artifacts dates back to his childhood.

“I’ve always had a passion for history and artifacts. Other kids went to the beach in the summer. My parents took me to battlefields in Virginia, Mississippi and Tennessee,” says Savage, who comes from a family of academics.

His late father served as an English professor for 30 years at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. His mother was a librarian.

His Civil War roots run deep.

“There was a strong family history through the Civil War. We had six ancestors who fought for the Confederacy,” he says.

Following his retirement from wrestling in 1997, Savage returned to his other passion, the Civil War era, by getting his start in relic hunting. Soon after he stumbled across his very first find, a hunk of shrapnel he found at the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor, Va., and has since continued to search in the vicinity of former battle sites.

Savage met his future wife in Gettysburg, Pa., where she had been immersed in Civil War culture and where he was able to further explore his love of history by performing a live storytelling presentation called Haunted Gettysburg. The two wed in 1999, and 11 years later the couple turned their mutual interest in the Civil War and its relics into a full-fledged business called American Savage.

“I started out being a relic dealer where I was buying and selling military artifacts. I had been digging as a hobby. If you want to dig in places that haven’t been beaten to death by every other digger on the planet, you have to find properties where owners will let you on their property.”

Savage, though, decided to do things a little differently when he began negotiating deals to divide the revenue with the property owners.

“That’s really where the whole concept came from. We used to offer the first pick of what we dug, but then we’d run into people who had no interest in what we would dig up. We came up with the idea of digging and splitting the money with them. That was fairly successful.”

In 2008 the history buff took artifact hunting from a hobby to a moneymaking profession.

Being a relic dealer who spent much of his time on the road gave Savage the opportunity to make contacts with other antique and artifact dealers all over the country. He started writing a column called The Savage Facts for American Digger magazine and was contacted by Spike TV about hosting a show.

“That’s when the TV show concept came along, And now we can do it on a bigger scale and get into places all over the country. That’s what really just put it over the top.”

Savage, who lives in Mechanicsville, Va., says his team already has filmed 13 episodes for the first season after digging in sites from Aiken, S.C., all the way to Alaska. Although the Civil War era is his personal passion, he says the team has only dug around one Civil War site since filming began.

“We’ve been all over,” he says. “We were in Chicago doing 1920’s Al Capone stuff. We’ve done Revolutionary War stuff. We’ve done Tombstone from the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday era. We’re pretty much anywhere anything historical happened. If there’s a possibility of there being valuable artifacts, that’s where we go. It doesn’t really matter what happened as long as it’s historically significant and there’s a good potential for stuff to be in the ground. That’s what we look for.”

Among their discoveries were a late 17th-century British Carronade naval cannon, a 5-million-year-old Megalodon shark’s tooth and a 19th-century Kentucky long rifle.

Savage’s personal finds over the years include Civil War rifles and swords, dozens of Civil War artillery shell fragments, multiple Native American arrow and axe heads, and a Civil War-era beer bottle.

The historically significant city of Charleston wasn’t included in the first season. But, says Savage, there was a reason.

“There’s a lot of ordinances concerning excavation in Charleston. It makes it really hard. That’s why we ended up in Aiken instead of Charleston. I’ve dug around Charleston, on several properties, several times in the past. There’s a ton of stuff down there. They’ve just made it a lot harder over the past decade to get to it.”

Savage points out that the team doesn’t dig directly on battlefields and historical sites, nor do they dig without the consent of property owners.

“We may be on property close to a battlefield, but we’re never on a state, federal, county or city park. And we dig on private property with the owners’ permission.”

Savage and his group of treasure hunters, though, have drawn fire from a number of archaeological and historical institutions that claim the practice promotes illegal looting and the destruction of shared cultural history.

The show, according to one online petition, “encourages and glorifies looting and the antiquities trade at the expense of American history. Although the items pilfered by the team are acknowledged to have ‘great historical and cultural significance,’ these items are sold for individual profit. Simply plucking valuable historical items from the ground removes these items from their context. If excavated systematically by a team of trained archaeologists, these sites could prove invaluable to our cultural history.”

The Society for Historical Archaeology called the series “an indiscriminate looting of our collective heritage, a heritage that archaeologists professionally document so those materials and stories are preserved for all of us.”

Savage says those claims are overstated and not entirely accurate. He has been a digger for decades and feels he is adding to history rather than pillaging and plundering.

“All the archeologists in the country are having fits. They call us looters. Archaeologists have always hated relic diggers. They’ve always considered relic diggers to be the trailer trash of the archaeological community. They have their PhD’s, but the relic hunters are just a bunch of blue-collar guys out there in their pickup trucks driving around and digging holes. It’s kind of an unfair prejudice, but it’s always been there.”

What makes it worse, he says, is that some diggers and metal-detecting enthusiasts also have problems with the show because Savage seeks to compensate homeowners for the right to dig on their land. They fear that might lead to a precedent.

“The diggers hate us too because they feel like we’re putting a big spotlight on their hobby. And now, when they go ask Mr. Smith if they can dig in his yard, he’s going to want to get paid for it. So basically we’re getting hammered from both directions.”

Savage, though, says his team is respectful of the property on which they dig. Their standard excavation devices are state-of-the-art metal detectors. They bring out the heavy-duty excavation equipment when they feel there is a potential find.

“We also use backhoes, bulldozers and whatever we have to use to get to the relics. Some people think when they hear diggers saying bulldozers, everybody panics. If we use a ground-penetrating radar unit, it covers a lot of ground quick. If I’m lucky a metal detector will go down a foot or more depending on how big the object is. I can go down 15 feet with a ground-penetrating radar. So if I see an anomaly 12 feet down, do I really want to get a pick and shovel and dig 12 feet down, or do I want to get a bulldozer and a bobcat, and in a couple of minutes I’m there. It really becomes a business move.”

It’s important, he says, that everyone is happy in the end.

“Most of the time they’re cool with it. We’ve had some people say absolutely not, hand tools only, and we just have to make due. To me it’s just a matter of being able to get in and get out. We always put everything back the way it was. They get to come out and do a quick inspection and make sure they’re satisfied with it. And then we move on.”

Savage hopes “American Digger” will make it through the first season and be picked up for a second one. Thirteen shows already are in the can. The series will be evaluated after the first few episodes.

The half-hour show airs at 10 p.m. EST following “Auction Hunters” on Spike.

Traveling the mat circuit

“Heavy Metal” Ric Savage fondly recalls his days in the wrestling business.

His amateur career began in the U.S. Army where he competed with the 82nd Airborne post wrestling team at Fort Bragg, N.C., until a knee injury in 1989 landed him in physical therapy.

He broke into the wrestling business a year later when he offered a high school buddy who was running independent shows at the time $250 to show him the ropes in a garage that doubled as a training school.

“I jobbed some. I worked everywhere I could on the independent circuit,” he says.

That included working dates that sometimes barely covered the cost of gas.

“I worked for Jerry Lawler for about a week in USWA. I wanted to change careers at the time and go to law school. But they were giving me a little bit of a push. I did the Memphis loop for about a week — $40 a night. But it was great because we did the Mid-South Coliseum and the Nashville Fairgrounds. It was fun. I was renting a room from Bert Prentice, and my roommate was Skull Von Crush (Vito LoGrosso). They were working an angle with us at the time.”

Savage also worked some house shows for ECW where he was known as Ric Rage (he dropped the Savage, at the request of ECW owner Paul Heyman, to avoid any possible name conflict with the more well-known “Macho Man” Randy Savage).

“I was kind of a mid-carder there. They had me as Shane Douglas’ bounty hunter in an angle with The Pit Bull.”

One of his most successful stints, he says, was working for Jim Crockett when he reopened the NWA territory in Texas.

“I was in a tag team called The Hard Riders, and we were managed by Michael ‘P.S.’ Hayes. We were booked through Tully Blanchard. They gave us a big push, but then that promotion folded fairly quickly.”

He also joined forces with Bull Buchanan and later David Young as a team called Body Count.

The wrestling business, however, took a heavy physical toll on the big man, who has undergone three back surgeries and a knee reconstruction.

Savage, who trained under Ivan Koloff and Jimmy Valiant, speaks glowingly of stars he met during his wrestling career.

“I grew up watching Ric Flair, The Rock ‘N Roll Express, Wahoo McDaniel, Tully Blanchard. To me those were the greatest workers. Tully Blanchard as a heel was incredible. Ric Flair could be a great heel or babyface and gave one of the best interviews in the business. I haven’t seen any talent that could ever come close to those guys. None. The new guys may look great. The Rock is a great-looking guy and has got a great gimmick. But he’s not Ric Flair.”

“Ric Flair is the absolute greatest professional wrestler that ever lived. Nobody has even come close,” he says. “He made whoever he was working look like a million bucks. And he worked some slugs too. No matter who Ric Flair worked, they looked good.”

Savage also recalls his first match on TV for South Atlantic Pro Wrestling.

“Manny Fernandez was booking it, and they had me wrestle Wahoo. I had been doing bush-league independent stuff. I showed up in Concord, N.C., for a TV taping. Manny saw me, liked the way I looked and put me on against Wahoo. I walk up to Wahoo in the dressing room, and I’m marking out like crazy. I asked him what he wanted me to do tonight. He looks up at me and says, ‘We’ll do it in the ring.’ And that was it. I was dismissed. I’m thinking, ‘We’ll do it in the ring? We’re not going to plan anything?’ Those guys were real artists back then.”

-- Longtime wrestling referee Dick Woehrle died Monday of colon cancer at age 81.

Woehrle, a fixture in Northeastern rings, was one of the most recognizable officials in the business during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

-- Joe McCarthy (Tommy Criswell), a former NWA world junior heavyweight champ, passed away Tuesday of a stroke at age 82.

McCarthy won the title in 1966 from Lorenzo Parente and held it for three months before dropping it to Danny Hodge.

-- WWE is bringing a Smackdown event to the North Charleston Coliseum on May 6.

The Sunday night house show will feature Daniel Bryan defending his world title against Sheamus, and Randy Orton battling Kane in a No DQ bout.

Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. March 24.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.