For many professional wrestlers, the business is everything.
For a select few, such as Austin Aries, the business is just part of who they are.
If the TNA star's pro wrestling career were to end tomorrow, it would only mark the end of one career and the beginning of the rest of his life.
It's not that Aries isn't passionate about the business. He has been following the sport for as long as he can remember.
Nor is Aries still trying to make a name in the profession. The 35-year-old Wisconsin native is widely regarded as one of the top workers in the game, and no less than Kurt Angle once called him the best performer in the business.
He's also one of a handful of performers to claim the distinction of being a TNA Triple Crown champion, having held the TNA heavyweight title, the TNA tag-team title and the X-Division title.
But pro wrestling doesn't define who Austin Aries — real name Dan Solwold — is.
“Once you feel like you're trapped or a prisoner to the business, that's a dangerous thing,” says Aries, pointing to the character who played the title role in “The Wrestler.”
“That movie was sensationalized to an extent, but there are guys like that. That's all they know and that's all they can do. They're on the hustle for a lifetime.”
That's not the case with Aries.
“I love wrestling, and I want to do it for as long as I'm successful and it makes me happy. But there are other things that make me happy too,” he's quick to add.
In other words, pro wrestling isn't the be-all, end-all for Aries.
“I want to be diversified as I can. I don't want to throw all my eggs in one basket, but right now the wrestling basket has been good to me. I'm thankful for that.”
Aries has seen a number of performers from his industry allow the business to consume them. He doesn't want to be one of them.
“Sometimes the guys who are most passionate like myself ... if we don't have other outlets to focus that passion on and get that energy out, it can become too much. I've gotten in a little trouble over the years because I've been outspoken and been passionate about things. And I've discovered that the more outlets I have, like my music, have helped me in my wrestling career. You have to have something else besides just wrestling in your life.”
Like “ordinary” individuals, he has varied interests in such subjects as music, food, fitness and current events. On his rare days away from the mat grind, he's just “Dan,” “Daniel” or “Danny.” And that's fine by him.
Aries now lives in Clearwater, Fla., closer to his TNA base but far removed from his former home in Wisconsin. “I'm done shoveling show,” the lifelong Green Bay Packers fan laughs. “I just visit snow now.”
An accomplished vocalist (“I can rock the mic”) who sang in school and community choirs when he was young, Aries is a self-described “hack” guitar player who gravitates toward alternative rock but appreciates anything that's “good” — from rap and hip hop to reggae and classic rock.
Aries has an even greater interest — more of a cause — in fitness and nutrition. He has been a devout vegetarian since he broke into the business in 2000. “A few years ago I went completely vegan and cut the dairy and the eggs out of my diet as well.”
Aries is vocal about his concerns over the “corporate food system” and how it has affected nutrition and the overall health of Americans.
“Whether or not you believe in veganism or vegetarianism, we've handed over our sustenance to corporations, and we're expecting them to use guidelines with us in mind. The reality is that their overall objective is profit, and they'll compromise whoever or whatever they have to in order to make more profit.”
Aries, whose strong mic skills complement his superb in-ring ability, has used a number of monikers over his 13-year career.
With an arrogant and boastful ring persona, billed as “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” Aries came up with his current moniker quite simply.
“I'm an Aries — born on April 15, 1978. I was reading about the Zodiak signs and such. I really kind of embodied the characteristics of the Aries. As for Austin, I was honestly throwing first names out there, and I remembered Austin Idol and thought that was a catchy name. I really wasn't thinking long-term at the time. But Austin Aries had a ring to it, and it just stuck.”
A two-time Ring of Honor world champion, Aries engaged in classic battles with the likes of current WWE stars C.M. Punk and Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson).
Aries' track record in the business is enviable.
Yet he's never worked a day for WWE.
“I don't worry about that. They've had opportunities to sign me, and for whatever reason or measuring stick they were using, they didn't see fit to give me an opportunity. I don't know all the ins and outs of those decisions, and I don't really dwell on it.”
When Aries first saw a “ratty, old 16-foot ring” sitting in a friend's garage in 2000, his initial aspirations didn't revolve around a career in WWE.
“All I knew when I saw that thing was that was what I wanted to do for my career,” he says.
While Aries has achieved many of his goals, he's realistic enough to know that a WWE gig would likely afford him a bigger paycheck and greater visibility.
“If and when that opportunity did present itself, you'd be a fool not to listen. But I don't measure my career's success on whether or not I go to WWE.”
Triple Crown champ
WWE's loss has been TNA's gain.
Aries has worked two stints with the company — from 2005 to 2007, and his current run which started in 2011. The latter has been the far more successful.
The timing the first time around, he says, just wasn't right.
“I guess there's a lot of things I could say, but at this point I don't think any of it matters. I was able to come back and obviously have a lot more success the second time around. I think I was in a better place personally, and maybe the company itself was in a better place. So it all worked out. I really wouldn't change too much. I felt justified in coming back and, seeing how my return went, I made the right decision.”
Aries returned to the company with a vengeance and added three major titles to his growing collection of hardware. “The television belt is missing right now,” he laughs. “I've been trying to get my hands on that, but nobody can find Abyss.”
Surprisingly, his least favorite title run was as TNA heavyweight champion, he says.
“I never really felt I got off the ground. I felt like I had my legs cut off from underneath me before I had a chance to run,” says Aries, who won the belt from Bobby Roode in July 2012 but dropped it 98 days later to Jeff Hardy.
State of TNA
Aries is looking forward — sort of — to TNA's Bound for Glory pay-per-view Oct. 20 in San Diego where he will compete in a four-way Ultimate X match with Hardy, Chris Sabin and Manik.
Aries readily admits that he's not a proponent of the ladder concept.
“I hate those types of matches. I'm not a fan. When I broke in, I didn't say teach me how to climb the ladder or teach me how to scale the ropes 20 feet above the ring. I understand why they're there, I understand why the fans enjoy them, but it takes me out of my element. I just have to prepare differently. There's a lot of moving parts and a lot of factors that come into play that usually aren't there. We're all going to go out there and put on the best performance we can.”
Aries treads lightly when asked about the current state of TNA. He's heard the questions before. There have been cutbacks, layoffs, tough financial decisions. But he remains upbeat about the company's future despite more possible defections.
AJ Styles, one of the TNA “originals,” is working on a contract extension and could be gone by the end of the year.
“AJ Styles really is phenomenal, no pun intended, with what he does and what he brings to the table, but I think any company finds a way to survive, whether the names are Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Steve Austin or Ric Flair, all of whom have left and gone someplace else. Guys are going to step up. That doesn't mean you're going to replace a guy like AJ Styles. It just means that someone's got to step up and carry a little more weight.
“That being said, I don't think anyone wants to see AJ Styles leave. When you think TNA, he's one of the first guys you think of. I think it would be great if he spent his whole career there if that's what he wants and he's happy. That's the bottom line.”
TNA's biggest and most recognized name, Hulk Hogan, announced on this past Thursday night's Impact show that he was leaving the company.
“Hogan is doing whatever's good for Hogan ... just like he's done his whole career,” says Aries. “And just like he should continue to do. And if that means staying with TNA, great. If that means going to some other venture, then I wish him all the luck.”
Aries says TNA business is going on as usual, and the performers can only concern themselves with doing the best possible job they can inside the ring.
“I really think it's operating like it usually does. I don't feel a big difference. The company is continuing to make moves to get better and improve. Whether that means reallocating some money to different places or freshening up the roster or giving new guys opportunities ... they're all things that companies that are still growing and trying to get better do.”
He says he'd like to see TNA focus on the “cool quotient.” It's a formula that worked in the past for both WCW and WWE during a hot period for the business.
“Wrestling was its hottest when it was cool — not just amongst the little kids or the over-35-year-old white males, but when it was cool for the college-age kids to get together on a Monday night and have a party and watch some wrestling, or get together on a Thursday night down at the bars and shoot some pool and watch some wrestling. I think we need to tap into the coolness of what's pop culture now.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.