By John Raby
More than six years after entering West Virginia University, Michael Paris got his advertising degree this month. And for as long as he can, he doesn’t plan to use it.
Not while he’s traveling the globe for TNA wrestling, which signed him in June 2011 as alter ego Zema Ion, a hair-obsessed Filipino supermodel.
“Right now I’m having the time of my life living my dream as a professional wrestler,” said Paris, 26. “Anything I can do to avoid using my advertising degree, I’m going to make the most of those opportunities.”
While he spent much of his college career traveling to small-scale wrestling gigs, now Paris flies to a sound stage every week at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., to tape segments that are televised on Spike TV.
Zema Ion’s storyline is simple.
“Every two seconds he’s spraying his hair, making sure it’s still in place,” Paris explains. “And, of course, this leads to my opponent constantly trying to messing it up, and Zema Ion then just going crazy and becoming aggressive because his opponent is messing up his hair.”
It’s a passion that bit Paris at an early age while growing up in the northern West Virginia community of Chester.
His father, a horse trainer, would spend months at a time on the road and return with wrestling figurines as presents for his children. Paris and his father often spent Saturday mornings watching wrestling on television. His father died when Paris was 5.
“It’s one of my only memories of him,” Paris said. “As my mom told it, I just wanted to be like my dad.”
As a ninth grader, Paris received a wrestling videotape in the mail the day he was supposed to go after a spot on the Oak Glen High School basketball team. He never made it to the tryouts.
His father’s best friend, Richard Lavell, became the son’s mentor, paying for Paris to attend the Elizabeth, Pa.-based International Wrestling Cartel academy when he was 16, driving him an hour and a half every week, then traveling to pro matches across Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“Without Richard, none of this would be possible,” Paris said. “He was the one responsible for my whole career.”
Lavell downplayed his own role.
“I’m sure he’d have figured out a way,” Lavell said. “He was always crazy about it.”
IWC trainer Joe McMunn said Paris was one of the youngest students the academy ever had. Yet something made Paris stand out.
“He was more mature than some of the guys who were two, three, four years older than him,” McMunn said. “He had good discipline to begin with. We were able to really build on that with him.”
While attending college, Paris struggled to make ends meet as he traveled to wrestling performances. His brother, Steve, who had already graduated from WVU, paid for Michael Paris’ rent for a year to enable him to continue wrestling.
“My brother is definitely another unsung hero in the story of Michael Paris,” he said.
In 2010, Paris was invited to an open casting call for industry giant World Wrestling Entertainment. He was among 60 wrestlers selected to try out from among thousands of applicants. He didn’t make WWE’s final cut and was told he wasn’t quite ready.
Paris started to second guess himself. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he thought, perhaps he was too small for the big time. Meanwhile, the friends who attended advertising school with him graduated in May 2011, while he still was a few credits short.
“That’s when I was like, man, there ain’t nothing going right,” Paris said. “I failed at wrestling. I still haven’t graduated college. Is there ever going to be a light at the end of the tunnel?”
Less than a month later, there was.
He got a phone call from a TNA representative asking him to come to a tryout. Nashville, Tenn.-based TNA’s top wrestling talent includes veteran wrestler and actor Hulk Hogan.
Paris still doesn’t know how the organization got his phone number. He was told a TNA talent representative saw a video of him on YouTube.
He survived his tryout, which was broadcast live on Spike TV, and hasn’t slowed down since.
In addition to his weekly trips to Orlando, this year Paris has wrestled in India and Mexico City, along with trips to Canada and places like Chicago and Phoenix.
But there was still that issue of college. When TNA signed him, Paris had been at WVU five years. Despite the travel challenges he got it done, taking one class each semester over his final two years in order to graduate.
When his body won’t let him wrestle anymore, Paris not only can turn to his advertising degree, he can try spinning records. He’s been training since June to become a disc jockey, a dream that morphed from an interest in music before he realized he had no talent singing or playing guitar.
“I’m not unrealistic about it,” he said. “I could break my leg tomorrow wrestling. That would be the end of my career. Without a college career to fall back on, I don’t know what I’d be doing with my life.”
When it comes to importance, mentor and family friend Lavell said there’s no comparing the pecking order of a diploma to a wrestling career.
“Graduation. Most definitely,” he said.