For someone who’s torn both MCLs, had a broken tooth lodged in his cheek and occasionally asked his wife to pull thumbtacks and glass from his back, nothing hurt more for Corey Graves than being told he could no longer be a pro-wrestler. It’s an obsession that drove him to have a Hulk Hogan cake for his third birthday, and to spend the Eighties and Nineties buying the magazines, watching the VHS tapes and practicing the moves of his idols with his younger brother, Sam. It was an obsession that continued to consume him, shifting from the mainstream icons of World Wrestling Entertainment to obscure Japanese and Mexican wrestling he’d find online.
By early 2014, Graves, one of the jewel prospects for WWE, was on his way to being, as pro-wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes once described him, “the next thing.” His tattoo-heavy look paired with his gift with words made him a favorite among wrestling execs. An enigmatic loner profoundly shaped by the punk rock of Henry Rollins and alternative metal of Tool was something you didn’t see on TV each week – and the WWE was going to change that. But severe injuries canceled those plans. “It was the worst period of my life, for sure,” Graves says.
The lingering effects from a string of concussions sidelined him for good. “We just didn’t know it would have the ending it had,” his father, Dan Polinsky, remembers. In the spring of 2014, Triple H, a WWE legend and one of its top executives, pulled Graves aside before a taping in Orlando and told him what he kind of already knew: The WWE’s Wellness Program had medically disqualified Graves and he was unable to compete for the company.
Long concerned over what the shelf-life of her husband’s career would look like, Amy Polinsky, Graves’ wife, was again worried about their family’s financial future. When he called her to break the news, they cried with each other over the phone.
“He was saying, ‘I’m done. I’m done,'” she says. “He said, ‘This is it. My life is over.'”
But it’s clear that his career in the pro-wrestling world has just begun. It’s January 2018, deep in the bowels of Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center in the hours before the Royal Rumble, one of WWE’s most significant annual events. Walking down a hall in a stylishly blotched red and black suit and a lavender button-down – neck tattoos fully exposed – Corey Graves looks like a man far beyond the question of whether he belongs. He’s here among the current greats – even if Graves himself can’t fully believe it.
The WWE likes to tout that anything can happen in their world. And at this event, at least, that holds true. You might be just as likely to see Charlotte Flair, arguably the standard-bearer in pro-wrestling’s recent women’s revolution, as you are to catch a glimpse of her iconic father, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, saying hi while dressed as KFC’s Colonel Sanders. (I experience both.) This rainy Sunday in January is the official start of the company’s “Road to WrestleMania,” culminating this year in New Orleans, the same city where four years earlier, Graves – the self-proclaimed “Savior of Misbehavior” – suffered the concussion that would ultimately end his in-ring career.
And if anything really can happen in the WWE, then Graves is the sharp-dressed, walking, talking embodiment of the branded slogan. In a little more than three years since formally retiring from the ring, Graves, 34, has been a revelation at the announcers’ desk. His biting, quick-witted retorts – whether it’s pointing out how Sasha Banks is a bad friend or finding new ways to tell his broadcast partner Byron Saxton that he should shut up – have drawn early comparisons to sports entertainment’s best commentators, like Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.
Graves, real name Matt Polinsky, is now the lead commentator for the organization’s most popular programs – placing him in a demonstrable position to become the new voice of the WWE. But he’s still trying to wrap his head around how he got here. “It’s weird,” he says. “This place moves so fast that if you don’t step back, you get lost in what you’re actually a part of.”
For the Polinsky family, pro wrestling was the glue that bonded the Pittsburgh clan together. When Dan and Tanya Polinsky weren’t taking Graves and Sam to the local shows, they’d watch it on TV, the kids playing with the thousands of wrestling figures they collected or heading to the nearest bed to practice their flips.
“After we went the first time to an event, it became a love affair,” says Dan Polinsky, a longtime firefighter who later worked in the fire truck business.
By the time he reached high school in 1998, Graves’s parents noticed that he was bored with school, lacking interest in seemingly everything, even the girls who gawked over him. Unclear of what was bothering their 14-year-old son, his parents sat him down one day after school and asked what would help snap him out of his funk. “We thought he was going through depression,” his father says. “We were kind of worried about him, hoping he wouldn’t go off the deep end.” When Graves’s idea of getting his tongue pierced was quickly rebuked, his dad mentioned wrestling – and it struck a nerve. “He said, ‘Dad, if you could make that happen, I’d be the happiest guy in the world,'” his father remembers.
Getting to that point, however, would be a challenge. “My dad has since admitted to me that once I said OK that he had no idea what to do with that,” Graves says.
“I always likened being on the [independent circuit] to being in a band – trying to get out there and get as much work as possible,” Graves says.
Soon, the Polinskys made some calls and got Graves signed up for training, and not long after that Graves began training in an abandoned mall with no heat in the dead of the Pittsburgh winter. It was the opportunity he craved. “That’s what got my foot in the door,” he says. For the next few years, Graves would train three days a week, with his parents driving him to the sessions. Not long after he started, the Polinskys even bought a ring and began promoting matches for the area’s independent circuit, their boys practicing with the local performers around Pittsburgh.
“We always thought the world of him, but we could only imagine what the paying public would have thought of him,” says his brother, Sam, who was also in training. “He was a teenage kid who looked like he’s missed a couple meals, going out there and trying to be a pro wrestler.”
His first match was at the Barn – a rural farm venue now known for wedding receptions – in Moundsville, West Virginia. As a skinny 17-year-old, Graves called himself Sterling James Keenan, playing off his love for Sterling Sharpe, his favorite football player, and Maynard James Keenan, the frontman for Tool. That night, the admittedly unremarkable kid from Pittsburgh debuted. He was paid $5.
“I just sat back and grinned proudly,” says Tanya Polinsky. “He was in control out there. We knew from that point on that that’s what he was going to be.”
That first experience, and everyone thereafter, was all about getting reps. “I always likened being on the [independent circuit] to being in a band – trying to get out there and get as much work as possible,” Graves says.
To help support his wrestling habit, Graves took whatever odd job he could, like as an overnight sports radio announcer, a body piercer or working at a tattoo shop. One of his jobs was as a bouncer at a bar next to PNC Park. It was there that, one Sunday in 2007, he was called in to cover during a Steelers game. The owner of the bar was a friend, and had an idea to set him up with one of the bartenders working that day. At the time, Amy Polinsky – then Amy Schneider – was making good money as a traveling BMW spokesmodel, bartending the couple months out of the year she wasn’t on the road. On that day, she was pissed to be working the beer tub at the front door. The one perk, however, was spending all day with Graves. The immediate attraction was mutual, but she was skeptical. “Honestly, when I first met him, I didn’t think it would go anywhere,” Polinsky says. “He told me he was a professional wrestler and I said, ‘No, but how do you make money?'”
Things moved quickly for the couple. A week after they met, he moved in with her. Three months into the relationship, they were engaged. In 2009, they had their first son, Cash. But by the time the couple was pregnant with their second child, daughter Lennon, Polinsky’s initial joke of how Graves made money was turning into a legitimate concern. Polinsky’s pregnancy forced her to quit her gig as a spokesmodel. She worked two jobs and went back to school for her master’s in education – all while expecting a baby. Graves was bringing home roughly $100 a week performing on the independent circuit. When he worked as a body piercer, he’d bring home $50 on a good day. At one point, Polinsky says, the money situation had gotten so dire that they were on welfare and using special services for pregnant women so they could have free milk and cereal.
“I remember paying for $10 worth of gas in quarters, dimes and nickels, and thinking, this has to get better,” she remembers. “But we were so in love.”
It was during this period that his young brother reached his pro wrestling dream before he did. As kids, Graves affectionately referred to his brother as “Little Sam,” and the two were siblings with a common goal. While Graves was thrilled for his brother to get signed to WWE, he says he thought the moment was another signal that his window of opportunity had closed. All the years of work in the ring had not gotten him on the radar of the biggest pro wrestling company in the world. What was Graves doing wrong? Maybe this isn’t meant to be, he thought. Though the younger brother had signed his deal, he quickly struggled and was soon released. “I had the [WWE] contract before I was ready to be there,” says Sam, who now goes by Sam Adonis. “If my brother was there to guide me along, maybe it would have worked out differently,” Adonis says. But he has bounced back. Now with Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, Adonis’ gimmick, in which he sympathizes with President Donald Trump, has made him one of the country’s most hated characters.
In 2011, by the age of 27, Graves had essentially quit the business. He was working as a 911 dispatcher for a steady income. “I had given up at that point,” he recalls.
For Polinsky, seeing her husband let go of his dream wasn’t an option. “I made him call to be an extra for WWE,” Polinsky says. By chance, Raw needed extras in Cleveland. They were so broke, she says, that she went out and bought him the nicest outfit they could afford – a purple sweater, collared shirt and navy slacks from Target. She made him cut his hair and take out the plugs in his earlobes. Graves says it was the most regular he’d look at any point of his career. While backstage, Graves was complimented on his look from WWE agents who remembered him, but he insisted to them that night that he had left the business altogether and was only there to get paid. A week later, sitting around the dinner table with his family, he got a call. It was the WWE. It would take Graves 30 seconds after he hung up the phone for him to figure out what happened: WWE had offered him a developmental contract.
About a year into his tenure, he befriended Baron Corbin, another heavily tattooed performer who signed after a stint in the NFL. After initially keeping his distance from him, Graves took to Corbin. They’d soon share a love each other’s love for music – Corbin’s all-metal style to Graves’s predominantly punk playlist. In the ring, Corbin, who later had Graves as a groomsman at his wedding, marveled at how his friend had a James Dean-like character that could translate into something different in the ring.
“He’d walk to the ring like the coolest person in the world, but that switch would soon flip from being cool to vicious,” Corbin says.
In 2011, by the age of 27, Graves had essentially quit the business. “I had given up at that point,” he recalls.
In April 2014, Graves found himself drinking beers with Michael Cole, the voice of WWE, in New Orleans. Graves talked about his brief radio career, working odd shifts at a Pittsburgh sports station. It was April 2014, the weekend of WrestleMania 30, and Graves was bummed out about his latest concussion. He says a part of him was already thinking ahead – hoping for the best but planning for the worst.
“I understand why I was shut down now, but at the time, I didn’t want to hear it,” Graves says. “I worked my entire life to get here for this thing – and it was gone.”
Throughout his training at NXT, Graves stayed with Corbin in Orlando. After the head injuries and end of his in-ring career, some nights were better than others for Graves. Corbin recalls a night when the two went out with Amigo the Devil – a neo-folk artist who plays banjo and acoustic guitar but sings about dark subjects, like serial killers – and saw Graves have one too many drinks, getting on top of the bar and causing mayhem. From then on, Corbin says the two would use “Amigo drunk” as a top level, an indication they needed to slow down. Corbin remembers the meltdowns.
“There were nights where Corey got ‘Amigo drunk,'” Corbin says. “It was hard to watch…. It was like he lost a family member. You didn’t know what he was going to be.”
With Cole’s support, WWE offered Graves a shot at announcing. When he received his first announcers’ contract in December 2014, it was a shot he was hoping for, but wasn’t banking on. Yet while he’s happy with what he’s achieved, he still misses the career he could have had.
“I think I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t always something of a little glimmer of hope that something miraculously would change,” he says before the Rumble. “But I’ve fully embraced my role now… I’m cool with wearing suits and talking about other people for a while, because I can hopefully do this a lot longer.”
Sitting in a corner of a hallway backstage at the Wells Fargo Center, Graves is trying not to think about peeing. Less than four hours from the start of the Royal Rumble, he’s decompressing from the production meeting for that night’s event. Soon, he’ll call more than five consecutive hours of action without a break, a marathon of endurance from his seat at the announcer’s table. Earlier that week, WWE legends Edge and Christian asked him about how he handles those situations when he really has to go to the bathroom. Reminded of this, he puts down his Diet Coke.
“I’m going to power through, so I should probably have stopped drinking soda about an hour ago,” he says, resisting another sip.
It’s the beginning of one of his most strenuous stretches of the year. The Saturday before the Rumble, he did the preshow kickoff panel for NXT, WWE’s unofficial third brand. The day after the Rumble, he’ll do Monday Night Raw followed by SmackDown Live that Tuesday, the only on-air personality to stick around for commentary. After wrapping up with Mixed Match Challenge, a mixed tag-team tournament featuring men’s and women’s wrestlers which airs on Facebook, he’ll head to Atlanta for three days to record 16 hours’ worth voiceovers for next year’s WWE 2K video game. When he’s at home in Connecticut, Graves, who talks nonstop on-air, prefers to turn down the volume, playing with his kids, watching baseball and finding time to get tattoos with his wife on date nights in New York. But just like that, he’s back on the road on Sunday to repeat the Raw-SmackDown grind.
“I just get goosebumps talking about it,” Graves says of calling his first WrestleMania.
Since getting called up to join Raw’s announce team in July 2016, pro-wrestling die-hards have lauded Graves as a much-needed shot of young, throwback talent who’s a legitimate, long-term solution as the company’s number-one expert commentator. Announcer training in Florida wasn’t easy, but Graves got better the more he announced, often for hours each day, multiple times a week. He remains his own worst critic, pointing out how he knows exactly when he’s said a transition that sucks. While he appreciates the praise he’s received, he keeps Ventura and Heenan on a pedestal that, he says, is still a long way from where he is right now. “They are mythical creatures to me,” Graves says. “I’d love to be in the same breath as them, but I probably won’t accept it someday, maybe not until I’m gone.”
As a teen, he’d always joke that he wanted to fly on Vince McMahon’s jet just once. Now, with him living an hour away from WWE’s headquarters, it’s a benefit he gets every Tuesday after SmackDown, having sushi and drinks while the billionaire boss talks about life or regales in stories of Andre the Giant.
In a rare moment of reflection amid the craziness of the weekend, Graves is at peace. Amid the influx of young talent that’s come into the company in recent years, he has a chance to outlast them all.
If the lowest moment of his career came with tears, then the highest produced a lump in his throat. As WrestleMania 33 got underway in Orlando last year, Graves couldn’t believe what was about to happen. In a classic black and white tuxedo, Graves would call his first WrestleMania, sitting next to Cole, the man who advocated for his unlikely second act. It was a day of nerves that Graves handled well – that is, until the flyover during the national anthem. Moments before the official start of the event, he looked up to see, and hear, the deafening Navy fighter jets fly over Camping World Stadium, and the roar of more than 75,000 in attendance. It’s the grandest stage in sports entertainment and he had a ringside seat, imprinting his personality on the biggest show of the year for the world’s preeminent pro wrestling company. “I just get goosebumps talking about it,” he says, extending his right arm. Graves finally made it.
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