Life after WWE

Courtasy of Anthony Carelli

Anthony Carelli basking in new career

by SALIM VALJI

Life outside of the wrestling ring has ushered in a new beginning for Anthony Carelli, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. For seven years, the Mississauga resident earned his living as a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), spending much of that time playing comedic persona Santino Marella. “I was always playing Santino,” Carelli says. “Now I only have to be myself.”

But Carelli – whose parents hail from San Fili in Consenza, Calabria – is grateful his alter ego inspired him to get in touch with his Italian roots. The 44-year-old became a dual citizen and frequently visits Italy with his family. “I even started studying Italian with Rosetta Stone on my own and eventually got a tutor,” he adds.

In 2012, Carelli opened Battle Arts Academy – a Mississauga-based gym specializing in judo, boxing, wrestling and other combat sports. It features a roster of over a dozen coaches, a dietician and a massage therapist. “I had wanted to put a business together. I just started off by designing [the gym] by hand on a piece of graph paper and jotted down elements we’d need, and then went about them in an efficient manner.”

After being sidelined due to a neck injury, Carelli decided to focus more on building his business. “The first year the gym was opened, I was on the road a lot with wrestling,” he says. “I wouldn’t say my neck injury was a blessing, but after it happened I was able to remain at home and focus on the gym. I got an engineer, architect, lawyer, and did everything to get it up and running. It was a smooth process because we opened before my injury, while I was still wrestling.”

Despite his passion for combat sports, even Carelli was shocked his post-wrestling plans would consist of teaching the craft to the next generation. “I never saw myself as a coach, but the transition has been fun,” he says.

Carelli started off in Ontario’s independent circuit in 2003 with the stage name Johnny Geo Basco. As he climbed the ranks, Basco gave way to Santino Marella, the Italian persona he adopted when he was called up to the WWE roster in 2007. For the next seven years, Santino Marella would appear in hundreds of programs and events for the world’s biggest professional wrestling league. His accomplishments during his wildly successful WWE career included two Intercontinental Championships, a United States Championship and a Tag Team Championship with Vladimir Kozlov.

Due to lingering health concerns, Carelli decided to retire in 2014. “My neck was getting worse and worse,” he says. “I had two prior injuries and needed to take time off. I wanted to wait and see if my neck was going to get well enough, but it never did.”

Carelli had been thinking about his future plans before officially announcing his retirement. As a result, he had something already in place. “I knew my neck issue was going to reach that point [of ending my career],” he says As the world of wrestling continues to evolve because of changing consumer habits and the presence of social media, Carelli is looking forward to coaching athletes and breaking down the sport for TV viewers. “In the ’90s, [the WWE] admitted that wrestling wasn’t a real competition,” he says. “It’s like watching a scary movie. You’re scared, but you’re not believing [it].”

Carelli has also gotten into the world of television. He regularly appears on Sportsnet’s WWE Aftermath, a recap show of major storylines in the world of wrestling. “I was friends with Greg Sansone [the network’s vice-president of programming],” he says. “He’s a wrestling fan, and they’ve always played it.”

So how does performing in an arena in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans differ from performing in a television studio in front of a camera? “I was never really myself on the wrestling stage,” he says. “I was always this larger-than-life character. Now, I just have to be me. The main thing is being confident, relaxed and to have fun on camera. The audience can tell when you’re not having fun.”