Indie Watch is our regular series that looks at all of the amazing talents working the independent circuits around the world. Some are veterans revitalizing their careers, some are indie prospects hitting their peaks, while others are names to be on the watch for! In this edition, we look at the unlikely rise of a former WWE Superstar who has reinvented himself and become a cult hero, in the form of Thomas Santell.
Working for WWE doesn’t always guarantee you great success. But in the case of Springfield, Massachusetts’ Thomas Santell, a failed WWE run doesn’t have to end your career. In the past year, Santell has become one of the biggest stars with Beyond Wrestling’s Uncharted Territory show, with a tale of resurrection not entirely unlike former 3x WWE Tag Team Champion PCO.
A product of the New England indie scene initially, as Antonio Thomas he got his start in 2001 with New England Championship Wrestling (NECW), Eastern Wrestling Alliance (EWA), and Chaotic Wrestling (CW). A competent singles grappler and trained by WWE Hall of Famer Killer Kowalski, he became the EWA Heavyweight Champion in spring of 2004. That same year, he found a regular tag partner in Johnny Heartbreaker, and the duo would also capture the EWA Tag Team Championships.
In the summer of 2004, Antonio Thomas and Johnny Heartbreaker headed to WWE developmental, where they remain a tag team unit with Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW). While Thomas kept his indie name, Johnny Heartbreaker was renamed Romeo Roselli, with the team taking on the name The Heartbreakers.
By early 2005, the duo made their WWE debut, with a slight name change – they were now called The Heart Throbs. Over the course of the next year, they would find themselves in battles against the likes of William Regal & TAJIRI, The Hurricane & Rosey, and Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch. While they had multiple tag title opportunities, the duo seemed stuck in their progress in WWE, and both were released in early 2006.
In 2007, they had a brief stint in TNA/IMPACT Wrestling, when they returned to their Heartbreakers name and debuted as Christy Hemme‘s mystery tag team. While it only amounted to a one-off, The Heartbreakers would re-enter the US indie scene, working with Pennsylvania’s International Wrestling Cartel (IWC), Full Impact Pro, and others. He would also head to Japan where he competed for All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). He also wrestled dark matches with Ring of Honor. ““My career went in reverse, it started kinda with WWE, and then I get to go live and train in Japan with All Japan, and go to Puerto Rico, and go to Europe and do Ring of Honor and do TNA,” he told FanSided this past summer. “You know, navigate through the indies and do everything outside of WWE.”
After years of grinding it out – as well as name change to Thomas Santell – it was a friend of his that help spark the change to the Thomas Santell people know in 2019 – his transformation into the George McFly-esque supernerd. And while his cult-like following began around 2015, it would still take years for him to perfect the character – or even find regular work. But it was after a week at the WWE Performance Center as a guest trainer earlier this year that helped put Santell on a much larger map. ““I went to the [WWE] Performance Center in March as a guest trainer,” Santell continued to FanSided, “and I had worked with Stokely Hathaway, and I had gotten to know him during that week, and we were talking and he said ‘have you tried to get out there and email?’ and I go ‘I email everywhere,’ and he goes ‘let me talk to Drew [Cordero] for you.’ So he spoke to Drew and he goes ‘hey email Drew,’ so I email Drew and then boom right there. I don’t know if it was Stokely or not … whether that was the final thing or not, he vouched for me and that meant the world to me.”
Beyond Wrestling brought Santell into the fold on the fifth episode of Uncharted Territory season one, as a new challenger for the Discovery Gauntlet. The Discovery Gauntlet is an on-going series where you have to “win it, to stay it”. The Discovery Gauntlet champion continues to defend his spot on the card, with an array of one-offs from various indie darlings coming in to get that spot. He debuted in May, defeating LD Mantis Montesanti to gain the Discovery Gauntlet spot, and lasted eight weeks. After losing his spot in the Gauntlet, Beyond management had seen enough of the “Ovaltine Dream” – and just how over he’d become during his run – and kept him as a series regular. In between singles matches, he’s also formed a tag team with the man least likely to team up with a “nerd” like Santell – the king of American hardcore, Nick Gage. Together as Nerder Death Kill (a play on Gage’s gang affiliated slogan, Murder Death Kill).
Santell also began working with CHIKARA, a company he briefly appeared with years prior while still in the Heart Throbs. He made the semi-finals of the 2018 Johnny Kidd Invitational Tournament and competed in this year’s CHIKARA King of Trios with a squad that featured Gage and indie star Kris Statlander. He also appeared for CHIKARA at their Season 20 Finale, where he had a technical showcase with Mike Quackenbush.
From a failed WWE Superstar to an indie cult favorite, 38-year old Thomas Santell has shown that hardwork and perseverance does indeed pay off, as he continues to fight amidst the chants of “Ovaltine” and re-establishing himself as one of the breakout indie darlings of the past year.
Check out our full list of previous Indie Watches, showcasing emerging talent from around the world!
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