When John Stagikas graduated high school in 1997 and enrolled at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., he knew he wanted to pursue a career in professional wrestling. Just as important, however, was playing football and getting a degree. An operation to remove a cyst in his neck cut his football career short, and in 2001 it was off to a different type of school under the tutelage of Walter “Killer” Kowalski.

“I had sent out a number of letters to different schools, and his was the first to reply,” Stagikas — who wrestles as John Walters — told SLAM! Wrestling. “Walter was the first guy I saw when I got to the school. His place was very old school, hot in the summer and no heat in the winter. I walked up the stairs and he was sitting there in his chair. I told him I wanted to start training, he told me the curriculum and costs, and a week later I brought my deposit and started training. When he first opened his school I am sure he did a lot more hands-on training, he was still very involved. He taught me a lot of things that I still use today that people haven’t seen. As an older person he is impatient sometimes but he has so much knowledge, anyone who comes across him should pick his brain.”

John Walters

Kowalski has trained a number of aspiring grapplers, but in the past few years the most famous names have been Christopher Nowinski (who trained briefly before joining Tough Enough), A-Train and Perry Saturn. Two of his students who have arguably had the biggest impact are Joanie “Chyna” Laurer and Triple-H.

“Triple-H is at the top of the game right now, he does a lot of little things right. Everything he does is the fundamentals turned up,” Walters said. “Chyna pretty much put women’s wrestling on the mat. When you mention their names to Walter, he gets a grin on his face, you can tell he was proud to train them. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I am trained by Kowalski, and being from the same school as them is an honor as well.”

In her book If They Only Knew Laurer did not speak highly of her trainer, depicting him as “scheming” and “nasty old man” who “would keep you down as long as you allowed it.” Walters commented on the bad blood.

“I never asked him about it. Reading the book, I was shocked by some of it but I wasn’t there so I don’t know its accuracy,” he said. “Regardless of what happened, he got her some breaks and she should have been a little more thankful and respectful to him. I was backstage at a couple of WWE shows that both of them were at, and they didn’t do much communicating.”

Driving an hour and a half each way four times a week prepared Walters for the travel that wrestlers have to endure, as well as the pressure of trying to balance life and wrestling. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was really focused on wrestling but I made time for my schoolwork. Junior year was easier then the first two years because I was adjusted. I balanced it as best I could.”

Walters encourages anyone who wants to pursue the profession to get post-secondary education. “Nothing is guaranteed. You should absolutely go to college, even a small one, go to something. College courses are a backup, a piece of paper that you may not need, but it is better to have it and not need it then need it and not. If you can balance both do it but definitely focus on getting a degree.”

Five months after starting, Stagikas took on the last name Walters as a tribute to his mentor and started working in battle royals and then on to singles matches.

“I worked the New England scene for two years, for promotions like NECW, WWA, and my first promotion where I was getting consistent work was North Andover’s Chaotic Wrestling,” he said. “They are still running today, and they were the first promotion to really give me the ball and run with it. They put belts on me, gave me mic time and let me show the fans what I could do. They put me on the map.”

One of his college roommates suggested the “Hurricane” nickname. “It was simple and stuck. I have never talked to Shane Helms about the name. Chris Nowinski was wrestling for Chaotic for awhile, and whenever I see him backstage he calls me Hurricane. I say ‘should you be calling me that?’ It’s just a name, not a shot at anyone.”

When he felt that he had accomplished everything he could in New England, he moved to New Jersey for three months and concentrated on promotions like ECWA, and Jersey Championship Wrestling and Ring of Honor. It was difficult at first to break into the popular promotion.

“I had sent a tape to Ring of Honor when they first started and they never got back to me. That is understandable; I can only imagine how many tapes they get,” Walters said. “In the back of my mind I wanted to work with them because I like the style. Gary Michael Capetta was on tour for his book, and he did a speaking engagement at the Chaotic Wrestling School. I got to know him and it came up that he worked with RoH doing backstage segments for their videos. I asked him what I could do to get there, and he had me send in my resume and tape again. Gary kept plugging away for me, and finally in May of 2003, [Ring of Honor booker] Gabe [Sapolsky] called Gary and told him he was going to give me a try out. I couldn’t have done it without him, I owe him a great deal.”

Walters’ mat-based technical style has been embraced by many of the RoH faithful. He has had great matches in RoH and other promotions against wrestlers such as CM Punk, Christopher Daniels and Matt Stryker.

“The matches that stand out in my mind are the ones that got a crowd reaction with wrestling. When you bring weapons into a match it is easy to get a crowd reaction,” he explained. “When you can get just as big of a pop with a submission hold or a wristlock that is impressive. My match with Rochester with Chris Daniels is one of my favorites; I watch it all the time. I had a match with Louis Ortiz last April, we went for 30 minutes and the crowd was on its feet. Matches like that I am more proud of than the weapons match. Getting a standing ovation after that match was really cool though.”

Weapons were a big part of Walters’ show-stealing “Fight Without Honor” on December 27, 2003 against Xavier. Some fans claim that Xavier carried Walters. “I don’t agree with the phrase ‘one wrestler carried another.’ It takes two workers and a referee to make a good match. If anyone carries someone the fans are the last people to know, they don’t have a clue some of the things that are involved. The only people who would know are the wrestlers themselves. Fans assume one guy is better so he carries the match, that isn’t true at all. A wrestler may bring someone up to their level, that is a different story. When I first read the message boards Xavier was the guy they shit on all the time. He started having good matches so I guess they needed someone else to pick on and they chose me.”

March 13, 2004 was an important date for Ring of Honor. In the wake of the Rob Feinstein scandal, it was time for everyone to bring their best to the show in Elizabeth, NJ. “Everyone in the building had the same goal from the workers to the ring crew and sound guy. Nobody talked about the past, and you could see in everyone’s eyes that it was time to show what we were made of. With the positive response from the fans it proved that Ring of Honor is stronger than anything that had happened.”

Walters squared off with Matt Stryker for the number one contender’s trophy. It was an unique environment as the crowd held dueling chants of “Let’s go Walters/Let’s go Stryker.” While trapped in the Strykerlock, the crowd pleaded with Walters to “Please don’t tap.”

“I look at it two different ways. Sometimes I think they do it just to please themselves. They feel like it was a match they could do that chant, without necessarily rooting for one guy. That being said it was a chant I had never experienced at an indy show before and was cool,” he admitted. “The RoH crowd is a rabid bunch, a bit weird, but they definitely know and respect good wrestling. If you work hard you will get a reaction, and the more I wrestle, the more often it happens.”

Walters has his sights on a number of wrestlers. Although he lost in his bid to be number one contender, he would love to get a shot at Ring of Honor champion Samoa Joe.

“I really like Samoa Joe’s style, it is hard hitting and to the point. I would love to work him. I’ve been in a four-way with AJ Styles, but never a singles. Those two are the ones I definitely would like to face. It would be fun to face Chris Daniels again.”

Many fans thought that match would happen in the finals of the annual ECWA Super 8 tournament on April 3. Walters defeated Nicho (formerly Psychosis) in the first round, but narrowly lost to Austin Aries in the semi-final. “I know I was the favorite by many people going into the tourney. I think the fact that I didn’t made it even better. I don’t know about you, but I like surprises and unpredictability in wrestling. I want to thank my two opponents, who are both tremendous wrestlers, everybody else in the Super 8, Jim Kettner and the entire ECWA. Also congrats to Chris Daniels because there isn’t anybody more deserving than him. And as always, thanks to the fans who made it to the Super 8 and continue to support me.”

Walters considered it an honor to be a part of the event, which in the past has included up and comers like AJ Styles, The Hardy Boys, Paul London, Spanky, and many others. “When Jim Kettner invited me I was thrilled. When I started wrestling, one of my goals was to be in the Super 8. That was a tournament that every indy fan knows about, so being invited told me I was doing something right and that Jim sees something in me. No matter how far I advanced, it was something I was proud of.”

It isn’t his first appearance with the company. “ECWA is one of the most organized promotions I have wrestled for. Often on the indy scene you don’t know who you are wrestling or when you are on. A week before the show Jim tells you what your job is, who you will be wrestling, everything. A lot of promotions don’t follow that pattern. I’ve had matches change 30 times from the time I got there, it doesn’t give you a lot of time to prepare. Running so well is the reason Jim has been operating for so long.”

Rumors have been floating around for months that the 24 year old is on the verge of joining the WWE. He has worked numerous matches for them, most recently losing a handicapped match to The Big Show on the Smackdown before Wrestlemania XX. His path to the WWE started when Dr. Tom Pritchard did a training camp at the Chaotic Training Center in 2003. He chose a few guys to start using on TV. The first few times Walters went to TV he didn’t work, and then April he did his first dark match and the next night wrestled on Smackdown against Team Angle.

“My first one, against Aaron Stevens was my favorite match in WWE so far. It was the first time I wrestled in front of thousands of people, against someone I was comfortable with,” Walters said. “It wasn’t a squash match — I got to show them what I had for five minutes. It is amazing how a crowd can have no clue who you are but they can get into you.”

The night after RoH, Walters was privileged to be asked to participate in Wrestlemania, as a druid for the entrance of the returning Undertaker. “I had never been to Madison Square Garden or Wrestlemania so I said definitely and was pumped for that. It was a big weekend. You could tell it was Wrestlemania, with the legends and people there and how people seemed so focused. It really is the WWE’s Super Bowl. It was a simple job, but the torches were a lot heavier than I thought and the fire was bright. A couple of guys’ feet caught on fire in the back before we went out there. Watching The Undertaker come back and the place go bananas was an experience.”

Walters took advantage of the opportunity to meet many of the legends that were in attendance.

“I talked to Bobby Heenan, Harley Race, Jesse Ventura, just small talk, tell them who I am and how much respect I had for them,” he said.

SLAM! Wrestling asked Walters his status with the company. “Whenever they have been within driving distance over the past year they book me, I hope they continue too. I’ve been talked to about the writers having interest in me, they have taken pictures and had me cut promos, but no deal has been offered despite what the Internet blows out of proportion. I am just doing my thing.”

Walters continued with his thoughts on how it influences his current style. “I try not to think about it too much. Some guys hear that the WWE is interested in them they slack in their indy matches and don’t want to do as much for fear of being hurt. It’s not my goal to get hurt but I am not going to half-ass it in the ring because I might get offered a deal somewhere down the line. If it comes I will deal with it then, but until that I love what I am doing now.”

Some fans feel that Walters should have gotten a #1 contender trophy and could even a credible champion in RoH. However if WWE was interested in him they question why a promotion should put the belt on him.

“I don’t know how much affect it has. Some bookers may look at it that way. I’ve told Gabe Sapolsky flat out ‘Don’t let this WWE talk affect how you use me.’ That could affect my decision, the way a promotion is using on me. I hope the promoters don’t focus on it, if someone has a belt it is easy to get it off them. I honor my commitments.”

Fans are critical of how the WWE used former RoH stars Paul London and Spanky, and are concerned that someone as talented as Walters would also suffer the same fate.

“Fans have to realize it takes time to build somebody. They may not think Paul London is being used properly. He didn’t spend a lot of time in Ohio Valley so Velocity is a step up, they could have had him down there for five years. He was put on TV a few months after he signed. For people to say he isn’t being used properly, he has to show them what he has. As for Spanky, he did what he felt he had to do, it wasn’t what he wanted, he preferred a different style and wanted to work in Japan. I respect the decision to leave if he wasn’t happy. But he got himself on TV and I am sure that affects his paydays.”

Going to the WWE is most wrestlers’ goal to some degree, as in the majority of people’s eyes it is the pinnacle of the sport. How does Walters feel about how it would tamper his creativity and ostensibly his art? This is a time when he keeps getting better and better; why would he choose now to go somewhere and possibly dilute that?

“If I could make a living wrestling the indies, I would,” Walters, who works as a bartender and waiter at Applebees between shows said. “You kill yourself to make a living at pro wrestling and that is what I want to do. If I was offered a contract right now, I don’t know if I would sign it. I would give it a lot of thought. Right now I am wrestling the way I want to, I don’t do the same match for RoH as I do for ECWA because the crowd is different. In WWE it’s a different fanbase and style as well and you just adjust them. With the two champions they have now it seems they are going more towards wrestling.”

In style and look, many fans compare Walters to current WWE World Champion Chris Benoit. Walters is flattered by the compliment.

“I try to wrestle as myself. A month into my training, Walter said I remind him of Benoit, the way I walked and looked, little things. I started watching tapes, mostly old Japanese stuff. In WWE there is nobody more crisp or real then he. I pick up things from him, but also from 30 other wrestlers. I don’t think I look like him, it doesn’t bother me. When it is all said and done I want to be remembered as John Walters, not another Chris Benoit.”

Now that he has a firm grasp of the North American style, Walters would like to try and broaden his horizons internationally.

“Japan is somewhere I would love to wrestle. Right now I am looking to wrestle in as many places as I can. I would like to go and learn in other countries like Mexico, England, Canada and Japan. Wherever I could learn something different I would go.”

In the meantime, John Walters hopes fans will continue to support him and independent wrestling.

“Keep supporting the indies. We wrestle for fan reaction, if we don’t get that, there is no point. If you continue supporting wrestling as a whole, well it’s the fans that will bring wrestling back up. If you appreciate me, that is great but if you don’t that is fine too. You guys pay your money to have an opinion, just make noise.”

For now, Walters works towards his ambition of earning a living doing what he loves full time and hopes he can leave a lasting impression.

“I want to be known as someone who gave his all. That guy that people say ‘His match was good, he really made it look realistic.’ A lot of the realism is missing in wrestling today and I am trying to bring that back. I realize it is entertainment, but I don’t see the point of doing a couple of flips to land an elbow when you could just land the elbow. I have a reason for every move I do. I hope wherever I wrestle, I made it a little more real.”