There is a much beloved quote from the animated series, The Simpsons, where patriarch Homer tells his vegetarian daughter, Lisa, that “you don’t win friends with salad!” When it comes to Canadian indy wrestler and proud vegan Markus Burke, one could deduce that while you may not win friendships with veggies … you just might win wrestling matches! For the last 10 years, Burke has been determined to prove that not only is he the “toughest vegan on this planet,” but also “the best professional unsigned wrestler in Canada right now.”
Burke’s journey into the squared circle began as it often does through wrestling fandom. In the days before the availability of cable television, the Internet and the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Network, Burke (who was born Eric Doucet) says his father was one of the original VHS tape traders in the area, allowing him access to American Wrestling Association (AWA) and National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) footage. Fast forward to WrestleMania III which saw Hulk Hogan slam and defeat Andre the Giant and Burke was officially hooked on professional wrestling.
Although athletic through high school, Burke says he was always the skinny kid as he was a vegetarian in the meat and potato community of Campbellton, New Brunswick. Although currently standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 225 pounds, Burke says in high school he was around 6-feet tall and weighed only 130-140 pounds. Despite the lack of weight, he played soccer, volleyball, hockey and took part in high school wrestling. After finishing college and working as a computer programmer, Burke met fellow East Coast wrestlers Julien Young and Titus, who informed him that Emile Dupre, wrestler, promoter and father of former WWE and All-Japan star René Dupre, was starting a wrestling school.
Burke, Titus and Young joined a class of approximately 15 hopefuls. For the next nine months, they put in 10-12 hours every week of what Burke referred to as very “old school” wrestling instruction. Burke ended up breaking his nose twice and having his jaw dislocated, but he didn’t quit. In fact he and his two friends were the last three standing when the school finished. Everyone else had given up.
A month after his training ended, he had his first match.
“My original name was Mr. Suave Joshua Aero (and it was) versus Sidewinder,” revealed 33-year-old Burke in a Skype interview with SLAM! Wrestling. “I had long hair, a cut-off Iron Maiden shirt and bicycle shorts. You have to start somewhere.” He later adopted the Markus Burke name as a tribute to the hero of the Maritime wrestling circuit, Leo Burke (Leonce Cormier); in fact, there’s a little bit of Cormier blood running in Markus back through his grandmother, who was related to the family.
With an unabashed sense of confidence, Burke kept wrestling for the next year in the Maritimes to hone his craft before moving on to Quebec where he wrestled in Montreal for International Wrestling Syndicate (IWS), and in Quebec City for R2W, often teaming with Marko Estrada as The Maritime Express.
After spending three years in what he describes as a very “hardcore based wrestling” environment, he stopped wrestling completely for two years.
Burke reflected, “Funny enough, I just watched that Shane McMahon thing with Mick Foley and it was the same reason, it wasn’t fun to me anymore. At that point, the Internet was new and I was still a vegetarian and I was still very thin. I was probably 175, 180 pounds. I just didn’t know how to eat. I would see these guys put on weight and I’m not a steroids guy, I don’t do that kind of stuff. I just didn’t know how to go and gain weight as a vegetarian. I felt like I was getting hurt more than everybody else and I just had to take a step back and in my off time I met some people and I learned how to eat and stuff like that and I put on some weight. It’s been a progressive kind of thing, but for the most part I just felt like I wasn’t learning and I always want to learn. I always want to work with people I can learn from and be better. If I’m not going to be the best at something, I’m not going to do it.”
Burke returned to the ring and eventually decided to incorporate his vegan lifestyle into his wrestling persona.
“So I do tours in Newfoundland and in little towns and I thought this is the perfect time to try this,” remembered Burke. “I started doing it and at first I always wanted to come out to no music. So let me come out as Markus Burke and I come out — boom — and start yelling at people about being vegan. At first it was very much more specified where I’d point at people and say, ‘You’re disgusting’ and that would work and it still works. But sometimes I’d tweak it. I can babyface and it still works. I started trying it in Newfoundland and it worked and I was like, ‘Whoa, I have to start hitting this again!’ And little by little, I tried it in Halifax and that got over real well. So I went to Toronto and that worked really well. Quebec, Boston and New York and it got over wherever I went. So I thought, ‘Let me tweak this.’ So I would write things down, try things. Some things would work, other things wouldn’t. I listened to the people. The people told me to try this and I did and it worked.”
Burke enters his matches clad in his signature T-shirt with the single word, “VEGAN.” He describes himself as a “kick, punch wrestler” and a storyteller and claims to have wrestled approximately 100 matches a year since he started wrestling. Fellow wrestler “Wildman” Gary Williams has witnessed the evolution of Burke’s skill sets.
“Obviously his ability in the ring is extremely good,” shared Williams in a phone interview. “He’s one of those guys that in the last two or three years took that extra step. He got to that level. I would have to say definitely his psychology in wrestling is strong and his ability. And now he’s finally found his character with the whole vegan thing so now everything is together. He was always a good wrestler, the psychology came around a few years ago and now he’s got the character to match it.”
Williams added, “I always kid with him every time I see him, ‘Hey it’s the best wrestler in the world!’ He is one of the best, it’s just nobody knows who he is right now. People talk about an ‘it factor’ and he’s finally got it.”
Currently residing in Moncton, New Brunswick, Burke feels that the Maritimes is the best territory in North America and one that also produces wrestlers of the highest quality.
“We don’t let just anyone in,” he explained. “We make sure you want it. You come train here and we will make sure you can have a match with anyone without speaking a work to them beforehand. We are professional wrestling and no one can tell me differently.”
And the Maritime wrestling fans are 100 per cent loyal.
“They see the best wrestlers in Canada at every show and they understand what they’re seeing is the best quality you can ask for,” declared Burke. “It’s unfortunate that Canada typically tends to look at big cities to try and find the best artists. Look East, you’ll be surprised at what you find.”
It was these fans that helped get Burke’s audition video for WWE’s latest installment of their developmental reality show, Tough Enough, maximum exposure all over social media. Through fan retweets on Twitter, Burke says he was the most retweeted hopeful and got the hashtag “veganistoughenough” trending. Unfortunately, Burke didn’t get a spot on the show or any type of feedback or contact from the WWE.
“The independent scene is wonderful,” Burke said solemnly. “But I wanted that shot. All I’ve ever asked for is a foot in the door and I haven’t gotten that yet which is very unfortunate.”While Burke was pondering his next career move, wrestler Earl Cooter, who is also a trainer for World Wrestling Network (WWN) suggested that Burke consider coming to Florida. (The WWN is a parent company for promotions including EVOLVE, Full Impact Pro and SHINE.)
“This is before all the WWE stuff started happening with EVOLVE,” offered Cooter in a phone interview. “We had a little sense that things were getting big and going that way, so I told him things are big down here. He said, ‘I want to move to the States, where should I go?’ and I said, ‘Things are happening down here!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, so I’ve heard.’ So I told him, ‘If you are interested come stay down here a little bit and if you decide that it is going to work out or whatever than you know there’s probably a place we can find for you.'”
Burke decided to make the move to Florida, but his plans changed when he got noticed by WWE Hall of Famer Jake “The Snake” Roberts. The two met while working at an independent wrestling show and Burke says Roberts took a liking to him. Burke says Roberts also told him about an upcoming wrestling opportunity in Las Vegas and that he wanted him to be a part of it.
“He (Roberts) said, ‘Dude f— Florida!'” Burke recalled. “Straight up ‘f— Florida! Come with me, you can live with me. We are going to eat wrestling, we are going to breathe wrestling. We are going to sh– wrestling. We are going to be wrestling. And I’m going to be the main guy there and I’m going to push for you and put you where you need to be. All you need to do is work.'”
Burke says he felt he could not say no to Roberts, whom at the time he considered to be one of his idols. He moved to Las Vegas and moved in with Roberts for three months earlier this year.”It’s Jake Roberts,” he remarked. “He is someone I can learn from. He can’t teach me any moves, but I don’t want to learn moves. I want to learn psychology of things and if you look back he’s the best at psychology. I thought if nothing else I can learn from him. But none of those things happened. We got there and he was just a complete mess.”
Burke recently aired his grievances about his fallout with Roberts publicly on Chael Sonnen’s podcast. During the podcast, Burke went on at length about how he felt “worked” by Roberts as the wrestling opportunity and mentorship he had promised didn’t come to fruition. He claimed that Roberts would not discuss or even watch wrestling with him. He also alleged that Roberts demanded money from him for living expenses and did not pay Burke as promised when he packed and moved Roberts’ belongings from Texas to Las Vegas. Feeling like a failure and with his finances drained, Burke moved back to Canada.
Burke says he stands by what he said in the podcast 100 per cent. Reflecting on what Roberts’ motivations were, he offered: “I don’t know. I think his intentions might have been good at first, but that was very short lived. Addicts tend to try and help others when what they should do is help themselves before they even think about anyone else.”
Wrestler and promoter Sinn Bodhi met Burke through long-time friend, Roberts. He says Roberts asked him to help “polish” Burke’s skills in the ring and because Roberts liked Burke so much, he was instantly vetted with Bodhi. Bodhi says he and Burke got along very well and had similar opinions about wrestling and life in general. Despite their friendship, Bodhi doesn’t agree with Burke taking the fallout with Roberts public.”I think there are always two sides to a story,” said Bodhi in a phone interview. “I think they are both very nice guys, but they are performers and they have their egos and just like any humans, they are human and they are prone to miscommunicate and step on each other’s toes so to speak. It was very difficult for me because I love Markus, but Jake is like my brother. I’ve known Jake for a long time where Markus was a very new friend to me. We got along superbly, but once they had a falling out, it put me in a stressful position.”
Bodhi says that like Burke and Roberts, he had also moved to Las Vegas because of the same opportunity, but the show didn’t pan out. “There was a lot of monetary stress, a lot of waiting and wondering,” explained Bodhi. “I think they were both crawling the walls waiting to see what was going on. It was sort of turning on each other because the stress level was so high. If that company would have panned out, this never would have happened.”
Bodhi said further, “I’m friends with both and I respect both opinions. I wish they had both just taken a deep breath and communicated better. I will say that I love Markus, but I am not a fan of how he went public with it.”
Despite the situation, Bodhi says Burke has many strengths including talent, intelligence, passion and athleticism. He also feels that Burke has the sense of humour and comedic timing that are essential for being a great villain in wrestling.”Markus took direction and advice very well and he was clever enough to ask why and not so much as challenge sometimes, but he would want me to extrapolate,” commented Bodhi. “He wouldn’t just take word as gospel. He would want to know what does this mean, why would you do this here and not there. He had intricate questions which was a sign of a very intelligent person, let alone an intelligent wrestler.”
Burke becomes somber when discussing what he feels were missed opportunities with Tough Enough, Roberts and Florida. It is obvious he isn’t quite over these low moments in his career, but a recent match with Matt Hardy seems to have renewed his optimism and reaffirmed his goals to be a successful professional wrestler.
“We had the match and I remember he was pinning me and I just thought, ‘Wow this is insane,'” reflected Burke who confessed he isn’t someone who ever gets emotional while wrestling. “I was rolling out to give him his time and he was like, ‘No, no, no you stay here’ and he praised me for who I was and what kind of worker I was and all that stuff and he put me over on Twitter. So it was very emotional, incredibly emotional especially at that time coming back from Vegas and being at such a low and thinking maybe I should look at other options.”
As for his career, Burke is blunt about his future: “I want a contract in my hand with my name at the bottom of it. It doesn’t matter what the company is at the top. That’s just what I want. I want to make a nice living for me and my family, which I already am. I want to make a million dollars, that’s what I want to make. In the next year, I want to make a million dollars, I want to make seven figures. And you may say if you work for TNA you can’t do that, try me. Try me! Put me in there, I’ll break all the merchandise sales. I’ll break every record. Just give me the time. Let me put my foot in the door. Let’s see what happens.”Burke is currently recovering from a slap tear injury he sustained in Las Vegas. He says that he doesn’t need surgery and he’s ahead of schedule for rehabbing his shoulder. “You can’t break vegans!” he pointed out. Up next is a trip to England, where he’ll be staying with wrestlers Ricky Knight and Sweet Saraya, the parents of WWE star Paige.