Matt Sydal was in WWE’s training ground of OVW by the time his older brother, Mike, had his first match. But it wasn’t until realizing the former Evan Bourne “wasn’t just some kid from St. Louis wrestling” that Mike decided to step in the squared circle too.
“I just never saw myself as wrestler,” said the 35-year-old Mike Sydal.
Mike, who stands at 5-foot-8 and weighs 164 pounds, was teaching a world studies course at an inner-city public high school in Chicago in the summer 2004 when he attended a Ring of Honor show that featured his brother. It was there the realization of what Matt was accomplishing sunk in.
“He was just this amazing wrestler, and I thought some day he’d probably be the best in the world,” Mike said. “So I thought, ‘Here I am watching him chase the same dream that I have. He’s doing it, and I’m just watching it happen.’ So I figure if I’m 80, I’d probably regret not trying.”
When Matt, 33, found out his older brother planned to lace up the boots, the former ROH World tag team champion had a “wait-and-see attitude.”
“To really become anything in wrestling, of any quality, you have to not just put in the work, you have to put in the work overtime,” Matt said, “and that was the one thing I wanted to see.”
And that’s where “Mike proved himself beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“[He’s the] one who pushes me now to get better … Now we’re mutually pushing each other,” Matt said.
Like most who end up in the business, Matt is a self-proclaimed “big-time fan of wrestling.” But he never thought to ask his parents what they thought about his journey into the squared circle.
“Our parents let us build a wrestling ring in our backyard when we were kids, so I’d say they are pretty supportive,” Matt quipped.
Likewise, Mike said their parents — their proper last name is Korklan — have always supported them, regardless of the end goal. “Wrestling is no different,” Mike said.
Matt was active in the local scene, specifically attending Midwest Renegade Wrestling and Gateway Championship Wrestling (GCW) shows. Growing up in the West County area of St. Louis, it was with the now-defunct GCW that the St. Louis native started training in 2000.
“It was an excellent place to break in, where I was surrounded by a lot of other guys [who were] real creative,” said Matt, whose journey began alongside Delirious, MsChif and Daizee Haze, all of whom went on to careers in Ring of Honor.
“We all started from the bottom together,” Matt said. “So as we rose, we rose together. The reason we got good is because we were always paying attention to each other’s matches, helping each other.”
Matt said Mike was able to see how he built his career — through working hard, “doing good work for the joy of doing the good work” and enjoying each step along the way.
Though Mike’s early introduction to the ring came through a training seminar with Delirious, he also wrestled for a Whiplash Wrestling in Kansas. But Central States Wrestling was where the he gained opportunities to referee and wrestle.
In a worst-case scenario, Mike said he would give wrestling a shot and find out he’s “no good.”
“I think it would have been limiting myself to say he’s the wrestler and I’m the teacher,” Mike said. “So I just decided to give it a shot and then I moved in with him in Columbia, and I was in my first year of grad school and he was in his last year of college.”
It was while rooming with his brother at the University of Missouri — Mizzou — that Mike saw his brother’s “road warrior” lifestyle. “He took care of his responsibilities at school and at work and he just made it — he just made it work,” Mike said.
But Matt never thought about trying to balance school, work and a wrestling career — for him there was not another option.
“I just think if you’re dedicated, you’re willing to work and do whatever job at whatever time,” Matt said. “I never even had to think about it. I was working to wrestle.”
That work paid off for the younger Sydal when WWE signed him in 2007. Initially debuting on ECW, he later teamed with Kofi Kingston, forming Air Boom, and secured his sole WWE championship — a tag title reign that lasted roughly five months.
“Being around Kofi’s positive attitude was great,” Matt said. “I vividly remember wrestling the Colons at Madison Square Garden as WWE tag team champions and loving it.” His run as Evan Bourne in WWE ended in 2014, having been on the shelf after a broken foot stemming from a 2012 car accident.
As Mike broke into the industry, his “whole gimmick” was the fact that he’s “Matt Sydal’s brother.” But that only went so far.
“Everybody knows I’m his brother anyway,” Mike said. “They’re just going to keep wanting the Shooting Star Press, you know what I mean? You just can’t keep doing that.”
Mike eventually attempted to bring his love of music into wrestling as “Rock ‘n’ Roll” Mike Sydal, but the three years in that persona “felt contrived.” At the same time though, Mike began integrating yoga and flexibility into his matches.
“I realized that’s really what makes me stand out and what makes me different,” said Mike, who now holds the moniker “Yoga Monster.” “It’s special … So I should just go with that and that has taken off like a rocket ship.”
Matt said the “most genuine wrestling” a person can do is embody their true personality in the ring. That’s what the Yoga Monster persona has become for Mike, and, according to Matt, his brother has been able to “channel” that and not limit himself.
“[Mike has a] real magnetic personality to be around whether he’s inside the ring or out of it,” Matt said.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF JAPAN
The Land of the Rising Sun has played a crucial role in the careers of both Sydals, with Matt making his first trip in 2005 and Mike following suit in 2013.
Matt’s inaugural trip became a reality through Dragon Gate talent in Ring of Honor.
“Japan’s where I really feel like I went from, let’s just say, a raw piece of metal and I got highly refined in Japan and shown a really, true professional level of [what] professional wrestling can be,” Matt said. “That was the largest influence of my early career, for sure.”
That first venture, according to Matt, gave him the “confidence boost,” knowledge and experience to return to the states a “more refined pro wrestler.”
“I remember stepping off the plane and just taking the first deep breath and it just smelling like Japan,” Matt said, “and it was just — that for me, it was eye opening. It was the most I’d wrestled in short amount of time… I was beyond proud of what I was doing and the team I was a part of.”
Mike said Japan is where Matt, who stands at 5-foot-8 and weighs in at 165 pounds, made an “international name for himself,” specifically with Dragon Gate.
“He was in Japan when he got the call that WWE wanted to sign him because I know they saw it and saw what he had done over there,” Mike said.
What was great about Japan for Matt is that he was able to set himself apart, not only through who he faced in the ring, but into the details of using a different costume maker.
“I gained lot of advantages,” Matt said. “When you work with guys as good as the guys in Japan, [they] rub off on you — their style, their finesse.”
Mike’s first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun was in October 2013, also with Dragon Gate, which is where the Yoga Monster was born.
“From the moment I started doing [the Yoga Monster character], I realized this is what I should have been doing all along,” Mike said. “But sometimes you don’t the destination you’re heading to until the journey takes you there… It’s so natural for me. I’m never at a loss of what to do because this is exactly who I am.”
Mike said he thought if there was any place or time to try out a new persona, it was in Japan.
“You just say, ‘yoga,’ and it describes everything that you need to know. So they got it, and I realized that it would translate over here, too,” Mike said.
But Mike’s journey to Dragon Gate wasn’t an easy one. He got there “by scratching and clawing and begging and trying really hard” — and learning Japanese.
When Gabe Sapolsky ran Dragon Gate USA, Mike said, the company held tryouts once per year in the United States. Mike attended tryouts in 2011, 2012 and 2013. While he took the advice from each session to heart, he also learned “some basic Japanese.”
After receiving more suggestions at the 2013 tryout, Mike told them — in Japanese — that he wanted to train in Japan.
“The thing was, I’m not asking, ‘Hey, fly me over and put me at Korakuen Hall,'” Mike said. “I said, ‘Look, you come here once a year, I train with you and that’s good, but I can’t learn much. I want to train with you everyday.'”
Twenty minutes later, Dragon Gate officials told Mike that if he flew himself to Japan, they would train him.
“Once I was over there, I trained with them every day … It was just a long slog, but I finally got there,” Mike said.
In addition to being a place where the Sydals grew as wrestlers, Dragon Gate also served as the backdrop for the first time they would team together in the squared circle. They faced off against the team of Mad Blankey, which consists of Punch Tominaga and Yamato.
That 2015 match was a milestone moment for Mike.
“We had that match, and then I realized I finally got what I was looking for,” Mike said. “I didn’t really know it, but after that, if Dorothy’s house falls on me and crushes my legs or for whatever reason I have to quit wrestling, I got what I needed to get out of it. So the rest is all just icing on the cake.”
That match in Shizuoak, Japan, was, for Matt, “long, long overdue.”
“It was a very memorable experience, and of course we killed it,” Matt said. “The crowd was amazing. And I went into it thinking it was just a regular match, but it really felt special when I was out there with Mike… [and to] really be in the thick of it together.”
When asked if WWE is an end-goal for his wrestling career, the Yoga Monster said no — he wrestles because it’s fun and it’s an outlet to tell others about yoga, which he teaches monthly at Windy Wine Vineyard in St. Joseph, Mo.
“The reason I’m in wrestling at this point is because I love it. It’s fun. Because it gives me a chance to see my friends who are spread out throughout the country and the world and because it gives me a forum to spread the good word about yoga,” said Mike, who also works full-time as a librarian for a community college in Kansas City, Mo.
However, that’s not to say if the opportunity presents itself to spread that good word to a new or bigger group, he wouldn’t rule it out completely.
“I would probably be interested in taking that,” said Mike, who also wrestles as Ken Dharma for the National Wrasslin’ League in Kansas City, Mo., “or if I see an opportunity to go see some old friends I haven’t seen for a long time, then I would take that opportunity, too. So those are my goals, I’m just trying to hang out with my people and spread the positive vibes.”
As far as the former Evan Bourne’s future in the business, while he is no longer with New Japan Pro Wrestling as of late 2016, he simply wants to “make wrestling in general better.” (In September 2016, Matt was arrested at the Kansai Airport Osaka for cannabis possession, and was eventually put on probation.)
“I still feel like I’ve got a lot left to accomplish and [I’m not set] to hooking my hopes on any set [goals]… I want to continue the run I’ve had with the fantastic tag and six-man matches. I just want to make sure people still love wrestling for the next generation to come,” Matt said.
Though away from the WWE Universe since 2014, Matt, who currently lives in Clearwater, Fla., said he is glad to have had the opportunity with the company. The former WWE tag team champion said he had “a lot more resources” at his disposal than he realized or utilized.
“It was on me to take more advantage of all the opportunities I got,” Matt said, “and I did the best I could at the time, but I can only imagine what things would be like if I was back there now.”