Sealed from head to toe in a body suit that shielded him from the air in the hospital room, he felt as if he was stepping out of a space ship and into the void of space. Behind him was the door that separated the man from the rest of the medical staff. Before him, lying in a bed, was a frightened patient connected to multiple monitors, watching silently as the 6’5” respiratory therapist approached with caution.
Therapist and patient were both frightened in equal measure. It was March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had just shut down the outside world. The patient was one of the unlucky few to require hospitalization at a time when very little was known about the disease. How dangerous is it, really? How transmissible is it? Both questions weighed heavily on the mind of a man who would much rather have been in a wrestling ring.
“You had to arrange a time to go into the patient rooms. You had to be very careful with opening and closing doors that separated the staff from the patients. The only form of communication we had with other staff once we were in the room were through these handheld devices that were like baby monitors. We didn’t know anything about this disease at all.”
As time went on and more information became available, the towering respiratory therapist from Southern Ohio and his colleagues felt less stressed dealing with the virus. That’s not to say they ever treated it lightly; only that time, knowledge, and medical advancements enabled them, and the rest of the world, to go back to life as before. COVID-19 is still around but it’s no longer the threat it once was.
And it’s no longer keeping that hometown hero from pursuing his wrestling dream as one of the most hated villains on social media, “The Veteran” Jack Vaughn.
Dustin Thomas grew up in Franklin, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. “I have vivid, early memories of watching wrestling with my dad and brothers when I was around three or four,” he says. “Macho Man in particular. I liked him, Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior but I was also a big fan of Earthquake. He looked like my dad. My dad’s a big dude who was bald on top and had long hair on the sides, just like John Tenta.”
Unlike many kids who grew up Hulkamaniacs, Dustin did not “grow out” of wrestling in his teens. He and his friends started a backyard wrestling group during high school. “When I turned eighteen, a gentleman who went to my gym told me he had seen an ad in the paper for a pro wrestling school. I told a couple of my buddies, and three of them signed up with me.”
The boys attended the Shark Tank, a wrestling camp run by Shark Boy. Dustin and his friends had heard horror stories about wrestlers abusing their students, but Shark Boy wasn’t like that. They trained three hours a day, three days a week, for fifteen weeks.
“Shark Boy taught us the fundamentals of wrestling, the basics in the ring, and basic storytelling,” Dustin says. “It was designed to help us get to the next level.”
On the last day of training, the students put on a mini-show. Shark Boy invited several promoters from the area to watch the show, including Cody Hawk, Jim Hutchinson, Tommy Blaze, Curt Shepherd, and Roger Ruffen. Not long after the show, Dustin got a call from Curt Shepherd, asking him to check out the Northwest Wrestling Federation.
Shepherd worked with former WWE referee Roger Ruffen at NWF, a Cincinnati-based promotion that has lately become a hotbed for women’s wrestling. Big Mama, Big Boss Anika, Nikki Victory, and Ella are just a few of the ladies starting to make waves. Ruffen also runs the Bonekrushers wrestling school, but Thomas admits he did not avail himself of the training available to him.
“Roger never required me to come to training,” says Thomas. “I was kind of a loser at the time. I’ll freely admit that. I was in school. I didn’t have a job. It was on the job training, and I’m ashamed to admit I never went to training. I tell young guys not to do things the way I did them. Go to class and learn!”
Dustin’s first ring persona was called Muldoon. If it was intended to be a nod to the great 19th century champion William C. Muldoon, Thomas was never made aware of that. He was simply saddled with the name with no context at all and told to be a monster. “I was green, and I couldn’t cut a promo, but i was 6’5” and bulkier than I am now. I learned to work like a big man, and I had a run with the NWF title, but there was a definite ceiling to what Muldoon the monster could do.”
When he left NWF, Dustin decided to do something different with his ring character. He chose a name intended to get a rise out of his closest friends. “I am a huge Boy Meets World fan. There’s a character on that show called Cory Matthews, and when he joins the wrestling team, he becomes Cory ‘The Cory’ Matthews. I decided to go by Dustin ‘The Dustin’ Thomas.”
While Dustin “The Dustin” Thomas gave his friends a chuckle, the wrestler was starting to feel bitter about the business. He “retired” in 2013, but he never could shake wrestling out of his mind. “I was always thinking about wrestling, cutting promos in my head.”
Six years after leaving wrestling, Dustin’s Twitter blew up during an AEW pay-per-view. He received a flood of tweets and DMs, congratulating him on his appearance in the Over The Top Battle Royal at 2019’s Double or Nothing event. “There was another wrestler named Dustin Thomas who had no legs,” says Thomas. “And everyone thought I was him on Twitter. I wasn’t even paying attention to wrestling at the time, and I saw all these people talking about how inspirational I was. It was funny.”
The itch to get back in the ring finally got to him. He missed his friends, and he missed wrestling. He contacted Roger Ruffen and asked to come back to NWF. Being a fan of the movie Major League, Thomas came up with a character named Jack Vaughn, a rip off of Charlie Sheen’s character Rick Vaughn. He made a jacket with the sleeves cut out and entered the ring to a heavy metal version of the song “Wild Thing.”
After working a handful of matches as “Wild Thing” Jack Vaughn, Thomas attended a show in Shelbyville, Indiana. “I wasn’t booked on the show, but I went up to see some friends, including Jake Omen. I can’t remember how it came up, but Jake and I came up with this idea for a wrestler, the old, grizzled veteran who hates what is happening to his business. On the drive home from Indianapolis, I started thinking of all these ideas for this character. Someone should do this character, I thought. Then I said it out loud, ‘I should do this character!’”
“The Veteran” Jack Vaughn had finally been conceived.
The next day, Jack called Jake Omen and shared all his ideas. Jake encouraged him, telling him he had to do this. Thomas agreed. “I’m not as extreme as my character, but the way Jack Vaughn and Dustin Thomas view the wrestling business is very similar.”
The Veteran was going to need a different look to distinguish himself from The Wild Thing. Thomas recalled a photo he used to see of Bob Backlund hanging up at Bonekrushers. The former WWF champion was wearing an old school, satin, athletic jacket and posed with his hands on his hips.
“The Veteran” posted his first video promo to YouTube in February of 2020. The reaction from fans was just what he hoped, and Thomas couldn’t wait to set foot in the ring again with this new persona. But the rise of “The Veteran” would be delayed thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dustin Thomas put being a heel on hold to become a one of the hometown heroes of the pandemic, serving Covid patients at his hospital. As frustrating as it was to step away from the ring just when he had some momentum, Covid actually played a part in shaping his new image as The Veteran.
“I still had a full beard when the pandemic struck, but I had to shave it off because the N95 masks wouldn’t fit snugly enough over my beard. I really felt like The Veteran needed some sort of facial hair, I started thinking about growing a mustache. Then I thought about Hulk Hogan and Jake the Snake. Another light bulb switched on, and I realized that handlebar mustache would still fit under the mask.”
While COVID-19 still lingers, albeit not with the same menace as it had in 2020, Thomas is relieved the worst is over. His debut as “The Veteran” Jack Vaughn took place as soon as it was deemed safe enough to run wrestling shows, and the boos and jeers that welcome his entrance every week are music to his ears.
Much of the heat Vaughn generates stems from his work on social media. Vaughn credits “Brutal Bob” Evans with steering him towards the right platform. Evans is the Zig Ziglar/ Seth Godin of professional wrestling, dispensing common sense advice for turning wrestling from a money-losing hobby to a money-making sideline.
“Bob told me he liked how I did social media,” says Vaughn. “He told me some of the things I posted, knocking on independent wrestlers, got him half-hot. He knew I was just playing a character, but he saw potential in the ‘worked’ posts I had made. He told me instead of doing written content, I should do video, and specifically on TikTok.”
Vaughn was resistant at first. “What’s the last thing in the world a grizzled veteran is going to do? He’s not going to go on TikTok, right? I didn’t even have TikTok at the time, but I had some ideas, and I decided to give it a go.”
Jack Vaughn’s first TikTok post appeared at midnight – the worst time of day to release a post on the app. Within 24 hours, he had over 100,000 views. He posted a second video, and within a few days he was over 200,000 views. He also received his first wave of hate comments, as he took the gloves off with the second post and truly let The Veteran speak out.
“That was my first indie wrestling versus professional wrestling post,” he says. “No one knew who I was, and a lot of wrestlers and fans just hated all over it. Some of them were like, ‘It’s an indie wrestler pretending he’s better than other indie wrestlers,’ and others were like, ‘Oh it’s another bitter old wrestler who never got signed hating on the indies.’”
The second video really set the tone for what was to follow. Vaughn created dozens of short videos making fun of all things indie wrestling. With the help of friends and fellow wrestlers like Jake Omen, Shauna Reed, and Aaron Williams, Vaughn parodies the ridiculous, the absurd, the things that old school fans hate the most about indie wrestling.
How to spot the difference between an indie wrestler and a professional wrestler pt. 4: Escaping a waistlock. #banthesuperkick #fixprowrestling #thelastrealprofessionalwrestler #veteran #WWE #AEW #NJPW #ROH #NXT #Raw #SDLive #wrestling #prowrestling #aewdark #indiewrestling #impactwrestling #nwa #mlw #indiewrestler #iwtv #aewrampage #aewdynamite #nwapowerrr
“Jack gets a lot of flack for making fun of all the indie stuff, but he can do all of it,” says Aaron Williams, a frequent guest star in Vaughn’s videos. “I’ve done it with him. We’ve had some bangers.”
No one is safe from Vaughn’s scathing wit. He’s mocked spot monkeys, false finishes, green rookies, scheming promoters, bitter veterans, people who no-sell moves that should be finishers, the goofy, cookie-cutter ways wrestlers make their entrances, and above all else – the ubiquitous “thigh slap” intended to help sell kicks and punches.
“Thigh slap jokes are almost a requirement for my videos now, not for me but my fans. If they don’t see at least one thigh slap gag, they’re disappointed.”
Vaughn receives ideas from fans and fellow wrestlers, but the majority of ideas are generated by Vaughn and his wife, who was once a wrestler herself. The couple has a shared document on their phones where they’ve logged hundreds of concepts. Some are just fragments, some more fully-formed, but they both record any idea that comes to mind.
Things you can accomplish while waiting for a super indie to do his stupid little dive. #banthesuperkick #fixprowrestling #thelastrealprofessionalwrestler #veteran #WWE #AEW #NJPW #ROH #NXT #Raw #SDLive #wrestling #prowrestling #aewdark #indiewrestling #impactwrestling #nwa #mlw #indiewrestler #iwtv #aewrampage #aewdynamite #nwapowerrr #nwapowerrrsurge
Vaughn says he spends anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours working on each video, depending on how elaborate they are. Some require multiple costume changes. Some involve other wrestlers as characters and extras.
The Veteran still gets plenty of heat from his videos, but at this point, it’s more from the fans than the wrestlers. “Most wrestlers get it now,” says Vaughn. “They know I’m working a gimmick. A lot of fans still hate me, but that’s what I want. I want the marks to hate me.”
Some of Vaughn’s biggest fans are the people he mocks the most in his videos: his own co-workers. They all heap praise on a guy who found the right gimmick at the right time.
“Jack Vaughn has been around a long time and it’s high time he is getting a little notoriety,” says OVW’s Maria James. “His knowledge of the business is top notch, and he’s a great asset to any locker room. Not to mention his videos on social media have me laughing until I’m crying.”
“Jack Vaughan is one my absolute favorites to watch,” says Truth Magnum of The Outrunners. “Everything looks good and everything makes sense. ‘The Veteran’ isn’t just his gimmick, he is really carrying on aspects of the lost art of pro wrestling in everything he does. Jack is the man.”
Aaron Grider, a referee with OVW and many other promotions, has known Vaughn since the beginning. “The Jack I knew [on day one] is much different than the man you see today. That man has taken an idea he had and absolutely run with it. He deserves all the recognition he gets and then some. I have said it before, and I mean it. I’m a Jack Vaughn guy, and he needs to continue to get bigger opportunities because he will absolutely deliver.”
With the creation of The Veteran, Jack feels more at ease than ever in the ring. There’s enough of him in the character that he finally feels comfortable, far more than he did with Muldoon or Dustin “The Dustin” Thomas. Although he’s 37 years old, he’s in great ring shape, thanks in part to the seven years of “retirement.” He works a smart, low impact style in the ring that limits the wear and tear on his body.
“Working with Jack is a night off,” says Cash Flo, another OVW big man who works a much harder style than his rival. “In reality, it’s really easy working with him.”
The different types of entrances you see on indie wresting shows. #banthesuperkick #fixprowrestling #thelastrealprofessionalwrestler #veteran #WWE #AEW #NJPW #ROH #NXT #Raw #SDLive #wrestling #prowrestling #aewdark #indiewrestling #impactwrestling #nwa #mlw #indiewrestler #iwtv #aewrampage #aewdynamite #nwapowerrr #nwapowerrrsurge #royalrumble
Even so, Jack knows the clock is ticking, and he does have one more big goal on his mind. “I’d love to get that one run with a national promotion where wrestling can be my full-time job. I don’t care of it’s with Impact or AEW or WWE. But I think I have something in The Veteran that can really benefit one of those companies.”
Aaron Williams sums it up best. “Jack Vaughn is a wonderful wrestler and an incredible talent. He’s found a niche no one’s been able to embrace quite like he does. He also a great man, and that’s hard to come by in this business. He’s a great representative for all of us from the Cincinnati area. I’m really happy he’s blown up the way he has, and I home someone – hint hint, NWA – takes advantage of what he can offer.”
Featured photo by Pamela Barnett @wrestlingphotog