Veteran of Desert Storm. Police Officer. Detective. Artist. Wrestler. That may sound like five separate people, but they are all Dennis McHawes, who transforms into Atilla Khan in the ring.

This journey began when McHawes was just 18. He enlisted in the Marines just three days after graduating from Herculaneum, Missouri’s Herculaneum High School, a suburb of St. Louis. He worked his way up to corporal before leaving for a career in law enforcement.

While working as a detective, Khan had one goal in mind—one he even shared with fellow corpsmen. He wanted to be a professional wrestler. And that’s just what he did.

For McHawes, the love of wrestling was something that he had since he was a child. His first live card was Bruiser Brody versus Ric Flair in February 1983 where they fought for the NWA World Heavyweight title.

“I’m 10 years old, and I’m like, that is what I want to do. I’m looking at Brody, and I’m like, that is just the coolest dude that’s ever walked in a pair of shoes. That’s what I want to do.”

After attending more shows in St. Louis, a good friend of McHawes’ introduced him to former NWA World Champion Pat O’Connor. The legend quickly became a friend of the McHawes family, which allowed for a behind-the-scenes look into the world of wrestling. “Being the legend that Pat O’Connor was, the NWA World champion, he took me into the locker room as a teenager. I got to meet Harley Race for the first time, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, all of these greats.”

After leaving the military in 1994, McHawes heard of a local promotion run by Herb Simmons: Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling (SICW). After watching the SICW product, he was hooked. McHawes began training. It’s now 30 years later and McHawes is still in the SICW ring.

Initially, McHawes started simply as The Drill Instructor, which took inspiration from his Marine background. It worked so well, that he was the “DI” for more than a decade. “The Marine Corps shaped the whole first part of my wrestling career. And that was the character that opened the door with me working for Harley Race for so many years and becoming so close with Harley.”

Then, as his career progressed, his gimmicks changed. He worked as War Machine, but settled on Atilla Khan in 2014. It is a character he lovingly describes as if “Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher had a love child, and it was raised by Harley Race. That’s what you get when you get Atilla.”

It has been a solid career, but never a full-time wrestling gig for the 51-year-old McHawes. Most of his matches have been within a reasonable distance from St. Louis. In 2002, under his real name, McHawes was the Champion of Harley Race’s World League Wrestling League.

Simmons has nothing but praise for McHawes. As a matchmaker, Simmons knows that Atilla Khan is a test for any competitor. “It makes sense that since SICW has been around for 51 years, and all the hungry talent wants to show their skills, [they] end up facing Attila,” said Simmons.

”Khan has faced the best. Tommy Dreamer, Trevor Murdoch, Nick Aldis, Ron Powers and many others. His style today is nothing that you can see anywhere else.”

Atilla Khan is one of the many talents featured at the upcoming SICW Fanfest, a massive collection of wrestlers for a mid-market, running on Saturday, May 18. (Details here.)

Atilla in action. Via @thedi51 on Instagram

The transition from marine to wrestler is easy enough to understand. It is the transition from madman wrestler to talented painter that takes a moment to grasp. It starts with a drawing, a caricature of Atilla Khan that he was gifted by his wife, who is a schoolteacher. That made McHawes think about art, and his past running a photography business for a little over a decade.

Unlike wrestling, McHawes finds it a little more difficult to talk about his skills with a paintbrush, one canvas coming easy, the other with many more bumps. “What I can picture in my brain, I can get out to my hand,” he mused. “Some people get other things, I see pictures, and I see colors and all this stuff.”

He said, The King of Rock n’ Roll “spoke” to him, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so much was shut down. “One day, I saw a T-shirt that had a profile of Elvis on it, and I’m a huge Elvis fan. [If] you come into my studio, you’re gonna hear Elvis music and see Atilla painting a picture,” he explained. “But I see the silhouette of Elvis. And I was like, Man, that would be such a cool painting.” McHawes took a picture of the shirt and immediately felt inspired. The issue was that McHawes had never painted. Undaunted, he got the supplies and gave it a whirl. He took another quick pick and sent a photo of the Elvis-inspired painting to his wife.

“Where did you get that?”

“I painted it.”

“When did you learn how to paint?”

“About an hour ago.”

And so it began.

Up next, McHawes decided to do a piece on a very close friend of his, Haku, who was also known as Meng and King Tonga. “He really is the one who’s like, Brother, I think you can sell these things.”

A new side of McHawes emerged: “The gimmick was a wrestler painting wrestlers.” After the Haku artwork, McHawes began to bring his pieces to fan fests and different shows, and from there the popularity of the paintings began to increase. The Cauliflower Alley Club even auctioned off a piece that McHawes painted depicting the face-off between Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III. McHawes has done portraits of other wrestlers like JBL, D-Von Dudley and Jerry Brisco, and many pieces have been signed by the wrestlers as well.

A piece of Haku done by Dennis via @thedi51 on Instagram

Channeling that childlike appreciation for pro wrestling and his early hero Bruiser Brody, another piece was born, one that took it to another level.

Fellow wrestler, Ricky Santana, pushed McHawes to sell the artwork.

“I saw his first painting which was one of Bruiser Brody and it looked lifelike. Then I saw one of Harley Race and the third one was King Haku,” recalled Santana. “So, I said to him, Bro, you have a God-given talent. You should put it out there. I’m sure people will buy a painting of their favorite wrestler! I’m also sure they will pay to get it done.”

Santana speaks from experience. “Heck, I had Dennis do one of me and one of my wife and they hang in my bedroom. That’s how good they are! After a little bit more convincing during our conversations, Dennis decided to put his talent to work. I’m glad he did and the rest is history.”

A Bruiser Brody piece done by Dennis, via @thedi51 on Instagram

One of McHawes’ designs made it all the way to Hollywood, thanks to “Young Rock” actor Uli Latukefu. Being of Tongan descent, Latukefu was a fan of Haku and ordered a King Haku sweatshirt with McHawes’ likeness of Haku on it. Latukefu shared it on Twitter and there was a little more demand for McHawes’ work. There is a yin-yang balance between McHawes and Atilla Khan. Painting is a way to relax and get his mind right after crazy matches as Atilla.

“Atilla, I always refer to Atilla as like, it’s somebody else, right? Because that is a whole different monster. And now, when it’s show day, or when I’m getting ready to go the ring, and when I’m out there, that guy couldn’t paint if he had to,” said McHawes. “If I have a real crazy one, last month I had one of those bloodbath cage matches, and, you come down from the adrenaline, come home, shower up. And I spent a lot of time in front of the easel just kind of decompressing getting back into being who I am.”

Atilla after a hard-fought match via @thedi51 on Instagram

A family man at heart, McHawes is always very busy. His secret for time management? Not sleeping.

“I think I’ve got it down pat pretty good. I don’t sleep a lot. I’ve never been a big sleeper. And I have three children. Two of my daughters are in college. And I’m a very family-oriented guy, I love to hunt and fish,” he said.

Friends will ask, “How do you balance everything that you do?” McHawes has an answer. “I guess it’s the Marine Corps that’s in me, I’m very regimented. As far as like, this time of the day, I’m going to the gym, I’m gonna knock out an hour of cardio today. Before I do anything else, that’s what’s going to happen. So, I kind of have a schedule. And then there’s the time in the evening with my wife, and she’s a schoolteacher, she goes to bed early. And so that’s when I slip down in my home office, and I’m up to the wee hours painting.”

As a Marine, Dennis learned many lessons that he keeps with him today. A valuable one came shortly after his first deployment.

“I landed in a combat zone six months after I graduated. And the first time that I was shot at and obviously lived to be here wasn’t hit, thank God. But the lesson I learned from that was how valuable our time is, like I firmly believe you get one trip on this big blue marble, right?” he philosophized.

From there, McHawes’ mantra was to “absolutely live everything to the fullest.”

His family and friends will joke, Everything you do is over the top. Having looked “death in the eye at 18 years old” McHawes realized “there’s a lot of life that I want to live.”