By Michael E. Miller
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Inside the jam-packed arena, thousands held their breath and waited to learn the identity of the shadowy "Investor." In Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's twisting narrative, the mysterious character had been wreaking havoc for weeks with his nefarious behind-the-scenes plots. And now, millions watching at home would finally learn the truth.
"Get out here!" Dixie Carter, TNA's president, bellowed into a mike. "Show your face!"
The lights suddenly faded to black. Hip-hop blasted from the speakers. And to thunderous applause, the wrestler known as MVP, dressed in designer threads and exuding the confidence of a self-made man, strolled out from a cloud of smoke.
The moment this past January in Glasgow, Scotland, marked the grand return of MVP to one of wrestling's biggest circuits. He may not have the name recognition of the Rock, another Miami native who ascended to the top of the pro wrestling game, but MVP is unquestionably a man on the rise with nearly a half-million Twitter followers, a fledgling rap career, and now a starring role in TNA.
But MVP's path to fame is even more fascinating than Dwayne Johnson's move from University of Miami football star to Hollywood leading man. Before he donned spandex, MVP robbed a cruise ship, survived months on the lam, and eventually did nine years in the pen. His postcriminal wrestling career has taken him from $5-per-gig nights in Jacksonville to packed WWE arenas and a huge fan base in Japan.
"Wrestling essentially saved my life," says the star, who returns to Miami this Sunday for TNA's Lockdown pay-per-view match at the BankUnited Center.
MVP was born Alvin Burke Jr. and raised by his mother, Lynne Magruder, in hardscrabble Opa-locka. With their father mostly absent and Magruder working long hours at a call center, Burke became a father figure to his younger brothers, Brad and Justin. "We were raised by our mother to look out for each other," says Brad Burke, who's now a Miami-Dade Police officer. "He wouldn't allow me to get in trouble... He was very particular who came around us. He was that father figure."
Even as a kid, he was drawn to fighting culture, for better and for worse. He asked to sign up for a Police Athletic League boxing class, but it never happened. "Instead of learning how to box, I learned how to fight," the pro wrestler says.
His spiral into crime began at North Miami Junior High, where he was jumped on a regular basis. Tired of her son coming home with a black eye and a split lip, Magruder transferred him to John F. Kennedy Middle. The move only exacerbated the situation, because he soon hooked up with a local gang called the Kings Only Posse.
"Somehow I ended up getting punched by someone in another group one time. During the melee, I snapped and thought, No way am I going to let this happen again. Something changed inside me that day. And I beat the shit out of that kid... I wasn't a bully, but a bully's bully," he says.
Every weekend in Coconut Grove and at Tropical Park, he'd pick fights and box with other budding gangsters. Magruder remembers having to venture out in the middle of the night to find her son and drag him home. But he would sneak out his bedroom window, and soon he became tied up in an escalating series of crimes. His buddy Luis taught him how to steal cars, and by the time he turned 14, he was committing grand theft auto and armed robbery and selling drugs. A six-and-a-half-month stay at the Crossroads Wilderness Institute's juvenile program didn't change anything.
"It really was Cocaine Cowboys," he says. "I was surrounded by drugs and drug dealers. At 9 [years old], I knew what a Rolex Presidential was and how much it cost and knew I wanted one."
His adult criminal record began soon after his 16th birthday, when Burke was drawn into a tabloid-worthy crime spree. On January 14, 1990, he and two older teenagers boarded the Discovery I cruise ship at Port Everglades.
The trio walked on as ordinary passengers, but inside their bags were ski masks and gloves. One of their accomplices had hidden two pump-action shotguns and a semiautomatic handgun in an air-conditioning room a week earlier. They waited until the early morning, when employees in the ship's casino counted out the night's earnings. Then they barged in with guns drawn, forced workers into a utility room, and swiped $81,470. When the boat docked back in Fort Lauderdale the next morning, they made off with the loot. "It was some Ocean's 11-type shit," MVP says.
His cohorts were caught, but Burke evaded the cops and fled to California. Brad remembers a SWAT team searching the house and their mother going in for questioning. Eventually, their father, Alvin Burke Sr. — who, ironically, worked as a corrections officer — got Burke on the phone and persuaded him to surrender.
He ended up pleading guilty to ten counts of armed kidnapping and robbery, and a judge slapped him with 18 and a half years. Faced with a prison term that would take him well into his 30s, Burke grew up quickly. Older convicts took him under their wing. "They told me: 'Don't serve the time. Let the time serve you,'" he says.
He underwent a transformation. Even though he considers himself an atheist, he began spending time with Muslims in prison, and wanting a clean break from his past, he changed his name to Hassan Assad. At the Opa-locka Work Release Center, he met the corrections officer who would alter his path. Daryl Davis moonlighted as "Primetime" Daryl D, wrestling locally on the weekends from flea markets to gymnasiums.
One of Assad's fondest memories was going to the Miami Beach Convention Center with his mom to watch small-time local wrestling events, so when Davis brought videos of pay-per-view matches, he was hooked. The officer saw potential. "He was different from the other inmates," Davis says. "He had a vision of what he wanted to do once he got out."
When Assad was released in 1999, Davis began schooling him in a ring set up in the back of his sister's house in Hollywood. He learned running the ropes, taking bumps, arm drags, and everything in between. "He trained me for free. I never paid a penny," MVP says.
Soon, he started driving to Jacksonville for matches in front of a few dozen fans and a $5 payoff. To pay the bills, he worked security for clubs in South Beach and leaned on his younger brother, now working as a cop. "I will work as many jobs as I have to work to make sure you make it," Brad recalls telling him, "but do not get in trouble again."
Whenever WWE came to South Florida, Assad would take roles as an extra or compete in nontelevised matches. That's where he invented the persona that would get him signed to the tour.
"Working on South Beach doing nightclub security and bodyguard work, I would see all these self-absorbed and pompous athletes who thought the world owed them something," he says. "I thought that hasn't really been done in wrestling yet as a character."
MVP was born. In 2006, he arrived as a WWE superstar before a worldwide audience on one of the company's flagship shows, Smackdown. The character was an immediate hit, and in more than four years on the circuit, he competed at WrestleMania, won championships, and faced off against legends such as the Undertaker.
In 2010, MVP decided to chase a fantasy. "WWE was always my goal, but Japan was my dream," he says. "I wanted to go to Japan and become a gaijin legend."
There's a long history of American wrestling stars, from Hulk Hogan to Chris Jericho, going to Japan's pro-wrestling circuit and becoming gaijin, or foreigner, celebrities. In February 2011, MVP followed in their footsteps. During his two years in Tokyo, he became a fan favorite and performed at legendary venues such as the Tokyo Dome.
This year, as he turned 40 years old, MVP decided to return to the States. Unlike the WWE, the TNA circuit is also known for embracing its roster's outside interests. For MVP, that includes a passion for producing music, including "Return of the Ronin," his frenetic theme song. As he tours the world with TNA this year, he'll also work to broaden his appeal as a musician and producer.
No one is prouder of what the troubled kid from Opa-locka has become than his younger brother. Brad Burke's Pembroke Pines house is filled with framed jerseys of pro athletes such as Ben Roethlisberger, Warren Sapp, and Shaquille O'Neal that MVP got signed while working for WWE.
This weekend at the BankUnited Center, Brad will be in the stands, hollering his voice raw with thousands of other fans as MVP struts in the ring. "I'm incessantly proud of him and always will be," Brad says. "Through the good times, bad times, and through his success, he will always be my hero."