Unlike many of his fellow entertainers at Florida Supercon, Vincent Dombrowski found it difficult to perform in front of an audience. The stress sprang from the bullying he faced as a teenager, he tells New Times.
“I had talked to people in high school that came across friendly, but once we got to school, they didn't want anyone to know they talked to me because they were afraid it would hurt their reputation," he says. "There was nothing worse than feeling like someone is embarrassed by you... To this day, I still struggle with social anxiety."
That socially induced nervousness might make him seem like an unlikely candidate to come alive on the stage. But performing in a wrestling ring — as his alter ego Jude Mackenzie — has allowed the reserved Ohio native to break through many of his self-imposed limitations. In the ring, he confidently entertains countless audiences.
"In some miraculous way, wrestling has provided me with the outlet to go out and open up and perform," he says. "It's the only avenue [where] I truly feel comfortable in front of a crowd."
Still, it took a bit of persuading before Dombrowski agreed to wrestle as a comic book character at Supercon.
When he was propositioned in 2007, he wasn’t much of a comics fan. On top of that, Mackenzie says, he wasn’t convinced people would show up to see superheroes and villains battle in the ring. But a lot has changed in the past ten years.
“Currently, I couldn't imagine not being all over an opportunity like this,” the 28-year-old tells New Times. “Looking to the present day, comic book characters are such a mainstream and blockbuster hit.”
When Florida Supercon begins later this week, Dombrowski will wrestle as the badass comic character Negan from The Walking Dead. He'll be joined in the ring by a tight-knit group of wrestlers with stage names such as Showtime Stevie, Dash Maverick, Leva Bates, and John Beaver.
The reason they're so close? The troupe has done its fair share of suffering together. One of the hardest parts of the job is withstanding the hulkish blows they inflict on one another. Last August, for example, a kick broke two bones in Dombrowski's hand.
But those injuries come with the turf. Rolling with the punches, literally, is an essential quality for a wrestler. It's one, in particular, that helped Dombrowski win the respect of his fellow wrestlers when he began. Only after he proved himself, both as an athlete and a performer, was he was welcomed by other wrestlers.
"A lot of times, my opponents know I am up for almost everything and anything that will put on a good show," Dombrowski says. "They know that they can trust me to put forth my best effort and just go with the flow in the ring."
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He and the other wrestlers have become close in ways that put his lackluster friendships from high school to shame. "We have quite the bromance among all of us," he says. "When you trust a guy in his underwear to not break your neck, you tend to learn how to love them all."
Asked just how just close he feels to his wrestling family, Dombrowski answers bluntly: "Simply put... too close! What happens at Supercon stays at Supercon."
Though he sometimes still struggles with nervousness, Dombrowski has come a long way in terms of opening up to others. With the hope of helping others undergo a similar transformation, he stresses the importance of tapping into one's alter ego. "Any time I meet someone who suffers from bullying or social anxiety or speaking up," he says, "I encourage them to find their inner character."
Florida Supercon. July 27 through 30 at the Broward County Convention Center, 1950 Eisenhower Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-399-1330; floridasupercon.com. Admission starts at $22.50 with promo code SUPER10.