By Mike Mooneyham

Aug. 14, 2005

Final in a series

Ron Donlick points to WWE star Shelton Benjamin as an example of how one can succeed in spite of adversity. The best part of his job, he says, is helping kids who otherwise might not get the chance.

“He basically took a young kid off the street who knew nothing about the world or how it works and gave me all the tools I needed to succeed,” says Benjamin. “I trace all of my successes to him and the time he put into helping develop me. But it was me and a lot of other guys. I’m obviously the most visible of his pupils, but he has an endless list of guys he motivated in some way to improve their lives. I just happen to be the one in WWE.”

Donlick, who coached Benjamin and many others during a lengthy run at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High, is quick to add there’s more from whence Benjamin came.

“One thing about Shelton’s extended family – there’s some amazing genetics there,” says Donlick, who is taking over the head wrestling job at Berkeley High this season. Among Benjamin’s cousins was former Clemson football standout and current Dallas Cowboy Woody Dantzler. “That’s the kind of athlete that comes out of that family. He’s got a new nephew coming up that’s probably 5 years old now that they’re looking at. And all really good people. That’s one common thread.”

“My little nephew, Zachariah, is going to be a big, rough kid,” chuckles Benjamin. “He’s only like 4 years old now and he’s like a little tank. He’s got a husky voice and he’s full of energy. This kid can be something special.”

Shelton Benjamin

Shelton Benjamin

Herman Baker, another cousin of Benjamin who was coached by Donlick, reached All-American status in the Olympic training program at Northern Michigan University as a freshman. He more recently was on the All-Marine Greco-Roman team at Quantico, Va. He wants to follow in Benjamin’s footsteps, and he wants to go to college.

“Herman got off the Greco team. He told me it wasn’t fair to take a spot when he wasn’t going to be around,” says Donlick. “He’s going to go back to Iraq for a second tour. When he gets done with it, we’re going to send him off to California, pretty much following the same pattern.”

“Coach develops a very personal relationship with all of his athletes,” says Benjamin. “There is no one on the team that he neglects. Everybody gets his attention. He puts just as much into the guy who’s winning every match as he does the guy who’s losing every match. No matter what, he’s teaching life’s lessons, and he wants people to succeed.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

With just a few short years of pro experience under his belt, the 6-2, 230-pound Benjamin already has risen to the upper echelon of World Wrestling Entertainment. Recently coming off the longest Intercontinental title reign in nearly 10 years, Benjamin holds victories over the likes of Triple H, Ric Flair and Chris Jericho. No less than three-time WWE champ and Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle calls him the best athlete in the wrestling business.

“Shelton has everything that you could have to be one of the top wrestlers,” says Angle. “I watched him wrestle Shawn Michaels a few months ago, and I was blown away. I think he’s incredibly gifted – probably the best natural athlete in the business. Without a doubt, he is the best athlete.”

Benjamin admits he needs to relate to the audience better, and is confident that will come with time. “I don’t think I’m going to do too much more improving wrestling-wise. I can do anything and everything at the tip of a hat. But fans still don’t know how to relate to me. They never really hear me talking. They know I’m a great athlete and they know I’m a great wrestler. But they really don’t know what type of personality I really have. That’s a big hindrance in my career until I get that aspect across to them so people can relate to me and buy into who I am.”

“I think he’s missing that X factor to make him more real,” says Angle, “although he is a real deal, a two-time All-American in college. He’s a little bit shy. I think from a character standpoint, I’d rate him about a six or seven out of 10. He needs to let that energy and that character come out a little more. He’s actually a real funny kid. I guess he doesn’t feel comfortable yet doing that in front of fans.

“We had a guy on Smackdown, Mark Jindrak, who was the funniest guy in the world in the locker room. But he gets on the stick and he won’t say a word. He’s scared to death. My personality is the opposite. I don’t really talk that much in the locker room. I have no problem when I’m out there (in the ring). Vince has had me make an ass out of myself. But I don’t mind doing that. I think Shelton needs to work on that. If he does, Shelton is going to be one of the best.”

Many officials inside the company share Angle’s lofty opinion of Benjamin. While Benjamin is grateful for the high praise, he’s taking his success in stride. There was a time, he says, when he didn’t know what his future would be.

“I try to stay humble. It wasn’t too long ago that I was scraping up change to pay rent. It wasn’t too long ago that I was taking my little brother and sister to practice with me. I look at what I have, but I also look back to where I came from. That keeps me humble and keeps me driven and keeps me focused.”

Benjamin says the learning curve for him came when he teamed with Charlie Haas as Team Angle in a program with Eddie and Chavo Guerrero during his early days on Smackdown.

“Our business is not like most people think – that we sit and plan everything out in the ring. That’s not what our business is all about. Our business is going out there and performing. I learned that mostly while working with Eddie and Chavo.”

One of the turning points of his career, says Benjamin, is when he faced then-Intercontinental champ Chris Jericho in a critically acclaimed match at last year’s Taboo Tuesday pay-per-view.

“Jericho had no idea who he was wrestling that night. Honestly I expected to be sitting back and watching that show. I didn’t know I was going to wrestle Jericho until on that show live when they said I was the winner of that tournament. We basically did what our business was about. We felt it. It was great, and it was one of my favorite matches for the fact that there was no planning. We just went out there and did it. The fans voted me into that match. That blew my mind because I beat out Batista and a lot of great guys.”

Benjamin says Donlick’s influence on him most likely will steer him into the coaching profession once his in-ring days are behind him.

“Definitely. That’s probably what I’m going to do once I get out of wrestling. I’d like to get into some coaching field. He helped me, and you’ve got to pass it on.”

NEWS AND NOTES: Jim Ross and Jonathan Coachman took some shots at one another in recent interviews. “They (Vince McMahon and WWE producers) wanted the broadcast team to get a little younger and a little better looking,” Coach said of his addition to the Raw announce team. “Our company is like any entertainment company,” replied JR. “There tends to be a higher value placed on looks and youth rather than talent and experience.” Jerry Lawler, Ross’ longtime partner on Raw, later weighed in on the WWE Web site, saying, “I would just tell Coach that he can just look around at what happened with WWE within the last month, and he probably should realize that nobody’s here to stay. I would suggest that he just enjoy it while he’s there” … Ken Spence is running his 2005 Dream Camp on Aug. 27 in Thomasville, N.C., as part of the annual IWA-WWA Legends Reunion and Hall of Fame indications. Advance registration is required. For more information, e-mail Spence at kspenceshoot@aol.com or call (336) 778-2616 … John Cena is tentatively scheduled to defend his WWE title against Kurt Angle in the main event of next month’s Unforgiven pay-per-view … Dusty Rhodes, who reportedly is close to signing with WWE in a creative capacity, has asked the company for a house show match with Ric Flair.