Donovan Dijak is one of the hottest free agents in professional wrestling, and it's easy to see why. Not only does he have the prototypical wrestler build Vince McMahon probably dreams of in his sleep -- he's billed at 6-foot-7, 271 pounds, and he's cut -- but Dijak is as athletic and versatile as you could ever hope for in a man his size, in terms of how well he moves around the ring.
After two years of highs and lows spent performing for Ring of Honor, Dijak is cherishing the freedom and the potential that lies ahead as he enters his prime at just a month shy of age 30.
"Right now I've got a lot of different opportunities floating around for me," Dijak said. "There's nothing specific, contractually, that I've agreed to specifically yet, but I definitely have a lot of things on the horizon. All of the opportunities seem very exciting, but for right now, for the first time in a little over two years, I'm enjoying free agency and the benefits of free agency."
What's harder to see is why things didn't work out for him with ROH, a company he recently left after two years under contract. Dijak, a Massachusetts native, came into the company on a huge wave of momentum by winning its 2015 top prospect tournament, but sometimes things simply don't mesh. In his mind, no matter how things ended, Dijak feels he's far better off having done everything there was for him to do during his time in ROH.
"Ring of Honor was a wonderful experience," Dijak said. "I owe much of my career success to the opportunities I was provided from ROH, and the opponents that I was able to face in order to improve myself as a professional wrestler."
Dijak's first appearances in ROH, at a "Future of Honor" event in July 2014, came very early on in his career -- less than a year after his debut match in 2013. After traveling all over the Northeast, a region where he's still quite active, Dijak quickly built up a reputation. By the following January, he found himself in the eight-man field for the ROH 2015 top prospect tournament.
With a win over Jake Dirden in Nashville and victories over Ashley Sixx and later Will Ferrara in Philadelphia, Dijak was crowned the winner.
"The 2015 top prospect tournament is one of my fondest memories in all of pro wrestling," Dijak said. "It was my first real big stage opportunity, and it was great to know that when the pressure was on, I was able to capitalize."
The winner of that tournament traditionally receives a shot at the ROH television championship, but Dijak's on-screen persona was seduced to join then-champion Jay Lethal and "The House of Truth" instead, forgoing that title shot. With Lethal in the midst of his record-setting TV title reign, and soon to capture the world title on top of it, it was the perfect opportunity for Dijak to sit under the learning tree.
He faced top-flight competition, and learned a great deal under the tutelage of Lethal and Truth Martini, the leader of the group, but things wouldn't turn out quite so peachy for Dijak, at least on-screen, for the better part of the next year on ROH TV.
"My roots are definitely in the Northeast scene, whether it be Chaotic Wrestling, which is a company I started with and still work for to this day, or Northeast Wrestling, which has obviously given me a ton of opportunities," said Dijak, reflecting on both the early stages of his career and his current status in the region. "There are a bunch of other companies right now that are doing very well, like Limitless Wrestling up in Maine, Beyond Wrestling, which has been a huge platform for me, down in Rhode Island and throughout Massachusetts. Blitzkrieg Pro is another one in Connecticut that's doing very well."
Chaotic Wrestling has played an integral part throughout Dijak's career; they used to have an affiliated training school, the Chaotic Training Center, whose graduates include Sasha Banks, Kofi Kingston, NXT's Oney Lorcan and former WWE superstar Damien Sandow. Brian Fury was the trainer there until July 2011, when he purchased the school and renamed it the New England Pro Wrestling Academy. Though there's no official connection between the two entities anymore, Dijak began attending Fury's school in 2013 and wrestled many of his early matches in front of friendly hometown Chaotic Wrestling crowds.
Under the tutelage of Fury and "Warbeard" Hanson, Dijak picked things up at an accelerated pace, and with his look he quickly garnered a lot of attention. No matter how far away he goes -- and Dijak does travel quite a distance these days, even since leaving ROH -- he knows he owes a great deal to the school and the business, and can still get a lot out of it himself.
"I still go every week, whether it be to give advice or get in the ring myself and help train, or get some feedback and critique on some of the things that I'm trying to freshen up."
Dijak wrestled more than 60 matches for Ring of Honor in his two-plus years with the company, but that left a lot of time in between those stops to make a name (and a living) for himself elsewhere. It made all the sense in the world for him to turn to that cluster of independent companies close to home, forming a strong symbiotic relationship that helped all parties involved.
"For me, those are the win-win scenarios," Dijak said. "They are companies that run monthly, or sometimes more than monthly, so I'm able to fill up my schedule with a lot of those places. They don't have to spend money on flights for me."
While his career continues to evolve, taking him to more locations by the week, Dijak's upbringing and training are ingrained in his DNA.
"For me, I love working for companies like that sprinkled among my traveling schedule, whether it be in Texas or the Midwest or in Europe, which are some of the other places which I'm somewhat frequently booked in. It's all a great experience. I've always been a New England guy, I'm always going to be a New England guy, and to see the area continuing to improve and continuing to do well and for me to be a vital part of it really means the world to me."
So where did things go wrong between Dijak and Ring of Honor? For his part, Dijak has been nothing but complimentary toward his former employer since he has left the company. But when you dig into how things played out after the top prospect tournament, things didn't really click for Dijak until the late stages of his run with ROH.
After forgoing the title shot and joining the House of Truth, which should have worked to his benefit with Lethal at the peak of his powers, Dijak formed a partnership with Jay Diesel (later Jay Daddiego) as the muscle behind the champion. While the lackeys for any heel champion typically serve as roadkill to save their boss, things went too far as the pairing lost all credibility; after winning their first match as a team in March, they had a grand total of one victory (in a dark match, no less) for the rest of the year they were partners.
Even as Dijak continued to improve and show flashes of his potential in good matches, he had a similarly lackluster record in ROH no matter if he was a singles competitor or part of a team; Dijak defeated Dalton Castle in April 2015 and then, outside of a dark match victory over Takaaki Watanabe (now EVIL in New Japan Pro Wrestling), didn't record another victory until he defeated Will Ferrara in April 2016.
After splitting from the House of Truth and pairing up with Prince Nana, things began to get brighter for Dijak. He recorded a number of wins over the course of the summer and eventually became the No. 1 contender for the ROH TV title. He battled Michael Elgin for the IWGP Intercontinental championship in New York City (in a losing effort), and then set the stage for a showcase in front of a highly partisan crowd just minutes from where he lived -- and Dijak would get to do it in on pay-per-view.
"It was very exciting for me to be able to wrestle there -- that was the first time I've ever been inside the Lowell Auditorium. I know they used to do a lot of WWF Monday Night Raw in the '90s, and ironically, I worked across the street from that place for about two years," said Dijak, "But I had never been inside."
In the opening match of "All-Star Extravaganza," Dijak faced reigning champion Bobby Fish for the title, and despite still being a bad guy on TV and almost everywhere else in the world, Dijak entered to a hero's welcome in Lowell, Massachusetts.
"I was able to have a live pay-per-view television title match with Bobby Fish, which opened the show. The crowd support was tremendous, and the match itself is one of my favorites from 2016. So I definitely look back on that night very, very fondly," Dijak said. "I had my family in attendance, a lot of friends and I was able to incorporate a lot of my close personal friends in the wrestling business into my entrance, so the whole thing was very special to me, no question."
This moment was the peak of Dijak's ROH career, and after a lukewarm face turn, things once again turned a bit lackluster. By the start of 2017 things got a bit bleak, and in early February, Dijak released a video segment that melded the real life situation with his final scheduled ROH appearance -- fittingly enough, an ROH TV title shot against Marty Scurll.
- Donovan Dijak (@DonovanDijak) February 8, 2017
After losing the match on Feb. 12, Dijak penned his official farewell.
So what's next for Dijak? A fresh start, and not a moment too soon. He recently finished fifth in the Wrestling Observer's "most underrated" category for 2016 -- the highest of any non-WWE competitor (an award that Cesaro won for the fourth consecutive year). Some two years after joining ROH, Dijak has stepped into a very different world as a free agent -- one with more exclusive contracts, a half-dozen major streaming networks and a lot of options. He's certainly a different man and different performer, too.
As much as he may be enjoying free agency, the security of signing with another company might be too much to turn down in the long term.
"There's no question it's a double-edged sword," Dijak said. "As a performer, you probably enjoy the benefits of being able to take your own bookings and do whatever you want, but there are definitely a lot of benefits to being under a contract, as well, whether it's exclusive or nonexclusive."
For now, Dijak is simply staying busy. He recently returned from Germany, where he competed in the prestigious wXw 16 Carat Gold tournament, and he's also got a busy weekend set for Orlando, Florida. As the WWE has its biggest week of the year around WrestleMania, all of the biggest independent wrestling companies in the world take advantage of all the fans in the area by running shows of their own.
Dijak will be in the thick of things, with at least three appearances set for that stretch. He makes his EVOLVE debut by challenging for its tag team titles alongside Michael Elgin, and the following night he squares off with an opponent who's brought out the best in Dijak and drawn a lot of attention to each of them -- Keith Lee. After a pair of matches in Connecticut, a showdown in Rhode Island and an absolute battle in Austin, expectations are high for the next chapter.
No matter where the next step takes him, an ability to control his own destiny sounds pretty nice for the time being.
"Right now I'm taking advantage of that. I'm able to sort of control my own schedule, my own bookings, which is kind of unique for me, at this point," Dijak said. "I'm trying to take full advantage of that, and I'm looking forward to the next few months."