Why independent star Joey Janela feels like he proved everyone wrong

After more than a decade of fighting for his livelihood, Joey Janela has seen his career take a major step forward in recent years -- including a couple of appearances for independent standout Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Dan Schram

If you had a time machine that you could take back to the late '80s or early '90s, grabbed someone off the beach, brought them to the early 2000s to adopt that style of non-WWE wrestling and then brought him all the way to 2017, you might end up with someone like Joey Janela.

Known best for his wraparound shades and willingness to take big bumps both inside and outside the ring, Janela is a man out of time. He projects a classic '80s movie villain persona, looks and works like an independent wrestler of a different generation and certainly doesn't fit any of the modern stereotypes at all.

Whether it was taking crazy bumps, including an infamous one from a roof that both helped get more eyes than ever on him and nearly cost him his thumb and his career, or wrestling stars of yesteryear like Marty Jannetty and Scott Norton, Janela took anything but a traditional path toward the top of independent wrestling.

Especially when you consider that the Asbury Park, New Jersey, native never got traditional training, or that he blindly lied his way into the business at the age of 15. Janela largely lives his gimmick of being an unapologetic, fearless everyman. And as almost any successful wrestler has stated in one way or another, being yourself turned up a few notches is a clear path to success.

"I'm not into drugs or anything, but of course I'm drinking a 30-pack and smoking a pack of cigarettes in seven hours, while other professional wrestlers are doing CrossFit and DDP Yoga," Janela said in an interview with ESPN.com shortly after a recent appearance for Blitzkrieg Pro in Connecticut.

Janela has had to scratch and claw for everything he's achieved In his career, and it was rarely easy. His attitude got him into trouble in a lot of independent wrestling locker rooms early in his career, and he did himself no favors with his attitude.

"My attitude has definitely changed," he said. "I definitely had a big head and was known as a loose cannon in the locker rooms, and I would get in a lot of locker room fights, and people would beat me up 'cause I ran my mouth."

He got beat up before he ever stepped into the ring on some nights, and it took a little while for Janela to start to grow out of that immaturity. Even as his attitude slowly started to turn around, it was a tough slog to build up his name and pick up the kind of experience he needed.

"A couple of years ago, I was working for $20, working for free," Janela said. "I've been wrestling for 11 years now, but I would drive three hours to wrestle for nothing or I would drive seven hours for 40 bucks without transportation money."

Without a chiseled body, acrobatic skills or other obvious hooks, Janela did what he felt he had to do by taking chances and putting his body on the line on a regular basis. As a fan of both death matches and the style of wrestling that became prevalent in ECW and any number of other promotions once ECW went under, Janela saw an opportunity in the high-risk, high-reward style of match.

Eventually he caught on with CZW, the spiritual descendant of ECW's brand of Philadelphia-based hard-core violence. Fans embraced his earnestness and willingness to put his body through almost anything to get the job done, whether it involved chairs, glass, tables, light tubes or anything else that might come into play, and no matter the venue or the size of the crowd.

"I'm never, ever mailing it in," said Janela. "A lot of these guys, they become successful on the independent scene and they'll go to a show, wrestle in front of 100 people and tone it down completely. They're just like, 'Oh, no. Not tonight.' I'll go anywhere. I'll wrestle in front of five people and do the same thing I did in front of 2,000 people. That's just how I am, and that's my character, and that's why fans gravitate towards me."

After more than a decade of slow and steady, a few key moments helped Janela finally get a break he wasn't sure would ever come. In early 2016, CZW die-hard John Zandig came out of retirement, and Janela was immediately interested in getting into the ring with the underground hard-core legend. As a wrestling fan himself, Janela was obsessed with one crazy spot in particular that Zandig did with "Sick" Nick Mondo off of a roof and through a crazy concoction of glass, tables and other implements. It was known as one of the craziest, most dangerous spots ever and ultimately contributed to the premature end to Mondo's career.

Janela would soon get his wish.

Zandig organized a tournament -- appropriately titled Zandig's Tournament of Survival -- in Philadelphia and set up a match that would change both men's lives. On the day of the match, Janela got to the building to see a similarly crazy contraption built in the back of a pickup truck, directly underneath a rooftop that was even higher than the one Zandig and Mondo had gone off. Without seeing much of a way out, Janela steeled himself for what would be the most insane bump of his life.

The early stages of the match were well in line with other violent matches of that style, but they eventually spilled out of the ring and fought their way up to a roof, and then an even higher roof. As they looked down on a contraption that featured fire, lightbulbs and barbed wire, Zandig realized the truck was too close and he'd have to go through feetfirst. He stepped to the edge, Janela tucked himself into a ball, and as the metal gutter began to give way, there was no turning back.

In the next few moments, Janela claimed he didn't know if he was alive or dead. The toll on each man was severe; Zandig broke his back in three places, and Janela nearly sliced his finger off. Getting caught on a strand of barbed wire severed so many tendons that doctors didn't know how much he'd ever be able to move his thumb, let alone if he could wrestle again.

In the days that followed, the car crash moment went completely viral, even airing on ESPN's Highly Questionable -- but Janela also faced as much backlash as he did notoriety. He embraced it and built himself a sizable, dedicated fan base on Twitter by projecting that same fearless attitude.

"Learning how to promote myself on social media. I don't have 100,000 followers, but I have a lot on Twitter, especially, by basically just being myself," Janela said. "A lot of guys are walking on eggshells. They want to get signed. They think what they say on the internet might screw them over in the long run. Some things I say could be toned down a little, but I don't think it's gonna hurt me. I think it's only been helping me."

The roof bump and everything else he does was all a calculation, and while he's unlikely to try something quite so insane again, Janela is confident that he's in a lot of control. He feels that the payoff for the risks he's taking is balanced by what he's getting out of them -- even in an era when many people are moving away from dangerous stunts as the consequences of doing those kinds of moves become clearer.

"Some matches you walk out and you're like, 'S---, I can't believe I walked out unscathed,'" said Janela. "Some of my stunts are pretty risky, but a lot of them I know I can walk out unscathed. That's why I do them. I kind of know at this point -- it's controlled chaos.

"I nearly cut off my thumb, and besides that, a handful of concussions," continued Janela. "A lot of guys get concussions. This is the business we're in. I've had a handful of concussions and, you know, but so have guys who've never jumped off a building into a flaming truck, or fell off a ceiling through two ladders. I think my track record proves it's controlled chaos. Talk to me in 20 years and see how I feel, but I'm not living for 20 years. I'm living for now, so we'll see what happens."

That ladder bump, which happened in his return to the ring in September 2016, was another big moment for Janela. But the other was an opportunity that came out of nowhere, when GCW was given a slot at Orlando Live Events to run a midnight show as part of the WrestleMania weekend festivities and they decided to let Janela book his own show.

Rather than make it like every other indie supershow that weekend, Janela wanted to make it into something of a throwback show to the early 2000s indies that he loved, with a mix of older, former WWE stars and young superstars. He also essentially made it a beach party and made sure to lean toward the absurd to keep the atmosphere light.

He started from the main event and worked his way down. Janela knew Matt Riddle, and with so many legends in town for WrestleMania, the potential was seemingly endless. The idea of putting Riddle, a former UFC fighter and The Ultimate Fighter contestant, up against a UFC legend in Ken Shamrock became appealing. When that fell through, it led to one of the more interesting main events among all of the independent shows that weekend, as Riddle took on former UFC and NWA heavyweight champion Dan Severn.

"Shamrock wanted $10,000. He thought he was fighting for Bellator or something, so that was out of the picture," Janela said. "I think we got Dan Severn for 10 percent of that. It continued to snowball from there."

That train of thought helped Janela put together a gimmicky battle royal that featured a strange mix of competitors that even included the invisible man, for whom almost everybody took bumps. When it came to spending the money they had, there was a definitive approach to the evening as Earl Hebner, Glacier and Dink all joined the festivities.

Janela lived out a dream by facing Jannetty, with a series of vignettes filmed to set up the match. Despite Jannetty's age, Janela got a great match out of Shawn Michaels' former tag team partner. Between that, the battle royal, the Riddle vs. Severn match and a Keith Lee vs. Lio Rush match that turned a lot of hands, "Joey Janela's Spring Break" was a smashing success -- and they're going to do it again next year in New Orleans.

From there, Janela's bookings took him to Europe and all over North America, but it reached an entirely different level when he was tabbed as a last-minute replacement for Pro Wrestling Guerilla's Battle of Los Angeles -- and it almost never happened.

"I nearly almost screwed up the booking for myself ," said Janela. "I didn't look at my email for five days and Super Dragon was trying to contact me -- I had no idea."

Janela didn't advance in the BOLA tournament, but his matches that weekend earned him a return trip to PWG -- something he never could have imagined even a few years ago.

"I think I wrestled for every promotion in the United States this year, but PWG, man, you just go out there and kill it," said Janela. "If I didn't kill it, I would never probably live it down. If I didn't go out there and put on the match I put on, then I probably would have been very upset at myself for a very long time.

"This is the elite of wrestlers. This is the club. The Kenny Omegas and the Young Bucks and the Zack Sabre Jrs., this is like a superteam Yankees roster of professional wrestlers that they put together, and I guess I made the cut. It was just a crazy experience."

There are more ways than ever to make it in wrestling these days, but even in this climate, Janela's story of success is as unlikely as any in the business today. Who knows if he could make it in the WWE, or if he's even on the WWE's radar in the era of PG -- but with as far as he's come already, he's not ruling anything out.

"I make a living now off wrestling. I don't have to deliver pizzas anymore," said Janela. "God forbid, if I just stay on the independents for the rest of my life, I did it. I lived my dream. I wrestled everyone I wanted to wrestle. And god forbid I don't make it. But now, I think I might. I don't know. A lot of people tell me I might make it.

"Someone like me is never supposed to make it in this business. Maybe they're supposed to wrestle for one promotion for a couple of years and that's it. I kind of feel like I proved everyone wrong."