Kenn Doane remembers the first time he entered WWE's headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, as a starry-eyed 13-year-old. It's a story he's told many times but doesn't mind repeating, if only for a good laugh and to remind himself how far he's come.
Doane, like the majority of people crazy enough to pursue a career in professional wrestling, was obsessed with the WWE as a youngster. However, watching wrestling on TV, playing video games and collecting action figures wasn't enough to satiate his passion. So, as he approached the front desk inside WWE headquarters, thanks to a ride from his big brother Mike, Doane thought to himself: Why wait any longer?
"My mindset was, 'I'm gonna be on Raw in two weeks, I got this,'" Doane said in an interview with ESPN. "But you know what's crazy? Looking back if they were to say, 'What's your gimmick?' I would've been like, 'I have no idea.' I went in there with absolutely nothing. Thankfully they kicked me out because had I been on Raw in two weeks I would've never made it this far."
Doane wasn't on Raw in two weeks. Instead, he had to settle for four years.
Fifty-seven days after celebrating his 17th birthday, Doane would appear on Raw as an enhancement talent alongside his brother, making him one of the youngest wrestlers to ever compete on WWE television. Doane had to skip his junior year class at Bay Path Technical High School and drive four hours from his hometown of Charlton, Massachusetts, to Philadelphia for Raw.
The opportunity emerged after Doane, who worked independent dates around his school schedule, developed a rapport with Sgt. Slaughter. Slaughter was booking the extras for WWE at the time and recommended Doane to Tom Prichard, who gave him a call with Raw taking place on the East Coast.
"[Prichard] was like, 'Guess what? You're gonna be on TV.'"
Under the surname Phoenix, both brothers lost by submission to Rodney Mack in 1 minute, 30 seconds (made apparent by the running clock at the bottom of the screen). For Doane, merely entering a WWE ring at that young of an age was a major accomplishment. Doane's ability to look past his age is what got him to WWE in the first place.
Doane apparently didn't learn from his visit to WWE headquarters as a 13-year-old when later that same year he approached famed trainer Killer Kowalski's gym in Malden, Massachusetts, with the hope of learning from the man who taught the likes of Triple H, Perry Saturn, Matt Bloom and Chyna.
"When I got there, Kowalski said, 'Come back in five years when you're 18, kid. Get out of here,' Doane recalled. "And I was like, 'Mr. Kowalski, you don't understand, if you teach me now, when I'm 18, I'll have five years of experience and then WWE might be interested.' I remember he just looked at me like, 'That's an interesting thought.'"
After nearly five years of training under Kowalski and a working relationship with WWE, Doane was far from your average 18-year-old. WWE saw the potential and offered Doane a full-time contract a month before he was set to graduate high school in 2004. He started with WWE's then-developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, Kentucky, just 10 days after graduation. Doane learned OVW was far from the glitz and glamour of WWE.
OVW students were tasked with the responsibilities of driving the ring to the show, setting it up, putting up the curtains, organizing the music, and taking everything down after the show. Doane had the chance to learn from Jim Cornette, Paul Heyman, Danny Davis, Al Snow, Lance Storm and many other great wrestling minds during his time in OVW.
Doane stood out early enough that less than two years into his stint at OVW, Vince McMahon invited him and four other wrestlers to Cincinnati for a meeting. The five wrestlers had no idea what to expect, but even that couldn't prepare them for what McMahon had to say.
"[McMahon] turned and said, 'Guys, this is my idea. It's gonna work because I'm telling you it will work,'" said Doane in his best McMahon impersonation. "He said, 'I want cheerleaders. Male cheerleaders. There's nothing that gets more heat than male cheerleaders.' I kinda looked at the other guys out of the corner of my eye like, 'Is this a joke? This is a good joke. You guys went all the way out to get Vince in on this?'"
It wasn't a joke. Although the group wasn't getting the call-up just yet, Mikey (Mike Mondo), Johnny (Johnny Jeter), Mitch (Nick Mitchell), Nicky (Dolph Ziggler), and Kenny (Doane) would form the Spirit Squad -- a group of male cheerleaders who would terrorize opponents through obnoxious cheers and dance routines. The group was sent back to OVW for a test run, but the Spirit Squad was eager to debut its act on WWE television. That's when they came up with the idea of busting into Vince's office, blowing an air horn, and breaking out a cheer to convince McMahon to promote the Spirit Squad to the main roster. John Laurinaitis, VP of talent relations at the time, spotted the group in McMahon's office before they made their move.
"I remember he kind of chuckled and was like, 'Are you serious?'" Doane said. "And we're like, 'Yeah.' And I think he said something like, 'Well, either it will work or you'll be fired.'"
Laurinaitis led the group to the production meeting where McMahon was sitting in the room by himself with his head down. The Spirit Squad barged in, performed its routine, and stood in silence.
"Vince just looked up, smiled and said, 'You're gonna be on Raw next week.'"
What McMahon didn't tell them was that the Spirit Squad was about to feud with two of the biggest stars in WWE history -- Shawn Michaels and HHH.
The Spirit Squad tormented D-Generation X at the behest of McMahon in a barrage of 5-on-2 attacks and handicap matches. The group members had the chance to learn from the top guys in the business early into their WWE careers.
"It was amazing," Doane said. "I remember we would always joke around when we first started working [with DX], 'I wanna take the superkick -- let me take the superkick.' Secretly we're all fans. Of course we're going to be fans of Shawn Michaels and Triple H, so we'd trade off. It was fun. Just learning so much in there -- how to slow down, how to tell a story, and also, too, what I learned a lot from Shawn and Hunter was how to work a main event."
Initially, the Spirit Squad thought the idea for the group was a practical joke, but now the members were set to main-event a pay-per-view opposite Michaels and HHH at Vengeance 2006. The 5-on-2 handicap match headlined a card that featured a WWE title bout. Doane was just 20 years old and didn't want to disappoint in his chance to shine.
"I remember there was a spot where I hit Shawn with a chair and I apologized to him beforehand because I said, 'Listen, man, it's a PPV, I'm gonna take your head off,'" Doane laughed. "'Put your hand up. I'm sorry, I don't want to kill you, but I don't want it to look bad either. Otherwise they might not bring me back.'"
Unfortunately, the match was the highest point the Spirit Squad would reach as a unit. The group would break up after months of battling in feuds that were going nowhere. Doane was the only member of the group to stay on WWE television after he was repackaged as Kenny Dykstra. While he had the chance to work a series of matches with Ric Flair, winning three of them, he eventually wrestled only in dark matches or as an enhancement talent to spotlight new wrestlers. In November 2008, Doane was fired via phone call by Laurinaitis. He was just 22.
Doane appeared sparingly on the indies, instead choosing to refocus his life on a new profession and academics. Doane got a job in the Boston area teaching people how to start and run their own businesses. He also enrolled at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts, and earned a bachelor's degree before pursuing a master's. He even wrote a children's book, "Billy's Bully," in 2013. Doane carved out a new life for himself after WWE, but a phone call in 2016 would quickly change all of his plans.
"I got home and the phone rang and it was Mark Carrano from WWE,'" Doane recalled. "I was like, 'Man, that must be a butt dial. I haven't heard from the WWE in eight years. Why are they calling me?'"
Carrano called to ask Doane if he could be in San Diego the next week for SmackDown. Doane couldn't have said "yes" any quicker and called his former tag team partner Mikey Mondo as soon as the conversation ended. He still wasn't sure if the offer was real until the travel itinerary was emailed to him a couple of minutes later.
The Spirit Squad officially made its WWE return after a 10-year hiatus on the Oct. 4, 2016, edition of SmackDown. The Miz introduced Kenny and Mikey during a Miz TV segment featuring Dolph Ziggler, who was Nicky of the Spirit the Squad a decade earlier. Kenny and Mikey came out with green jumpsuits and an air horn in tow, rattling off an over-the-top cheer like they hadn't been gone a day. The idea for the segment, which was supposed to be a one-off, came from Ziggler and Miz, but the boss wanted to see more of the Spirit Squad.
"Right after the segment, Vince came by and he's like, 'I need you for the PPV -- can you be there?' And I said, 'I'll be there. Of course.' I'm not gonna say no."
Doane flew home after SmackDown and hoped to get another call for the next week. He'd get that call every week for the next two months as the Miz-Ziggler feud became the hottest angle on the show. Doane was given the opportunity to showcase himself, even earning a pinfall victory in a six-man tag against Heath Slater, Rhyno and Ziggler.
"We worked the tag champs in a non-title match and I ended up pinning Heath Slater, and Mike Chioda said, 'Are you sure you're not signed? Are you messing with me? Why are you gonna go over the tag champs if you're not even under contract. They can't do that. They gotta bring you back next week.'"
Doane showed up whenever WWE called, but he was forced to miss his day job every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to fly out to SmackDown. His employers eventually had to meet with him to sort out the situation.
"They were like, 'Can you come into the office?' And I was like, 'Oh, I'm totally getting fired,'" Doane recalled. "I said, 'Listen, I would've fired me a long time ago. I'm surprised y'all still deal with me. If they email me to come back, then I'm gonna keep coming back because this is my dream.' They totally understood it, and what's funny is in the middle of that meeting my phone went off and WWE was like, 'Here's your travel for next week,' and I was like, 'I guess I'm getting fired.'"
The pinnacle of the monthslong rivalry would take place at No Mercy in a Title vs. Career match with Miz's Intercontinental title and Ziggler's career on the line. The Spirit Squad interfered in a match that earned a standing ovation from everybody backstage and ended up being one of the best of the year in WWE.
Doane wasn't bitter about having to play a supporting role to make his former Spirit Squad teammate Ziggler look better. Many people saw Doane, at just 19 years old at the inception of the squad, as the breakout star of the group. Instead, it was Ziggler who went on to have singles success.
"I just always knew he had talent. I knew there was nothing that he couldn't do," Doane said. "Here's the thing -- you never know the way things are gonna get written in wrestling. There's guys who have great potential that we have never known. We may have never seen it. That's just because that was what their role was at the time."
WWE had little use for the Spirit Squad after the Ziggler-Miz feud and eventually those phone calls stopped coming. The timing just so happened to leave Doane without a job during the holiday season. The opportunity was worth it for Doane, though, and it's something he'd jump at the chance at doing again.
Doane has now fully committed himself to wrestling as he regularly makes appearances alongside Mikey for promotions such as Northeast Wrestling and House of Hardcore. He even turned down an offer for a full-time job recently because he doesn't have the time to work a 9-to-5 job around his wrestling schedule. He plans on working a busy independent schedule until he signs with a company full time. At just 31 years old, he has plenty of time to make it happen.
"My career is so far from being over. I'm not even in my prime yet," Doane said. "I'm 31 going on 19 years of experience and in those 19 years I've been able to work with Lance Storm, Shawn Michaels, Triple-H and Ric Flair. Not many guys can say that. I'm still young enough where I'm gonna be here for another 20 years. People better get used to seeing me around."