Dominik Mysterio carries on family legacy in wrestling

Back in November at Survivor Series, Dominik got to share a special moment with his father when they performed a double-team version of Rey's iconic "619" spinning kick to Brock Lesnar. WWE

When Dominik Mysterio, the 23-year-old son of legendary wrestler Rey Mysterio, heard the most important news of his life, all he could do was laugh.

The news? Dominik was told he'd be making his professional wrestling debut at SummerSlam against four-time WWE world champion Seth Rollins.

"My dad [was the one who] told me. I initially thought he was joking," Dominik told ESPN via Zoom."I was like, 'What are you talking about? That's not happening. I'm not under contract, I'm not ..."

"You said, 'I'm not even ready yet,'" Rey recalled, as he sat next to his son on the couch at their family home in San Diego in early August. "He thought I was messing with him."

Rey wasn't. Dominik received confirmation when he was backstage at a "Monday Night Raw" taping at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, a couple weeks later.

With three years of training under his belt, debuting at WWE's second-biggest event of the year was a lot to process.

"I was speechless," said Dominik. "The fact that my first official match would be at SummerSlam against Seth Rollins, it's ..."

"It's mind-blowing," said Rey.

SummerSlam 2020 might be the site of Dominik's first match, but his story in the WWE began on Aug. 21, 2005.

That was the night an 8-year-old Dominik Gutierrez first showed his face on a SummerSlam stage, entangling himself in a story that's followed him for 15 years.

In 2005, Eddie Guerrero, a close friend and in-ring rival of Rey Mysterio, brought an idea that he and writer/producer Bruce Prichard wanted to get behind -- an onscreen storyline that would lead to one of the most emotional feuds in WWE history. The idea for the angle was more apropos for a soap opera than the squared circle. Guerrero would reveal himself as the biological father of Dominik, unearthing a secret that Rey -- whose real name is Oscar Gutierrez, and is indeed Dominik's real father -- had allegedly withheld from his son for years.

Long before Dominik grew into the 6-foot-2, 190-pound, tattooed young man he is today, he was a shy, bleach-blond third grader afraid to speak in front of his class, let alone in front of millions on live TV.

But before it could happen, Rey and his wife, Angie, sat down with their son to ask if he'd be willing to play the part. Rey said it was Guerrero, known as "Uncle Eddie" by the family (though not a blood relative), who convinced Dominik to become an integral part of their feud.

This was no small commitment. When Dominik agreed to take part, he traveled the country with his father every week to WWE shows, making towns.

"I was just enjoying traveling and not being in school," Dominik said.

An agreement had to be reached with his parents and teachers to do classwork while on the road, but Dominik got to live every kid's dream. He quickly immersed himself in the lifestyle that comes with the wrestling business. He enjoyed the long drives with his dad. He befriended Chris Benoit's son David as they played together backstage. He was getting paid to appear on TV with his dad, and when he wasn't busy with that, he joined ring announcer Tony Chimel's kids and made some extra cash picking up wrestlers' jackets after they made their entrances and bringing them back to the locker room.

Dominik's on-screen debut came during a vignette filmed at a playground in California. The scene called for Dominik to ask "Uncle Eddie" to push him down a slide. Despite Guerrero's villainous on-screen persona, behind the scenes he guided a timid Dominik throughout the storyline.

"I remember every other take -- I don't remember if it was a Red Vine or a Twizzler, [Eddie] would give it to me and say, 'We got one more take, so here,'" Dominik said.

The eight-month-long Mysterio-Guerrero saga culminated in a ladder match at SummerSlam 2005, with "custody" of Dominik on the line. The camera regularly cut to a concerned Dominik sporting an oversized button-down shirt, sitting in the front row as he watched his father take part in one of the most physically demanding matches of his career. Dominik waited patiently for his cue to enter the ring and shake the ladder as Guerrero reached for the briefcase. The task seemed simple enough, but for an 8-year-old with millions of eyes on him, there is no such thing.

"I was nervous," Dominik said. "They're like, 'Don't shake it too hard,' because they didn't want me to knock Eddie off. I couldn't even move the ladder when I was trying."

"We make fun of him still to this day," Rey interrupts with an ear-to-ear smile on his face as he mocks Dominik barely moving the ladder.

The match was just one day of Dominik's adolescence, but he hasn't stopped hearing about it ever since.

"I get the bleach blond hair jokes all the time," Dominik said, as his father laughed. "Ever since that custody match, that's all I hear."

"We're actually trying to convince him to bleach his hair again for SummerSlam," Mysterio joked.

As fun as that stretch of time was, Dominik wasn't thinking about growing up to become a wrestler, even though his father was already training by that age. The wrestling bug wouldn't grab hold of him until much later in life.

Dominik got a small taste of what it's like to perform in the squared circle as a youngster, but his first love was the gridiron. He starred as a safety on the Horizon Christian Academy varsity high school football team in San Diego. Blessed with size his father could only dream of, Dominik naturally took to the sport, embracing the physical aspects that come with the game. Rey, who has always secretly wanted Dominik to pursue a career in wrestling, was starting to accept a different future for his son.

"For me, I never wanted to push him to follow in my footsteps," Rey said. "He's been around this industry since he was a little kid. I always thought in the back of my mind that this would eventually be his. When I saw his passion more over towards football, I kinda lost a train of thought that he'd eventually want to start wrestling."

Dominik graduated high school in 2016 and football faded away After a couple of semesters at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, Dominik finally said the words his dad had waited 19 years to hear.

"I told my dad, 'I want to start wrestling,'" Dominik said.

"Deep down inside I was hoping that one day he would ask for that," Rey said.

Once Dominik expressed interest, Rey reflected on his own experience breaking into the wrestling business more than 30 years prior, and it informed how he decided how he wanted to train his son.

As early as 5 or 6 years old, Rey tagged along with his uncle to the gym. His uncle, Miguel Ángel López Díaz, aka Rey Misterio Sr., ran a wrestling school next to the Tijuana Auditorium in Mexico where he performed every Friday. Rey Mysterio Jr. was by far his youngest student when he began training at 8 years old -- the next closest was double his age.

Rey Jr. had to juggle wrestling with his schoolwork, a nearly impossible task as he crossed the border from Tijuana to Chula Vista, California, every day to go to school. His uncle didn't take it easy on him either, pushing Rey Jr. just as hard as he would any other student, and sometimes a step further. With the blessing of his uncle, Rey Jr., who would eventually inherit the Rey Mysterio name and mask, made his professional debut in 1989 at the age of 14.

"Back then, I remember our wrestling teachers used to be hard. I remember several times getting my ass kicked, crying, bleeding and I would step out of the ring because I couldn't take it," Rey said. "Keep in mind I was a 9-, 10-year-old kid training with 17-25-year-olds. I was really a kid. I was growing much faster than I should've at the time.

"With Dominik, it's different," Rey continued "Everything has to be taken with measures, and the steps that you take now are much less than what you would take back then."

Rey didn't want to throw his son to the wolves like he was, instead preferring a more patient, methodical approach. Dominik's first steps were learning the fundamentals from his father, independent wrestler B-Boy and lucha libre legend Konnan (his godfather) in San Diego. They walked Dominik through tumbling, hitting the ropes and bumping, which is wrestling terminology for falling on your back.

"I always wanted to give it a shot and just jump in the ring and see how I felt," Dominik said. "As soon as I stepped in there, it was a different feeling. I loved it, man. I couldn't let it go at that point."

"I spotted right away that he was picking it up pretty fast," Rey said. "Not only myself, but Konnan as well. He would tell me pretty much every other third roll or third bump, 'Man, he's a natural, bro. He's picking it up really fast.' It's something that really surprised us, and didn't, because he's been around it from the outside. He's been seeing this his whole life, but to be in there is completely different."

As much as Rey enjoyed training his son, he knew Dominik would have to leave his comfort zone to take the next step.

"I did the first two months, just the fundamentals and the basics," said Rey. "I saw how at times he would get frustrated with me and I would get frustrated with him. I thought it would be best for him to start training with somebody else."

Dominik's first stop was Tampa, Florida, to train with two-time Ring of Honor champion Jay Lethal. He trained five days a week while working a full-time job with meal prep company Nutrition Solutions.

After three months with Lethal, Dominik was off to his next stop. Thanks to a recommendation from Rey's close friend Chris Jericho, Dominik left the United States to train with former WWE wrestler and acclaimed trainer Lance Storm in Calgary, Alberta.

Storm, who opened his school in 2005 (and subsequently closed it in late 2019), has trained current WWE superstars Tyler Breeze, Peyton Royce and Chelsea Green. The sessions ran for 12 weeks, five days a week, with up to five hours of training a day.

Dominik had a support system in place, as each student was provided a room at a nearby house with fellow trainees, but there was a massive culture shock that winter.

"I think Calgary was hardest to adapt to because I'm a California kid," Dominik said. "Anything under 70 degrees is cold for me. Calgary was extremely cold. We'd have to walk to the gym, and it was just plowing through the snow."

Storm remembers one day in particular when Dominik had to take the bus to class after he realized his "California summer tires" wouldn't get through the snow.

"'I can't drive my car in this. I can't deal with this,'" laughed Storm, recalling Dominik's rant. "It was funny. He'd never seen this before."

"You are gonna have a portion of the audience that are going to bury you and criticize you and tell you that you're not your dad and you've been handed everything. Ignore those. You will have a bunch of people that tell you how great you are and how wonderful you are and how they always knew you were gonna be a star. Ignore those. Listen to the people that you trust." Lance Storm's message to Dominik Mysterio, as he follows his father Rey's path into professional wrestling

Calgary weather aside, Dominik showed acumen for wrestling early on. Storm noted how well Dominik moved, rolling and bumping with fluidity and coordination.

"Almost every class, you can divide them into thirds," Storm said. "There's people who struggle that you don't think have much of a chance. There's the large group in the middle; they're doing OK. And then there's those that you go, 'OK, these guys have an aptitude; there's a chance they could do well in this job.' I definitely would put Dom in that third group. If anyone is looking for a referral or anything more than 'He's Rey's kid,' I would tell them he went through the same paces as everybody else. He never bitched and took his bumps and paid his dues."

Before Storm gave his final stamp of approval and sent Dominik on his way, he shared one more piece of advice to his young protégé.

"Lance gave him probably some of the best words that I've ever heard a teacher give a student," Rey said.

"I gave him the warning that I give all the second-generation [kids] that have come through here," said Storm, who also trained Brian Pillman Jr. and Rachael Ellering. "You are gonna have a portion of the audience that are going to bury you and criticize you and tell you that you're not your dad and you've been handed everything. Ignore those. You will have a bunch of people that tell you how great you are and how wonderful you are and how they always knew you were gonna be a star. Ignore those. Listen to the people that you trust."

Rey certainly didn't expect Dominik to end up where he is at this moment. He said the initial plan for his son was to sign with WWE, get a developmental deal and start training at the Performance Center. With the PC training sessions temporarily shut down due to the WWE taking over the complex to produce its weekly shows, plans changed.

After taking part in a storyline that involved Rey and Brock Lesnar in 2019, and getting to hit a dual version of Rey's famed 619, Dominik re-entered the weekly WWE fold when Rey began battling Seth Rollins. There were some histrionics, including over-the-top violence to Rey's eye, and eventually a brutal attack on Dominik with a kendo stick that left him bruised all over his torso.

But that led to where everything stands today. The opportunity for Dominik to prove himself against the biggest star WWE has to offer was far too great to pass up. So what should fans expect from the first match of Dominik's career Sunday at SummerSlam? Well, even he isn't so sure.

"I think they... I don't know what they should expect," Dominik said, as his dad lets out a big laugh.

"It's crazy," Rey said.

On Sunday, Dominik will live that reality and find out what the SummerSlam stage feels like as a wrestler. The family connections to this event go deep. Eighteen years ago Rey made his WWE PPV debut at SummerSlam 2002. Rey said Kurt Angle was given a list of potential opponents and wanted a crack at the high-flying, newly signed former WCW star. The match was an opportunity for Rey, at just 5-foot-6, to prove he belonged on the big stage.

Rollins, WWE's modern-day measuring stick, was given the same opportunity as Angle when he discussed with WWE brass potential opponents for this year's SummerSlam. Rollins chose Dominik.

"Everyone was kind of leaning towards the idea of Dominik," Rollins said. "I didn't even think twice about it. I think it's a sign of good faith that the company, the people in charge, felt like I was capable of giving this kid his first match on a huge platform."

Rollins remembers the first match of his career, which was 17 years ago at a school in downtown Davenport, Iowa. He estimates 40 people, at most, were sitting in the "crappy" gymnasium to watch him perform.

"It was rough, man," Rollins said. "It was rough. I didn't know the difference. It was not SummerSlam, that's for sure."

Dominik will wrestle his first match in front of even fewer fans -- zero in attendance, to be exact -- but millions will be watching from home. He may be in this spot due to his bloodline and ability to advance the storyline between Rey and Rollins, but that doesn't mean the opportunity wasn't earned.

"There's always gonna be people talking. They all have their own opinions, but at the end of the day they don't know all the hard work that I've genuinely put in," Dominik said. "At the end of the day, my hard work is gonna speak for itself."

Rollins has noticed the work Dominik has put in from the little he's seen of him week to week.

"Did he get the opportunity because he happened to be born to Rey Mysterio? Yes, but has he knocked it out of the park every week since he's been given the chance? Yes, he has," Rollins said. "I'm a guy that's had a completely different story from Dominik. I had many matches for years before I got opportunities to make a dime wrestling or work in front of a crowd or a big stage. If anybody should have ill will towards Dominik for being handed this opportunity, quote unquote, it would be me. But I don't. Everybody's got a different path. He is not taking that lightly. He's making the most of the opportunities that have been given to him."

Dominik is well aware of the expectations that come with being a third-generation wrestler. He's already heard his fair share of criticism before he's even stepped inside a ring for his first match. For the most part he agrees with what his critics have to say -- and no, he's not going to be the next Rey Mysterio. He's just fine being the first Dominik.

"As far as being able to fill in his shoes, I think it's more of the fact that I have to outgrow his shoes," Dominik said, suddenly not so soft-spoken. "I want to be much bigger than he was. I want to take the Mysterio name to somewhere it hasn't been before."

Interviews with Rey Mysterio and Dominik for this article were conducted by ESPN at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, at the 2019 Money in the Bank pay-per-view and via Zoom call in August 2020.