In 2012, Quinn Ojinnaka had a solid NFL career and a healthy bank account that allowed him the freedom to do whatever he wanted. While that may be something that most people only dream of, the man affectionately nicknamed “Moose” simply wasn’t happy. So he decided to trade in the shoulder pads for a pair of spandex and live out his childhood fantasy of becoming a professional wrestler.
It all sounded like a dream come true, but in reality, when he told his wife about his plans, she responded with divorce papers.
“The first person I told that I was retiring from the NFL to become a pro wrestler was my ex-wife and her reaction was that she hated it and that I was being selfish for retiring at a young age,” says Ojinnaka as he walks through the Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on a warm February afternoon. “One of the biggest reasons why we split up was because I was leaving all this money on the table for something that was just a maybe.”
His dream is no longer a “maybe” because in 24 hours, the 6-foot-5 former offensive lineman will step into the ring against the man who just so happens to be his favorite wrestler, New Japan Professional Wrestling’s heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada, at independent wrestling promotion Ring Of Honor’s 14th Anniversary show.
Today, Ojinnaka is one of the brightest stars on the independent wrestling scene and happier than he’s ever been, which proves the sacrifices he had to make were all worth it.
“It’s funny how my ex-wife laughed at me and called me an idiot when I quit football to become a wrestler,” he says with a pregnant pause and a grin on his face as he refers to a recent post he made on Facebook. “But who is the idiot now?”
It’s hard not to notice Ojinnaka. His presence simply demands attention. Throughout the conversation, people stop and stare. Some immediately recognize Ojinnaka and take selfies with him while others unfamiliar with his background whisper to each other and stare in awe. He exudes big business and, to many, it’s only a matter of time before “Moose” heads to the WWE.
“He’s a thoroughbred,” longtime WWE commentator and talent scout Jim Ross told Yahoo Sports. “He has that competitive edge from being in the NFL and you don’t check that at the door. He has a truly fascinating upside with his agility, physicality and competitive drive to be the best. He has special skills that you simply cannot replicate and I would be shocked if he’s not in the WWE in the next few years.”
Ring of Honor has proven to become one of the premier breeding grounds for WWE superstars including CM Punk, A.J. Styles, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Cesaro, Samoa Joe and others. And with this being Ojinnaka’s fourth year as a professional wrestler, there is a possibility that the 31-year-old could eventually joint the ranks of some of ROH’s illustrious alumni in the WWE.
But in order to get to where he is today, he had to endure the backlash from his unpopular decision to walk away from a lucrative career in the NFL.
“My brothers hated it and didn’t understand how I could give away millions to do something stupid and fake,” Ojinnaka says. “Other than my mom, everyone took it the wrong way and said it was stupid. But that made me work harder to prove them wrong.”
Before football consumed his life, Ojinnaka was infatuated with professional wrestling. Born and raised in Maryland, a 7-year-old Ojinnaka happened to stumble across the 1992 WWE Royal Rumble when the consummate showman Ric Flair emerged on the screen. “I was watching this as a kid and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” Ojinnaka reflects. “I liked what I was watching and this guy was instantly my favorite wrestler. I told my mom that whatever this was, I wanted to watch it every single time it is on.”
But it wasn’t until Ojinnaka saw Razor Ramon, a Cuban-American intimidator from Miami, that he realized he wanted to be a professional wrestler.
“From watching him I thought I could actually be him,” Ojinnaka says. “I’d dress, walk and talk like him. It came to a point where I said that I wanted to be a wrestler so I could be just like him.”
Despite his love for professional wrestling, Ojinnaka found success as a football player. After a stellar high school career at DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, Ojinnaka went to Syracuse where he was dominant as an offensive lineman. His athletic prowess led him to being selected in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons and his financial future was set. But professional wrestling was still in the back of his mind.
“All of my teammates in college and the NFL would tell you that I would be still watching wrestling whenever it came on,” Ojinnaka says.
No matter how well he was doing on the field, the idea of becoming a professional wrestler was gnawing at him. When he was traded to the New England Patriots in 2010, Ojinnaka began to realize that he wasn’t getting any younger and if he was going to chase his dream, he needed to do it sooner than later.
“When I got traded to the Patriots was when I saw the real life of football and that you won’t play for the same team for the rest of your career and that’s when I got tired of it,” Ojinnaka says. “I was always in a bad mood and realized that the only way I could make myself happy was to chase this dream to become a pro wrestler.”
From 2010-12, Ojinnaka played for the Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams before getting released after his second stint on the Rams in October 2012. But instead of chasing down another team, Ojinnaka decided go after his dream. And with a pretty significant amount of money saved up due to his frugal spending habits, he decided that there would be no better time than the present to see if he had what it took to become a professional wrestler.
“When I decided I wanted to become a wrestler, I knew I could take six months to a year and focus on becoming a wrestler,” Ojinnaka says when referring to his healthy nest egg. “I didn’t need to have a backup job. I could wake up and go to wrestling school and be dedicated.”
Ojinnaka began his training in 2012 under the tutelage of retired WWE and WCW star Curtis Hughes at WWA4 Wrestling School in Atlanta. To prove his dedication, Ojinnaka drove an hour each way to the wrestling school four times a week from November until his first match in April the following year.
Transitioning from getting hit on the football field to taking bumps in a wrestling ring didn’t prove to be too difficult for Ojinnaka as his natural athleticism allowed him to quickly grasp the moves and techniques necessary to begin his new career. Ojinnaka had his first wrestling match against indie talent AR Fox in a match that he says he hated despite the praise he received by those watching. “I was more nervous than I was in my first football game,” Ojinnaka says with a laugh. “I was actually shaking in the ring while I was running my spots.”
Although he was green, his physical ability, size and determination was undeniable.
There are those that think that the only reason Ojinnaka was given an opportunity in Ring of Honor was because of his NFL background. That couldn’t be further from the truth. He had to chase them down to get their attention, literally.
“Ring Of Honor told me to keep showing up even though I wasn’t promised a spot,” Ojinnaka says. With the money he saved up, he would travel wherever ROH was having a show just to prove his dedication and determination. “It got to the point where someone would be hurt or miss their flight and they’d ask me to be in a match.”
On June 19, 2014, Ojinnaka signed a two-year contract with Ring Of Honor and officially began his journey to become the greatest professional wrestler in the world. But life on the road with a bunch of wrestlers versus the lavish life of traveling with an NFL team would take some adjusting.
“Financially, it’s definitely an adjustment,” Ojinnaka says. “In football you’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly. In wrestling you’re making maybe $500 a week.”
But despite the financial differences, Ojinnaka says that he enjoys the camaraderie travelling with fellow wrestlers more than he did the NFL.
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Over the past 18 months, Ojinnaka has showed tremendous growth and become a fan favorite. A strong showing during a tour in Japan further certified his growing presence as a future star in this business and led to Ring of Honor booking him for a match against Okada in their biggest show of the year.
It’s apparent that Ojinnaka was both nervous and excited at the opportunity. With several combat sports journalists in attendance, including lauded pro wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer, Ojinnaka realized the opportunity to impress.
“It’s like I’m a kid preparing for the first day of school and I can’t sleep because I’m excited to see all of my friends,” Ojinnaka said with a wide smile stretching across his face. “He’s my favorite wrestler in the world and I’m so excited.
“Moose” would end up losing to Okada but the spirited affair allowed him to show off his athleticism while telling a story where the up-and-comer may be an extraordinarily talent but the experienced champion eventually gained the upper hand. Wrestling is funny that way where the loser can come out as the winner with the fans for exceeding their expectations. Okada would leave “Moose” alone in the ring as the arena swelled with chants of “Moose! Moose! Moose!”
A couple of hours later in his hotel room, Ojinnaka was visibly pleased with his performance. While his fellow wrestlers are preparing for a night on the town, Ojinnaka was contemplative and reflective.
“That was definitely the best match of my career so far but I have a tendency of saying this after every match,” Ojinnaka said. His phone filled with text messages from friends who enjoyed his match and echo his sentiments. “I have people tell me that I’m on a great pace for only doing this for three years but I don’t want it to mess with my focus. I just want to continue to get better.”
On June 19, Ojinnaka’s contract with Ring Of Honor will expire and there’s a distinct possibility that he could be headed for the big stage in the house that Vincent K. McMahon built.
Despite the acclaim and fitting the WWE type (big, strong and athletic), Ojinnaka isn’t concerning himself much with the future, as he is too busy enjoying the present.
“I haven’t thought about what’s next yet,” Ojinnaka says. “I love Ring of Honor and I’m the happiest that I’ve ever been in my life, hands down.”
Ultimately, the sacrifices were all worth it.
“Money doesn’t make you happy,” he says. “I’m way happier doing this than playing football. Football wasn’t happiness to me. That was a job. This isn’t a job. This is me doing something I love.”