Nigel McGuinness is one of the biggest “What if’s” in the history of professional wrestling.
“What if” he had the opportunity to exhibit his fantastic skill set in WWE rings? “What if” he had a longer run in TNA wrestling where he was on fire in a feud with Kurt Angle?” “What if his career hadn’t been cut short at a young age?
These are the triumphs and tragedies of one of the greatest technicians ever to grace a wrestling ring.
Nigel McGuinness: Just a Dream
Born in 1976, Steven Haworth, by the age of 14, knew what he wanted to be. The larger-than-life characters of the then-WWF in the 1980s and 1990s had hooked a young man born and raised in southeast England. The future Nigel McGuinness wanted to be a professional wrestler in the World Wrestling Federation.
In 1998, the United States beckoned. Haworth began training under the legendary Les Thatcher. After his visa expired, he was young and hungry back in the UK and spent some time working for Brian Dixon’s All-Star Wrestling. Then, desperate to break into the American wrestling scene, he ventured back to the States in 2001.
For several years the Brit flourished in the Heartland Wrestling Association, winning its heavyweight, tag-team, and European belts.
Dean Roll, AKA Shark Boy in TNA, is a dear friend who helped Nigel acclimate to the U.S. in his early days across the pond. The two even wrestled each other in a pre-show match at TNA’s 2005 Genesis pay-per-view.
Another friend, Doug Williams, tagged with McGuinness in 1PW and for Pro Wrestling Noah in Japan. He loved working in Japan, and it complemented his style perfectly.
But the young pro, known for his two-fingered ‘V’ salute and innovative use of lariats, was about to make his mark on a promotion that was also making its own way in the business.
Man of Honor: Early Feuds in Ring of Honor
Ring of Honor quickly established itself as a promotion founded on quality grappling. It was more about piledrivers and actual wrestling than pomp and production values.
In 2005 Samoa Joe held its Pure Championship – a unique title competed for in matches with limited rope breaks and prohibited closed fists. Still, McGuinness annexed the strap and cemented his position as a top talent within ROH.
He defended the championship for a year and successfully defended against future world champions Jay Lethal, Roderick Strong, and the man he took it from, Samoa Joe.
A simmering rivalry against another of the original pillars of ROH would perfectly show what the company was built around – the best wrestlers in the world.
Feuding with Bryan Danielson
Bryan Danielson, who would rise atop WWE in subsequent years as Daniel Bryan, was the reigning ROH world champion in the summer of 2006. McGuinness portrayed the spirited underdog in clashes against Danielson, shockingly beating him in April (albeit only by countout) prior to their championship unification bout in Liverpool in August.
In a classic encounter, the home crowd vociferously voiced their support for their countryman in an electric atmosphere, rarely seen in UK pro wrestling venues. The crowd made the title unification feel even more special than it already was.
“That’s so important,” Nigel told me in an interview with the PWB Podcast in 2007. “You people don’t realize a crowd can make a match or destroy a match. I’ve seen great matches that died a death because the crowd wasn’t interested.”
A particularly gruesome spot saw Bryan ‘post’ McGuinness, which involved Bryan pulling his opponent’s exposed and unprotected head into the ring post. Thus, he was busted open the hard way.
“It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t something I’d like to repeat. I think it’s one of those things that really, a lot of times in the course of a match, especially in a big match like that, things just flow that way naturally, not to say we didn’t have an idea of the direction before. I don’t think either of us really knew the magnitude of what was going to occur in that spot, or the rest of the match, for that matter.”
A bloodied and beaten McGuinness gave it everything until he succumbed to a referee stoppage. The match has been compared to Bret Hart’s iconic victory over Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13. Despite losing, McGuinness’ stock grew considerably.
Two weeks later, the pair battled to an epic 60-minute time-limit draw for the ROH world title, with the 2-out-of-3 falls match tied at 1-1.
Ranking Higher Than The Undertaker, Bobby Lashley
Considering his quick rise, Nigel McGuinness was placed at No.47 in the Pro Wrestling Illustrated 500 in 2006, ahead of WWE superstars like The Undertaker and Bobby Lashley. He was also attracting praise from his peers, with Samoa Joe labeling him a ‘professor’ of the game.
He would rank 25th in 2007, 8th in 2008, 6th in 2009, and 28th in the 2010 edition of the PWI 500, his final year of in-ring competition.
“It’s nice to get recognition in any way, shape, or form,” he explained. “Pro Wrestling Illustrated is one of those magazines that’s been around for a long, long time. Back when I was a fan, I used to buy PWI, so it’s fantastic to see yourself in there being appreciated by the same people that were putting out the magazine all those years ago.”
“I just wish that it was more indicative of how much money you made as opposed to how good they thought you were as a wrestler. If I were above Bobby Lashley and The Undertaker – I’d be a very happy wrestler.”
Champion of Honor: Becoming of Ring of Honor World Champion
Nigel McGuinness loved being in Ring of Honor on his own schedule and creating magic as they debuted on pay-per-view, wanting to create a legacy and make enough money so that he didn’t have to work a regular job.
Meanwhile, he would claim the 2007 King of Europe Cup, a prestigious independent tournament. He defeated Rhino, Pac, Davey Richards, and Doug Williams.
Another loss to Bryan Danielson, in yet another barnburner between the two, on ROH’s Driven PPV, preceded his spirited push to challenge the newest ROH World Champion – Takeshi Morishima.
The Japanese behemoth had already defeated McGuinness twice in world title defenses in Japan and the U.S. Their feud had mirrored his series of matches against Danielson – competing with and beating them in non-title matches, yet always on the wrong side in world title fights.
Their story arc was the Japanese wrestler’s sheer dominance and power against the underdog who would not give up.
Anticipation of a title change was in the air on October 6th, 2007, at the Undeniable PPV, but glorious failure in Nigel’s previous title shots had fans believing he might be the bridesmaid and never the bride. Instead, the New Jersey crowd lapped up every minute of the brutal strong style battle of lariats and strikes.
The locker room emptied to celebrate Britain’s first major world champion; the only guest not invited to the party was Danielson, who interrupted the moment to keep their legendary feud alive.
Morishima then graciously presented Nigel with the belt.
Years of Working Hard Came at a Severe Price
Years of working stiff and putting on classic bouts had paid off, albeit at a severe price for Nigel McGuinness.
“It was a bit of a brutal match, to be honest with you,” Nigel recollected to me. “I haven’t seen the match since then, and I don’t remember too much about it either. I just remember getting dropped on my head a few times and managing not to let him pin me and squeaking out the win.
“It was a real war, so people tell me. My memory is not the greatest nowadays.”
That candid admission was the unfortunate prelude to a change of character on screen and stark changes off-screen.
The Luck of McGuinness
The business had taken its toll on Nigel McGuinness before, during, and after his crowning achievement. He tore his right bicep not long after winning the belt.
He felt something snap and dubbed it the ‘The luck of McGuinness,’ which was apparently a phrase in the ROH locker room, or you’ve ‘McGuinness’d it,’ in reference to having ‘Munson’d it’ in the 1996 Kingpin movie.
He’d strained it instead of tearing it and naively wrestled the following weekend, damaging it even more. A subsequent MRI scan then confirmed it was torn. Rather than stripping the champion, ROH gave him time.
Two months passed until the world champion returned to action in December at Rising Above 2007. But, unfortunately, he would defend the belt against Austin Aries in a match that would ultimately lead to Nigel McGuinness needing even more time off.
In a spot where Aries dove to the floor to land on McGuinness, the Briton smashed head-first into the guardrail, causing a severe cut, broken nose, and concussion. It meant he could not defend the title the following night at ROH’s biggest show of the year, Final Battle.
An emotional and deflated champion cut a promo at the show explaining his reasons for being absent from competing.
The Fans Turn, And So Does Nigel McGuinness
One fan, in particular, caused a stir on the Wrestling Observer forums, sharing his disdain for Nigel McGuinness’s reckless style that directly resulted in him being unable to fulfill his obligations as Ring of Honor World Champion:
“I cannot purchase tickets to a show where I know I may very well not see the scheduled main event,” said fan wrote. “Until Nigel McGuinness loses the ROH Championship, I won’t be at any more shows.”
He continued, “Hopefully, this diatribe will strike a chord with someone, be it McGuinness himself, other wrestlers risking their bodies beyond the standards of reason, or promoters looking to put on shows featuring such athletes.”
Some fans turned on him, and his style quickly changed from plucky underdog to arrogant champion. The real-life disconnect with the fans helped his heel turn.
“It wasn’t all the fans,” Nigel recalled to me in a 2008 return to the PWB Podcast to discuss his championship win.
“It was just a small and, unfortunately, rather a vocal portion of the audience that felt they needed to voice their opinions. However uneducated it happened to be. It was a bit shocking to me at the time.
“I remember William Regal saying to me many years ago the danger of the internet: before the internet, that one opinion wouldn’t have meant anything, but with the internet, what one person says can be perceived as a lot more than it actually is.”
Recommended read: William Regal: His Secret, Inspirational Story
Rivaling Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat
In February 2008, Nigel McGuinness finally defeated his arch-rival, Danielson, at Ring of Honor’s 6th Anniversary event. He defended against the likes of Austin Aries, Tyler Black (Seth Rollins), Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens), El Generico (Sami Zayn), Claudio Castagnoli, and Kenta in a reign that lasted 18 months.
“They were the Dory Funk Jr.-Jack Brisco and Ric Flair-Ricky Steamboat level classics of the ’00s. It was wrestling elevated to Art. Nigel’s ROH championship run was among the greatest I’ve ever witnessed live in fifty years of attending matches.”
By 2009 he scaled the lofty heights of No. 6 in PWI’s Top 500 wrestlers worldwide. He was unquestionably one of the premier grapplers on the planet.
Dropping the ROH title to veteran Jerry Lynn in April 2009 allowed him to take some much-needed time off to allow injuries to heal.
However, injuries became an ever-growing hardship to recover from. He even foretold of his future problems and how his bump card was filling up in our 2007 interview:
“The Ring of Honor style and, to a certain extent, the Japanese style as well on the big shows, it kind of beats the s*** out of your body, I’ll be honest with you. After a certain number of years, it adds up. We’re all hurting. We’re kind of like how ECW was without the drugs and sex, I guess. But the same level of violence the same level of injury.
“We’re just trying to hold it together and carry on. To that end, at this juncture at least, TNA or WWE would be the place to do that: create a legacy and to make some real money, certainly WWE.”
By the autumn, he had been courted by WWE to finally achieve his dream of wrestling for the biggest sports-entertainment company in the world.
However, fate would intervene.
Being Signed By WWE, and Then, a Dream Instantly Died
As Vince McMahon had signed both men, Nigel McGuinness and Bryan Danielson embarked on their farewell tour with Ring of Honor. They signed off in style and created yet more magic in the ring.
Despite passing his original medical, WWE rescinded Nigel’s contract due to the arm injury that had hampered his last years in ROH. He had been honest and disclosed that injury when he could have probably hidden the truth. But, unfortunately, the doctor would not clear him.
A dream instantly died.
He was asked to fix the injury himself, and then they would consider signing him again. But the sheer cost was too much for him to take on. But, as one door slammed shut, another opened.
Nigel McGuinness Portraying Desmond Wolfe in TNA
TNA came calling, and Desmond Wolfe was born. Hardcore fans warmly welcomed McGuinness, and he began brightly under his new moniker. Fans voted him as a top contender, beating Jeff Hardy in popularity, illustrating his value to the brand. That earned him a TNA world heavyweight title match with AJ Styles.
A series of matches on television and pay-per-view with Kurt Angle had fans salivating. Kurt stated Wolfe was “one of the most talented wrestlers I ever got in the ring with.”
As he closed in on a year with TNA, he was quietly pulled from a scheduled TNA tag-team title shot in August 2010 at the No Surrender PPV after he tested positive for Hepatitis B.
He had no idea how he contracted the virus and failed to clear it within 90 days. However, he eventually tested negative and became immune to it.
Nigel McGuinness: Documenting His Past
A dejected and somber Nigel McGuinness documented his next chapter in his self-directed “The Last of McGuinness.”
The documentary portrayed a man hurt by bad fortune, who, despite loving the business, didn’t quite reach the pinnacle.
He spoke, while in tears, of being a “failure” who missed out on his dream. "There’s no Hollywood ending to this story,” he dejectedly admitted.
The film was harrowing as he wore his heart on his sleeve. He held nothing back. It also documented his November 2011 retirement tour in front of tiny crowds on the independent scene, putting over younger talent in the U.S., UK, and Germany.
His less-than-glamorous life was captured as he ate in dives and crashed on couches throughout his final farewell series.
A day after his final match, his friend and rival, now known as Daniel Bryan, became World Heavyweight Champion. A text from Bryan to Nigel spoke of how he wished Nigel was with him.
Since both departed Ring of Honor, it exemplified the vast gulf in how their careers played out.
What Took You So Long?
A role as commentator and on-screen authority figure for Ring of Honor in 2011 kept Nigel busy before a call a few years later helped him achieve a lifelong goal.
WWE had always been young Steven Haworth’s dream. Unfortunately, bad luck meant he’d never fulfill that aspiration as an in-ring performer. However, the dream was partially realized when WWE called Nigel to join the NXT UK commentary team.
He debuted in January 2017, calling the NXT UK Tournament, quickly establishing himself as NXT co-commentator for NXT UK, Main Event, and 205 Live. He even called a match at WrestleMania.
When the Covid pandemic hit, many staff, including McGuinness, were furloughed before returning several months later. He was later released in October 2022.
Thankfully, his talents are still being utilized; Nigel McGuinness joined All Elite Wrestling as an announcer in April 2023. His knowledge, wisdom, and technical prowess would be well-spent with it being passed on to the next generation.
The Legacy of Nigel McGuinness
Seth Rollins called McGuinness a ‘mentor’ and added that Nigel McGuinness’s biggest enemy could be his mind.
In The Last of McGuinness, he poignantly labeled himself “a failure.” However, in 2019, Nigel McGuinness wrote, "Had a few people ask me about the original doc I made, so I wanted to share it to show where I came from and that as blessed as I am now, it is still the journey we must all aspire to enjoy.
“The story of someone who never made it, by someone who eventually did."
And while he may have failed to reach Rollins’ vast audience in WWE, the man created innumerable classic matches, memories, and moments.
The ring was his canvas, and he painted many a masterpiece. So there’s zero failure in that.
Thank you to the Artist known as Nigel McGuinness.
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