Thomas Santell is a 19-year pro wrestling veteran who, thanks to a clever character and the support of Beyond Wrestling, is set to be a breakout player in an indie scene ready for new stars.
Thomas Santell’s path to becoming a professional wrestler didn’t begin all that differently to those of others who have pursued it. He played sports when he was young and was a fan of wrestling, and the desire to be part of the world of sports followed him throughout his life.
Wrestling ultimately won out as Santell’s big goal, a decision he explained with the kind of confidence that’s required of anyone who aspires to make the squared circle their home: “I was always of the mindset, ‘Why not me? Somebody has to be in the WWF, why shouldn’t it be me?'” he explained in a June interview with FanSided.
After completing his education — at the behest of his kindergarten-teacher mother — he began his in-ring training, at Killer Kowalski’s school in Malden, Massachusetts, a two-hour drive he started taking in early 2001. He learned alongside the likes of “Chris Nowinski, Damian Sandow, Ken Doane — who was 14 at the time — Slyck Wagner Brown, Hurricane John Walters, a whole bunch of guys that went on to do great things.”
His career followed a typical trajectory, with Santell making a name for himself on the Northeastern independent scene, traveling with his eventual tag team partner, Romeo, whom he met at a nearby ring where they both ended up training and then hitting the road together. “We naturally gravitated towards each other because we had the same goals and whatnot. We would travel together, with others, and do all the Northeast independents, and there was a group of us that would travel all over,” said Santell. But he and Romeo were singles wrestlers at the time, and not planning on joining forces as a tag team.
Typically, a wrestler would spend considerable time — sometimes a decade or more — climbing the rungs of the independent scene, from smaller, local promotions, to higher and higher-profile companies like CHIKARA or Ring of Honor or EVOLVE. Perhaps he or she would travel to Japan, Mexico or Europe to hone the craft, learn new techniques and be exposed to a new audience. And then, maybe, they are built up enough, gotten enough exposure, that the WWE comes calling.
For Santell, there would be no big indie build. The WWE (then the WWF) sought him, and Romeo, out quickly. “I got signed by WWE, you know, two, two and a half years in … Jim Cornette put us together as a team, as the Heart Throbs, which totally was not me, was not my gimmick … I always wanted to be an indie darling, make a name on the indies, go to Japan and do all that. But, WWE came calling so quick; Arn Anderson vouched for me, and so it happened pretty [quickly],” says Santell of how fast everything seemed to go.
The Heart Throbs arrived in OVW in 2004, and stayed for just over a year. But in that span, they caught the fans’ attention: “Our tag team at OVW was the most popular act there,” Santell noted.
Two months after signing a developmental deal with WWE, the Heart Throbs made their television debut, a Monday Night Raw match at a sold-out Madison Square Garden against the WWE Tag Team Champions, William Regal and Tajiri. But even that — what should have been an exciting, career-making moment — had its own stressful underbelly.
"“There was never really any rhyme or reason or any nurturing, or we didn’t even know what are names were going to be until the day-of [with Santell rechristened Antonio “The Promise” Thomas and Romeo as Romeo Roselli (later reduced to Antonio and Romeo)]. So it was all just thrown together quickly. Lilian Garcia was asking us 15 minutes before we went out what was our heights, our weights, our information, where we were from.”"
In addition, it was difficult for the Heart Throbs to learn tag team wrestling and the WWE style essentially on the fly, on the road. “You can’t teach experience … We just needed more time to do house shows and figure it out. We’re learning literally on the fly; Madison Square Garden first match, no house shows, no dark matches. Just boom, just go out there,” said Santell of his WWE debut.
Cards were also structured differently in that era of the WWE. Top-level talents were, at the time, opening house shows. Santell recalls, “I remember doing a singles match with Rosie, we were second on the card in New Mexico, the match before us, the opening match was [Chris] Benoit and Edge going 20 minutes. You got this green kid that’s two and a half years in trying to have to follow that.”
Something else that was different: a much shorter attention span for the developing talent. “That was a time when they didn’t nurture guys like they do now, where Matt Morgan would get called up and two months later he gets released. Kizarny, Sinn Bodhi, gets called up does one match and gets released. Frankie Kazarian was there with us for like a month, two months and they released him,” Santell explained.
Beyond is giving me the chance, Beyond has given me the ball and the platform and the opportunity and so far so good. I want to build on it.
As such, the Heart Throbs lasted only 10 months in the WWE before they were released. It’s not what Santell wanted. Working WrestleMania was a goal, and having a long-term career with the company — “being a veteran, a good hand, like a [Kurt] Hawkins and [Zack] Ryder” — was too, but it didn’t pan out.
Santell’s time with WWE at an end, he was able to explore the other goals he had for himself in the world of professional wrestling. “My career went in reverse, it started kinda with WWE, and then I get to go live and train in Japan with All Japan, and go to Puerto Rico, and go to Europe and do Ring of Honor and do TNA. You know, navigate through the indies and do everything outside of WWE.” Still, something wasn’t right. He didn’t know who he was.
Since being released by the WWE, Santell spent “about nine years of just being Antonio ‘The Promise’ Thomas.” Though “always changing my appearance, doing corn rows, or doing different gear … I never had an identity and I never felt comfortable. I was like its just me, it’s Tom going out, you know, good wrestler — but that’s it.” That’s until Santell’s best friend, a movie buff and podcast host, encouraged Santell to lean into something crucial — his resemblance to actor Crispin Glover, best known for playing George McFly in the Back to the Future movies.
At a show in Glens Falls, New York in 2015, the fans started chanting “George McFly,” and quoting Back to the Future at Santell and his friend told him to start using that as inspiration for a new character and as a way to have fun with pro wrestling again. And thus, the modern version of Santell, “The Ovaltine Dream,” was born. The new character is a throwback, an old-school grappler in a varsity letterman sweater and “nerdy” glasses who prefers Ovaltine to alcohol and finishes opponents with the Sugar Free Hold.
A few months later, the reborn Santell made his debut in Vancouver and immediately it connected with the crowd. A stint with Big Time Wrestling followed and the success continued. It was time for Santell to promote himself, to become the “indie darling” he had long sought to be. He started “emailing all of these places with notoriety to try to get the gimmick noticed,” like Ring of Honor and EVOLVE. But it took until 2019 to get the attention of Drew Cordero, who runs Massachusetts-based Beyond Wrestling, and for Santell to get his big break.
“I went to the [WWE] Performance Center in March as a guest trainer,” explained Santell, “and I had worked with Stokely Hathaway, and I had gotten to know him during that week, and we were talking and he said ‘have you tried to get out there and email?’ and I go ‘I email everywhere,’ and he goes ‘let me talk to Drew [Cordero] for you.’ So he spoke to Drew and he goes ‘hey email Drew,’ so I email Drew and then boom right there. I don’t know if it was Stokely or not … whether that was the final thing or not, he vouched for me and that meant the world to me.”
Santell made his Beyond Wrestling debut on episode 5 of Uncharted Territory, Beyond’s weekly, live streaming show, as part of the show’s “Discovery Gauntlet” designed to introduce fans to new talent. Initially, the plan was for Santell to be a heel. He tried — he chastised the fans for drinking alcohol, to act like a holier-than-thou nerd — but the crowd wasn’t buying it. They loved to love him, rather than loving to hate him. Cordero told him the next week Santell would become a babyface, with the nickname “The Ovaltine Dream.” And much like in OVW with the Heart Throbs, Santell has become one of the company’s most popular and organically-grown stars.
Santell went on to win seven matches in the Discovery Gauntlet before falling to Christian Casanova thanks to the interference of ringside interviewer-turned-heel manager Cam Zagami. He’s still a major part of Beyond and of Uncharted Territory, and his success over the past months have led him to a tag team match at Beyond’s biggest event of the year, Americanrana, at Foxwoods Resort and Casino on July 28. He’ll have a to-be-announced partner who, if all clues are to be believed, will be quite the foil to Santell’s clean-cut character, to take on Bryan Alvarez and “Filthy” Tom Lawlor, a high-profile bout that should even further boost his cache in the indie wrestling world.
I always had unfinished business in wrestling from WWE, where I always knew I could accomplish more.
And taking over the indie scene remains Santell’s No. 1 goal. The timing couldn’t be better. Big names on the independent circuit like Matt Riddle, Shane Strickland, Joey Janela and Darby Allin have recently signed exclusive contracts with WWE/NXT and AEW and that void of talent will allow new wrestlers to take their places.
“I would love to do BOLA [Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament] … the AAWs, the EVOLVEs, all these places, the top independent promotions. I want to do that, I always wanted to do that,” said Santell. “Right now Beyond is giving me the chance. Beyond has given me the ball and the platform and the opportunity and so far so good. I want to build on it.”
For Santell, getting to this moment has been “19 years in the making.” But those nearly two decades’ worth of experience combined with the perfect timing and even more perfect new character means he’s closer than ever to gaining the recognition for his craft he’s been seeking since the start.
“I always had unfinished business in wrestling from WWE, where I always knew I could accomplish more. Now, I feel like that actor Jackie Earl Haley that never disappears and is always in the business, but kind of reinvents himself after 10 years for being known as something else,” said Santell of his transformation. “I’m very proud of the Heart Throbs stuff, but I didn’t want to just be known for that. And I’m glad, hopefully, people will start to remember me as this.”
Follow Thomas Santell on Twitter @retrograppler and Instagram @retrograppler and check out his I Left My Wallet podcast for The Wrestling Observer/Figure Four Online. Watch Beyond Wrestling Uncharted Territory every Wednesday on Independent Wrestling TV. Beyond’s Americanrana ’19 takes place on July 28 and also will stream on IWTV.live.