Maria Kanellis and Mike Bennett Are Wrestling's Most Entrepreneurial Couple
The married duo has moved past their time in the WWE and is modeling how to nurture multiple paths to prosperity.
Maria Kanellis and Mike Bennett have been through it all together: marriage, parenthood, addiction and recovery, plus a rollercoaster 2017-'20 paired alongside one another as World Wrestling Entertainment's most emotionally volatile on-screen couple (and that's saying something). As the pandemic deepened, both Kanellis — who had national name recognition from her initial 2000s run with WWE and subsequent turn on Celebrity Apprentice and the cover of Playboy — and Bennett, who'd been wrestling professionally his entire adult life, were between steady jobs. He continued to find work in the ring for independent promotions, while they both experienced mixed success starting up side gigs, including wedding planner (Kanellis), motivational speaker (Bennett) and podcast host (together).
Wrestling, however, is a siren's song, and Bennett and Kanellis are now both contracted with Maryland-based promotion Ring of Honor, where they experienced overlapping career highs in the early 2010s. Bennett has reunited with on-again/off-again tag partner Matt Taven for recent tapings of Ring of Honor TV while Kanellis has taken on a dual role as a member of the company's Board of Directors, spearheading the revived women's division, while occasionally appearing on-camera herself.
But the professionally combative couple haven't given up fighting for their myriad aspirations. In a recent Zoom chat from their home in Ottawa, IL — Kanellis outfitted in all black, contrasting her trademark deep-red locks and lipstick, with Bennett in a non-descript black baseball cap and Rocky Marciano hoodie — the versatile duo went deep into their devotion to wrestling, ups and downs during quarantine and what keeps them so resilient despite all the literal and figurative knockdowns in their lives.
Both of you are so closely associated with your work for major wrestling promotions, but do you view yourself more broadly in an entrepreneurial mold?
Kanellis: I consider myself an entrepreneur because for so many years, even before WWE, I was always trying out different things. And then after [my first run with] WWE, I tried acting and was even creating my own TV shows and things like that. So for me, it wasn't necessarily wrestling from the get-go; that's just where it all landed.
Bennett: I'm a big fan of Gary Vee. I watch him religiously, but my favorite thing that he talks about is how everyone says they're an entrepreneur now — like they just put it up in their social media, and all they're doing is kind of selling one T-shirt at a time. So I just consider myself someone who likes to do the shit he likes to do. And if that fits into a mold or a box, then I guess that's what it would be. But for me, it's survival mode mixed with what I enjoy.
Would you agree that even within the broader world of wrestling, people don't appreciate the independent ethos of most performers?
Kanellis: I grew up as a dancer. I was in a small dance studio in the middle of nowhere, and we thought we were amazing. And then we went and did tournaments and competitions against other dance studios and realized, "Oh my gosh, we're terrible compared to them." [Laughs] But then even larger tournaments that were regional or national, and it's very similar in that there are all of these small schools of wrestling, these small competitions that all funnel into a bigger one.
Bennett: The best way to try and connect the dots is, yes, we're independent contractors. But at the end of the day, the product that we're trying to sell is ourselves. So if you can relate it to an entrepreneur trying to sell whatever they're going into, whether it's clothing or workout supplements or whatever, we're the product. So we're constantly trying to push ourselves onto more and more people to show them who we are. We are our own brand, we're our own representation. Through our wrestling, our acting, our promos, our merchandise, everything we do on social media, we're trying to sell the product — me, the professional wrestler — to everyone else.
But unlike your average serial entrepreneur moving across industries, wrestling — as you guys know — has a way of keeping you wedded to it.
Bennett: I think it's the love. I know that sounds cliche and corny, but it's an industry that's incredibly taxing on your mind, on your body, on your family life. I always say every wrestler is just a little bit screwed up, but the love for that emotion of putting together a perfect story...I don't know about anyone else in wrestling, but when a match comes together perfectly and you get that one, two, three and you feel the crowd, there is no better feeling. It's that love where you're committed 100% to this. Maybe you discovered it at a young age, or maybe you discovered it [when you were] older, but once you found it and got into it, it's almost like nothing else matters.
Kanellis: For me, it's a little different in the sense that I see it as a project that could be better. When I started, I was in the  WWE Diva Search, and we were treated one way and we fought hard to get out of that mold. Once I left WWE, I was fighting to change everybody's opinion that I wasn't this stupid girl; that I could do more. And I fought to have more influence over my career. And I continue fighting now in my role as what I like to call Mama Bear, but it's talent relations for the women's division at Ring of Honor. Now I'm constantly getting asked the question: Do you think you can still do this even though you're a mother, to which my answer is always, "Do you ask the fathers in the industry the same question?" I look at my little girl, and I would like for her to be treated better than I was when I started in this industry.
Who has been each of your biggest support systems along your respective journeys?
Bennett: I had a bunch of people in the wrestling industry, guys that came before me. But honestly, my biggest support system and my biggest guidance had always been my parents. My mom and dad were always super supportive right out of the gate. From a very young age, my parents made it perfectly clear that as long as you're not breaking the law or doing anything stupid, as long as you're happy, we will continuously support you regardless of what you're doing.
And that went a long way for me because even at my worst times of looking at my bank account with no money in it, or driving to a town and the promoter stiffing me on pay, or waking up the next day or having to drive to a real job at a golf course at five o'clock in the morning, it was always that constant belief that I have a support system. And it was also this drive to pay it forward to them.
Kanellis: My parents always supported me in whatever I did. My mom was driving me to bikini competitions from the age of 17 in Chicago. She and I would hang out at the bar and drink water and Diet Coke while I was walking the runway at these bars.
But along the way, I had several men that didn't look at me like a girl, but like I was just a person who wanted knowledge. One of them was [veteran wrestling promoter and producer] Paul Heyman. From the get-go, Paul always asked me what I thought about how the show was written, who I thought the most talented people were going to be moving forward. That meant a lot to me, but it also made me have the self-reflection of, "OK, I can do this. I am understanding this industry."
[Actor and former WWE writer] Freddie Prinze Jr. always pushed for better storylines for me. I didn't get 'em, but he pushed for me, and that meant a lot. And he talked to me like a human being, and that meant a lot to me.
[Musician and noted wrestling promoter] Billy Corgan, when we got to Impact Wrestling, he saw something different in me than was ever seen before. That was truly inspiring to me. And then everyone at Ring of Honor, same thing. They said, "You know what, why don't you go see what you can do?"
In [WWE], I told [Executive Vice President] Hunter [Helmsley, aka Paul Levesque] what I was interested in doing with the women's division, and he said, "OK." It wasn't, "Do you think, as a woman, you could really do that?" It was just, "OK, let's, let's try this." And to have someone backing you, to make you feel like you could accomplish things, that's made all the difference in the world for my career to have those people along the way.
Devotion to wrestling notwithstanding, you have explored other businesses, with varying results. How have you emerged from those efforts undeterred?
Kanellis: You always take something away from it. So you try these other things, get a little bit of steam, and you're like, "OK, that worked, but that didn't work so much." When I put out a little four-song EP on iTunes, it got a little bit of success, but what I realized was I didn't really like performing in front of other people as a singer, but I really like to write. And that has helped push forward my promos within the wrestling industry, and it's also made me feel like I can write for others.
We were doing the podcast and people were focusing on the motivational side with Mike, and I think he's kind of taken away that he's really good at motivational speaking. So you can take those small things and reapply them to your moneymaker or whatever it is. But if you only focused on one thing all the time, you'd lose your mind, right?
Unless it's Mike and his love for wrestling.
[Laughter] Bennett: That's true, but it still has made me lose my mind quite a few times. But venturing out into these other things, they're confidence boosters. Some of the things that I failed at the most gave me the most confidence because it's not the end of the world. I can just pick up the pieces and try something new, or I can apply this to the craft that I already know. So I think it builds up your confidence in that sense that you're more willing to throw anything up against the wall because once you start, it starts snowballing and you're like, "Well, I did that."
Podcasts were cool. I did Wonderland Events. I'd done some motivational speaking. You're constantly throwing yourself into the fire of these different things that are out of your comfort level. There's no point in not trying it. What's the worst that can happen? HotPants77 on Twitter says, "You suck, bro"?
Sure, but it's not as if that resilience was innate. What were your lowest lows like?
Kanellis: You feel like a failure. You feel like, "I really thought this was gonna work." And you question your own ability to come up with things and how you work. But then eventually you get to a point where you realize that continuing to grieve about it and worry about it isn't going to help you. That's always how I switched from one thing to the next; I realized no matter how much I beat myself up over whatever, it's not going to make me feel better. It's not going to put any more money in my bank account. It's not going to help me find the next thing.
Bennett: I think it calluses you in a sense. You hear people say all the time, "Oh, failure is a good thing. It helps." And I'm sure a lot of people are sitting back and they're like, "Well, how is that a good thing? Nobody likes to fail." And in the moment, nobody likes how that feels. It sucks. You pour your heart and your sweat and your tears into something, and then you lose it. But it builds you up for that next failure. If you want to be hugely successful in anything, you have to be OK with jumping from failure to failure. You're going to grieve about it, but you're also going to take what you learned from that first failure and incorporate it and maybe get over it a little bit easier.
I always go back to what my mom used to say to me: Worrying is like a rocking chair. You'll just rock and rock and rock, and at the end of the day, you're still in the same spot.
It's easy for anyone trying to forging their own path to forget the adage about marathons and sprints.
Kanellis: I truly believe that finding success the first time around is the absolute hardest thing. Getting into WWE and being there the first time, I didn't even know that I was succeeding. Only now can I look back and go, "Oh yeah I was at the top of the wrestling world back then." It was so hard to do that grind at that time, but the older I get, the more I realize what the journey is and the peaks and valleys to get into that position.
With that continuum in mind, is it any easier to forecast where you'll be a few years from now?
Kanellis: I just want to help other women. At this point, it's not about me. It's about offering a platform and allowing others to feel very safe on that platform to do what they do best, and that's wrestle. I want to create opportunities for as many people as possible. I turn 40 next year, and I don't see myself leaving the industry because of age anymore. When I leave the wrestling industry, it's because I'll feel like I have nothing left to give back. When I feel as if I can leave it in a much better place than I found it, then I'll be ready to go, but I don't see that happening for a long time. I keep saying I'm outta here, and it's just not happening.
Bennett: For me, it's, it's a little bit different because at 35, I feel like I have a good 10, hopefully, 15 more years left in me if I'm still enjoying it and my body holds out. I still want to go and achieve my goals and elevate myself, but I kind of want to change perception. For the longest time, it's this view that if you're successful in wrestling, you've got to do it all on your own and leave everyone behind and go do it for me.
I very much adapted this mentality of elevating myself while I elevate everyone else around me. I want to go, "Hey guys, I'm taking this journey to the top. Join me." There is no better example of an industry where you need to work with each other in order to be successful. That's the mark I want to leave going forward. I'll be there to reach that hand down and try to pick you up.
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