Reality television was a surreal experience for Matt "M-Dogg 20" Cross.
He is charismatic, articulate and athletically gifted. He also was the most seasoned pro wrestler to participate in the "Tough Enough" competition for aspiring WWE stars earlier this year.
Unfortunately for Cross, those positive traits weren't evident on the show. He was the second competitor eliminated, being booted in dramatic fashion by "Tough Enough" host "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
Cross, though, hasn't abandoned his WWE dream. He wrestled another WWE tryout match in September and maintains a full schedule of dates for independent promotions in the U.S. and internationally.
"I'm in a great place right now," Cross said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "I've kept in touch with all the ('Tough Enough') trainers and gotten really positive feedback to the point that I'm even surprised how helpful they've been post-show. Obviously, 'Tough Enough' provided a lot of exposure. Maybe it has even translated into getting me booked more places."
Not that Cross needed much help in that regard. The Cleveland native has wrestled in 16 different countries and for smaller U.S. grappling companies like Ring of Honor and Chikara. That helped put Cross on the WWE radar. His first tryout match came in August 2010.
Instead of landing a WWE contract, Cross was offered a chance to try and earn one by joining the "Tough Enough" cast. That was an odd WWE decision, considering the show has traditionally featured far less experienced performers who are trying to gain a foothold in the grappling game.
Even more curious: Cross didn't get much of a chance to showcase the high-flying style that landed him on "Tough Enough." While his lone televised match against Luke Robinson was disappointing, Cross thought the overall quality of the other performers and his previous body of work should have resulted in another chance to shine.
Critics have claimed that Cross was targeted because, at 5-feet-7 and 180 pounds, he doesn't have the kind of size that WWE wanted in the "Tough Enough" champion. Andy Leavine -- a muscular 6-5, 270-pound former college offensive lineman -- was the ultimate winner.
WWE also has a history of looking with disfavor on grapplers who didn't learn the ropes through the company's developmental system. C.M. Punk -- a longtime Cross contemporary and friend from the independent scene -- and Daniel Bryan initially had their pasts work against them. Punk and Bryan were booked poorly by WWE scriptwriters until convincing management that they belonged in the upper echelon of the talent roster.
Cross believes that neither of those considerations led to his "Tough Enough" ouster. Cross simply allows he didn't come across well in "Tough Enough's" made-for-television environment.
"Once I was on the show, I thought the rest would take care of itself because I know what I bring to the table," said Cross, whose real name is Matt Capiccioni. "It's funny to me that when the show was being filmed, I had no inclination that I would be portrayed as a wet blanket. Some people told me I was the most entertaining guy in the house (where 'Tough Enough' competitors stayed). But when I watched how the shows turned out, I was like, 'Wow! I'm the boring guy.' "
Cross said he still can't decide whether "Tough Enough" was a positive or negative experience.
"Something like 5 million people a week tuned in, which is amazing exposure," he said. "On the other hand, it painted me in such a strange light. It really did a disservice to me as a wrestler. They didn't get a glimpse of who I am and what I do."
Cross didn't let the experience sour him. He already is booked for upcoming matches in Mexico and Hungary as well as the U.S.
One of Cross' goals is wrestling in 20 different countries. He hopes to hit that milestone in WWE.
"I've got to be positive," said Cross, 30. "I've gotten to do so many cool things because of wrestling."
Cross will be appearing Dec. 17 on the PWO Wrestling Internet pay-per-view show emanating from Parma, Ohio. Also booked for the show is Gregory Iron, who continues to gain national media attention for overcoming cerebral palsy to wrestle. Iron is petitioning to get his own WWE shot at the upcoming "Royal Rumble" pay-per-view through a viral Internet campaign and online petition. For more information, visit http://act.ly/4og.