Jumping on the shark
UC grad found niche in pro wrestling by putting on a fishy persona
Wait, what’s this?
Shark Boy – who dives from the ropes of a wrestling ring with ease, who dons a form-fitting body suit without apology, who hurls all manner of fish-pun-laced insults at his opponent while a roaring crowd eggs him on – is shy ?
Dean Roll stands in the middle of Doc’s Place in Lebanon, getting ready to pose for a picture. His face grows a lovely shade of scarlet. He’s waiting for a photographer to get ready, holding out as long as he can until he tugs on his black mask.
Two women who’ve sat for lunch stare at him. Roll is sheepish.
"Please," he says from behind pointy cloth teeth, "don’t let us disturb your meal."
The women laugh and return to their conversation, and before long it seems entirely normal to have a man in a shark mask mugging for a camera before he sits down to a burger and sweet potato fries.
This is how it is for Roll, whose home is in Middletown. Sometimes he’s the arrogant full-time professional wrestler getting broken in half by dudes twice his size, and sometimes he’s this guy sitting down to lunch: a 34-year-old father who grew up in Lebanon and realized an improbable boyhood dream.
His mom sometimes asks him: "Are you still doing that wrestling?"
He was attending the University of Cincinnati when he started training to wrestle at a school started by local professional wrestling legend Les Thatcher. By beefcake pro-wrestling standards, he was a little guy – 5-feet-7 – but he had heart, and soon he was refereeing matches and searching for his own way into the ring.
"I was never as physically jacked as a lot of guys," he says, but the rising popularity of the Mexican luchadores – masked, somewhat diminutive wrestlers – encouraged him. He started wearing a mask so he could wrestle when he wasn’t acting as referee. Inspired by the ’90s song "I Come from the Water" by rock band the Toadies, he first modeled his costume after a piranha, then switched to a shark at the urging of a promoter.
"I didn’t want to be a generic wrestler," he says.
Ultimately he evolved his persona into Shark Boy, a cartoonish wrestler with a fin atop his head who never uttered a word.
He got his degree in communications from UC in 1997, and "then I spent a decade playing a wrestling character that didn’t talk," he says with a laugh.
Where other aspiring pro wrestlers hit roadblocks, Roll found success. In 1999, he signed a contract with World Championship Wrestling, then headed to Atlanta for training so grueling that he’d pray to get into a ring with another wrestler, just to get a break from all the push-ups and sit-ups. He wrestled a few times with WCW, on top of the world, until he wasn’t.
WCW released him in 2000.
"It could have been over," Roll says.
But Shark Boy does not give up so easily. Another wrestling organization, Nashville-based Total Nonstop Wrestling, emerged in 2002, and Roll quickly found a home with them – though it meant swallowing a lot of defeat.
"Shark Boy has been with us since the beginning," says TNA publicist Chris Thomas. "For a while there, he was kind of getting beat up on a regular basis."
The wrestling world is known for plot twists, though, and so it was that Shark Boy emerged last year with a new attitude, a growling voice and a penchant for slurping clam juice.
"Since then he’s been a fan favorite," Thomas says.
But let’s slip out of the fantasy, and catch up on Roll’s real life. He got married, and while that didn’t work out, he and his ex-wife have a son, Dylan, 8, who lives in Middletown with Roll’s ex and is the highlight of his life.
"My everyday dream used to be just to be a wrestler," Roll says, "but being a dad is the coolest thing in my life."
Wrestling keeps him on the road about a third of the year, but Roll says he sees his son as often as he can.
Dylan seems unfazed by his father’s profession.
"He thinks that’s what every dad does," Roll says.