“Hulk Hogan had turned the world on to pro wrestling, and that included me,” said McCarthy, a University of Montana sophomore studying exercise science. “When he dropped the Macho Man, the world tuned in.”
Exercise science, then, which will likely lead to a career in physical therapy, is something of a fallback position for Shamus. It's the career you might expect of the good son from a good Missoula family. But it's not the young man's dream.
The dream lies along the backroads of the rural South, in the hot gyms of Atlanta and Smyrna, Ga., where young Shamus McCarthy is known as “Shamus the Famous.” The dream is the Big Time, to make it to the sport's pay-per-view Holy Grail, WrestleMania.
“You want to make it to the top of the heap, and in pro wrestling, WrestleMania is where you have to go,” McCarthy said.
You don't, however, show up at the door of World Wrestling Entertainment, home to WrestleMania, and say you're ready for the show. Like most sports and entertainment careers, pro wrestling requires steady conviction, time in the bush leagues, some heavy dues and a smattering of luck.
So far, Shamus McCarthy is on track.
Shamus was a high school wrestler through his sophomore year, and he played football all four years at Loyola Sacred Heart. He was short and strong, but light, wrestling at 130 pounds before the school shelved the sport his junior year.
Then he met a former Grizzly football player named Jeremiah Butenschoen, who drilled down deep and found the bodybuilder buried inside McCarthy's wrestling dream.
“Working with Jeremiah, I went from 130 pounds to 180,” he said. “He just worked my butt off.”
The added weight and muscle made the dream of wrestling seem less distant, and by his senior year in high school, Shamus was actively looking for a path to the big time.
He took his first steps at a Web site called wwa4.com, the Internet home of the Atlanta World Wrestling Alliance and Pro Wrestling School. Shamus eventually talked to the school's owner, Frank Aldridge, and wrangled himself an invitation to the school during the Christmas break of his senior year at Loyola.
He was only there a handful of days, but one of the trainers, Curtis Hughes, told Shamus he was a natural and to stick with it. That's all he needed to hear. When summer came, Shamus headed back to Georgia and spent the summer at wrestling school, training with Hughes and living with a family his parents located through a church bulletin.
“That summer really opened my eyes to what was necessary to become a pro,” he said. “It was very, very hard work, tons of training. I was in pain all the time, learning the moves, how to fall, how to drop from the top rope without hurting yourself.”
Shamus was such a quick learner that he found himself tutoring some of the other wrestlers, and he became one of the school's top hopefuls. Even today, there's a blurb about him on the school's Web site (www.wwa4.com/Shamus the Famous).
He wrapped up his summer in Georgia, then came home to Missoula for the fall semester at UM. Come Christmas break, he was back in Georgia, training and living with Curtis Hughes and traveling the backroads of Alabama to small wrestling shows.
“We pulled up at some backwoods place in Alabama where they couldn't have fit 10 people,” Shamus recalled. “That was really the first time I wondered what I was doing down there.”
Plenty of folks, namely his parents and his girlfriend, had already wondered the same thing, of course.
“I think everybody's had some doubts about it at times, but they understand that it's my goal and I think they respect the fact that I've worked hard to attain it,” he said.
What, precisely, does Shamus McCarthy want for the part of him that is Shamus the Famous and that part of him that doesn't wear yellow wrestling tights with blue stars?
“I'm committed to trying to make this wrestling thing work,” he said. “If it doesn't work for whatever reasons, then I'll move on. But I'm determined to do this, I've got some good things going for me, and it's the thing I want to be doing.”
To that end, McCarthy has moved on to the next step, a place called Deep South Wrestling, which puts on shows weekly and which, along with an outfit in Ohio, is the anteroom to the WWE.
“This is the place where guys get development contracts for WWE, so I'm in the right place right now,” Shamus said. “All you need is one break there and you've got your chance.”
The chance means everything - the opportunity to entertain on a worldwide stage, the opportunity to make some very good money, the opportunity to find your face and physique on a hulking, plastic action figure sold all over the country.
Shamus would look good in plastic. Yes, he is only 5 feet, 8 inches tall, but he now weighs 200 pounds and is solid, ripped and handsomely beautiful. His long, straight hair frames a slightly exotic face, a face he is capable of focusing into the acting-lite emotions that make up the world of pro wrestling.
“I used to be in a bad guy role, but because I'm smaller, now I'm cast as an underdog and a crowd-favorite type,” he said of his Shamus the Famous persona.
He also has his signature “move,” called the “Spotlight,” which is an elbow drop from the ring's top ropes to the heart - or wherever he happens to land - of his opponent.
“One thing you learn pretty quickly in wrestling is that the way things are supposed to go is not the way they always go,” Shamus said. “Everybody thinks it's all orchestrated, but that's not really true. The storyline is there and the ending is there, but how you get there is pretty much up in the air a lot of the time.”
What that means is that the wrestlers must be well-trained athletes capable of taking punches and falls that sometimes go awry.
“Basically, you've got to be ready for everything, from a guy not pulling a punch to him not being where you think he's going to be,” Shamus said.
The wrestlers, like any other showmen, must also be aware of the crowd and be ready to play to its whims.
“It's not great acting, for sure, but there is a lot of acting,” he said. “It's a mix of the real and the fake, and that sort of makes the fake real, too.”
Shamus has led a relatively charmed life on his road to the Big Time, but he was nearly derailed earlier this year in a training accident.
“It was just a fall where the other guy didn't do what he was supposed to,” he said. “It left me with a pretty serious concussion and a brain hemorrhage, though.”
That meant a full six weeks off at a time when the WWE was handing out development deals, the next-to-last step in making it.
“I had some short-term memory problems, but it all cleared up soon, and the doctors have given me permission to go back to wrestling,” he said.
That means that after UM's spring semester, Shamus McCarthy will once again become Shamus the Famous, wrestling at Deep South and looking for the big break. He's buff, talented and dedicated. Now he just needs that last bit of luck.
“The dream is WrestleMania,” he said. “If I get a contract from the WWE, everything else goes on hold, at least until I find out if I can make this dream happen.”
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at firstname.lastname@example.org