“Let’s not kid ourselves it’s not a normal thing to want to go out and get mutilated and put yourself through torturous pain” – Danny Havoc
Grant Berkland aka Danny Havoc was not a normal individual – creative, driven, daring and intelligent, but definitely not normal. One could certainly question the wisdom of an 18-year-old that decides straight out of high school to travel cross-country to pursue their dream of becoming a death match wrestler. This is, nevertheless, what Havoc chose to do, relocating from Cylinder, Iowa to Philadelphia to train at the academy of “ultra-violent” independent promotion Combat Zone Wrestling.
During his childhood he had little interest in pro-wrestling, the WWF and WCW’s cartoonish product had no appeal, but felt its allure in his teen years after seeing the hardcore style popularised by Extreme Championship Wrestling. He noted truly falling in love with the medium following his introduction to Big Japan Pro-Wrestling and the death matches they specialized in. Havoc idolized company stars Jun Kasai and Mitsuhiro Matsunaga – performers who were pushing the limits of this sub-genre. It was after seeing his hero Jun Kasai wrestle for CZW in 2001 – in a wild “Fans Bring the Weapons” tag-team match that saw the “Crazy Monkey” take a bump onto a board of light tubes that resulted in a deep laceration leaving a bone protruding from his elbow – that he believed his dream could potentially be realized. Subsequently, following his graduation in 2004, he packed his car full of his belongings and set out in pursuit of his goal.
His debut for the company he would call home for almost the entirety of his career was certainly an inauspicious one. Appearing at CZW’s Tournament of Death IV in an “Ultraviolent Student Battle Royal”, alongside a number of the promotion’s other trainees, Havoc narrowly escaped a significant eye injury following a springboard curb stomp, a move that drove his unprotected head into the ring’s glass-covered canvas. Even more ridiculously his first-ever match saw him set alight after being hit with a flaming baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. These in-ring antics would foreshadow his entire career. The match was as terrible as it sounds on paper – highly dangerous and badly worked, nevertheless, it was clear that the slender and un-athletic looking teenager, who marched to the ring with a large stack of light tubes and a big smile on his face, possessed something intangible.
Havoc’s first official singles match would take place two months later at the famed ECW Arena. After another excessive affair that involved unnecessary bloodletting against fellow trainee Andy Sumner, the notoriously unforgiving crowd in South Philadelphia embraced him. His relationship with the audience, and their adoration for him, was not, however, based exclusively on his ability to take inhumane amounts of punishment, he resonated with them as a result of his sardonic personality and laissez-faire demeanor. Without saying a word his body language and mannerisms demonstrated an effortless charisma.
He was instantly likeable. In the world of deathmatch wrestling, he was the closest thing to a “white-meat” baby-face.
It is not an uncharitable assessment to note that promos within the American deathmatch scene are typically crude, coarse and often unintelligible – sentences punctuated by F-bombs proliferate unabated. Yet, Havoc delivered unique and articulate interviews that played on self-deprecation and exhibited his quick-wit. As his character developed and he became embroiled in a series of blood feuds he would demonstrate an ability to deliver effective and impassioned promos that illustrated his fighting spirit. His memorable appearance on Vice’s The Wrestlers highlighted not only a charismatic individual, but also one who was markedly eloquent and thoughtful.
Deathmatch wrestling is the most maligned – and most misunderstood – sub-genre in professional wrestling. The reductive stereotype of untrained and untalented individuals bludgeoning and inflicting blunt trauma upon each other in a nonsensical and haphazard fashion is, however, not completely unwarranted. When Havoc first emerged American deathmatches were characterized by a lack of narrative and psychology, with some notable exceptions. The “Death Match Viking” would go on to change that. Influenced by the death matches he had studied from BJW, he appropriated and built upon the Japanese style, succeeding in telling emotive in-ring stories – albeit ones that involved driving his own body through panes of glass.
He was interested in the creative process and took great pride in pushing the boundaries of what deathmatch wrestling was and could possibly be. Havoc described his work as an art form and approached it as an artist crafting detailed illustrations of his latest match designs. Inarguably, he succeeded in innovating some of the craziest and most violent – and wonderfully inane – matches the medium had ever seen (see the “Drunken Scaffold Three-Way Elimination Match” against his Nation of Intoxication partners: Devon Moore and Lucky 13; or “The Devil Wears Prada Death Match” with future Impact Wrestling Heavyweight Champion Sami Callihan).
His bouts were replete with creativity and psychology in equal measures.
During his nearly 15-year career he achieved the widest possible array of accolades in his chosen style, winning the coveted Tournament of Death on two occasions, IWA Mid-South’s King of the Death Matches and GCW’s inaugural Tournament of Survival, in addition to completing 7 tours with his beloved Big Japan Pro-Wrestling. The apotheosis of his career was, perhaps, his encounter with inspiration Jun Kasai at CZW’s Best of the Best X in a “Ragnarok N’ Roll Glass Crush Death Match”. Dream matches often struggle to live up to their billing but this excellent bout was a veritable carnival of carnage, one that had all the excess you would expect from two of the best deathmatch wrestlers of all time.
Despite his own frequent assertions to the contrary, he was a great wrestler, one who could work a multitude of styles. Many of his most impressive matches were with non-death match wrestlers – his stellar series with the aforementioned Sami Callihan exemplified this. Their main event at Cage of Death XI produced a bout that was among the greatest in Combat Zone Wrestling’s history – a contest that also featured one of the most visibly arresting bumps of all-time.
Furthermore, his barbed wire match with current Smackdown standout grappler, Drew Gulak was a notable creative triumph. The crowd wanted nothing more than to see the much-hated mat technician bleed, but were forced to wait as the two wrestlers exchanged holds, reversals and suplexes. By the time Gulak hit the wire, after over 14 minutes of action, they had been driven into a state of frenzy.
The 34-year-old Havoc passed away on May 31, following his wife’s sudden death two months earlier as a result of heart failure. His passing is without question tragic and his life was all too short. Nevertheless, he spent his entire adult life doing what he loved and achieved something that remains elusive to many: he fulfilled his dream. He did not just become a deathmatch wrestler; he became, arguably, the best of all time.
Daniel Tiberius Havoc, the young man from “the unacknowledged capital of hardcore” Cylinder, Iowa was a unique and compelling character. While he remained unknown to many fans within the wrestling world, he was something truly special. The things he chose to put his body through may appear abnormal to many; regardless, his pursuit and achievement of his dream is something that can inspire us all.