Professional wrestler Michael Mizerski, also known by his alter ego “The Playboy” John Atlas, is no stranger to gruelling physical battles inside the ring, but after a recent bout with cancer and a previous brush with death, there seems to be nothing left to scare him. A former football player and nightclub bouncer turned “sports entertainer,” Mizerski has followed his dreams of wrestling glory, but it hasn’t been an easy road to get there.
A former CFL player and lifelong wrestling fan, B.C. native Mizerski studied under renowned trainer and performer Lance Storm, making his in ring debut in 2013. Earlier that same year, while working as a bouncer at Club 919 in Victoria, Mizerski was the victim of a drive-by-shooting committed by an irate patron who had been kicked out of the club earlier that evening. One of Mizerski’s fellow bouncers was more severely injured in the attack, but the up and coming wrestling star suffered a bullet wound that went through one thigh, through his crotch, and out the other leg.
“I think that might have been the start of everything that happened afterwards,” Mizerski says during our conversation on the phone last week, referring to how the injury would prepare him for his next battle. “But I feel lucky that things didn’t turn out worse and it didn’t delay my training that much. It was just really scary at the time.”
Following the shooting and his recovery, Mizerski began wrestling on a more full time basis, hitting the road and performing in various cities across the country, racking up accolades and considerable amounts of buzz for the John Atlas character, a well honed in ring technician with an impeccable physique, clearly indebted to classic wrestlers like Buddy Rogers, Billy Graham, Tony Atlas, and Ric Flair. Eventually, John Atlas would move to Toronto and find a home base of sorts in the form of Greektown Wrestling, an independent promotion that’s starting to make major waves in Toronto’s East End.
But last year, not too long into his stint as one of Greektown’s top stars, Mizerski was diagnosed with Stage III testicular cancer. Although Mizerski was told by his doctors that his form of cancer was largely treatable with surgery, it was still a shock.
“It was a lot harder to try and explain to people what it felt like when I was told I had cancer versus telling them what it was like when I was shot,” Mizerski says about how he first took the news of his diagnosis. “The bullet was just an in and out sort of injury, and that was pretty much all there was to it. Cancer was so much scarier because it’s this thing that’s living inside of you and basically eating you alive. That was way more terrifying, and at first there was nothing you could have told me that would have made me feel better about it when I first found out. I was scared.”
To compound matters, it was eventually revealed that Mizerski’s cancer had spread. Following emergency surgery to remove the initial ten centimetre tumour that was initially detected, more tumours had appeared on his lungs. Surgery alone was no longer enough. Numerous rounds of chemotherapy and further surgeries would be necessary if John wanted to make a full recovery.
Between surgeries and chemo, however, Michael refused to let his diagnosis slow his momentum in the ring. Training harder than ever before, John Atlas was able to make several in ring appearances in December of last year, including a memorable moment at an independent show in Barrie where he dressed up as Santa Claus and the crowd went wild for the returning wrestler.
“The hardest part has been trying to get my cardio back to where it needs to be,” Mizerski said about the challenges of trying to perform while undergoing cancer treatment. “If it were just the surgery, I probably would have bounced back pretty quickly, but chemo really drains a lot of your mental and physical energy. My strength has been coming back nicely, but I definitely need to work on getting my lung capacity back to where it needs to be.”
After his modest, but successful in ring return at the end of 2017, John went in for the first of two major surgeries in early 2018, a six hour marathon performed by doctors that would remove a baseball sized tumour from his lungs and 26 of the 43 smaller tumours. After several weeks of recovery, Mizerski was back in the ring for a show with Lucha T.O. in March. Then on April 10, Mizerski underwent a second surgery to remove the remaining tumours.
After another recovery process, Mizerski is once again ready to return to the ring. After several matches over the past couple of weeks, John Atlas faces his biggest test to date in the form of Channing Decker at Greektown Wrestling’s Greektown X show on Saturday, June 16 at Eastminster United Church (389 Danforth Avenue), a match that’s scheduled to be officiated by wrestling legend Ricky Steamboat.
The Toronto wrestling community has always been a strong and passionate one, with a bond between fans and performers that’s almost unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and Mizerski credits the community as a big reason why his recovery process has been so successful.
“My friends and family have helped me through a lot of what I had to go through, but the fans have done so much for me that I will be eternally grateful for. I think if I were in any other business that the wrestling business that I would have been able to bounce back as quickly and fully as I have. I feel like there’s still some improvement that can be made on my end, but the fans have been overwhelmingly supportive. Kids have been really cheering me on and helping me push through. Adults are sharing stories with me about how cancer has affected their friends, families, and in some cases themselves. The wrestling community has always been a tight one, but I think cancer is something that a lot of us have had to live with directly or indirectly. I think the combination of this community and just how understanding many people are about what cancer does to someone have led to me feeling incredibly supported. Every card, letter, email, and interaction that I’ve had with the fans has been inspiring to me. I can’t thank them enough.”
Having come out on the other side of cancer surgery and hopefully in the medical clear for the near future, one wonders if Mizerski will keep the “Playboy” persona that he has spent the past several years cultivating.
“I don’t think anyone goes through something like cancer without wanting to make a few changes, and as a performer you always want to evolve and adapt. I love sharing my story with the hopes that kids and adults can both take something from it. For now, I think making some minor changes is appropriate and unavoidable, but I’m also sure that the Playboy has a lot of life left in him yet.”