As an imposing 6-foot-6, 340-pound burly bad guy professional wrestler, Carmine Azzato wasn’t the type of guy you’d want to bump into on a dark street corner.
Azzato wore demonic face makeup, akin to Gene Simmons of the heavy metal rock band KISS, and wrestled under stage names like “Demolition Blast,” “Gravedigger” and “Molokai the Grim Reaper” as he rose to fame and fortune in the 1990s.
But by the early 2000s, it all came crashing down like a slam into the turnbuckle that left him flat on the mat. And that’s when he said he was restored and transformed by Jesus Christ.
Now 51, instead of scaring the bejeebers out of people, Azzato’s sharing Christ’s redemptive love as an evangelist.
He and his wife of three years, Jules, travel the country speaking to church and youth groups ministering to people of all walks. Their “Hitting the Pavement” ministry just launched a new website last month as they embark on a new phase of their ministry from their New Richmond home.
“We’re not a new ministry,” Azzato said, emphasizing both he and Jules are evangelical veterans who’ve been tried and tested by life’s hard knocks. “We’re a ‘willing ministry’ — willing to change and try new things,” he explained. That means taking their itinerant evangelism, which is a 501(c)3 organization, wherever it needs to go. “You can’t meet people where they are unless you’re willing to hit the pavement.”
He admits he was not a willing conscript or convert when Christ first tagged him.
A knee injury brought an end to the heyday of his pro career in 2000 when he was just 31. Wrestling professionally since just before his 18th birthday, he had traveled the world and cracked elbows with the most famous wrestlers. He experienced its success … and its excess.
After the injury and semi-retirement, he fell on hard times. “And then, as it happens, you don’t want to show people that you’re hurting and you’re struggling for money. I chose to do something that wasn’t upstanding.”
Azzato allowed himself to be used in an auto insurance scam by someone he thought was a friend. That friend was being investigated by the FBI, and Azzato was arrested with about 60 others. Unlike the others, Azzato immediately plead guilty to the fraud, and the judge showed mercy. He was sentenced only to probation, but the experience left him even more broken.
That’s when a childhood acquaintance gave him a job as a construction foreman. Azzato’s dad had been a contractor, so Azzato, who grew up in New York City, was familiar with the industry. Soon, two Christian coworkers could tell Azzato needed some reconstruction of his own. Daily, they told him they loved him and told him about the unconditional love of Christ. Like Azzato, both had once been down before being restored.
“I didn’t want any part of it,” Azzato recalled. The wrestling career and the fame made him leery of people and their motives. As a defense, he pushed people away. “When I started to see these guys were for real and just completely in love with the Lord, I started to ease up a little bit. They really wanted to know me.
“All of a sudden, my heart started getting chiseled a little bit. That rough exterior started getting knocked down.” Azzato said he did a “180 conversion” and accepted Christ in November 2002. “Since that day, I just never went back to the old me.”
Azzato speaks to Christian denominations of all kinds. “I’m preaching relationship. Jesus wasn’t religious. He was relational. For me to love and draw close to Him, I had to understand that He was about relationship.”
His two coworkers weren’t the first to see something in Azzato worth pursuing. In high school, his only dream was to play in the NFL. But a compound fracture to his leg in practice his junior year ended his football dreams. Scholarship offers disappeared. He fell into depression and turned to drugs and suicidal thoughts, he said.
About that time, the World Wrestling Federation staged a fundraising event for his Staten Island high school’s football program. Someone in the WWF entourage saw the big kid with the massive cast on his leg and how he carried himself. He could tell Azzato was charismatic in the way he interacted with his classmates and how they responded. He persuaded Azzato to consider pro wrestling as a career, and a lightbulb came on, Azzato said.
His post-wrestling construction career eventually brought him to Indianapolis a decade ago. In 2013, he decided to turn to evangelical ministry and motivational speaking full time. In 2016, he met Jules — living just up the road in Montgomery County — via a health products convention in Orlando.
While his life’s path has had as many twists and turns and ups and downs as a well-scripted wrestling match, he’s now “wrestling for souls,” he said.
“We have to see the gold in everyone,” he said. “We have to see the value … because somebody saw the value in me when I couldn’t see it in myself.”
Career: Professional wrestler (retired); evangelist; motivational speaker
- Two-time World Heavyweight Champion
- One-time Intercontinental Champion
- One-time Television Champion
- Five-time World Tag Team Champion
For more information and to see where Carmine and Jules will be preaching, visit: HittingThePavement.com.
Story by Indiana Connection using some material provided by Tipmont REMC