Interview with Fale Dojo Head Trainer Tony Kozina

Tony Kozina is a seasoned pro of the wrestling profession with more than 20 years experience. Nicknamed the “Canadian Cougar”, @TTKozina1 has wrestled extensively throughout North America, having captured many championships on his travels. Some of these accolades include multiple titles with the National Wrestling Alliance. Kozina is also an experienced fighter who is well versed in kickboxing and Jiu-jitsu. He has also won championships in both disciplines. During his lengthy career, Kozina had a hand in training Bad Luck Fale, Davey Richards, and Kyle O’Reilly. In June 2018, Kozina moved from the United States to Auckland, New Zealand, where he took up the position of Head Trainer at @FaleDojo. As Head Trainer, Kozina is responsible for introducing the Young Lions to the Dojo lifestyle as well as providing their initial training. This key role will provide a strong foundation for the lions and will set them on the path to one day pursue further training in the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo and hopefully fulfil their dream of competing on the NJPW roster.

Kozina was a wrestling fan at a young age, his first memories involved watching Don Owen’s Pacific Northwest Wrestling, promotion (also known as Portland Wrestling) with his father. Kozina recalled the first major event which got him hooked, a ‘friend to foe’ rivalry between Jesse Ventura and Buddy Rose, two villains that were established as a successful tag team.

“My first wrestling memory that really stood out was when Jesse Ventura knocked Buddy Rose across the mouth after he had enough of Buddy’s villainous behaviour,” said Kozina. “I couldn’t believe the friends were fighting! I cheered the bad guys, and Jesse and Buddy were my favourites.”

The rivalry between Ventura and Rose had escalated to the point where it was a big draw for the territory and it caught the eye of the young wrestling fan Tony Kozina to buy a ticket and attend the event. Kozina remembered going to the event that featured Ventura and Rose engage in a ‘No Disqualification’ main event.

“We went to see them settle it at the Portland Sports Arena, and I remember Buddy Rose bleeding”.

Father and son; Tony and Matt Borne.

At the age of five, Kozina had his first ‘in-ring’ experience while attending a father-son banquet at the Milwaukee Elks venue which hosted wrestling events.

“At intermission, I ran into the ring and ended up being in there all alone with ‘Tough’ Tony Borne. That gave me quite the scare,” recalled Kozina. This encounter with Tony Borne is a memory that Kozina holds dearly, as Tony’s son, Matt Borne would train him to be a wrestler.

Kozina played a variety of different sports early on in his childhood. He enjoyed bowling regularly with his family.

“My family was big into bowling and I started at age three,” he explained. “By age six, I was on the cover of ‘The Oregon Bowler’ newspaper.”

Although his family was committed to bowling and his early success might have led him to achieving greater feats, Kozina chose to focus on becoming a pro wrestler.

“I wondered about becoming a professional bowler,” said Kozina. “But that’s all. What I really wanted to do was be a professional wrestler … or play drums for KISS.”

“When I ran into the wrestling ring at the father-son banquet at intermission, it was because I wanted to be a wrestler,” explained Kozina. “I wanted to be a part of that excitement. I remember that as clear as day!”

Kozina continued to follow wrestling into his teenage years, watching Portland Wrestling, and Jim Crocket Promotions and WWE later on when cable television became available. His favourite wrestlers were men that wrestled mainly in Portland, men such as Rip Oliver, Billy Jack Haynes, and the Dynamite Kid. As Kozina learned of other wrestling promotions, he also became a fan of Bret Hart, Ric Flair, and Terry Funk.

Kozina began his training in July 1996 and he paid serious attention to Sandy Barr’s Championship Wrestling USA, the promotion which succeeded Owen’s Portland Wrestling.

“At first, I didn’t watch much Championship Wrestling USA, until I started training in July 96,” admitted Kozina. “Then I studied every show and eventually started working there. First as a referee in October, then wrestling in January 1997”.

Kozina’s journey progressed, and he looked at ways to improve his craft by doing so in studying some of the top wrestlers in the profession.

“Whatever they did that stuck out, I tried to copy,” a tool which Kozina found very useful. “Little things too, like Jerry Lawler’s right-hand punch, Terry Funk’s left-hand punch. I took mannerisms from wrestlers and managers.”

In his analysing of wrestlers, Kozina found his central influences in those who excelled in a style that focused on dismantling the opponent’s body part.

“My main influences overall, wrestling style-wise, were Ric Flair, Bret Hart, and Terry Funk. I always admired a more physical style of wrestling. Lay it in!”

During his first years as a wrestler, Kozina was met with criticism from people who said that he was too small to make it as a pro wrestler. Standing at 5 foot, 6 inches, Kozina’s size was somewhat foreign to the United States wrestling landscape in the ‘90s. Despite his critics, Kozina was determined to persevere.

“I’m not sure what exactly gave me that confidence to keep going,” stated Kozina. “I just took things one opportunity at a time.”

Kozina paid tribute to Matt Borne, his trainer, for his affirming guidance during his ordeal.

“It helped that I was encouraged by my trainer, Matt Borne,” he noted with gratitude. “He made me feel a part of the brotherhood.”

Along the way, more members of wrestling’s brotherhood embraced Kozina. These were veterans, like Borne, who provided light to Kozina’s path.

“Even early on, and through the years, positive words of encouragement from other legends, like Tito Santana, Greg Valentine, Honky Tonk Man, and Ricky Morton made me feel like I was on the right path,” he reflected.

Tony Kozina and Davey Richards.

In 2009, Kozina relocated to St. Louis where his student Davey Richards resided. What was initially supposed to be a time focused on pro wrestling, turned into a season immersed in combat sports.

“I had moved to St Louis to continue training with Davey Richards and look into getting into Ring of Honor,” said Kozina. “Davey and I dabbled in jiu-jitsu a few years earlier, and he had found this great facility nearby.”

“I thought that Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing would be beneficial in wrestling,” stated Kozina. “Shortly after I moved to STL, Kyle O’Reilly joined us, and the three of us just started training like crazy”.

By 2011, Kozina had competed in two tournaments sanctioned by the North American Grappling Association.

“It was a fabulous experience and some tough training, but I did love it and learned what it took to compete,” he remembered with great fondness.

Kozina and Richards would find their way back to pro wrestling with the introduction of Bad Luck Fale. Fale, a New Japan Young Lion at the time was sent to the United States to embark on his excursion, an overseas journey that Young Lions would take to receive further training while wrestling in a foreign setting. The role of Fale’s trainer, however, was intended for Richards.

“New Japan Pro Wrestling liked how hard Davey Richards trained and how disciplined he was,” said Kozina. “The New Japan office asked to send over one of their young boys to do their excursion in St. Louis with Davey.”

“Davey then told me, since I helped train him, that he wanted me to train Fale,” said Kozina. ”Davey explained ‘This way, New Japan will get to know who you are, and maybe you could get your foot in the door that way.’”

“That’s how I came to meet Fale,” revealed Kozina. “The magic of it all was, the moment I picked him up at the airport, we were fast friends, like we’d known each other for years.”

Since June 2018, Kozina has held the position of Head Trainer at Fale Dojo. Kozina is regarded as an all-rounder, applying his vast experience in wrestling, grappling, jiu-jitsu and boxing to the Dojo’s curriculum. The variety of different combat skills, in addition to pro wrestling training, is essential to the lions’ journey beyond Fale Dojo should they go on to further training at the New Japan Dojo.

Kozina has had time to observe the NZ wrestling scene since settling and competing in several bouts. Although he has warm interactions with the general public and he applauds the local fan base for their support, Kozina’s findings of the NZ circuit revealed a reckless misuse of the profession by those who occupy it.

“There are a lot of friendly people which is always good” shared Kozina. “And there’s definitely a strong and rabid wrestling fan base here in NZ. I’ve seen that the moment I arrived”.

“But I see a bunch of playing around, if not a downright mockery of what pro wrestling is, or was, in the ring.”

In spite of NZ wrestling’s unprofessional and misguided culture, Kozina recognised the potential that has gone untapped as he experienced first-hand.

“I had two very good matches with NZ wrestler who goes by The Falcon Kid,” stated Kozina. “There’s likely some great potential in the local scene if they ever choose not to treat wrestling like the bearded lady at the roadside carnival,”

“If I had a local promotion, I’d make dojo classes mandatory for everyone,” stated Kozina.

Kozina is a firm advocate of the high teaching standard at Fale Dojo, and he believes that these tools are what NZ wrestling needs to mature. Kozina views discipline as a major teaching necessity.

“If there’s one thing that Fale Dojo offers New Zealand wrestling, is DISCIPLINE,” emphasised Kozina. “All that fooling around and mockery that I mentioned doesn’t happen at Fale Dojo. Bottom line!”

In recent months, there has been noticeable fruition of NZ and Australian talent in NJPW. This fruition, brought on by Fale’s influence includes Toa Henare, Jay White, and Robbie Eagles, not forgetting Fale Dojo’s latest intakes who are currently training at the New Japan Dojo. Kozina sees this as a statement to Kiwis, Aussies and the rest of the wrestling world.

“The visibility of NZ and Aussie talent in New Japan, sends a message worldwide that Fale Dojo provides opportunities that are real and available, and in many cases, these opportunities are better suited,” advised Kozina.

“Fale Dojo accepts applications from everywhere. We have a student who has come to train here from Israel … ISRAEL,” said Kozina, as he highlighted the Dojo’s global reach. “The word is getting out about who and what we are, and our reputation is growing fast.”

“The opportunities at Fale Dojo are suitable because the graduates have had the discipline instilled in them,” said Kozina. “Like any business, the more accomplished graduates we produce leads to more interest from abroad. Having the “Fale Dojo” stamp of approval can lead to an established career in the wrestling world”.

“Just like the talent that comes out of the NJPW Dojo. If you survive the NJPW Dojo, you have that respect from your peers, because it is EARNED,” explained Kozina. “The same thing applies to Fale Dojo. ‘The Underboss’ Bad Luck Fale knows first-hand because he lived it every day at the NJPW Dojo. What better way to learn than from someone who was in the trenches living and breathing every moment of it.”

Kozina is also responsible for getting new students to adjust to the Fale Dojo culture that is steeped in discipline, respect, and humility.

“The challenge for me has been to get the intakes on board with the strict discipline of what is deemed acceptable at Fale Dojo,” explained Kozina. “It’s not a challenge, so much as learning, and simply being told, ‘make sure you do the exercises this way’ or whatever it is.”

“There is a specific method to the madness that we employ here at Fale Dojo, and it is all designed for our students going on to the NJPW Dojo and ascending to that next level!”

Kozina saw his first Young Lions graduate in September. He shared that he is rewarded when seeing the Young Lions develop their instinct inside the ring after overcoming challenges that were foreign to them in the early part of their training.

“Seeing them ‘get it’ and literally improve day by day as athletes and as performers is wonderful,” said Kozina.

Michael Richards – Fale Dojo graduate and current NJPW Dojo Young Lion. 

“This is an uncomfortable, intense environment,” cautioned the seasoned veteran. “These guys are away from home, family, and friends. Away from all, that’s familiar and surrounded by strangers, all the while being pushed to the breaking point physically and mentality.”

Fale Dojo also accommodates a balance that allows the Young Lions to enjoy and rejuvenate following the intense training sessions. Such spontaneous activities are usually incited by Kozina and other Dojo staff.

“When we train, it’s time for hard work. Once the chores are done and training is complete, then I let loose with a never-ending barrage of ridiculousness that is sure to get everyone rolling on the floor,” assured Kozina.

“When you work this hard, you need to vent all of the uncomfortableness and stress of being away and your body aches, etc. In my opinion, there’s no better way than through laughter.”

In addition to the three-month Young Lions course, Fale Dojo offers a variety of classes that are available to the public.

“Our main customers are everyone,” stated Kozina. “While we are the only recognized dojo directly affiliated with New Japan Pro Wrestling in the southern hemisphere, we also offer an assortment of classes to the general public!”

“We have beginners level wrestling class for kids, kickboxing class, and an assortment of general fitness and conditioning classes throughout the week.”

“We have all walks of life coming through our doors and changing their lives for the better,” concluded Kozina. “Positivity and improving oneself is what we’re all about at Fale Dojo!”

Fale Dojo