Midgets, Goats and the Governor: My Day at the New WWE Performance Center

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJuly 11, 2013

Scott, McMahon and Levesque open up the new WWE Performance Center
Scott, McMahon and Levesque open up the new WWE Performance Center

Say this for Florida Governor Rick Scott—the man is unflappable.

Scott walked right by a midget doing physical therapy, ignored Erick Rowan of the Wyatt Family practicing his wrestling promos while dressed like a goat and flawlessly engaged in small talk while one enormous man leaped onto boxes and another did an exercise routine on a set of gymnastics rings.

Just another day at the WWE Performance Center, a new 26,000 square-foot facility built to groom the next generation of WWE superstars.

The project is the brainchild of one of the promotion's new executives. As he climbed into a regulation WWE ring to kick off the press conference, the familiar sounds of Motorhead's "Time to Play the Game" echoed throughout the cavernous building.

Paul "Triple H" Levesque sure knows how to make an entrance.

Now the WWE's Executive Vice President of Talent and Live Events, Levesque explained to a mixed crowd of media, politicians and WWE Superstars exactly how the new facility, one he compared favorably to anything he's seen in professional sports, was going to lead the WWE into the future.

"It is state-of-the-art and designed to produce the best athletes in the world. We are recruiting the best athletes on the planet and when we bring them here we'll try to take them to another level," Levesque said. While he admitted some NFL teams had similar facilities on the athletic side, none provided the scope of potential training the WWE's did. "Nobody has a facility like we do because nobody has a product like we do from the performance side. We are not only training the athlete, but the performer as well."

Levesque wanted a training facility that was worthy of an industry that had made the transition from high school gyms and National Guard armories to major arenas and stadiums all over the world. WWE superstars play to millions of fans every year. The business has grown enormously, and they were trying to recruit from a small pool of talented athletes. Why then, he wondered, were its training procedures and facilities the product of an earlier time?

"This catches the learning process up to speed with where the business is. I started in a warehouse in a boxing ring that was half the size of these rings with no give to it. No AC, no heat. It was as bare bones as it gets," Levesque said of his initial foray into wrestling under the tutelage of "Killer" Kowalski.

"We're making them soft," he said with an exaggerated growl. "That's what Kowalski would have told me. 'They're gonna be soft. They're gonna be soft.' The world has changed. We wanted to give them every tool possible they could need to succeed, not only in the ring but in life. What they do with it is on them."

Some of Kowalski's old-school brethren couldn't quite get over the state-of-the-art gym and how different it is than what came before.

"I was trained in a barn," Sergeant Slaughter muttered, lantern jaw still jutting out and drill sergeant hat still crisp after all these years. Even current star Sheamus, who came through the developmental system just a few years ago himself, was blown away by the facility.

"You've got to learn to walk before you run," he said. "And that's exactly what developmental does...the developmental system I was in was nothing compared to this. To me, when I walked in, it reminded of the first day I came from Dublin. I walked in with all the hopes and dreams in the world. I've got goose bumps right now. To me, the WWE's future has never been so bright."

Those on hand were able to see that future, and the Center's capabilities, with their own eyes.

Wrestlers in training were put through the paces in three different rings, supervised by former stars Billy Gunn, Norman Smiley and head trainer Bill DeMott. It's a good combination of coaches with a wide variety of expertise. DeMott can demonstrate moves to big men, Smiley execute chain wrestling with the best of them and Gunn can show new talent how to pluck an audience's heartstrings.

With three rings spoken for, that left four in reserve to host the media and hold the press conference. Each ring is covered by HD cameras that are recording the action at all times. One includes all the bright lights typical of a WWE Raw or SmackDown television taping. Another has a padded ring to practice moves off the top rope. At any moment, the training staff can bring up a specific camera to observe students as they sit around an enormous 4,000 pound table at their stomping grounds in the back of the facility.

Just off to the side of the office area, another set of talent works on the interview process with one of the industry's true legends, the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes. The character development is designed to be used independently by the wrestlers or to record broadcast-ready television skits.

"At the touch of a button it is in our main studio in Stamford," Levesque said. That, he explained, does more than beam the content produced at the WWE Performance Center directly onto WWE television. It also gives the young stars access to some of the best minds in the industry.

"It allows them to receive immediate criticism and real-life live feedback from our top executives on a daily basis on their characters and their abilities. It's training like they have never had before."

The facility also includes a green screen room, an edit suite and a studio to produce voice-over work. Levesque's vision includes more than wrestlers and referees. He intends to train the next generation of announcers and other on-air talent here as well. Former lead announcer Jim Ross is already working with young broadcasters on the WWE NXT television show, and at the Performance Center they can work on calling both live matches and classics from a stockpile of nearly every match in WWE history.

All told, the Performance Center will create more than 100 jobs. In addition to grooming the talent in the ring and on the microphone, there will be a doctor on call, and renowned strength coach Joe DeFranco will help create the workout regimen needed to build both physiques and athletic performance.

As Levesque and Governor Scott looked on, Stephanie McMahon rang the ring bell from the original Madison Square Garden to open the facility.

The WWE is a company that values their history. For McMahon it is more than a business legacy. It's her family's history as well, and family was on her mind as she compared this bold move into the future with her father's worldwide domination of the wrestling industry and her grandfather's initial creation of the WWWF.

"My husband, Paul Levesque, is now continuing that tradition and that legacy," Stephanie McMahon said. "This Performance Center is the future of our business. And the future is now."

It was an emotional moment for McMahon, who, with Levesque, is being groomed to lead the WWE in the years to come.

"I got a little emotional," McMahon admitted afterwards. "I guess the word that sums it up is 'pride.' I'm just so proud of him. I'm proud of the whole team, but it take a leader and a visionary...I think it takes the leadership of someone like Paul, though there is no one quite like Paul."

Levesque, McMahon explained, is perfectly suited to lead the company in this area. He knows what developing wrestlers need to succeed because he's walked in their shoes.

"He is one of our greatest superstars of all-time, Triple H," she said. "He's lived it. He's experienced it. He learned it. He's able to now take all of that and can apply it to make the experience so much better for the future Superstars and Divas of the WWE."

"Take all that with a grain of salt," Levesque said with a chuckle. "She is my wife." Levesque stressed, in the end, that the Performance Center was just another tool to help get wrestlers ready for the WWE. Most people who walk in the door, he said, would never make it in the business.

"You see about 100 talent over there," Levesque said of the WWE prospects going through the paces in the building. "Very few of them are going to make it all the way. That's just a fact of what we do. It's the same in the NFL. Any business. There's a lot of waiters and waitresses in Hollywood thinking they're the next big thing. But we're preparing them as much as possible and they have the best opportunity in the world to make it. It's an investment in our talent and our future."

Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. All quotes gathered first hand. You can see the WWE trainees in action on WWE NXT, available on Hulu Plus.