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College Athletes, Non-Wrestling Fans and Dwight Howard: Meet WWE's Future Stars

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured Columnist IVAugust 3, 2022

Credit: WWE.com

Fifty promising prospects from across the country attended Day 2 of WWE's three-day talent tryout at the famed Wildhorse Saloon venue in Nashville, Tennessee over SummerSlam weekend, where 14 different sports were represented with an average age of 23.

The drills, promos and general vibe of the tryout were similar to what die-hard fans have seen before on 2015's Breaking Ground behind-the-scenes reality series on WWE Network or on the company's social media channels.

Head coaches Matt Bloom, Steve Corino and Norman Smiley gave instructions and guided the athletes along, while NXT 2.0 upstarts Lash Legend, The Creed Brothers and Ivy Nile aided with the in-ring portion.

WWE head of creative Paul "Triple H" Levesque and co-CEO Nick Khan were also at ringside observing each crop of competitors.

Khan played with his son in between the three rings and routinely checked out what was going on, but Levesque was locked in. It was obvious he missed this part of the job during his hiatus.

It was almost exactly one year ago when WWE held a similar-sized tryout in Las Vegas, and within weeks, Triple H was out of commission indefinitely due to a health scare. One year later in Nashville, he was back in good spirits and ready to hit the ground running.

Most notably, there wasn't a single familiar face among the athletes themselves—or at least not anyone the average wrestling fan would recognize.

In years past, the WWE Performance Center would host tryouts for a mix of people who did and did not have wrestling backgrounds. As part of the company's new recruitment and development strategy under Levesque and former UFC executive James Kimball, that has changed completely.

Not only was the atmosphere much more relaxed in a restaurant-turned-trailing-facility such as Wildhorse Saloon, but the tryouts also exclusively featured former college athletes. In other words, independent wrestlers are no longer the target demographic.

A few failed to go pro in their respective sport while others are currently training for the Olympics in 2024. The one commonality among all of them was zero prior professional wrestling experience, let alone knowledge of the industry's inner workings or the current product.

WWE officials and executives have clearly shifted their focus when scouting for Superstars. In fact, weeding out those with that aforementioned wrestling experience was part of the screening process. They are looking for a blank slate.

It's a different strategy compared to what WWE has typically gone for.

Homegrown stars such as former SEC track and field star Bianca Belair and Iowa defensive lineman Big E spent a significant amount of time in NXT and went on to achieve major success, but they were the outliers. For the first nine years of its existence, the former black-and-gold brand was best known for bringing in notable names and established stars from other promotions.

The quarterly TakeOver specials were heavily praised for their simplicity, technically stellar wrestling and for featuring dream matchups you wouldn't see anywhere else.

NXT, at least as a television show, isn't as much about the in-ring product nowadays, as it's building toward the future. It's all about evolving the approach to how it recruits talent, and it's constantly going to change depending on what the roster needs.

Filling that quota is key according to Kimball, who is at the helm of this new program alongside Levesque.

“We come into each [tryout] week with gaps that need to be filled," he told B/R. "There's a full system in place where there's a churn and a schedule where evaluations take place. At that two-year mark, if you've not made it on NXT TV on a regular basis, it's just not for you and it's not for us."

Kimball explained that there is constant evaluation at the Performance Center, but the true test is every six months when they determine whether that talent is worth keeping. If minimal progress is shown within a year or two, then they'll cut bait.

Credit: WWE.com

To ensure they don't have any "bottlenecks" on the roster, they stray away from signing too many men and women with the same height, weight and build. They need a wide variety of characters of all shapes and sizes with only so many slots for each profile.

Enlisting only newbies to NXT can eventually pose one major problem: Who will these talents be working with if all of the experienced wrestlers have either been released or called up to the main stage?

The mindset appears to be that the brand, and the company as a whole, has already relied too heavily on outside talent in the last decade and it's time to balance it out. Once there's a need again for more independent wrestlers, they'll be incorporated back into the program.

In the meantime, WWE would rather appeal to a wider range of athletes and not just the surplus of stars on the indies, which will always be available to choose from.

It will require real work to get these athletes to find their footing in NXT in a relatively short span of time, but even if just a handful take to it quickly, WWE will have a blueprint on its hands that encourages other outsiders to give wrestling a serious shot.

“We'll do a tryout and then they'll do a set of releases and churn out," Kimball said. "Our goal is to add volume, quality and depth to developmental. Coming into this week, we have a 110 talents in developmental. The goal at the end of this year is 130. The sweet spot for us long-term is around 150. During COVID in the last couple of years, that number got below 100. We're replenishing it, but we're replenishing it with what we believe to be real premium, quality talent.”

Levesque and Kimball's main goal for the program, along with the Next-In-Line program that was responsible for the signing of Gable Steveson, is to create awareness of the pathway for college athletes into WWE so they understand the company is a meaningful potential outlet for them.

They're always on the lookout for ambitious athletes on social media and use stars the caliber of Dwight Howard, who made a surprise appearance at Thursday's tryout, as a recruiting mechanism.

All of the aspiring rookies were there to try their hand at pro wrestling and attempt to earn a contract, whereas the NBA champion was there to fulfill a lifelong dream. For a quick minute, he adopted an over-the-top persona and trash-talked like he was about to headline WrestleMania.

His passion and energy were infectious and surely inspired every one of the athletes to up their game.

Shortly after cutting his promo that soon went viral on Twitter, Howard made the rounds at ringside, taking pictures with people who had no idea when they woke up that day they'd be meeting one of the best basketball players of the modern era.

The eight-time NBA All-Star, 36, showed genuine interest in breaking into the business and becoming a pro wrestler once his basketball career is officially over. The skills he showed on the mic in front of the recruits directly correlates to his longtime fandom for WWE.

Of course, Howard wouldn't have to go through this type of tryout if he were to ever make the jump to wrestling full-time, but his love for the business is the sort of stuff that can't be manufactured in a multi-million dollar facility in Orlando, Florida.

It doesn't make or break a Superstar, but being able to relate to the common wrestling fan and their devotion to the product goes a long way in being marketable and likable.

“I would have to train and practice just like everyone else," Howard told B/R about the possibility of eventually transitioning from the court to the ring. "I'm not coming into this thing because I'm Dwight Howard the basketball player. This is a whole new ball game for me. I want to learn from all these guys and be the best wrestler I can be. If it leads down to this path where I am wrestling, I want to just enjoy it."

Howard is the antithesis of everyone else at the tryout that day: Their careers were just getting started, but none of them religiously watched wrestling growing up. The recruitment team took interest in those individuals specifically so they could start from scratch with them and mold them into the quintessential WWE Superstars.

Syracuse native and West Virginia University alum Jade Gentile is a prime example of that. Upon getting back home from playing professional soccer in Iceland, she was asked to partake in the tryout. Without hesitation, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I obviously didn't know much about it going into it, and they knew that," she said. "They want to teach you how to do things the first time and not change your mannerisms.”

As Kimball alluded to, she had no idea WWE was an option for her, thinking she'd never be able to ascend beyond the level she was already at. She believes her skills in soccer will bode well for her in WWE.

“The biggest thing I see that separates me is my coachability," Gentile said. "If someone wants me to do something, I'm doing it the first try. If I don't do it well the first time, I'm going to do it 100 percent the next time. I'll take whatever anyone says to me and I'll apply it.”

Although everyone gave the tryout an incredible effort, Gentile was among the few who consistently heeded the coaches' advice and followed instructions. Even if it wasn't intentional, many of the athletes weren't able to adapt, causing Corino to let out an exasperated gasp on more than one occasion.

Twenty-four-year-old standout Rickssen Opont, who came to America from Haiti for better opportunities academically and athletically, found himself in a similar situation. His track and field background combined with his Olympic training helped him nail the physical aspect of the tryout, while his natural charisma gave him a big advantage in the promo department.

“Some of the drills came easy to me because it was already incorporated in the way I was training," he said. "It felt natural. I think I was born for this. I think I was made to be here this weekend, and these three days were really challenging. I was mentally tough, I was ready for it, and I gave it my all.”

WWE officials knew what they were getting athletically from those who tried out. They were also aware the promos wouldn't be perfect given it was likely their first time cutting one. It was practically everything else they were keeping an eye on to gauge if they had what it takes to thrive in the realm of sports entertainment.

Rickssen Opont, 58, awaits the massive opportunity ahead of him at the WWE Performance Center. (Credit: WWE.com)

Paul Heyman was among those on hand evaluating the recruits, bestowing his brilliance upon them in typical fashion. During the promo portion of Day 2, he provided a shining example of how everyone could do a better job of grabbing the attention of officials.

Despite knowing little to nothing about Heyman prior to the tryout, the athletes were captivated by what he had to say and applied it to their own promos from that point forward.

Even someone as seasoned and accomplished as the 56-year-old is of the belief these athletes are indeed the talent of tomorrow.

“There's a difference right now in that today's recruits are those who see this as an option, not an obsession," Heyman said. "These aren't people living and dying and breathing and hoping and praying that all of their dreams since they were five years old can come true or come crashing down around them by the decision that's made.

"This guy might say, 'Oh, if this doesn't work out, I'll go play Canadian football,' or, 'I'll go play basketball in Europe,'" he continued. "My thing is, I'm going to ask you a lot of questions you better not have the answer to, because if you do, you're in the wrong class because this is for people that don't have the prior knowledge.”

Hardcore fans of the product will scoff at a statement like that. The lack of a backup plan played a major role in so many Superstars achieving legendary status, and having another option may not have encouraged them to give WWE their all.

In Heyman's opinion, if they can appropriately represent the company with class in the same way John Cena and Titus O'Neil do as ambassadors, that's what matters most. Much like at an NFL camp, WWE wants people who are prepared and understand the rigors of what it takes to become a star and then take on the responsibilities of being a star.

"There are plenty of people I saw today that are qualified," Heyman said. "Are they going to main-event WrestleMania? There's a few people I can see that happening with, but not everyone, and I'm very excited about working with them in the future. But not all of them. If you're not going to main-event WrestleMania, are you a disruptor? Are you someone who's going to change the industry? Are you someone who's going to give us a vision that we don't have? Someone who's 20 better not look at this industry the same way I do.”

Some will succeed, most will fail, but it's impossible to know what works and what doesn't in this embryonic stage of the system.

It will take time to truly determine whether creating competitors from the ground up will have the results WWE is looking for, but the optimism and excitement in the air among officials and hopefuls at the tryout would give anyone reason to believe it will be.


Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.

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