Big E's Road to WWE Stardom: Chronicling the Tag Team Champion's Journey

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMarch 17, 2016

Credit: WWE.com

A freight train whose wheels kept cracking underneath him, Big E chugged along, going from Florida to football to WWE fame.

Injuries halted his career on the gridiron, but the Tampa, Florida, native simply found new competitive avenues to use his physical gifts. The powerhouse first moved to weightlifting before truly finding his calling in the squared circle. 

Big E (real name: Ettore Ewen) is one-third of the ridiculous and exuberant tag team champions The New Day, one of WWE's most entertaining acts going.

Before he captured WWE gold, one would have surely predicted success for him in the athletic world. His frame is tank-like; he's a mountain of muscles powered by explosive speed.

It's not surprising in the least that the Iowa Hawkeyes saw enough physical potential in him to bring him aboard their football team.

Early Displays of Power

Ewen had a football player's build as a teenager. He was a wide-shouldered, robust athlete with just one year's worth of high school football experience when Iowa recruited him to play for it.

In his senior year of high school, he transferred to Tampa's Wharton High for a chance to get a football scholarship. He was a wrestler before he was a defensive lineman, but he loved the latter more.

In a 2003 interview with Terry Jones of the St. Petersburg Times, Ewen explained, "Football is the sport I love and the only one I plan to participate in from now on. I played youth football through the fifth grade and really enjoyed it, but Tampa Prep doesn't have a football program. Wrestling was the only hard physical contact sport there, so I tried it."

Impressively, he plowed through opposing offensive lines enough to earn his way onto the Hawkeyes.

Ewen (far right) with his Hawkeyes teammates.
Ewen (far right) with his Hawkeyes teammates.Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

His college football career did not go as planned, though. He redshirted his freshman year, only to miss the entire season the next year after blowing out his knee.

That proved to be far from the only injury to slow him down.

"I tore both of my ACLs. I broke my right patella. I tore my left pec, all within about a 2 1/2-year span," he told Brian Fritz of Sporting News.

Once he got on the field, he didn't exactly look like a superstar. As seen on his HawkeyeSports.com profile, he managed 14 total tackles and two sacks in 2006.

He was, however, showing off skills that would be key to his rise as a wrestler. Strength coach Chris Doyle noted of Ewen in an Iowa Hawkeyes video, "He was always a hard-working guy, always a team guy and a great program guy."

Still pulsing with competitive fire, Ewen decided to purse powerlifting. If football wasn't going to work out, perhaps simply leaning on his uncanny strength was the answer.

The young man excelled in this new world. Per GoHeavy.net, Ewen set a deadlifting record at the U.S. Open Championships in 2011 when he hoisted up 749 pounds. 

The new sport offered him a chance to funnel his energy and feel the buzz of victory.  In a video for WWE, Big E said, "It helped me a lot, as far as my focus, as far as still being able to put that effort out, still being able to compete and not feel like I had given up."

The raw power that allowed him to thrive as a powerlifter would soon come in handy when he was lifting grown men into the air for a living.

I Need Five

In 2009, WWE's developmental system wasn't the cult hit and talent hotbed that is today. Florida Championship Wrestling was the company's minor league brand, not NXT.

Big E Langston (he would later drop the last name) started off his pro wrestling career in his home state that year, but the strongman was eventually at the forefront of FCW's evolution into NXT.

The footwork that aided him in football and the strength that allowed him to lift ungodly amounts of weight made him an appealing wrestling prospect right away. Not only did he look like an action figure, but he darted around the ring with surprising agility for such a beefy guy.

His personality had not yet been allowed to roam free, though.

In interviews, one could see charisma bubbling under the surface, but he wasn't yet comfortable with his character. He struggled to find the right level of over-the-top energy. 

Still, he was among the top talents on the developmental brand's roster. Two years after joining FCW, he and Calvin Raines were pegged to win the Florida Tag Team Championship. 

When FCW rebranded as NXT, the company portrayed Big E as an unstoppable force. He went on a winning streak that saw him rattle off wins against everyone from Antonio Cesaro to Aiden English. 

In December 2012, he became the second-ever NXT champion when he knocked off Seth Rollins.

There wasn't a wealth of depth to his gimmick. He was a pacing animal who exploded onto his opponents.    

As part of his act, he demanded a five count to earn a pinfall, a la King Kong Bundy. The NXT fans ate it up. He was earning thunderous chants when he entered the arena, riling up the audience with his in-ring destruction.

It's a time he remembers fondly. He told M Live's Edward Pevos, "I had a lot of fun doing the five count thing in NXT. It was a crowd favorite babyface role."

The role played up his physical strengths beautifully. It wouldn't be until years later that his personality would fully emerge.

From Enforcer to Entertainer

At the tail end of 2012, Big E charged onto Raw and attacked John Cena in his debut. He served as AJ Lee's bodyguard and Dolph Ziggler's muscle.

The five-count act was gone. Instead, the powerhouse was a mostly silent, brooding bruiser. 

WWE played up his physique at this point, not his personality.

And at first, he didn't step into the ring much. WWE asked him to stand in Ziggler or Lee's corner and scowl with his arms crossed. Opportunities soon started opening up, however.

He and Ziggler teamed up to face Team Hell No for the tag team titles at WrestleMania 29. With Ziggler out with a concussion, Big E slid into The Showoff's spot and battled Alberto Del Rio. And then he became a central figure in the Kaitlyn vs. Lee feud, playing the supposed secret admirer of the former.

Once he broke away from Ziggler and Lee, he began to garner momentum, quickly becoming a contender for the Intercontinental Championship.

We still weren't seeing the real Big E. On his own, he had more mic time, but he was subdued, still trying to find his voice.

But boy, did he make an impact in the ring. 

He whipped his foes around with his big-time power. He leaped high into the air before crashing down on them. His athletic potential had to have WWE officials salivating.

Less than a year after his main-roster debut, he won the Intercontinental Championship from Curtis Axel.

That reign didn't launch him forward as he might have hoped. In months, he was among the many underused talents waiting around for a chance to shine. That came in 2014 in the form of The New Day.

Initially, WWE had the trio of Big E, Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston play positive, clap-happy good guys. The gimmick bombed. This was the wrong era to introduce something so corny.

He, Woods and Kingston didn't give up.

In an interview last fall with Luke Winkie of Sports Illustrated, He said, "There are plenty of instances of 'Oh this thing is dead in the water,' or 'Oh this thing is never going to work,' but we were fortunate enough to persevere and get it off the ground. That's the key. Sink or swim, we believed so much in this idea."

The New Day morphed into gyrating, needling irritants with a taste for the absurd. Suddenly, Big E's sense of humor was getting put to use. And the charismatic big man thrived.

Fans went from dismissing the group to demanding more of them each night.

Free to be as insane and goofy as they can be, the three have since become a hot-ticket act. They have been the class of the tag team division and are now currently in the midst of their second title reign.

Big E is again looking like the star he seemed on track to become when he was demanding five counts in NXT. He is trending upward just as he was when he clogged up running lanes in high school.

And when injury or adversary comes his way again, he will know what it takes to overcome it.

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