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Are We Witnessing the Dawn of a New Era of WWE Superstars?

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2022

FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2021, file photo, United States' Gable Dan Steveson celebrates after defeating Georgia's Gennadij Cudinovic during their men's freestyle 125kg wrestling final match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Chiba, Japan. Steveson has achieved his childhood dream of signing with World Wrestling Entertainment, but with a twist. The WWE announced Thursday that it has signed Steveson to an exclusive NIL deal that will allow him to join the WWE roster and return to the University of Minnesota to defend his college heavyweight wrestling title. It is the WWE’s first NIL deal. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)
Aaron Favila/Associated Press

We are witnessing a new era of Superstars in WWE, one in which the company explores all avenues for the men and women who will define its future.

Not content to just scour independent wrestling companies for the next big thing, the company has turned its attention to athletics as it looks to shape athletes straight out of college into sports entertainment stars.

It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the company has looked outside the bubble of professional wrestling for talent. The industry has a long, storied history of developing icons and Hall of Famers out of men and women who first starred on courts and fields around the globe.

Thanks to a new talent initiative, the company hopes the past repeats itself.

               

Next in Line

In December, WWE launched its NIL program, Next In Line, which gives collegiate athletes a pathway to the company. The NCAA's decision to allow collegiate athletes to cash in on their names, images and likenesses opened up the possibility for WWE to enhance its developmental program by forging relationships with athletes from various backgrounds.

"By creating partnerships with elite athletes at all levels across a wide variety of college sports, we will dramatically expand our pool of talent and create a system that readies NCAA competitors for WWE once their collegiate careers come to a close," WWE executive vice president Paul Levesque said in a press release accompanying the announcement of the program.

One week after the introduction of Next In Line, the company announced the names of 15 collegiate athletes who would participate in the program, joining WWE Raw draft pick and Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson.

A contract with the company is not guaranteed. They work in the Performance Center and have access to all of the tools available to WWE's developmental talent but must show evaluators something that proves they are worthy of the next step in the process.

It is a revolutionary developmental program, far and above anything the company has attempted before, and is not something that is going away anytime soon.

As part of WrestleMania 38 weekend in Dallas, the company will host a multi-day tryout exclusively for "current and recently graduated college athletes." WWE expects north of 50 men and women, with backgrounds in everything from football to cheerleading, to participate and be evaluated in the ring, on the mic and in sit-down interviews.

According to Chris Vannini of The Athletic, there were scouts at the NFL Combine, searching for fringe talent, hoping they consider a future with the company.

It is not uncommon for WWE to recruit from outside of wrestling. The industry's history is dominated by stars from other sports finding their way into the business and, in some cases, becoming influential in it. Some of the biggest stars to ever lace a pair of boots came from the world of college football or the mats of amateur wrestling before giving sports entertainment the time of day.

             

A History of Success

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin is arguably the biggest star in wrestling history, but it was his love of football that led him to the University of North Texas prior to entering the business in 1989. The Rock, his co-star in the much-celebrated Attitude Era, is open about his dreams of becoming a star defensive lineman during his days at the University of Miami.

Hall of Famers Ron Simmons, John Bradshaw Layfield and Goldberg all competed on the gridiron before enjoying fruitful careers under the bright lights of WWE. The company will induct Vader as part of this year's Hall of Fame class, another former world champion whose journey through the industry began on the football field.

Then there is the current universal champion and brightest star in the company, Roman Reigns, who starred at Georgia Tech before going into the family business. And do not forget about Big E, who spent his Saturdays suiting up for Iowa before ushering in a new day in WWE.

WWE titleholder Brock Lesnar was an NCAA champion who tossed opponents around collegiate mats long before he executed his first F-5. Ditto Hall of Famer Kurt Angle, who wasted little time entering his name into consideration for best in the world upon his arrival in sports entertainment.

Recently, Chad Gable and Otis of Alpha Academy have seen their stock rise on Monday Night Raw, winning tag team gold and feuding with RK-Bro. Gable competed in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 2012 Olympic games. Otis was briefly part of Team USA at the same time, competing in the same sport. 

In nearly every case, it was their athleticism that helped them pick up the industry as quickly as they did, but their personalities and abilities to entertain the masses earned them their legacies.

That does not mean WWE will stop recruiting talented independent wrestlers. Nor should it. Those men and women already have an understanding of the industry and have excelled in it. Adding them to the NXT roster, developing them into a more polished project and allowing them to eventually shine on Monday and Friday nights will benefit the company as much as developing athletes straight out of the dorm room.

Some will criticize the incoming athletes for benefiting from a shiny, corporate developmental system. They should not be unfairly criticized for taking advantage of an opportunity that did not exist when Austin, Simmons, Vader and others were grinding it out and learning their crafts in sweltering warehouses.

There is room for more than just indy stars with backgrounds exclusively in pro wrestling, though, and history tells us as much. The company is wise to turn its attention to acquiring talent from every possible avenue, especially as it looks to find stars beyond the dominant Reigns.

If he or she comes from the world of gymnastics or soccer, can captivate audiences and develop into an in-ring talent who can hold his or her own with the best in the business, fans and WWE alike benefit. 

Just ask former Angelina College basketball player The Undertaker, who cements his professional wrestling immortality April 1 as part of the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2022.

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