It may feel like fairytale stuff but stars of rugby union could become heroes in the world of WWE, if they are willing to take the risk. We chart the path…
Rugby to Wrestling – A special feature
WEST YORKSHIRE may not be twinned with Central Florida, but Luke Menzies talks as if he was always destined to end up grappling in Orlando.
“Coming from a northern town, you either have a trade or play rugby league,” the 32-year-old says. “My dad had played league so I got ushered in that direction.
“But I’d always wanted to try out wrestling and when I ended up tearing my quad, I got released from my contract with Salford Red Devils. I saw a tweet from (former wrestler) William Regal putting over the services of his coach, Marty Jones, who is a legend in Britain, so I went over and had my first wrestling session with him.
“I just remember standing in the ring and it was a lightbulb moment. I thought to myself, ‘This is where I need to be’.”
A lot has changed since those fresh forays in 2016. Today Menzies performs under the banner of NXT – a World Wrestling Entertainment brand that was originally used to develop talent for WWE’s flagship shows but now has a respectable reach of its own – using the ring name Ridge Holland. After an extensive career in league’s Championship and flirting with Super League action, the proud Yorkshireman is now a bona fide wrestler.
Menzies is not the only former league player squaring off in the ring either. Ex-NRL wing Daniel Vidot competes under the moniker Xyon Quinn and has featured on WWE’s SmackDown show.
But if you think this all sounds like anomalies from a rare arrangement with the 13-player code, you’d better think again. Because some well-known figures from the world’s most recognisable wrestling brand have their eyes on rugby union, and have laid the groundwork for athletes to cross over, if they have the wattage of star power…
It’s like the Superman transformation in reverse. After years of seeing his Triple H persona slam, sledgehammer and roar for in-ring rivals to “suck it!”, it feels surreal to hear Paul Levesque calmly discuss strategies to win over new markets. This is one of wrestling’s living legends and he’s talking about rugby.
“People stake us like a combat sport, where everybody’s competing against each other, but we’re much more in the vein of where rugby is,” says Levesque, WWE’s executive vice-president for global talent strategy and development. “You have five core values and it’s the same for us. I can look across those, of ‘teamwork’ and ‘respect’, ‘enjoyment’, ‘discipline’ and ‘sportsmanship’, and that all resonates in our world as well.
“You are only as good as the person across the ring from you.”
Life on the elite wrestling circuit is one of touring, of being part of a much larger organism. Levesque says that unlike combat sports, where a competitor enters an arena ready to go to war with everyone, he sees wrestling as a ‘family’ endeavour. Covid has of course changed the picture for now, but in the thick of a heavy schedule, kids can be brought along. All the performers have to look after each other’s safety in competition. Talents work out together in the gym, train together in the ring.
According to Menzies, there is an art to communicating with each other in there, with looks and body language, with familiarity of movements. He also explains that the group will police each other, if a performer changing their habits would improve the shows or make life better for fellow performers.
There is, in short, something there rugby players would recognise. And the company say they are well aware of the positives union stars can bring.
But if you want to talk about sporting crossovers, it’s best to ask Canyon Ceman. Once a big ticket in beach volleyball, today he looks after talent development for WWE on the ground.
As a general approach when looking at males, he says those at “6ft 3in, 250lb (17st 12lb) are definitely a strike zone for us,” which screams rugby to begin with. With that, any male or female athletes coming across need elite work-rate. Then, Ceman adds, diversity of shape, look and ethnic background also help.
On rugby players leaping towards the world of wrestling, he says: “I want it to be clear: there’s definitely an open door.
“If I get a world-class or national-class rugby athlete that looks the part, there’s a very good chance they’re going to get to try out. Because we want to see if they have it. Second, the work ethic and toughness that they might take for granted, that is just part of the rugby culture, is exactly what we’re looking for.
“So they should feel confident coming into the room with what they bring to the table naturally, from living the life they’ve led, of getting their body ready, getting their mind right, of being a part of a team. That matters to us. We value it highly.
“The third part is probably the X-Factor. There should be a ‘why’.
“It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, I’ll just (dip) my toe in that, that looks interesting’. It should be, ‘I want this and here’s why’. That’s the magic, right, that’s the art.
“In order to commit your life to this, much like the reason they committed to rugby, it’s because they fell in love. They need to fall in love, and sometimes it happens organically and magically. They come to a tryout and have their first week of training and all of a sudden it’s love. But usually there is a strong ‘why’ that motivates them to put their life into something.
“We try to find out if they have that at our tryouts but they should reflect on that too. Is there something that speaks to them? Did they and their dad watch Haystacks Calhoun every Saturday on the telly? I hear that story all the time with the UK wrestling culture. It is something that speaks to them and tells them that they have to be that.”
It would be no cakewalk, switching from pro rugby to life in the ring. If you are not a fan of wrestling but have heard of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, John Cena or Triple H, there is a good reason why. In August, Forbes named Johnson the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the second year in a row, and Ceman holds up the discipline and drive of these figures as something to aspire to. He also says of the nuts and bolts world of wrestling that you have
to stay in shape for 52 weeks a year, because hey, there ain’t no off-season.
You have to face the reality: this is a huge lifestyle decision. However, when it works out, what a lifestyle it is.
And while a global pandemic has laid waste to so many calendar plans, there is still a road map that rugby players should be aware of. As Ceman explains, rugby hotbeds are ripe for visits from their talent scouts in the future.
“Had Covid not hit in 2020, my international tryouts were going to be in London, Cape Town and also Sydney, which is highly correlated with great rugby athletes, right? My job done well means that at each one of those tryouts there was going to be a significant amount of rugby talent there.
“I don’t always control who puts their hand up to do it, but we are looking and as soon as we can, we will be having International tryouts in those exact markets again, probably with a strong dose of India and Saudi Arabia too.
“Those aren’t necessarily rugby hotbeds, but the UK is always a top priority for us because it’s a hotbed of wrestling talent and rugby talent. Then South Africa and Australia are highly over-indexed in terms of pro wrestling interest, from an audience standpoint and from a talent standpoint. So as soon we can, we’ll be in both of those countries too and I can’t wait.”
Don’t plan on headlining WrestleMania just yet, though. Going deeper, how could a pro rugby player really jump from their life on the grass into the squared circle?
MAKING THE JUMP
WHEN HE began his journey into wrestling, Menzies faced all the usual questions from his rugby mates about the pantomime of it all, with many wondering why he would spandex up.
Now, the same doubters want tickets to see him and his buddies in action.
“As far as comparing taking a hit-up or putting a big hit on someone, and taking a bump in the ring – that ring is not a trampoline. It’s not a mattress. It’s wood, it’s steel, with (a tiny amount of) foam. After that first wrestling training session, I was sorer than any rugby game.
“Hitting the ropes cuts your sides up, it cuts your back up. Some ‘ropes’ are cable, some are rope. (Getting used to it is like forming) a callus. I’m out injured just now and when I go back, it’ll be like I’ve been hit by a train.
“It was definitely a shock to the system, and that’s considering I did rugby professionally for ten years. It’s a totally different form of conditioning. But rugby did stand me in good stead, in terms of a base of conditioning, of that athletic ability, footwork and work ethic. It gave me the opportunity to put the best foot forward.”
So how do you get to that? Let’s talk rough numbers.
According to Ceman, if 30,000 ambitious athletes from all over the globe apply via wweperformancecenter.com, about 300 names from that database could be invited to one of four or five tryouts around the world, at one of the company’s performance centres.
Over three to four days, Ceman and assessors look at athleticism, fitness and the ability to improvise or entertain. Former top-end wrestlers William Regal and Matt Bloom (formerly known in the ring as Albert) will cast an eye over wannabe stars as they, say, execute forward rolls, or bound over rows of prone fellow trialists. They will see how they handle themselves and how willing they are to learn basic techniques. Does their charisma shine through?
From that collection of hopefuls, about 30 a year are lined up for contracts.
Then the hiring process kicks in. There will be background checks, reviews of social media behaviours, assessing one’s ability to handle public scrutiny. They will check on orthopaedics, cardio, brain health and also general wellness (with screening for performance-enhancing and recreational drug use).
Whip through all that and a contract is yours. Then you go into their system – depending on athlete flow, there will be two or three class intakes a year, and folk will begin at a performance centre or at the main base in Orlando. It is possible a new class will go in this February, and such a group can be made up of performers from a wrestling background and an athletic one.
So a professional rugby player, like Vidot from Aussie league, would have to start from scratch, rolling, running the ropes, working on some short TV spots, and banking hours and hours of work. Vidot is in his third year of the process.
Ceman has also attended a few big rugby tournaments, but at this point he wants to make it clear that the WWE’s top brass are not cold-calling Test superstars to try to coax them to wrestling. If those international rugby heroes are interested in checking it out, they will of course listen. However, it is the disillusioned, the long-term wrestling fan or cut-contract injured pro in their lates 20s or early 30s, they see taking on this opportunity.
It is not always the very elite rugby players that would make it anyway. Glasgow’s Mark Coffey wrestles on the NXT UK brand, and he played for St Aloysius’ College and at GHA as a teenager before dedicating himself to ring life. At the other end of the scale, former USA captain Todd Clever briefly trialled with WWE at one point and ex-England and British & Irish Lions prop Alex Corbisiero – a lifetime wrestling aficionado – was close to joining up.
“The reason I didn’t jump ship was the security of rugby union, the security in the contract,” Corbisiero explains to Rugby World when asked about his opportunity. “It was for the guarantees over a certain amount of years that you can sign for, the amount that you signed for (financially), and the amount that you’re covered, if you get injured.
“Those were my big reservations. But do I think there is a character in rugby union who at some point could do it? Yes I do, 100%. It has probably not happened yet because the stars haven’t aligned, or maybe they’re not even aware of the pathway, maybe it is a multitude of factors. But it is by no means impossible, and by no means do I think it’s never gonna happen.”
Corbisiero also says of top women’s players crossing over: “In a nutshell, it would definitely be a viable option that I think should be looked at.
“I think for women the opportunities to explore are ever-growing and the pathways (in rugby) are getting more and more established and better. But there is still so much of a road to travel, that’s just the sad reality. If this is another avenue for athletes to continue their quest or to try something new, a passion, it’s a no-brainer. The calibre of athlete we’re seeing in women’s rugby is very impressive, and WWE would have to take interest in that.”
The physical side for any elite rugby athlete should not be in question. As Levesque, 51, explains, top sportspeople can pick up a decent level of ring craft from somewhere between three months to a year of training. Then they should be able to start some matches.
It is the selling to an audience, the acting, the charismatic displays that are the hardest parts of the gig to pick up.
“That’s what separates them,” Ceman agrees. “They might be good enough to get on television from their names, if fans are willing to buy a ticket to go see them. But it’s a question of: can they make you believe in the story? Can they make you believe in the physicality? Can they make you really care about them emotionally?
“For those that the answer is yes, the sky is the limit for them. For those that the answer is no, there is a limit. Could they still wrestle some matches for us and perpetuate someone else’s big story? Yes. But the ones who really break through are the ones that make the audience feel and think and believe.”
Levesque has gone from being Hunter Hearst Helmsley to simply Triple H. He was part of the infamous group D-Generation X and has appeared on talk shows and in Hollywood movies. He knows all about that charming battle.
“Everything is entertainment, right? We coin ourselves as ‘sports entertainment’ and we are, but I also believe everything in the news is entertainment now, there’s not really much news. It’s opinions, entertainment and sports is the same way now.
“That’s why in individual sports you don’t necessarily always see the best fighter as the biggest draw. You see the biggest personality fighters. As long as the fighter is good it can captivate you.
“It’s about personality. The world runs on charisma. I truly believe that and I think that (is the same) in all sports. I think they’re beginning to realise it now but I think all sports could take a page out of WWE, if they haven’t already, and incorporate that into what they do, to have bigger and bigger attractions.”
Menzies’s core piece of advice for any crossover athlete is to “come in with a white-belt mentality”. Like any kid entering a martial arts dojo for the first time, forget what you think you know. Clear the head and prepare to dig in and learn, starting from the bottom.
But he is still getting to grips with the television ‘spots’, the call-out videos and the little promos, filmed effectively as a monologue straight down the barrel of the camera. He often finds his partner shaking their head at him as he whips his phone out for another practice run in selfie mode. That side may not feel natural at all for any rugby stars.
But as the WWE machine puts its near billion-person social media reach to use, maybe the sport of rugby should take notice of what they are doing…
LESSON FOR RUGBY
“In another world, I’d like to think I’d have continued being Krisys,” says Gloucester prop Jamal Ford-Robinson of a long-gone wrestling persona. “I reckon he could’ve been on NXT UK right now.”
At around 19, Ford-Robinson was playing National Two rugby for Cambridge when he began training with independent outfit Progress Wrestling. After a few months of travelling back and forth and working on his craft, he took to the ring for the first time. Search YouTube for ‘Krisys vs Tyson James’ and you will see Ford-Robinson, all thousand-yard stares and prowling walks, make short work of his physically undermatched opponent in the ring.
It was the prop’s one and only show and as rugby took off, he doubled down on his game and left Krisys behind. But he is still a fan. And he can see where pro rugby could learn from WWE. Mainly with the marketing of individuals.
He says: “It’d definitely be in the minority, but if you did some digging you might find a couple of rugby personalities on Instagram or Twitter and get a vibe of what the person is like.
“There’s probably something like a curve. Where rugby was amateur, guys just played for the love and then the whole media attention side was like, ‘Ooh, what’s this about?’.
“We’re now at a point where everyone goes to academies and gets media trained and gets told ‘don’t put anything on social media because it’ll get brought up against you, it never gets deleted…’ So now we’re probably at that point where a lot of guys coming through who on the front are just very boring.
“Give it a few more years and hopefully we’ll get a few more characters. And that is good.”
Ceman talks of Tall Poppy Syndrome, where in some cultures, if an individual grows too high on their own, they are at risk of being chopped down. As he understands it, rugby has a bit of this.
Ford-Robinson, 27, says that we expect rugby players to be uniform, everyone with their socks pulled up, acting as the ultimate team player. He would love to see more young athletes being encouraged to be themselves, to air their views, to be unencumbered by just the team image. Because you can be more individual and still contribute brilliantly to the collective effort.
Then there is the fact WWE revels in storylines about conflict. Asked if it would be better if rugby had a bit more of this, rather than the ubiquitous ‘rugby family’ message, where everyone is mates and guzzles beer together, he nods in agreement. But he adds: “It definitely would but I think that would require someone with a bit of vision at the top of the game, in order to give it the go-ahead. I’m not sure rugby attracts that sort of individual.”
Watch the social media output of rugby’s governing bodies or biggest competitions or the video offerings from those groups and over and over again you see stories about mutual love. Which is pleasant but is it too twee?
Interestingly, when told of the example of Formula One’s Netflix series Drive to Survive – in which conflict between drivers or teams is a big part of the narrative structure of the documentary show – Levesque reveals that figures from the motor sport have made an effort to speak with WWE in the past.
Well, as a sport, rugby union is not wanting for natural rivalries.
As Corbisiero sees it: “With a derby game like (in the East Midlands), there’s enough truth to that you could turn the dial up on it, create more of a storyline. Which would obviously intrigue people and put more emphasis on the game. It just seems to be very ‘anti-rugby values’, traditionally, to do that.
“Gradually over time, with the entertainment side, as rugby becomes more and more of a business, we’ll see more of an emphasis on getting new fans, expanding, staying current… These things probably need to be addressed more than the traditional model. Rugby’s only been professional for so long.”
Of course, in the world of wrestling, the talent has no problem with being seen as either a good guy or a heel. But which ambitious young rugby player is willing to play the bad guy? Sure, England coach Eddie Jones has no problem with being the lightning rod and lacing his public appearances with some spicy soundbites, but few players appear happy to take on such a role. or are rarely asked to do so, if ever.
When asked about the dilemma of persona, Levesque laughs, saying: “In the horror genre, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are always the big stars. They kill everyone! Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader – which one would you rather be? There is an attraction to being the bad guy and it’s fun.
“When you begin to relax, especially in today’s world, people understand the performance art of what we do. So they understand what you’re saying on TV and your performance is not necessarily you, you’re playing a role and a character and they like that.
“I think you see it in other sports, like individual fighting sports, with talent doing a lot of trash talking before the fight, and when it’s over they are hugging each other and saying, ‘Uh, I was just trying to promote the fight’.”
According to Corbisiero, there are also elements of rugby that could benefit wrestling. Something of a purist, he feels that while rugby could learn from WWE’s drive to appeal to potential new fans, a younger audience, many diehards like himself would also love to see a bit more focus from WWE on actual wrestling action sometimes. There could be more appeal to the old school or traditionalists who adore craft.
However, others also point out that the WWE’s family-run business, headed by Vince McMahon, operates with a singular vision and that rugby is very different as their sport is made up of so many different factions. What’s more, with wrestling – injury permitting – you can plot one talent’s entire path for a year. You won’t get that luxury in rugby.
Physically speaking, there is less of a divide between the two disciplines than you would think. But in terms of branding and sales work, there is still some ground to be made up, if anyone is interested in doing it.
On an individual basis, though, there is a big opportunity there. So who will be the first name from elite rugby union to climb between the ropes?
WANT TO APPLY?
If you think you have what it takes to make it into WWE, check out wweperformancecenter.com and take on the application process.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in January.
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