8:00 AM ET
Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer
- Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
- Previously covered University of Missouri football
- Member of Pro Football Writers of America
ORLANDO, Fla. — Sabby Piscitelli’s football career ended like a striking knife edge chop to the chest.
The 2007 second-round pick of theTampa Bay Buccaneershad started the final game of the 2011 season at safety for theKansas City Chiefs, putting a bow on his sixth year with a victory against theDenver Broncos.
Piscitelli became a free agent following that season believing he was entering the prime of his football career.
And then … nothing. His phone never rang. But the NFL doesn’t offer explanations when it’s done with you. It just moves on.
“It was a very dark part of my life,” said Piscitelli, 29.
Then, when Piscitelli was training with UFC fighter Rashad Evans in Boca Raton, Florida, his photo made its way into the hands of Canyon Ceman, the senior director of talent development for World Wrestling Entertainment.
Ceman was in the market for professional athletes going through a transitional period and was instantly drawn to Piscitelli, who had the look the WWE covets in its superstars.
Tired of waiting for the NFL and with images of football players-turned-WWE superstars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Bill Goldberg and Ron “Faarooq” Simmons in his head, Piscitelli decided to make the big change. He attended a WWE tryout in Orlando and signed soon after. He was assigned to NXT, the company’s developmental territory, and took the ring name Tino Sabbatelli.
“WWE kind of gave me a second chance, a second hope, that second opportunity to still be able to be a professional athlete, and still be an entertainer,” Piscitelli said.
As it turns out, the WWE and the world of professional wrestling has become an increasingly common outlet for football players when their time on the field is done.
In this corner …
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Even a person as athletic as an NFL player doesn’t just put on an outfit, get a cool ring name and persona, and then wrestle in events like this weekend’s SummerSlam.
Moving to the WWE means starting from the bottom, a sobering reality for high-level athletes who have rarely experienced what it’s like to fail.
“You come from a sport where you were part of the best of the best, and you were on top of the mountain and then go to another industry and start from the bottom,” Piscitelli said. “You suck. You do. It’s just the truth. So that’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re competing and you’re around other colleagues and you’re not good.”
Dean Muhtadi, a former unrestricted free agent who went to training camp with theGreen Bay PackersandArizona Cardinals, got his start in pro wrestling through Gordon Gronkowski, the Gronk family patriarch.
Gronkowski was college roommates with Mike Rotunda, a longtime WWE performer and now a behind-the-scenes producer. A simple phone call put Muhtadi on track to chase a long-held dream of his to get in the ring.
For football players like Muhtadi, known professionally as Mojo Rawley, and Piscitelli, professional wrestling comes with plenty of challenges. Their job is now part athlete, part stunt man and part stage actor. It meant changing their bodies and embracing their personalities.
In his NFL life, Muhtadi would eat every two hours and use weight-gain supplements to get as big as 330 pounds so he could play nose tackle. Now, Muhtadi is listed at 265 pounds and his workout routine has shifted from low reps and heavy weights to lower weights with high reps and plenty of conditioning. After leaving football, Muhtadi said he shed 60 pounds in seven weeks.
In Piscitelli’s case, the change of skill sets was the more difficult transition. On a football field, Piscitelli could drop his hips and cover in the secondary, but those movements become far less natural when it involves running the ropes and changing direction in a wrestling ring.
Upon signing with WWE, Piscitelli and Muhtadi immediately realized they were going to be playing catch-up to more experienced wrestlers. While they learned basics like running the ropes, taking bumps (wrestling lingo for how to fall down) and elementary moves like the hip toss, others were executing more advanced moves like suicide dives between and over the ropes.
“It’s really tough for a guy to come in with no experience because from a wrestling standpoint, you are so behind,” Muhtadi said. “Maybe that guy knows flashier moves or, you know, cooler holds and transitions.”
While working on developing those moves and transitions, Muhtadi and Piscitelli worked to ensure they emphasized their strengths. In Muhtadi’s case, it was his high-energy approach which was rare for someone his size. For Piscitelli, it was his look and charisma.
Then it’s time to spend time in front of the mirror working on facial expressions and studying tape to ensure their every move corresponds to their character.
Muhtadi keeps his phone near him when he sleeps and often finds himself waking up with an idea for his character, which he taps into the notes app before going back to sleep. He does the same when he’s out at a bar and observes something that can help his character or takes note of a joke that could apply to a storyline he’s working on.
Months after the WWE called Muhtadi up to the main roster in 2016, he found himself on WWE’s SmackDown in a story with actor Ryan Phillippe. Phillippe and Muhtadi taped a backstage segment that was interrupted by rival Curt Hawkins, who fired off some jokes about Phillippe’s acting career with Muhtadi defending him.
Later in the show, Muhtadi defeated Hawkins in the ring with Phillippe providing ringside commentary. After the victory, the pair celebrated in the ring. It was the type of sequence that reminded Muhtadi that every week can bring something new.
“He was giddy afterward,” Muhtadi said. “It just shows what happens when anyone from outside careers gets a little taste. It’s awesome because it’s one shot in front of a live crowd. With everybody knowing who you are and there’s no helmet over your head. Everyone knows your face, your identity, the crowd is rockin’ and you just get out there and you just do your thing.”
New NXT signees have mandatory weekly classes focused on learning how to speak to a crowd, writing promos, taking a prewritten promo and learning how best to deliver it or doing improvisational exercises. Once they graduate to the main roster, it’s on the wrestler to come up with ideas and material to pitch on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
All of it is integral in developing a character, the thing that will ultimately determine staying power in the world of professional wrestling.
NXT head coach Matt Bloom preaches taking your natural personality and turning the volume all the way up. It also means striking a balance between being a little selfish and working in concert with someone else in the ring.
“I might need him to lose to someone who is much smaller than them,” Bloom said. “That’s an ego thing. Can you do that? Because if you can’t, if my boss tells you you’re going to lose to a dwarf in a dress, you’re going to lose to a dwarf in a dress. This is entertainment and that’s what our boss wants us to do. Sometimes, these Type A personalities that might be hard for them to understand.”
From parts known and unknown
Attend any of the NFL’s college all-star games and you’re bound to find no shortage of coaches, scouts and personnel types from all over the league donning the corresponding team gear. It’s also become a common occurrence to find someone wearing a WWE polo. Chances are, that would be Paul Fair, the WWE’s director of talent development.
After six years at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Fair landed with WWE after a chance meeting with John Laurinaitis, the former WWE executive vice president of talent relations (and also himself a former wrestler, the uncle to former NFL linebacker James Laurinaitis and brother of wrestling legend Joe Laurinaitis, who wrestled as Road Warrior Animal), who was looking into IMG for his son.
During an average day, Fair looks at multiple prospects, stays in contact with coaches, agents and influencers and helps manage NXT hiring.
“Football players and rugby players, they kind of make the most sense,” Fair said. “They have that physicality and obviously the size and athleticism, but the environment down in the performance center is much like a football locker room and football environment and once those guys see that, it just translates really well. Those are things that they can hold on to that really strike home for them.”
Fair’s search for talent isn’t limited to football players and he travels all over the world. In the last year, Fair has been to Germany, Chile and a conducted a massive tryout in India.
Football traits like athleticism, work ethic and coachability remain hallmarks of identifying prospects, but Fair has found himself looking for much more than that. Was the prospect outgoing? Could he speak well in front of large crowds? Did he have the charisma to hold a room? More than anything, does he have that hard to define “It” factor?
Given how many of the characteristics required to play football translate to wrestling, it’s only natural that many new NXT signees come from the football world. Of the 40 men and women at NXT’s April three-day tryout camp, nine had played at least some level of college football while the group also included a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, a firefighter and powerlifters.
Into the squared circle
Tucked away between a car detailing company and Hydrotek International Inc., maker of sensor faucets and flush valves, just east of Orlando, is the NXT Performance Center. WWE opened the performance center in 2013 and inside the nondescript building is everything an aspiring professional wrestler could need.
That includes a 12,000 square foot space that holds six wrestling rings. There’s another more padded ring for move innovation and a ramp for talent to work on their entrances. There’s a weight room overseen by head strength coach Sean Hayes, a former Harvard linebacker who came from theHouston Texans, and rooms designed for talent to work on their promos, social media content and on-camera skills and to break down film. They also have a medical and rehab area.
Two cameras providing live video feeds to Vince McMahon (the WWE’s CEO and chairman) and Paul Levesque (aka Triple H, executive vice president of talent, live events and creative) are perched above the rings.
In the middle of it all is Bloom, who spent 20 years — including nearly a decade with WWE under personas such as Prince Albert, A-Train and Tensai — wrestling all over the world.
“Everything is here to help you succeed, so if you don’t do it, more often than not if they look themselves in the eye when they get released, it’s on them,” Bloom said.
Bloom, who played college football at Pittsburgh and had a brief stint in the NFL, retired from wrestling in 2014. Armed with a teaching degree, Bloom saw an opportunity to combine his wrestling career with his education and give back to the business he loved.
Now Bloom, along with a staff of nine coaches, is the man in charge of developing the roughly 40 wrestlers working for NXT in the U.S. at a given time. Those wrestlers are at the facility six days a week for two-hour workouts followed by two more hours in the ring in groups of eight to 12.
Some will appear on NXT television programming and storylines, some work Thursday, Friday and Saturday live events in various parts of Florida and those who are just beginning are held back until they’re ready. All of them will spend time at some point breaking down and setting up the ring and lighting or, as Bloom calls it “paying their dues.”
For those coming from football, there are certain elements of training that come naturally. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy when they show up for a tryout.
The average tryout consists of 40 to 45 prospects from all walks of life. When the tryout begins, Bloom has a lengthy checklist in his head of what he wants. Can you be a part of the team? Do you motivate others as well as yourself? How well do you take coaching? Are you athletic enough? What’s your personality like?
None of the tryout drills offer better insight into those traits than a bag drill that Bloom calls a “real ballbuster.”
“I might need him to lose to someone who is much smaller than them. That’s an ego thing. Can you do that? Because if you can’t, if my boss tells you you’re going to lose to a dwarf in a dress, you’re going to lose to a dwarf in a dress.” NXT coach Matt Bloom
It involves putting a heavy bag in the middle of three rings. Each prospect has to drop down, explode over the bag and hit the ropes. Down and back is one rep and each ring requires 10, 8 and 6 reps with a time limit on each one. The 10-rep ring might have a time limit of a minute and 6 seconds and the 8-rep ring might be 54 seconds. For those who aren’t busy vomiting after each turn, Bloom pays close attention to see who is sticking around to cheer on the others and who wants to post the best time.
“It’s hard as s—, but it also creates competition,” Bloom said. “I want to see when they get tired, how far they can push themselves when they think they can’t go anymore? But then I want to see if they motivate others to do it too. The guy that went first, does he help the guy who is dragging ass on 6, 7, or 8. That’s important to me.”
Who else wants some?
As the road from the football field to wrestling becomes increasingly streamlined, the WWE has every intention of opening as many doors as possible.
Seattle Seahawks defensive tackleEarl Mitchell, a nine-year NFL veteran, has shadowed Fair twice at the performance center and though a full-time wrestling gig isn’t in his future, there could be other ways for Mitchell to make it a second career.
During his two externships, Mitchell learned about every aspect of the business from talent recruitment to scriptwriting. A potential role helping rookie wrestlers handle becoming a pro has also been discussed. When the XFL re-launches next year, it opens another avenue for Mitchell to get involved.
“Wrestling is definitely a passion of mine,” Mitchell said. “It’s also important that I find something I’m skilled in. Time will tell. They know I’m interested.”
And there’s no shortage of current football players who also have interest in wrestling at some point.San Francisco 49erstight endGeorge Kittleis a huge fan (and close friend of Steve Manders, aka the Cornbelt Cowboy, another football player-turned-wrestler). Kittle has attended the past two WrestleManias and even jumped in the ring at an independent show and performed a Stone Cold Stunner.
“I realized like yeah, I could see myself doing this,” Kittle said. “It’s too much fun.”
The Rock is the ultimate example of a former football player who switched to wrestling and has taken it even further as one of Hollywood’s most successful actors.
Such dreams might seem far-fetched, but there’s now a clear path to follow, even if maximum patience is required to make it happen. Nobody understands that better than Piscitelli, who first climbed into an NXT ring in April 2015 and has yet to reach the WWE, largely because of the three surgeries he’s had in the past year-plus.
A torn pectoral in April 2018 couldn’t have come at a worse time for Piscitelli, who was starting to feel at home in the ring and in the midst of a major push in NXT. A little more seasoning and Piscitelli says he was on the verge of a promotion to the WWE. Despite the injuries, he insists he will come back stronger than ever.
At WrestleMania 33 in Orlando, Muhtadi won the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, outlasting 32 other wrestlers, in front of a crowd of more than 60,000 people and millions more watching at home. Making it more special, now-retired Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — whom Levesque says he’ll leave the door open for should he ever want to entertain a run as a wrestler — joined Muhtadi in the ring and helped him seal the victory.
“That was the highlight of my career, for sure,” Muhtadi said. “That was something special. And that was that was a rush. And to have a win like that, it was unreal. “Now, it’s all about having another one of those.”