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At WWE tryout, USF football player and Tampa black belt grapple for spotlight

The wrestling powerhouse launched a new recruitment process around 18 months ago.
 
Matt Bloom, instructor, top-center, talks to athletes after they go through training during a WWE tryout event at the IMG Academy East Campus in Bradenton.
Matt Bloom, instructor, top-center, talks to athletes after they go through training during a WWE tryout event at the IMG Academy East Campus in Bradenton. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2022|Updated Dec. 8, 2022

BRADENTON — University of South Florida senior defensive end Darrien Grant totaled four tackles while playing over 60 snaps against the University of Central Florida.

Days later, he was tossing himself backwards onto a WWE ring as though slammed by an invisible opponent.

“I came in sore,” the 23-year-old said. “I’m leaving even more sore. But I’m enjoying the opportunity.”

He was among 30 hopefuls invited from around the nation for a WWE tryout held at Bradenton’s IMG Academy on Dec. 1 and 2.

Grant and Tampa’s Melanie Brzezinski hoped to put themselves on the WWE’s radar.

“I applied six times for a tryout,” said Brzezinski, 22. Each time, she sent the WWE a resume, headshots and video footage showcasing her ability. “I finally got the call.”

Darrien Grant, a USF football player, center, watches athletes perform their promos during a WWE tryout event at the IMG Academy East Campus in Bradenton.
Darrien Grant, a USF football player, center, watches athletes perform their promos during a WWE tryout event at the IMG Academy East Campus in Bradenton. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The IMG Academy tryout was part of the WWE’s new recruitment process, launched around 18 months ago.

“Despite the fact that the WWE has been so successful for decades and created legends in the business, there was not a system to enter the WWE as traditional sports have,” said James Kimball, the promotion’s head of talent operations and strategy.

A dozen scouts scour the nation for those who might have the right mix of athleticism and personality to make it in the WWE. They attend collegiate athletic competitions, develop relationships with athletic directors, coaches, and managers, and accept applications.

Related: Tampa Bay wrestlers dominate WrestleMania men’s world heavyweight title matches

Seven times this year, current performers also visited college campuses to let student athletes know that WWE is an option after graduation. Some are signed to the WWE’s Next In Line program, which begins developing talent directly out of college. Others are invited to a tryout.

Of three tryouts in 2022, the first was in Dallas in April during the week of WrestleMania 38. The WWE signed 18 attendees to developmental contracts. Another 15 were signed from a Nashville tryout in July during the week of WWE’s SummerSlam event.

IMG Academy hosted the third.

Melanie Brzezinski, of Tampa, performs her promo during a WWE tryout at the IMG Academy East Campus in Bradenton.
Melanie Brzezinski, of Tampa, performs her promo during a WWE tryout at the IMG Academy East Campus in Bradenton. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Brzezinski’s all-around skills won her a spot at the tryout. She is a karate black belt, trains in CrossFit, and has experience in television broadcasting.

WWE discovered Grant while scouting the American Conference. He was also an “elite high school wrestler with multiple D1 offers,” according to his recruitment profile.

Overall, the 20 male and 10 female attendees represented 28 universities and eight sports. Four, including Brzezinski, were not collegiate athletes.

Many WWE’s “legends” were, Kimball said. “Stone Cold played football. The Undertaker played basketball.” But they had to work for years in smaller promotions before they were discovered by the WWE.

Related: You won’t believe how hard they once worked to make professional wrestling ‘real’

Those who skipped that grind and were trained by the WWE without prior professional wrestling experience typically had an in with the promotion. Former University of Miami football player and current Hollywood star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had a grandfather and father who performed for the WWE.

Tampa’s Thaddeus Bullard, a former University of Florida football player who now performs as Titus O’Neil, was recommended by his friend, former WWE star and current Hollywood actor David Bautista.

Ettore Ewen, also of Tampa and known by wrestling fans as Big E, said he “knew a guy who knew a guy who knew someone with the WWE” who then gave the former University of Iowa football player a tryout.

The new recruitment program, Kimball said, provides the WWE with a larger “talent pool.” And while the WWE will continue to scout smaller “independent wrestling” promotions for talent, “we realize that the largest talent pool in the entire world for athletes is the United States college athletic system.”

Former WWE champion Ettore “Big E” Ewen talks to other evaluators during a WWE tryout event at IMG Academy on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Bradenton.
Former WWE champion Ettore “Big E” Ewen talks to other evaluators during a WWE tryout event at IMG Academy on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Bradenton. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Ewen, who was among those evaluating talent at IMG Academy, stressed that they were not expecting anyone at the tryout to have the craft mastered.

“We’re seeing how they pick things up,” he said. “Are they coachable? You want people who can connect with people, who look like stars.”

The WWE scouts whittled down an initial list of hundreds of potentials, and, weeks before the tryout, the chosen 30 were sent videos teaching the basics.

The first day of tryouts focused on training. During the second day, they demonstrated abilities such as safely falling to the mat, known in wrestling as a “bump,” Kimball said, and crisscrossing the ring at full speed while bouncing off the ropes.

Then came time for the attendees to showcase their characters.

“This is your place to say all eyes on me,” Ryan Katz, who primarily wrestled for independent promotions before joining the WWE as a creative producer, told the attendees.

Each changed into wardrobe to reflect their chosen personality, was handed a microphone, stood alone in the middle of a basketball court. They talked to a camera while the others watched. They took on names like The Samoan Jock, The Denim Cowboy, Big Country, Black Metal and Loki.

Grant wore traditional workout clothes, stuck with his real name, and boasted about his athletic background.

Matt Bloom, instructor, watches athletes train during a WWE tryout at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Matt Bloom, instructor, watches athletes train during a WWE tryout at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Brzezinski, dressed in a red and silver sequined jacket, became “Rosie Ray.” She already had catchphrases, promising she “cuts like a thorn” and declaring “roses are red, violets are blue, make no mistake, I am coming for you.”

Those who are signed will next begin training at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando.

“Hopefully they get better and better and eventually make it to TV,” Ewen said.

Not all will.

“It’s a hard process,” he said.

Brzezinski was one of eight from the tryout offered a contract. She is reviewing it with an attorney.

Grant is in discussions with the WWE to have a second extended tryout.

As for those neither signed nor invited back for another look, they can still one day make it to WrestleMania, Matt Bloom, who wrestled for the WWE as Prince Albert, told the group at the conclusion of the tryout. Find a school that teaches professional wrestling and hone their skills, he said.

Brzezinski hopes this becomes her career.

“I’ve always been into acting. I’m a workout addict. I’ve done public speaking and broadcasting,” Brzezinski said at the conclusion of the tryout, days before being offered the contract. “You mix that all together and you have the WWE.”