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Exclusive interview: How Shelton Benjamin overcame obstacles and injury to make his long-awaited WWE return
Shelton Benjamin always believed he’d be back. In fact, he’s surprised it took this long. There were seven years between his last WWE match in 2010 and his arrival on SmackDown LIVE as Chad Gable’s tag partner, and Benjamin spent every one of those days getting ready to reintroduce himself to the WWE Universe.
Now, with his new tandem in full swing, Benjamin gets introspective on the journey to his WWE return, whom he’s aiming to share a ring with, his thoughts on the likes of Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar, the goals he is setting for himself now that he’s back and how Lillian Garcia played a huge role in all of it.
WWE.COM: It’s been seven years since you last competed with WWE in 2010. What’s it like to be back?
SHELTON BENJAMIN: It's all kind of surreal, and I don't feel like it's hit me yet. Since I left the WWE, I moved to improve myself as a performer and come back. I really didn't expect it to take seven years. So, it's been a long road and I'm still trying to get used to it. It's all very surreal. Being back with WWE is an emotional high and a professional high. So far, so good.
WWE.COM: You mentioned improving yourself as a performer. What have you been up to during your absence from WWE?
BENJAMIN: I've been a fulltime professional wrestler. Immediately after I left the company, I took my first vacation ever, and went to Australia for a couple weeks. After that, I did a few indies here and there. I wrestled in Puerto Rico, a few matches in Canada, a few things in England. Then I finally landed for a while in Ring of Honor, where I reunited with Charlie Haas and it was The World’s Greatest Tag Team back again. I think I worked with them for two years. It was a great time. I got to wrestle with a lot of great talents, some that are WWE talent now, like Kevin Owens and Cesaro.
WWE.COM: And then you transitioned to wrestling in Japan?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, then I went into working with New Japan Pro Wrestling. For the last four and a half years that's where I've been, primarily in Japan.
WWE.COM: And you wrestled future WWE Superstars like Shinsuke Nakamura and others there, correct?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, Nakamura was my first real [opponent] over there. He really brought me into the Japanese style. That’s also where I first heard about Finn Bálor. The cool thing about being there is I kept my finger on the pulse of wrestling, and there were so many of these guys that I ran across. These are Superstars who I'd never heard of, but when I wrestled them, they were awesome, and then I’d see them go to WWE. So, there are actually a lot more familiar faces here than I expected.
WWE.COM: When did you first start talking with WWE about a potential return?
BENJAMIN: I had always been waiting for the call, instead of pursuing the call. And, this is going to be very out of left field for anyone that hears this, but me coming back actually started with a conversation during WrestleMania 32 weekend that I had with Lilian Garcia.
WWE.COM: Wow. What did she say to you?
BENJAMIN: I ran into her and we were just talking. Basically, she slapped some sense into me. She said, "Put yourself in a position to succeed. Don't be afraid to initiate." You're never too old to learn something new. When someone is giving you wisdom, the source can come from anywhere.
WWE.COM: And then what happened?
BENJAMIN: Later that same afternoon, I ran into [WWE Talent Relations VP] Mark Carrano. We had a little quick chat. He basically said, "Are you interested in coming back?" And I was like, "Well, of course." I didn't actually hear from him again until June when I’d just returned to Japan for a month-long tour. Of course, then I got home and that's when things started to unravel.
WWE.COM: You just touched on it slightly there, but can you take us through the injury that delayed your promoted return to WWE last year?
BENJAMIN: I had injured myself in Japan, but I didn't realize it. I figured I hurt my shoulder a little, but there's a huge difference between injured and just a little hurt. For two and a half months, I continued working my same schedule in Japan. I didn't know that it was as bad as it was because I still could perform. I didn't feel hindered.
WWE.COM: What happened from there?
BENJAMIN: When WWE called me, I was excited because it was a call I've been waiting on for at least a couple of years now. I was really happy about going back, until [the doctor] did one of his strength tests and that was really the first time I could see that I’m not just hurt, I’m injured. We got the MRI and when the results came back, there was a complete tear of my supraspinatus right off the bone. Talk about wind out of your sails. That hurt.
WWE.COM: WWE had already begun airing vignettes for your return to SmackDown LIVE. What were the conversations like once the injury was discovered?
BENJAMIN: I talked with Mark Carrano, and, obviously, they weren't going to bring me back under those circumstances. The door was left open, but at the same time, I know the business. These chances don't come around often, and definitely not big chances like this.
WWE.COM: What was your mindset at that point?
BENJAMIN: Rather than focus on [the contract situation], I just said, “I’m going to get my shoulder fixed. Whatever happens in the future, happens, but now my job is to get myself back into working condition.” I really didn’t worry myself with “Would they call back?” because you’ll drive yourself crazy doing that. I just buckled down, and for seven months I was fixing my shoulder full-time.
WWE.COM: Thankfully, it worked out. You’ve already touched on what it’s like to be back in WWE. What are your thoughts on your new tag team partner, Chad Gable, and do you see any comparisons to your former tag team partner, Charlie Haas?
BENJAMIN: Without a doubt. Chad is a great athlete, just like Charlie. Before I even get into that, though, Charlie Haas is, to this day, still my best friend. He's my brother. We talk all the time. WWE created family when they put us together. We worked hard together and he helped push me. When you insert Chad Gable, obviously, there is going to be the comparisons to Charlie. I don’t like to make that comparison because they’re two different people. This isn’t The World’s Greatest Tag Team, this isn’t American Alpha — we are something completely different. But, obviously, there are similarities. They're both tremendous athletes. They both have great drive, and even in the past couple of weeks I've seen Gable show signs of the intensity that Charlie had.
WWE.COM: Speaking of Charlie Haas, he was also your partner during your run as a part of Team Angle alongside WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle. Can you talk about your relationship with Kurt?
BENJAMIN: Kurt basically helped open the door for me and Charlie. He helped get our names out there by lending us his name. Kurt has always been a great guy. He definitely influenced my career in a positive way. He's the prototype of what an amateur wrestler who wants to be a professional wrestler should strive for. For us to come back [to WWE] around the same time is definitely crazy.
WWE.COM: Another amateur who went on to mega-success in WWE is your former college roommate/teammate/tag partner, Brock Lesnar. Have you kept tabs on Brock’s latest run in WWE?
BENJAMIN: I've always followed Brock. I've always kept an eye on his career because as a teammate and as a friend, you know, that's my boy. But, at the same time, my boy is the champ, and I would love to step in the ring with him, either standing next to him … or standing against him.
WWE.COM: Who else would you like to face now that you’re back, whether it be in the tag team or singles ranks?
BENJAMIN: Obviously, when we're talking tag teams, I'm putting The Usos on notice. As long as we have no titles around our waists, they're a target. Also, The New Day. Kofi Kingston and I have had some great matches in the past. I have never wrestled Big E or Xavier Woods, but I believe Gable and I have what it takes to take them out. For a single competitor, to be honest, I would love to lock it up with Shinsuke again. I enjoyed wrestling him so much in Japan. We had such great matches. I would love to revisit that. I've never had a chance to wrestle AJ Styles. Styles is one of the most phenomenal people in sports-entertainment, ever. Hands down. Period. I would love to wrestle him. And, believe it or not, even though we had tons of matches when we first started, I would love to wrestle Randy Orton again.
WWE.COM: You battled Orton back when he was a member of Evolution. You, of course, defeated Evolution leader Triple H in your memorable debut as a singles competitor on Raw in 2004. What are the differences between that Shelton Benjamin and the one that we see today?
BENJAMIN: The biggest difference is then I was a young kid. I was fresh out of developmental. I was excited for the opportunity. Now, obviously, I'm a little advanced in age, but I'm way more experienced, I'm way more confident, and I would dare say at this point I'm way hungrier. I was 27 or 28 when we had that match. I felt like I had all the time in the world, no matter what happened in that match. I don't think like that now. Right now, I don't have time to play around. I want titles, I want Ws, I want the whole kit and caboodle. It's great to be back, and these last couple of weeks have been absolutely awesome, but make no mistake: I'm not here to shake hands, kiss babies and make friends. I'm here to win championships. That's why I came back here.
WWE.COM: Strong words. Any final thoughts for the WWE Universe? A message you want to convey now that you are finally back with WWE after such a long journey?
BENJAMIN: I'm here to win, and I will be stressing that to Gable. Don't wait for years thinking you have all the time in the world. If we're here to win championships, we want to do it now. I don't want to wait six months, I don't want to wait three months, I want to go get it now.