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Building a better Brahma Bull: Curtis Axel tells the untold story of The Rock's second coming

One does not simply walk into a WWE ring without preparation, even if one happens to be The Rock. When The Brahma Bull returned to WWE after nearly a decade in Hollywood, it quickly became apparent that an in-ring run was in his immediate future. Despite Rock’s Hall of Fame lineage and laundry list of accomplishments, WWE officials still needed to ensure The Brahma Bull was ring-ready after his lengthy sojourn in Tinseltown.

Enter Curtis Axel, a Superstar handpicked by WWE management to get The Great One’s sea legs working again and turn Dwayne Johnson back into the jabroni-beatin’, pie-eatin’, trailblazin’, eyebrow-raisin’ People’s Champion, The Rock. WWE.com approached the former Intercontinental Champion to get the inside scoop on how it felt to prepare the WWE icon for his epic return to competition, what, exactly, #JoeKnows, and what other returning legend Axel was conscripted into tuning up as well.

WWE.COM: How did this opportunity to train The Rock come about?

CURTIS AXEL: I think that I gained some trust within the WWE organization, and they picked me because they had faith in me being safe, not injuring him and really making him step up his game to get his wind ready, and his body back in shape for all the strenuous activity he was about to endure at WrestleMania. So I think they just had trust in me, and I think that’s what it boiled down to. Plus, we both come from a pedigree. Me and Rock have always had that bond, just because of the generational thing. So I think that had something to do with it. He trusted me, and WWE trusted me, so that’s how all that came about.

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WWE.COM: Did you know him before you started training?

Man, the guy is phenomenal.AXEL: I didn’t know him as well as I do now. You know, we had spoken a few times. He knew my father. Actually, his father and my father worked together out in Portland when my father was first starting. So I had several conversations with him, but I didn’t know him then as much as I do now.

WWE.COM: Who approached you with the news that you would be getting him ready?

AXEL: At the time the head of Talent Relations was John Laurinaitis, and me and John go a ways back, too, ever since I was starting out in the business. So he was the one who put the trust in me to head down there.

WWE.COM: Was this to prepare for WrestleMania or his Survivor Series match at Madison Square Garden?

AXEL: Actually, I did both. I worked out a couple of times with him. The first was that Survivor Series match, but I ended up going back down closer to his home in Florida for the second time.

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WWE.COM: Was he ready when you first started?

AXEL: Yeah, he was great! He had no problems. It’s weird, we would start off with some drills to [tire him out], just getting the rust off his brain and off his body, and then he would just kind of sit there and … man, the guy is phenomenal. Just his attention to detail and little things that matter most as a professional wrestler. I was actually learning more than I thought I was going to. Just the way he thinks and the way his brain works is phenomenal, man. I was helping him at the time, but he was also helping me, so it was pretty crazy.

WWE.COM: What were some of the things you picked up from him?

AXEL: Just how to gauge crowd reactions, after you do something just to live in that moment and have the people eat it up. It’s just timing, stuff that a lot of people watching at home don’t realize. The facial expressions, when to take your time with things. Don’t rush things. Just little, tiny things that you don’t think about when you’re starting out. I’m still improving in that aspect, so I watched The Rock and I listened to The Rock when I was there. Just those little details, the timing and getting the crowd’s reaction and stuff like that. It really helped.

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WWE.COM: What was the hardest day of training that you can remember?

AXEL: Probably the initial day. Just trying to have him get a good sweat going and just rolling around for hours upon hours, busting your ass. Getting the ring rust off him and getting his brain working was probably the hardest day.

WWE.COM: You weren’t going to take it easy on him because he was The Rock, were you?

AXEL: If I did and I took it easy on him then I probably would be the one getting in trouble! [Laughs]

Next: The Rock reacts to Axel's debut as a Paul Heyman Guy, and the former Intercontinental Champion tells all about his other sparring partner ...

WWE.COM: When did you know he was ready?

AXEL: Oh, right away. That first day, I went back on the road and had talks with Triple H and Mr. McMahon. They asked, “How was he?” and I said, “Absolutely fantastic, he’s ready to go right now.” I knew right away he wasn’t going to have a problem.

WWE.COM: A hashtag started popping up on Twitter, #JoeKnows, in reference to your training. Was that a saying you guys had together?

AXEL: Oh yeah! I know before the WrestleMania match there was a picture of me and him together in the ring that he tweeted out. That was pretty cool.

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WWE.COM: Do you still hear from him?

AXEL: Yeah, when I became [a Paul Heyman Guy], he heard it through the pipeline that I was going to re-debut and he sent me an awesome text saying good luck. It was a really motivational text, helped me out and got me focused, because I was a nervous wreck that day. It really helped me out a lot hearing that from him. And from time to time, like, I saw him at WrestleMania 30, we had a good talk, and he’s a motivating guy, and just to hear him say, “Hey, man, you’re doing good,” really means a lot to me.

WWE.COM: There are always rumors flying around that he might return for another match. If he does, are you ready to get in the ring with him again?

AXEL: Hey, man, how about this — I’d like to wrestle with him in a match! He’d have to find someone else to get him ready for that, though. I don’t want him knowing all my moves, you know?

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WWE.COM: You also did some training with Brock Lesnar when he came back. What was that like?

AXEL: Nonstop. I mean, we would wrestle a half-hour without a break, just going back and forth and basically doing a whole match. There was a moment, and he might get mad at me for saying this, but there was a moment where we stopped for a second and he said to me, “I’m going to beat your ass all the way to the corner, and then I’m going to take a step back. And when I come back to you, I want you to beat my ass all the way back to the other corner. And if it’s not up to my standards, if it’s not sufficient enough and I don’t think you’re aggressive, you know what’s going to happen to you.”

And in my head I’m thinking, “What does this mean?!?” so, it happened. I beat his ass all the way to the corner as aggressive as I could, I got up waiting for him to do something and he said, “That’s good.” And we moved on.I'd love to wrestle Rock in a match.

WWE.COM: That sounds intense.

AXEL: We did intense training in the ring. I worked out with him at his gym … I learned a lot from that, too, just the weight room stuff. He’s another guy that has a mind for this like no other, and the way he moves in the ring you can tell he’s a super athlete. And he’s a family friend, too, but by the same token he wasn’t light on me when we were going in the ring, which I appreciate, too. He’s a unique individual, and I’m fortunate to have been able to train with that dude, too.

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WWE.COM: Do you train with him every time he’s ready to come back?

AXEL: No. That’s the thing, when I came back, Triple H asked, “How did he do?” and I honestly didn’t even know why I had to go out there. The guy was in UFC, for God’s sakes. His wind is obviously going to be good, but I don’t think that’s necessary anymore. He may have somebody go out there just to try some new things if he has a big match coming up, but I don’t think that’ll happen anymore, me training in the ring with him.

WWE.COM: So you don’t need to take a beating to the corner anymore?

AXEL: No, no, no. Fortunately, no.

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