Indie star Adam Pearce’s unexpected road to WWE
If you didn’t know about anything about “Scrap Iron” Adam Pearce, you might wonder how a hardworking independent wrestler who was never under contract with WWE or WCW ended up as a top-level coach at the WWE Performance Center. The ring veteran summed it up himself in seven words:
“Work hard. Treat people fairly. Earn respect.”
That mantra was the driving force that helped Pearce move on from a football career cut short by injury and get into wrestling. He rose from the bottom rungs of the indie circuit to become a five-time NWA World Champion before making his way to Orlando to help shape WWE’s future stars.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, Pearce never dreamed of stepping between the ropes. A lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, he was preparing to play Division I college football, until an unusual injury popped up at the start of his senior year.
“I would have horrible, horrible pains in my legs after practice,” he said. “I would need to sit down and be off my feet, sometimes for close to an hour, before I could walk comfortably.”
After several rounds of intense medical tests that involved syringes and pressure gauges, Pearce was diagnosed with acute muscular compartment syndrome. It was explained to him that the muscles in his calves were growing, but the membrane surrounding them were not. If left to progress far enough, Pearce could have lost his legs. So, he underwent surgery almost immediately, which put an end to his football dreams.
“I thought the world was over,” he said. “What was I going to do?”
The answer came from an unlikely source: A cable access wrestling show. The program featured local independent wrestlers taking live calls, which piqued Pearce’s interest.“I called in and just started asking these guys questions,” he recalled. “A couple of months later, after I was back on my feet, they said they had a school and I should come check it out. That was that.”
Pearce had his first match in May 1996, after being trained for the mat game by Sonny Rogers and Randy Ricci, which gave him some unique opportunities early on in his career.
“When WWE came through the area, Chief Jay Strongbow would get a hold of Sonny and say he needed a crew of guys,” Pearce said.
He soon found himself standing across the ring from the likes of The Nation of Domination and The Truth Commission on WWE television, an invaluable experience for a rookie in the industry.
“It was a hugely important part of my life and development,” Pearce told WWE.com. “To get that experience and see how the machine worked at the time, at 18 years old, is incredible. I think back now on how lucky I was.”
Pearce continued to grow as a competitor, and caught the eyes of talent scouts from both WWE and WCW. He came close to signing with WCW in 1999, but opted not to, for several reasons.
“I just wasn’t mature enough at that point to pack up and move to Atlanta,” he said. “Plus, I was engaged at the time, and the family of my bride-to-be, who I didn’t end up marrying, was completely against the idea of their daughter moving from Chicago to Atlanta with some punk wrestler kid. It wasn’t the right time, so I declined politely.”
Pearce’s life took a different turn after meeting another woman, which had huge implications for his wrestling career.
“I literally moved across the country for a girl,” he said. “It’s the quintessential love story you see in the movies. I’m the guy that actually did it. I moved to San Diego, not for anything wrestling related, but simply for the girl that I ended up marrying, the mother of my kids, the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Pearce had kept in touch with then-WWE announcer Kevin Kelly and Terry Taylor – with whom he remains close to this day – which led him to the independent scene in California and Ultimate Pro Wrestling. The promotion run by Rick Bassman had a close connection with WWE at the time, and produced future Superstars like John Cena and Samoa Joe.
“Every one of UPW’s cards had some semblance of WWE talent,” he said. “I don’t know how Bassman did it. He had Mr. McMahon one time! It was a crazy time. When you look at the talent that came through and what they went on to do, it’s pretty incredible.”
Pearce continued to evolve, and was considered one of the premier names on the independent scene by the mid-2000s. He even captured a title which was once synonymous with excellence, the NWA World Championship. To carry the same title held by the likes of Jack Brisco, Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes was a tremendous boost for Pearce.
“I understand the argument that when Crockett sold to Ted Turner, it was the end of the NWA,” he said. “In reality, it wasn’t, but on that mainstream level, it was. It continued to exist and helped a lot of people, including me.”
During his five reigns as champion, Pearce worked the same schedule as the champions of old.
“The normal independent wrestler isn’t getting on a plane and being gone four to five days a week,” he said. “I was always in Mexico and Canada. I’m not patting myself on the back, but I worked hard.”
At the same time, Pearce competed for Ring of Honor, where he was offered the position of the promotion’s executive producer. That proposition took him by surprise.
“The thought never crossed my mind,” he said. “I never had aspirations to go into a management position in wrestling.”
After some initial hesitation, Pearce took on the role. During his two years on the job, he handled everything from television production to schedules to payoffs. But the biggest change was when it came to dealing with the locker room.
“When you’re wearing your boots and tights, you’re thinking about your match, your opponent,” Pearce explained. “It’s very much a selfish industry. But now I had to [think about] the 25 guys under contract. It’s a lot of trying to get people to believe in your vision. Without those two years of trying to build and cultivate camaraderie in the locker room, I don’t know how well I’d do today.”
Despite his full schedule and growing reputation, Pearce wanted to know if there was any interest in him from WWE.
“I reached out, honestly, just to see,” he said. “If you don’t ask the question, you don’t get the answer. I didn’t want to be 50 and say that I hadn’t reached out and wished I had.”
He ended up attending an August 2011 tryout in Los Angeles, where WWE also discovered Bayley. Unlike the future NXT Women’s Champion, however, Pearce soon realized that he might not have been there to be scouted as a potential Superstar. He was paired off with an on-the-radar prospect with very basic in-ring training.
“Reading between the lines, I saw that I was going to guide him over the three days of the tryout,” Pearce told WWE.com. “The last day, we had [exhibition] matches. Gerry Brisco and Bill DeMott said a few groups had four minutes, then told us to go 10 minutes. I looked at Gerry, and said, ‘Ten minutes?’ He told me, ‘Now you’re going to show them why you wore the same [title] as my brother.’ That’s not huge pressure, right?”
The match, along with a follow-up sparring session with NXT wrestling machine Jason Jordan, impressed WWE, who invited Pearce to the PC as a guest trainer eight times between 2013 and 2015, before finally hiring him as a full-time member of the coaching staff.
Although he had never been under contract with WWE, Pearce felt comfortable as a trainer, which he credits to those who came before him.
“Norman Smiley, who is an incredible teacher, wasn’t a part of the system or wrestled full-time for WWE,” he said. “Sara Del Rey, who I was around when she first started in the industry, broke down barriers. I knew I was fighting against perception. I was always confident in myself as a performer, but I had never coached before.”
The adjustment came naturally to Pearce.
Work hard. Treat people fairly. Earn respect.
“I had to acclimate myself to the WWE style. Was it a hard transition? No,” he said. “People always ask if it’s different. I say what we teach at the PC are the exact things I was trained on in 1995, with the same emphases on the same things. I couldn’t think of a better job for me on Earth.”
Pearce’s role today is teaching the advanced class of Superstars, just one step below Terry Taylor’s finishing class.
“I focus almost entirely on psychology, and the nuanced things that beginners aren’t ready for and intermediates aren’t necessarily diving into yet, because they’re refining their mechanics,” Pearce said.
However, for the man once known as “Scrap Iron,” one lesson, summed up in his seven-word mantra, still stands out above all when he lectures his students.
“I preach it every day,” he said, “but we have a culture at the PC and such a positive nature at NXT that I really don’t need to. These men and women are doing it every day. They’re taking the world by storm. Every single one of them works hard and treats everyone fairly. They all have my respect.”