From the gridiron to the ring: Meet the WWE PC’s footballers-turned-Superstars
Whether it’s their otherworldly athleticism, smash-mouth physicality or monstrous competitive nature, WWE Superstars and high-level football players have always had a lot in common.
It’s little wonder, then, that the gridiron has long been the stomping ground of some of wrestling’s all-time greats. To list names like The Rock, Wahoo McDaniel and Goldberg only scrapes the surface. WWE Hall of Famers Ron Simmons, Ernie Ladd, and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan all had stints in the NFL. The football program of West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M) produced no fewer than seven WWE Hall of Famers. Current Superstars from Mojo Rawley and John Cena to Roman Reigns and Titus O’Neil jarred opposing squads in either college or the NFL.
Collegiate and professional pigskin continues to be a valuable source of talent for the squared circle, as evidenced by the number of former footballers at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla., not to mention WWE’s continued effort to build relationships with stakeholders in the sport.
WWE recruiter Paul Fair spends much of his time meeting with players, coaches and agents at events like senior all-star games, the NFL combine and Canadian Football League tryouts throughout the year, all to keep the pipeline chugging. He tells them about success stories of converts like Arizona Cardinal-turned-United States Champion Baron Corbin and explains what life is like for Superstars-in-training. Football players considering the move to sports-entertainment see many parallels between the WWE PC regimen and the world they come from.
“It’s always surprising to players that our current developmental system is much like what they’re already accustomed to coming from a football locker room, whether that’s a college locker room or an NFL locker room,” Fair said. “There’s that team environment, that brotherhood, that locker room filled with daily competition, that structure — it’s all very translatable.”
As WWE’s recruitment team continues scouring the globe for the next athlete to trade in his cleats for wrestling boots, here’s a look at a few of the elite former football players putting in work daily at the WWE PC:
Riddick Moss & Tino Sabbatelli
Mainstays of NXT’s Tag Team division, Riddick Moss & Tino Sabbatelli are two of the WWE PC’s best-known footballers-turned-grapplers, and certainly the most outspoken. The muscle-packed pair has never been shy about tooting their own horn, but can you blame them? Before pursuing WWE, Moss was a pivotal member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, playing strong safety and linebacker from 2008-2012 and charting 226 tackles.
Sabbatelli, meanwhile, might be the most decorated gladiator of the gridiron currently training at the WWE PC. After becoming a top safety for the Oregon State Beavers, Sabbatelli was scooped up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. He played six seasons in the league, enjoying stints with the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs.
A lifelong fan of WWE, Brennan Williams always knew that sports-entertainment was his true calling, even though he first found fame as an offensive lineman on the football field. The Massachusetts native rattled defenses while playing at Catholic Memorial School in West Roxbury, Mass., where his number was eventually retired, before joining the UNC Tar Heels. The 6-foot-7, 300-pounder was drafted by the Houston Texans in the third round in 2013, but had his rookie season cut short by an untimely knee injury. While with the Texans, however, he met WWE Hall of Famer Booker T. In 2015, he reset his sights on his first love, wrestling, and began training under the WWE Hall of Famer, and within a year, Williams signed with the WWE PC.
Six-foot-eight, 290-pound Dan Matha is a true colossus, as opposing teams found out the hard way during his career on the gridiron. The powerhouse played on the offensive line at the University of Pittsburgh and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (where he was a candidate for the Gene Upshaw Lineman of the Year Award which considers both offensive and defensive linemen). He also had stints with the Cincinnati Bengals and the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. But what Matha loves even more than football is starting fights, which makes him right at home in NXT. NXT fans still remember Matha’s bold, if not irrational, choice to welcome a fuming Samoa Joe into the ring in October 2016. Matha hasn’t forgotten the run-in, either.
The giant of the WWE PC, 6-foot-10, 350-pound Babatunde Aiyegbusi might very well have blocked out the sun during his days as an offensive tackle. The big man from Poland played American football in Europe before the Minnesota Vikings recruited him for the 2015 preseason. His pushing power was so immense that it even earned him a segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in which the late-night host challenged Aiyegbusi to push sleds carrying absurdly heavy objects, like a refrigerator full of bowling balls. Though he has yet to debut on WWE NXT, Aiyegbusi’s menacing size guarantees he will be a force to be reckoned with.
From playing for the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll to learning the ropes at the WWE PC, Demitrius Bronson is no stranger to world-class competition. The NXT Universe caught its first glimpse of the former NFL running back in September 2017 when he teamed with Patrick Scott against Heavy Machinery. Though he lost his debut outing on WWE Network, Bronson’s performance in the WWE PC weight room suggests he has the goods to go the distance. Consider this: In the 2017 NXT Combine, Bronson finished among the top three Superstars in four of the eight Combine events, including charting an incredible 760-pound deadlift.