Levis Valenzuela Jr. proud to represent Dominican Republic in NXT
Every time Levis Valenzuela Jr. steps inside the ring, it’s his mission to draw the attention of anybody and everybody in earshot, and it might not be long before the NXT Universe finds that out firsthand. The energetic, big-bodied jolt of charisma, with bushy hair and an untamed beard reminiscent of wildman Pampero Firpo, was one of 11 signees who descended upon Orlando, Fla., in April as part of the WWE Performance Center’s rookie class.
Prior to breaking into wrestling in 2013, Valenzuela studied pre-law, won awards in collegiate ballroom dancing, and moved to South Korea to teach English. Now a member of WWE’s talent development system for a little more than a month, he spoke to WWE.com about his circuitous journey to the squared circle, what it means to be the first Dominican signee in recent memory and which Superstars he’d like to challenge — both in the ring and on the dancefloor.
WWE.COM: You’ve been at the Performance Center for a few weeks. How’s the adjustment been?
LEVIS VALENZUELA JR.: It’s been good. Initially it was a lot of working out, getting your body used to the different types of workout routines. They had us doing a couple rolls, work on our footwork, our mechanics and things of that nature. We’re on the road Thursday to Saturday most weeks and when we’re not, we’re here at the Performance Center all day and on the weekends. You go in in the morning and come home at 12 a.m. or 1 in the morning. It’s a long day, but it doesn’t compare to the main roster, because we come home back to Orlando. It’s an adjustment that needs to happen in order to prepare you. It’s just what life’s like now for us. I’m used to it now.
See photos of Levis Valenzuela Jr. | Read about the WWE Performance Center's rookie class
WWE.COM: You’re going from a part-time indie wrestling schedule to that of a full-time recruit. Has that immersive approach affected your game?
VALENZUELA: Being in here every single day is a huge benefit. You’ve got great coaches — Jason Albert, Robbie Brookside, Norman Smiley, Sara Amato. All these coaches are here to help you out, to nitpick at every single aspect of what you need to do, things you’ve learned in the past. They’re not necessarily telling you it’s wrong, but how to make it better. We’re part of a completely different thing here at WWE, it’s a new system. So our job is to adjust to the new system, no matter where we come from, and we have all the training staff here in order to make those adjustments. You get to perfect your craft. Every day we’re getting better and learning more.
WWE.COM: You broke into wrestling in 2013, and your path was a little uncommon. You taught English in Korea for a couple of years. How’d that transition work?
VALENZUELA: I always had the idea I wanted to be a wrestler, but my parents wanted me to get an education, so I went to college to pursue what, I wasn’t 100 percent sure. By the time I was done, I was studying for the LSAT because I ended up doing pre-law, and I didn’t feel like I’d done everything I wanted to by that point. Because I went to college for four years, I thought I should use that in some shape or form, because I had to pay the bills. That’s where the degree came in, because I always wanted to travel and explore different cultures.
The experience in Korea was magnificent. The people are awesome over there, but toward the end of my stay there, I started watching more and more WWE, and I just knew I wanted to do that. I was telling my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, how I felt and she had no idea what wrestling really was.Thankfully, she was on board. She left Korea the same time as me and we went to North Carolina to pursue the dream. It was just a passion that I didn’t know how to express, but I wanted to accomplish this goal, this dream I had since I was a kid. I was afraid of failure, but if you never try, you kick yourself in the butt your entire life. It becomes a “what if?” situation.
Page 2: Valenzuela talks about his ballroom dancing background and getting on WWE's radar
WWE.COM: You also have a collegiate ballroom dancing background, as mentioned in the press release announcing April’s rookie class. How did you get into that, and how does dancing translate to wrestling?
VALENZUELA: I turned on “Dancing with the Stars,” and Jerry Rice was on it that year. I was watching the routines they did to modern music and I thought it was cool. I found out my school had a ballroom team. It was pretty easy to join, you just paid a couple of dues and you were on the team, but I took to it because I’m a good visual learner and I was just having fun with it. I was pretty decent.
That was good because it helped me with footwork and seeing how people’s bodies moved and then how to duplicate the action that I see. It’s the same thing in the ring with the footwork you see. It’s just easy for me to see what one of the coaches is doing and try to do the same thing. If I do it wrong, they’re able to tell me and I’m able to adjust fairly quickly because of that background.
Photos: WWE's best dancers | See photos from a real WWE tryout
WWE.COM: There have been a lot of dancers in the history of wrestling, from Fandango to Alex Wright to Akeem. Who has the best technique?
VALENZUELA: Oh, man. You’re putting me on the spot. [Laughs] Booker T had a nice Spinaroonie. The Rock flashed a dance move the other day. I’d like to have a dance battle with The Rock. Road Dogg was pretty cool in what he did. Rikishi was great. And that Fandango vs. Levis Valenzuela could get started. [Laughs] Maybe we both go on “Dancing with the Stars” and see what happens.
WWE.COM: You came to WWE pretty early in your career. What do you think led to you being on WWE’s radar?
VALENZUELA: I’m not 100 percent sure. In North Carolina, I guess around the area I was well known, but I didn’t know I was on anybody’s radar. I was just going out and having fun. I love the entertainment aspect of wrestling. By and large, that’s what drew me into it. The Rock was a big influence on me. He’s the ultimate entertainer. When he talks, you pay attention. You laugh. You get angry when he needs you to get angry. There’s something really cool about that. I was just going about my business being an entertainer, trying to get the crowd into it. I had put my information on the recruit page and I got a call to be an extra in July 2014, so I went. Everybody was like, “You’re on their radar.”
In the back of my head, I was like, “I’m going to make the best of this situation because I don’t know when it will happen again.” I was 26, turning 27, and I didn’t want to get older and older and miss the opportunity. I went there Monday as a Rosebud. We did a quick spot for Sonic. Tuesday, I did a practice match and I knew it was time to perform and entertain. I just wanted to showcase I could connect to a wider audience and thankfully, I guess they saw something in me, because I’m here now. It was a pretty surreal thing to set a goal and have it fall into place. It’s just mind-blowing sometimes.
Page 3: What was his mindset heading into his WWE tryout?
WWE.COM: How would you describe your in-ring style?
VALENZUELA: I wish I could say I’m a great technical wrestler, but nah. [Laughs] I just like to entertain and make people interested. I’m going to go in there and wrestle and perform however I need to perform. But most importantly, I’m very vocal. My moves are very theatrical. I feel like if you bring a little bit extra you can draw the crowd in. Maybe with your facial expressions, your mannerisms. How you throw a punch, how you throw a kick. Just tweak it a little bit more and people are either like, “I love this guy” or “Good gracious, I hate this guy.” Either way, you have people involved in what you’re doing. I more or less keep it basic, but not because I don’t know how to do stuff but because I don’t want to overcomplicate the performance we’re trying to do.
WWE.COM: You were at a tryout last September that WWE.com covered. It seemed like you turned all the trainers’ heads on the third day, when there was an interview portion with Dusty Rhodes. What was your attitude heading into that tryout?
VALENZUELA: I don’t want to sound egotistical or anything like that, but you know your strengths and weaknesses as a person, and I never tried to play up what I do or bring myself down. Going into the tryout, I knew I wasn’t the most athletic person in the world, but I knew I was charismatic. My mindset was to do the drills and get my body to where I need it in order to do all the cardio. Physically, I got to the point where I could do the drills, but mentally, I was thinking about that third day. Even if somebody outperformed me in the ring, I tried not to let anybody perform better than me when it came to the camera.
My personality is something that I pride myself on, especially in this business. I knew I had to showcase what I had the ability to do, which is talk on the microphone. That’s my strong suit. I didn’t want to be second in that regard. I wanted to be the absolute best on that third day. Once they see what you can do in front of the camera, how comfortable you are, they can teach you how to wrestle. But Triple H said it: The No. 1 thing is charisma. If you have it, the road is still going to be hard, but you have a foot in the right direction.
Photos of Levis Valenzuela's tryout | Go behind the scenes of "E:60: Behind the Curtains"
WWE.COM: It looks like you put on some size since September, and you grew out your hair and your beard. Was it a conscious effort to change your appearance?
VALENUZELA: Yes. [WWE Senior Director of Talent Development] Canyon Ceman had told me on the third day they wanted to sign me, so I already knew that if everything went accordingly, I was going to get signed. I knew it was a long signing process. I was extremely happy but I thought I needed to grow out my hair. Why? Because if they asked me to cut it off, I knew it’d be easier than if they ask me to grow out my hair. I grew out my beard because if they want a guy with a beard, hey, I’m here.
WWE.COM: That’s pretty good foresight.
VALENZUELA: Yeah, and at the time, they didn’t tell me anything about my size, whether I was too small or too big. In the weeks leading up to the tryout, I focused on cardio so much that I lost about 10 pounds. I changed my routine. I sweated a lot. Then when I got here for the tryout, they kept telling us to eat, but I just dropped more weight because of the drills. When I returned home, I was 218 pounds, but thankfully, you know, God bless America, every restaurant was doing the all-you-can-eat thing. Everything was such a good deal. I was like, “Ten bucks for all you can eat? I’ll take that.” I got to 250, 255. I changed the way I worked out. I changed my routines every month, doing movements that I hadn’t done before, so my body was constantly changing. When I got to 260, I said, “Cool, now it’s time to trim down.” I know in this business, you need the look. So now I’m at 250, I’ve got the long hair.
Page 4: NXT dream opponents and the importnace of representing the Dominican Republic
WWE.COM: Of course, the first goal is probably making NXT, which has become the who’s who of young talent. Who are some of the Superstars you want to wrestle?
VALENZUELA: There’s so many. You walk through these halls every day and just marvel at who’s here. Of course, there’s Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who just made his appearance on Raw, which was awesome. A guy who’s got a ton of charisma is Tyler Breeze. You’ve got Finn Bálor, Hideo Itami. The list goes on and on. Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder are amazing as a tag team, so if I ever do something in a tag team, I think that would be great. I’m just very excited to be here, and to have the ability to possibly wrestle any of these guys is cool.
WWE.COM: Any words for the NXT Universe or anybody who’s supported you up to this point?
VALENZUELA: To my people back in North Carolina, thank you for everything. CWF Mid-Atlantic, you know what you’ve done for me. To all my Dominicans, we finally have a Dominican in WWE.
WWE.COM: Is that’s something you think about? It’s been a while since the Dominican population has been represented in WWE.
VALENZUELA: Yeah, I don’t know if we ever have, so that’s really, really important to me. To be the first, or the first in a while, it’s a step forward for the entire country, a very proud people. We support each other 110 percent. I know I’m not doing this fight alone. I know I’ve got my people behind me and that makes me and my family very proud. I’ve had a lot of positive outreach from the community, congratulating me on being here. Actually getting a chance to represent the country is incredible. It’s really amazing.
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