Norman Smiley looks back on his career and toward NXT’s future
As the longest-tenured coach in WWE’s developmental system, Norman Smiley has seen it all. In the second installment of this exclusive two-part interview, the master of the “Big Wiggle” discusses his in-ring career, which WWE Superstar he’d like to face, the Divas Revolution and much more.
WWE.COM: We spoke last week about how you became a coach in WWE’s developmental system. This week, let’s look at your career. How did you get your start?
NORMAN SMILEY: I initially started my career at Miami Beach High School. I was always big for my age, and the wrestling coach, Juan Camarotti, would always ask me to consider joining the wrestling team. I was somewhat timid at the time and always declined, as I was heavy into bodybuilding. I eventually joined the team and did well. I used to go to the Miami Beach Convention Center every Wednesday to watch wrestling. I would watch Dusty Rhodes, Steve Keirn, the Briscos, Ric Flair and the list goes on.
I was then introduced to The Great Malenko, who had a wrestling school in Tampa, Fla., and took me under his wing. Weekly I would train with his sons, Dean and Jody Malenko. My first big break came when I was offered an opportunity to wrestle in Japan. The Great Malenko explained to me that the style in Japan was nothing that I was accustomed to. I became well aware of how different the style was when he introduced me to the legendary Karl Gotch! Gotch commenced torturing me and left me baffled as to how one man could cause so much pain without one strike.
I had my first match in Japan for the Universal Wrestling Federation in June of 1988. I sincerely feel that the UWF and its style was the prelude to UFC, as Ken Shamrock trained and fought in the UWF prior to entering the UFC and later went on to work for the WWE. From Japan, I went to Mexico for a four-week tour and ended up staying for over five years. Needless to say, I loved it there! This is where I met Eddie and Vickie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Kamala, Haku, Konnan and Vampiro. In 1995, I left Mexico and basically just traveled the world to wrestle. In 1997, I signed with WCW and was with them until the company was purchased by the WWE in 2001. I started as a trainer for the WWE in 2007.
WWE.COM: What is one of the greatest memories you have from your in-ring career?
SMILEY: I did a show at Wembley Arena, which, for me, is like Madison Square Garden here in the States. We were on tour and my father came to see me. I brought him backstage and introduced him to all of the boys. Well, my opponent for that night was Crowbar. He suggested that we get my dad involved in the match. I was very skeptical as my father had never wrestled and he was no spring chicken. Well, I asked my dad if he was interested in getting involved, and he jumped at the chance. That match meant so much to me with my dad at ringside in Wembley Arena. It was so much fun!
WWE.COM: What goes through your mind when you look back on all your past success?
WWE.COM: You had the chance to work with one of those idols, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. Describe that experience.
SMILEY: I have been so blessed in life and experienced things that I thought were beyond my grasp. Working with Dusty was one of those things I could never imagine. I moved to Miami from England in 1980 and was immediately captivated by Championship Wrestling from Florida. Dusty was the man and played such a major role in that company. Every Wednesday night I would go to the Miami Beach Convention Center and watch Dusty make magic and drama in the ring. Never in a million years did I think I would work with the man himself.
I worked with him for the last eight years of his life, and boy, could he light up a room. He was so charming, charismatic, and quick-witted and he knew how to be a star. Even long after his days in the ring, he carried himself like a star and would not be treated any other way. He would say anything at any given time that only he could get away with, especially in meetings. There were so many times I would sit with him and he would tell me stories. I would think to myself, “I'm working with The American Dream,” what a perk to have in a job. One of my fondest memories is when Robbie Brookside, William Regal and myself were sitting in Dusty's office and he was telling us stories. One would lead into another, then another and so on. He was almost like a standup comic, he had us all laughing; he was in his element! I hope the students that he worked with realized how lucky they were to be mentored by him because he was Elvis. Or as Dusty would say, “Bigger than Elvis.” [Laughs]
WWE.COM: For years, you were the man responsible for training Divas in the developmental system. What are your thoughts on the Divas Revolution?
SMILEY: I worked with current stars like Alicia Fox, Naomi, Tamina, Summer Rae and Natalya, to name a few, and they are all very talented ladies. The NXT Divas division is presently red hot and they have come so far. At one time, there was only one Diva match on a card and their time could be limited. We now feature two Diva matches on our Live Events and those matches will, at times, close the show as the main event.
Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Bayley and Becky have turned heads in NXT and have made a tremendous impact. They all worked so hard to challenge themselves and improve. I know that they are inspiring a lot of young girls all over the world to become Divas in the future. [Coach] Sara Amato has been an incredible addition to NXT to work with Divas. Sara has international experience and has a positive vision of how the Divas should perform. As a coach, I am so proud of them all. The good news is that we have many more Divas who are training hard and have a ton of passion to better themselves. The future for the Divas looks very, very good.
WWE.COM: Do you ever miss competing in the ring?
SMILEY: No, not really. From time to time, I will wrestle around with some of my students, but unless it is a really special occasion, I have no desire to return to the ring. I have wrestled my last match, even though I can’t remember who it was against. [Laughs]
WWE.COM: If you could face any current day WWE Superstar, who would it be?
SMILEY: When I was younger, I would have loved to have had a match against Cesaro, as I think he is so talented, a great athlete and we have similar styles.
WWE.COM: You’re known for regularly taking tons of photos. Tell us about this.
SMILEY: Over the years, I have loved taking photos and videos. I really never took photos or videos of matches. My love was taking photos in a car, bus, train, locker room and just basically the boys in a relaxed state away from the ring. Nothing always stays the same. I have been on so many tours and it was always said, “This same crew will be back for the next tour,” but it never happened. We took a huge roster photo the day that the WWE Performance Center opened in Orlando. One year later, several of the people are gone, for various reasons. I doubt that you will ever get that group of people in the same room ever again. I once read the following line: “A birth certificate shows you were born, a death certificate shows that you have passed on. Photos show that you have lived.”
WWE.COM: What has the growth of NXT meant to you?
SMILEY: The WWE Performance Center is the best sports-entertainment training facility in the history of the world. Everything under one roof: seven wrestling rings, a strength and conditioning gym, promos, commentating, announcing studios, rehab, videos and a staff second to none. Anything that a talent would need to make it is at the Performance Center.
On any given day John Cena, The Undertaker, Big Show or any other WWE Superstar can walk into the Performance Center, and they are eager to share their knowledge with the roster. When I started in [NXT precursor] Florida Championship Wrestling, we used to perform in front of a handful of people, at times fewer than 20. Current stars like Sheamus, Seth Rollins, Dolph Ziggler and King Barrett were on those shows. Recently, we sold out the Barclays Center in New York with only NXT talent and drew almost 16,000 people. Another aid in the success of NXT is WWE Network, which has given NXT tremendous exposure. We are now doing Live Events out of state and will tour England in December. I am so excited to think where we will be a year from now.