Chapter 8: We’re Here
Although hundreds of students have stepped foot in the Performance Center, Paul Levesque calls Bray Wyatt, formerly known as Husky Harris, the first character fully packaged by NXT for a successful Raw debut. But the process that led to Wyatt’s success wasn’t as simple as giving him a fresh start; Wyatt dipped into everything the talent and the coaches had to offer.
“Bray began with my real-life lunacy,” says Wyatt. “I’ve always been an against-all-authority kind of child. I was a big fan of Rage Against the Machine, they were a big influence on my life as a child, so when I started working with Dusty Rhodes, I began losing my mind on a very real level. I became obsessed with this character.”
When Husky Harris failed on the main roster, he went all in with the Wyatt persona. “I was going to jury duty in my hometown, and Dusty made me go to jury duty as Bray,” Wyatt says. “Dusty told me, ‘This is the perfect exercise. Become Bray.’ I literally went to jury duty as Bray Wyatt. I was so immersed in the character that I didn’t break once. Obviously, I didn’t get picked for jury duty, but I had the white pants, Hawaiian shirt, the whole nine yards. There were no fragments of Husky Harris. Husky Harris was dead, and he was to stay dead. I was Bray Wyatt. We were one.
“I remember when the coaches came to us and they were like, ‘Things are changing here, guys.’ We liked being out in our own little world of FCW, and we didn’t like change. So we were like, ‘No, no, no, this sucks.’ First time we went to Full Sail, there were like 50 people there and we did a test run, and Hunter took over. We started gaining confidence once we saw how Full Sail was set up. It was nothing like it is now, but we had some matches, and when we came back, we were like, ‘Wow, this might actually be pretty cool. We might have to move to Orlando, but this might end up being kind of cool.’ A couple of months later, we started the television product, and Hunter gave us a platform where we could create and be whoever we wanted to be. I started doing the vignettes as Bray, and I took it as seriously as possible. I took it very, very seriously.
“We were all into it and we all started becoming things. We were no longer just guys who wore tights. We were becoming actual characters, and it was almost bizarre. One person saw what was working, and then everybody wanted to jump on it. At the time, the only characters were us as The Wyatt Family and The Ascension. Characters like this weren’t on the main product at the time, in my opinion, and we weren’t cartoon characters. We were real. That’s the best way I can explain it, and it was a real cool atmosphere the first couple of times we came out. I ended up tearing my pec, and that’s when Harper, Rowan, and I became that group, and it caught fire. The crowds acted so crazy when we came out, it was almost like we were a football team and we were playing at home every single week. We felt like celebrities. For the first time, we felt like we were big stars. We were performing in this tiny room at Full Sail, but the place started coming alive. People were getting behind us, and each person who joined added something to the group. I didn’t used to have the lantern, but then we came out to the music and everybody in the crowd just swayed. It was becoming this real, awesome vibe. We were no longer focused on just getting to the main roster. Now, although we wanted to get on the main roster, nobody was going to take being down here away from us.”
And Wyatt realized the power of NXT the first time he brought the character to WWE’s main roster. He hadn’t yet appeared on Raw, but WWE was giving Wyatt the opportunity to work with some veterans in non-televised matches during a tour of the West Coast and Canada.
“It’s funny, back then, we were still down in Orlando and detached from the world. But I was doing some live events with the main roster,” he remembers. “At the time, NXT was only airing internationally in Canada and Europe. I’ll never forget, I was on a loop, and my first stop was Salt Lake City, Utah. I’m busting my ass, and I come out, and no one knows who I am in Utah. I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s a process, it’s going to take a while for people to catch on.’ The next night, we go to Canada, and I come out to the biggest pop anybody had all night. It was all because of NXT. It was the first time I realized that this thing is catching fire. This thing is real. What a difference. These people had seen me, they knew who I was, they knew what product I was pushing, and they were so excited to see me. I felt like I was back at Full Sail, in front of my home crowd. It was a really awesome feeling. It was the same thing when I debuted. My vignettes first started airing, and I guess Vince was expecting people to be like, ‘Who is this mysterious character?’ But that’s not what happened. Across the world, Bray Wyatt was trending on Twitter, which is not something I typically care about, but I do for this instance because Vince goes, ‘How the hell did they know his name?’ WWE never once said my name, they never once showed my name in the vignette, but everyone knew my name because of what Hunter had done at NXT. What a feeling. It was transcending. I was welcomed because of all the hard working people at NXT. People were now appreciating and getting behind what is now an empire and a dynasty. It was just beautiful.
“A couple of weeks later, we came back to NXT, and to this day, our NXT return is my favorite moment of my career. We came out to the lantern video and I said, ‘NXT, we’re home.’ It was home. And we come out to this crazy noise, and then I cut my epic promo to NXT. It was a thank you for everything they did for us. The Wyatt Family loves you, and The Wyatt Family will be back. It was almost like if Shawn Michaels retired in front of a tiny building; it was just that kind of moment you can’t recreate, even if you wanted to. To see what NXT has grown into and what it has become is just incredible. To see these guys at the Barclays Center and going on UK tours, it’s unbelievable. There’s a little part of me that’s like, ‘Man, I feel great for these guys, but I wish I could still be a part of this.’ We have a little joke where we consider ourselves to be the grandfathers of NXT. We were the first package to come up completely as is. We walked straight out of the pages of a comic book, but our comic book was NXT. NXT helped introduce us to the world. It was really cool.”
Wyatt credits the team of coaches for helping not only his character, but also his growth as a performer.
“I definitely spent a lot of time with Dr. Tom Prichard (former head trainer at Deep South Wrestling and FCW), and he was a huge influence,” says Wyatt. “He taught me how to loosen up and how to flow freely. He taught me to not be afraid to try things, which is absolutely imperative. You have to go out there and create and not be forced to stick to a structure. I can’t let someone else tell me who I am; only I know who I am. It was the Wild West down in FCW—we did what we wanted and that kind of carried over in our attitude. We want it, and we want it now, and we want it all—that was our attitude. Joey Mercury spent a lot of time crafting my movements and making sure I didn’t go too far. I have a way of doing that; especially back then when there were no rules. There was no telling what I was going to say, no telling what I was going to do. That’s what made me.
“I was so frustrated with people trying to put a label on me and trying to make me something I wasn’t. The Bray Wyatt character was something I was thinking about and something I wanted to try, and I completely changed everything before I did it the first time. I covered up my tattoos; I got new tattoos over my old ones just so I’d be different. I grew out my hair, I grew out my beard, and when I came out to do it the first time in promo class, I remember there was just complete silence. I didn’t really know how it went. Then Dusty clapped his hands together, and all of my peers started clapping for me. Right then and there, Dusty said, ‘This is you, isn’t it?’ It was me. I knew it. Dusty knew it. We all knew it. I had prepared character stuff for Bray six months before Bray ever set foot in any arena. I put everything into it. It was all or nothing. It was this risqué character, and it could’ve ended at any moment because it was so out there and so against the grain. Or it could’ve exploded and started an empire. I’m happy to say that thanks to Hunter and Dusty, all of my wildest dreams came true.”
According to Wyatt, the true game changer was the first vignette he ever shot. “I don’t know how much vignettes cost, but I imagine they’re very expensive to shoot,” says Wyatt. “But I knew we didn’t need fancy cinematography to make us look cool. We already knew our image and who we were and what we wanted to talk like. We went out and shot tests. We went out to the woods where I grew up and there was no script. Dusty just said, ‘Tell me how you feel, kid.’ So I stood up in the middle of the woods and I started ranting and raving and it was all 100 percent genuine because it was all 100 percent real. We shot a ton of images, and I had bought Erick Rowan this lamb mask and I said, ‘This is just a beautiful metaphor for everything. This lamb mask tells a story.’ We had been told the lamb mask would never work. I’m not going to mention names, but we were told not to use the lamb mask. They said it would never go over on TV. But when we were out in the woods, Dusty goes, ‘Hey, Rowan, did you bring the lamb mask?’ And Rowan goes, ‘Yeah, got it right here.’ So he put on the lamb mask and the rest is history. We shot those vignettes on a handheld camera for a couple of buckets of fried chicken. There was no camera crew. There were two guys and the Wyatts. We went out into the woods and they let us be us, and that’s what Vince saw. They knew that they could put all this money behind the video and put us in some crazy atmosphere, but what we shot was so genuine and it was so unlike anything else, Vince was like, ‘It can’t get any better than this.’ What a pat on the back that was to us.”
But Wyatt wasn’t the only reclamation project going on inside the Performance Center. Another Superstar who successfully changed both his character and fortune in NXT is Tyler Breeze.
“I was working as Mike Dalton, and I wasn’t really getting much traction down there,” says Breeze. “I was spinning my wheels, and even though I was working with everybody, my character wasn’t really taking off. There just wasn’t much substance to it. If you asked me who Mike Dalton was, I really had no clue. I would just go out there and try to entertain some people. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t, but basically it came to a point where they told me, ‘We need something we can market. We need to sell something about you, otherwise we don’t need you around.’”
Breeze sat down with roommate Xavier Woods, and the two spent a weekend brainstorming characters.
“I need to do something or I’m out of here,” Breeze told Woods.
Woods responded, “Well, worst-case scenario is that they follow their plan to get rid of you, so let’s give it everything we’ve got so you have no regrets.”
“The last thing you want to do is get released and then sit around and think about all the things you should’ve tried,” says Breeze. “So basically, for a full week, I just started coming up with different characters. I actually came up with 10 different characters all with different names, different looks, and different personalities. I wrote a paragraph on each one, what they were all about, what motivates them—everything I could think. I showed them to Xavier and asked him what he thought. From there, we chose the three best, then we spent the entire weekend at our place in downtown Tampa, just filming little trailers about who each character is and what you could expect from them. I emailed them out to everyone I could think of, and as soon as I emailed them out, I heard back from Dusty, and he told me, ‘Hey, there might be something to this model character. Let’s talk more about it on Monday.’ I went in and we had a promo class, and I started to test out a few of the characters in front of everyone, and the model got the biggest response from everybody. Dusty and Bill DeMott took an interest in it and thought it was really cool, so we started to get rid of Mike Dalton, get him off TV, and recreate what I would end up being. It took a while to put the finishing touches on it, but that was the jump-off point. It was actually very different to what it is now.
“It’s really a collaborative effort to create a character like this. Without Dusty, it never would’ve gotten off the ground. Billy Gunn and Bill DeMott helped navigate where the ring work was going. We’d try something, then we’d get rid of it, then we’d try something else and see if that worked better. For example, we started with a hand mirror, and it took about six months of fine-tuning behind the scenes before we finally got the go ahead to debut, and the production team really played a big role in my entrance as we figured out how to stream my phone onto the Jumbotron. We added the selfie stick, and everything started evolving really quickly. So the idea of who Tyler Breeze is, that was my baby, but the whole production of what you see wouldn’t be possible without the help of so many people.”
Some of the best advice Breeze received was from Levesque, who replaced the hand mirror Breeze was walking into the ring with, with a cell phone. Levesque told Breeze, “I think the selfie is so huge right now, and it’s only going to get bigger, so let’s tap into that.”
“The mirror was an ’80s wrestling gimmick, and his idea was to make it more modern,” adds Breeze. “So we switched it, and it really took off. Then when we did Brooklyn, we were able to do the Facebook and Periscope Live stuff, and that had never been done before. I had three phones going—the WWE account, the NXT account, my account—and they were all streaming, so you could log on to any one of those accounts and see different views of the entrance. There were tens of thousands of people who logged on to see, and that showed a huge interest in not only the product, but also my character. It’s something different that people hadn’t tapped into yet, so it was cool that I got to introduce that. Technology is just advancing so quickly that what I’ll be able to add to my character moving forward is just unlimited.”
When Apollo Crews joined NXT after a successful run on the independent scene, he quickly learned that the key to character creation and being able to stand out in a roomful of WWE hopefuls is the ability to be yourself when the camera lights are on.
“I’m thankful because I don’t have to deviate too far from who I actually am,” says Crews. “I’ve heard from other people that I have the ability to go out there and just be me. Nobody can be me better than I can be myself, so in the end, that’s all I know. I don’t have to find or play a character who’s not really me. When I was growing up, the guys I liked to watch did the same thing. They were themselves, just on a bigger scale. It’s me being myself, just adding a little extra to it. The name I used in the independents was Uhaa Nation, and I knew I had to change my name, and I was a little bit worried about that, but Apollo was a name I really wanted. That was my first choice when I came in, so when I was able to get that, I was extremely happy. I was lucky. Sometimes you get stuck trying one thing, which may not work, and then you have to try and think of something new, and who knows if that will work or if it’s too late. I was one of the lucky ones.”
Baron Corbin agrees. After trying a few different gimmicks throughout the development process, he found his true character when he took a closer look inside himself. “The main guys who helped me were Dream and Billy Gunn,” says Corbin. “Billy Gunn was my right-hand man. He really helped me find myself both inside and outside of the ring. Dream really helped me convey it to an audience. Those two guys played an unbelievable role in what I’ve become. I played with a few different things when I was trying to find myself, but it just wasn’t working. My promos weren’t believable, and I struggled. Dream and Billy were both like, just go up and be yourself. I’m kind of a salty person; I definitely stick to myself. My whole thing of being the Lone Wolf is really just how I am. I don’t hang out with people from here, I really just have my core group of family and friends and that’s it. So I started doing promos as myself, and Baron Corbin is basically just an exaggerated version of who I really am. These are my feelings and what I believe, and that’s the easiest thing for me to do. The more ways I can express myself, the more my character can evolve and become so much more well-rounded and offer more opportunities. And the people believe it because it’s real. I like to fight and I’m a loud mouth who likes to talk trash. If you look me up on the internet, you’ll see that I was fighting for my NFL career, and I was literally getting in fist fights on the practice field in the NFL and in college.
“When you are who you are, it gives you longevity. We all change through our endeavors, through our struggles, through our successes, and our character is going to do the same thing, so if you’re being yourself, it will just naturally evolve.”
Being yourself has also worked for breakout stars Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens.
“When I came in, I was getting a lot of advice and a lot of direction from different people,” says Bálor. “You try to listen to everybody, but at the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself and true to what you believe in. People gave me some good advice, and I’d take that and run with it . . . but other people would offer things that weren’t really me, so I just set that aside. One of the guys who gave me great advice is Road Dogg. I remember the day of my debut, I saw him and asked, ‘Do you have any advice?’ And he told me, ‘Finn, just go out and be you.’ And that’s been my NXT motto ever since. If it feels right to me, then that’s what I’m going to do—that’s really the best advice anyone has ever given me. I’ve gotten a lot of input from Terry Taylor and Matt Bloom, who are two of the best coaches I’ve ever worked under. Triple H is another person who has given me great advice. Those four men have been hugely influential in what I’ve done so far in my NXT career.
“When I first made the move to NXT, a lot of my friends in the UK and Japan said, ‘What are you doing? They’re going to give you a green beard and a leprechaun sidekick.’ I had been in NXT a couple of months when I decided that the body paint could be done here, so I had a meeting and was blown away that Hunter wanted me to try it at NXT. Obviously, it’s something that’s very elaborate and extravagant, especially when you add the smoke and pyro, and it’s a huge team effort to make it look as cool as it does. It’s more fun for the fans, and it’s more interesting to me. The fans are waiting, wondering what I’m going to come out as, so it makes it fun. There’s a lot more to this industry than what goes on in the ring; there’s a showmanship to it. We’re painting a picture, so I said, ‘Why don’t I start painting on myself?’ I pitched it to one of my best buddies when I was in Japan, and he told me, ‘That’s going to suck. It’s going to be a big mistake, don’t do it.’ But I did it at the biggest show of the year in front of 40,000 people. I covered myself in paint from head to toe, and the crowd was really into it. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but now it’s become one of the things I’m most known for.”
Owens adds, “Yeah it’s all very genuine. It took me 14, 15 years to get here, and I’m glad I’m here, but in a way I’m annoyed that it took me so long. I think I should have been here six years ago. But I don’t know if it took people that long to recognize what I could bring to the table or if it took me that long to be valuable and to bring something that’s beneficial for everybody. But everything you see when I’m in front of the cameras, or even right now, is very genuine. I remember when I got to the Performance Center, one of the first things that Dusty wanted to do was sit in a room with me, turn on a camera, and just talk. The first thing I talked about was my family and my kids and my wife, and about 15 minutes later, Dusty turned off the camera and said, ‘Well, whatever we do with you, your family is going to have to come through because that is who you are.’ I’m a pretty genuine person and sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad—it’s not always positive, but I am who I am. That is the one thing I have always said: I am who I am. It might not always work to my advantage, but it has done me well so far. I feel like trying to be something else wouldn’t work, so here we are.”
When it comes to the female talent in NXT, the women are not just trying to hone their own personalities, they’re attempting to stand out from the women of Raw and SmackDown Live and distinguish themselves, both in and out of the ring.
“I thought of so many different things. I thought of this crazy girl, I thought of this nerdy chick who loved anime, but I just thought, ‘How can that click with the audience?’ says Sasha Banks. “I also really thought about what we were missing. And at the time, we didn’t have any bad guys and we didn’t have any guys who were over the top and cocky, which you really don’t see with girls in general, and I just sat down and thought, ‘What’s around you? What’s hip right now? What’s big?’ All the big things were Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Floyd Mayweather, and I just put those personas together and I tried to make something of my own. And I just thought, ‘You know, you’re related to [Snoop Dogg], someone pretty famous, and people can relate to that. So there you go: there’s your background story, there’s your character.’ The best thing you can do is try. You either fail or you’ll always wonder . . . so I kept trying.” Banks scrunches up her face and says, “I remember when I started that character, people gave me that face. But I felt comfortable with it and that was the first time that I ever really felt comfortable doing something. I remember Dusty told me to keep doing it and to keep working on it, and every week I would come to promo class with a new promo and a new idea for the character and even crazier and blingier outfits, and it just finally clicked. And now Sasha Banks has taken off.”
As for Bayley, she says her character is simply her times 50,000. “Or me as a 10-year-old or any other 10-year-old girl who loves WWE,” she explains. “I get to be myself—it’s awesome. I get to perform how I want to perform; I really do love bright colors, and I get to put whatever I want on my gear. I played basketball as a kid, so I always tied up my hair. My mom used to fix my hair before school and as soon as I got to school I would take it all out and put it in a ponytail. I was such a tomboy. But I was taught to keep everything inside and be professional. Especially working here, I want to be professional. But when I’m out there, I get to let it all out and I can add everything I felt as a kid into my character. So I just go back and think about certain things, like how I felt when I met certain Superstars, how I felt when I met Matt Hardy or Kurt Angle or John Cena, and then I bring that out and channel it into what I’m doing now.”
And that includes her trademark colors. “I love bright colors!” she says. “Everybody just does one plain color, but I just love all kinds of colors. Maybe some people think it’s weird, but I just love it, and it makes people happy. I feel like when you see something bright it makes you feel happy, which is what I want to do.”