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Volume 22 No. 27
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Who’s NXT? Five to watch in WWE

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Kacy Catanzaro

Age: 29

After Catanzaro failed to reach the end of the obstacle course in her first attempt on “American Ninja Warrior” in 2013, someone came up to her and said, “You did really good, for a girl.”

Her response? “Oh, hell no.”

The backhanded compliment motivated Catanzaro to go on and become the first woman to complete the show’s Warped Wall and to hit the buzzer on a City Finals course. All 5 feet, 100 pounds of her.

The inspiring, spunky performance caused a spike in applications from other women to the TV show. It also caught the attention of the WWE, which welcomed Catanzaro into its Performance Center in 2018. Drawing upon her experience as a college gymnast, Catanzaro provides a wow factor with her acrobatics, including a handstand headscissors move off the top rope.

The WWE provides an even greater spotlight for Catanzaro to continue to inspire. When her size comes up, it fuels the drive. “I realize that I am not going to do things the same as some people, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to find my own way to do it.”

Finishing move: She’s toying with a traditional leaping “splash” off the top rope onto her opponent, but with an added gymnastic twist. Maybe call it the Warped Splash.

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Velveteen Dream

(Patrick Clark Jr.)
Age: 23

The line quickly blurs between Clark and his Prince-inspired character. He’s selling it, whether he’s in the ring or sitting across a table fielding questions from a reporter.

“I stay on,” he says.

Clark was an amateur wrestler in high school and aspired to one day do it professionally, “more along the lines of being an entertainer.”

He wrestled on independent circuits before having a breakout moment in 2015 as a contestant on the WWE reality series “Tough Enough.” Clark was eliminated for a perceived lack of humility, but he was still signed by the WWE later that year. When charisma is king, it’s no surprise why.

“In order to thrive socially, you need to have a certain level of humility,” Clark says. “But I don’t think humility drives much outside of that.”

As for the evolution of the purple-drenched Velveteen Dream?

“Velveteen Dream is very much an extension of not really who I am as a person, but really how I’m feeling at the moment,” Clark says. “It really evolves based on where I am in my human experience.”

Finishing move: The Purple Rainmaker. The flying elbow drop off the top rope pays tribute to the move made famous by the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage. And standing on the top rope, Clark says, “screams ‘look at me.’”

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Bianca Belair

(Bianca Blair)
Age: 29

Bianca Belair picked up her opponent, pressed her above her head, and then promptly heaved her over the top rope and out of the ring.

Yes, life is good in the WWE.

The path to NXT started in college, where Blair excelled running hurdles. Afterward, she fed her competitive spirit with CrossFit competition, standing out for her athleticism, outsized personality and flashy homemade outfits.

Retired WWE great Mark Henry saw Blair in a CrossFit video and messaged her on Instagram. “I thought it was fake and kind of ignored it at first,” Blair recalls.

Then Henry messaged a second time and arranged a tryout with the WWE. “I figured this was either too good to be true, or all of the pieces are falling in place for me,” she said.

Blair came up short in her first tryout, a nerve-wracking process that took place in front of an audience on hand for an NXT taping. But the second one landed her a contract and she joined the Performance Center in 2016, later making a slight tweak to her real last name to give it more flair for her in-ring persona.

Strength is her defining trait in the ring, not to mention her long, braided hair that she uses to whip opponents.

“The thing about this business is that we all do it to entertain the fans. That’s the main goal here. You’re here to put on a great show.”

Finishing move:  KOD (Kiss Of Death). She bends opponents over like a torture rack, then flips them over into a face buster.

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Damien Priest

(Luis Martinez)
Age: 36

The native of Puerto Rico fought in mixed martial arts before the sport really took off in popularity. When a buddy suggested he try pro wrestling, Martinez paid his tuition and trained at The Monster Factory in New Jersey. Then it was off to compete on the independent wrestling circuits.

“The biggest thing for me was going from actual fighting to this world where it’s more entertainment,” he says.

The 6-foot-6 Martinez caught the eye of the WWE and signed a developmental contract in October 2018.

At age 36, Martinez often finds himself competing with younger talent, but he doesn’t see age as a handicap. “If I can go at the same level, then age doesn’t matter. As long as I’m doing a little bit more than you, you will never be on my level.”

That age difference, however, can make patience more of a challenge, so Martinez pushes himself to move the needle.

“I’m not a patient person, but I’m a positive impatient,” he says. “I’m not willing to just stand by. I’m going to keep pushing until something sticks.”

Finishing move: South of Heaven Choke Slam, a nod to thrash metal band Slayer and WWE great The Undertaker.

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Xia Li

(Xia Zhao)
Age: 33

When Xia reported to the Performance Center in January 2017, she became the first Chinese woman to compete in a WWE ring.

As you can imagine, it was an unlikely path. Xia competed in martial arts and owned a fitness studio in her native country. When a friend told her the WWE was going to hold tryouts in China in 2016, Xia gave it a shot. She landed a contract and headed to Orlando in January 2017.

“I’m very proud to represent China,” Xia says in her improving English. “I’m so happy to be here. It’s my dream come true. I never thought that this would happen. My life changed.”

She recalls the nerves of her first match.

“I didn’t want to make a mistake because this was the first big opportunity of my life. I worried about that. I just wanted to do my best in the moment.”

For Xia, the challenges reach beyond the physical tests of the Performance Center. She’s a long way from home and must overcome the language barrier. She takes English classes twice a week at the center and once a week at Full Sail University. She dreams of one day being able to perform in front of her family at a WWE match in China.

“That would be awesome. I hope that is going to happen soon.”

Finishing move: Still in development.