WWE’s talent factory
Charlotte Flair was riding to Boston’s TD Garden late last month to tape an episode of WWE’s “Raw” when she got the word.
She would be part of the main event at WrestleMania 35.
“I think I cried for an hour on my drive,” Flair said. “I don’t know how to put it in words.”
The WWE’s biggest event. MetLife Stadium. The New York City metropolitan area. More than 80,000 fans. WrestleMania’s first all-woman main event.
It was a crowning moment that was years in the making. And it all started more than a thousand miles to the south.
There, in a nondescript industrial park east of downtown Orlando, a neighbor to storage units, a lighting firm and a food services company, sits the future of the WWE. Walk through the doors of the WWE Performance Center and you’ll hear the satisfying crash of bodies hitting canvas. It’s the proving ground for those who want to reach the top of the WWE.
It’s where Flair’s path to WrestleMania started in 2012. And it’s where nearly 100 people signed to development contracts now learn the ins and outs of the theater of professional wrestling. Former football players, CrossFit competitors, martial artists, basketball players, gymnasts, track stars, rugby players, weightlifters — elite athletes from some 20 countries.
Want to become a part of the WWE’s sports entertainment empire?
It starts here.
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Talent and storylines are why WWE’s “Raw” and “SmackDown” are consistently among the most-watched shows on cable each week.
It’s why USA (NBCUniversal) and Fox Sports agreed to pay the WWE a staggering $2.35 billion over five years, a media deal that will bring the company nearly four times more than it was previously getting.
It’s also why WWE Network, launched in 2014, now boasts more than 1.65 million subscribers to the streaming service.
Overall, WWE produces more than 1,500 hours of content each year. You’ve got to feed that content, and the way to do it is with compelling talent.
Building that roster falls on the battle-tested shoulders of Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative.
“If all other sports are just point and shoot, follow the ball, or follow the action or follow the fight, we are making a television show,” Levesque said. “We’re making a movie. So ours is about the story in the ring. How are we going to tell the story and then how are we going to connect fans to it?”
The studio to develop that story is the Performance Center, which opened in 2013, replacing a facility in Tampa that the WWE had used for a regional promotion. The move also came as the WWE was refreshing the NXT brand into a regular television show and touring production that would highlight up-and-coming talent.
The building is a labyrinth of spaces: A room for weightlifting; a green room for talent to master their camera presence; conference rooms for skull sessions to break down film; a medical and rehab facility; and areas to build social media content.
The centerpiece is a 12,000-square-foot space that contains seven rings, where talent is divided based on experience level. A ramp mirrors the one used at NXT tapings and is used to practice entrances.
Imagining Performance Center 2.0
Paul “Triple H” Levesque toured NFL training facilities to get ideas for the original WWE Performance Center. Now that the center is bursting at the seams, he’s again looking to the NFL, thinking big and thinking global.
“I think about this all the time,” he said. “What is 2.0 of this and how do we make this bigger? This has become so much more than just a place where we train talent.”
He looks to The Star, the grandiose development of the Dallas Cowboys. He envisions not only room to train, but room to host shows and other events, such as the “Halftime Heat” show produced at the Performance Center during this year’s Super Bowl. For now it’s just a vision; no time frame has been set on a potential larger center.
Meanwhile, the WWE is scouting locations overseas to open a second international Performance Center. The money’s there: WWE international revenue rose 58 percent last year alone, passing $300 million and accounting for a third of the company’s overall revenue.
The WWE wants to foster that growth by developing hometown talent and content for overseas fans to pull for. That was the motivation behind the Performance Center that opened in London in January, which followed last year’s launch of “NXT UK” on WWE Network. The WWE did not disclose the cost of the U.K. center.
Where to next? Asia, India, the Middle East and South America are on the radar. — D.B.
Above it all sits two webcams. One provides Levesque a remote view of the action when he’s off site. Another does the same for Vince McMahon, WWE’s chairman and CEO, who ultimately will give a Caesar-esque thumbs up or down to who makes it through to the next level.
Typically, NXT shows are taped one day a month. Levesque will fly to a “Raw” taping on Monday, then to a “SmackDown” show on Tuesday, and then to Orlando on Wednesday to check in at the Performance Center and oversee the NXT taping.
For the athletes under contract, this is their home for a journey that likely will take years, not months. It’s a reality that either motivates them, or stops them in their tracks.
“I think they underestimate the time it’s going to take to get good at this,” said Matt Bloom, head coach and vice president of talent development. “Because a good number of our talent cross over from other sports, whether that be amateur wrestling, whether that be football, basketball. For them to be as successful as they were in that sport, they had to put in long hours and work hard. So now they come here and do something all over again, and they have to remember what it took to get to that level. And I think some of them think, I’ll get there in two years or three years. And it takes a lifetime to master.”
Bianca Blair, who enters the ring as Bianca Belair, excelled in track and CrossFit. She remembers arriving at the Performance Center in 2016 and being in the unfamiliar position of starting from scratch.
“You really have to humble yourself here,” Blair said. “You really have to get used to not being able to pick up on things very quickly.”
That applies even if you have the wrestling pedigree of Flair. She’s the daughter of Ric Flair, the “styling and profiling, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing son of a gun” who is ranked by some as the greatest professional wrestler of all time. Charlotte Flair has plenty of athletic ability (she played volleyball at Appalachian State before graduating from N.C. State), but admits that when it came to wrestling, “I didn’t know anything.”
“I always went to the shows, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of the sport entertainment world,” Flair said. “I just knew I was athletic and I was going to do this.”
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So how do they get here?
The simplest path is to fill out an application on the Performance Center website and then hope to get called for a tryout. WWE looks at all of the applications, but the reality is that tens of thousands have been filed since the center opened.
The gatekeeper is Canyon Ceman, senior director of talent development. Getting in front of him is professional wrestling’s equivalent to landing an audience with the pope. If you want to get a tryout, it starts with Ceman.
Ceman and his team pore through the applications, but perhaps more importantly maintain a network of contacts throughout various sports to flag athletes who might be worth a look. And then there are the independent wrestling circuits, a frequent pipeline to the Performance Center.
The scouting goes on globally, mainly in areas that have a wrestling culture: the U.K., India, Asia. About 40 percent of the talent now at the Performance Center hail from other countries.
Ceman checks off the attributes he’s looking for: Elite athleticism, physical toughness, charisma, size, work ethic, professionalism, education, coachability. Sometimes talent turns up in nontraditional places. Such was the case when Ceman spotted Kacy Catanzaro, a former gymnast, making waves on the obstacle courses of “American Ninja Warrior.” She joined the Performance Center in 2018.
The fortunate few are invited to one of four tryouts each year at the Performance Center, or one of four held each year overseas. In March, for example, the WWE held a tryout in India.
Each tryout has about 40 prospects, meaning 300 to 400 people get a tryout each year. Of those, Ceman said, the WWE will hire 30 to 40. The next Performance Center tryout is set for April 25-27. The next international tryout will be held in Shanghai July 15-18.
The tryouts last three days. The first two are brutal by design, testing the prospects’ conditioning and watching to see what they retain from coaches.
By the end of day one, WWE coaches have generally eliminated the bottom half. By the end of the second day, the favorites start to emerge. It’s a combination of how they handle the physical duress and how they come across in promos they tape to describe their journey and why they want to build a career with the WWE.
“What we’re really looking for, though, when they start to break down is, ‘how do you really act?’” Levesque said. “Are you the type of person that when you’re tired and exhausted puts the other person down to get in front of them, or are you the type of person that looks to the person next to you and picks them up and says, ‘Come on, let’s go, we’re going to finish this.’ Because you can’t do it by yourself in this business. So you have to be that emergent leader.”
And then, of course, there’s charisma.
“Charisma is king, or queen,” Levesque said. “That X factor that as you walk into the room makes people turn their heads and ask, ‘Who’s that?’”
With elite athletes, egos are plentiful, and usually welcome. “I like an ego,” Bloom said. “I like an ego that is confident, who is going to push the boundaries a little bit, but I also want to have an ego that is going to abide by team rules like being on time, holding yourself accountable for your actions. Competing with your teammates here with respect.”
First Look podcast, with WWE discussion at the 20:09 mark:
There are misses. The WWE took a pass on Kevin Owens during his first tryout. Owens would go on to build a name for himself on the independent circuits before landing another WWE tryout.
This time, he crushed his promo. And when he was done, he ran through it again, in French. It was an exclamation point that earned a contract in 2014. Owens is now a WWE headliner.
Those signed to developmental contracts are paid on average $50,000 to $150,000 a year. The overall average for those in development is about $80,000. If they reach the top of the WWE, salaries can climb into the seven figures.
Once in the program, the talent is taught technique, timing, camera awareness and presence, and how to avoid injury.
“It’s the emotional storytelling,” Levesque said. “We are way more akin to ‘Rocky’ the movie than boxing, from the shooting and production of it.”
Guest instructors have included improv groups and even Cirque du Soleil. Talent takes acting classes and learns about managing their finances. Foreign talent must take English classes.
Of those at the Performance Center, about one-third have roles on the NXT television show, a third are on NXT live events staged throughout Florida and the rest are not yet ready to perform in front of audiences. Each year, about 10 to 15 are promoted to WWE’s main roster of “Raw” and “SmackDown.”
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Hanson and his partner Rowe, the tag team known as The War Raiders, had just stomped their way to the ring when Hanson grabbed the mic and sneered toward the camera.
“I forgot my line!” he growled.
It was rehearsal time at the March 13 taping, and the slip drew howls from the other talent sitting ringside.
NXT tapings take place about three miles north of the Performance Center at Full Sail University. The partnership gives the WWE production space and provides Full Sail students with opportunities to work alongside the crews and earn scholarships.
All of the talent from the Performance Center was on hand. They had arrived around noon to help get the venue ready for that evening’s show. “They have to go to all these live events to set up the ring and take it down,” Ceman said. “You have to pay your dues. Everyone’s done it.”
Those on the card that night practiced their entrances and walked through their matches. Some held printouts of their lines for the evening. Levesque stood ringside, along with Bloom and other coaches, including former WWE great Shawn Michaels. They dissected the plans and offered the talent ways to improve their performance. To sell it. It might be something as simple as telling The War Raiders to raise a clinched fist one less time walking down the ramp and instead build crowd anticipation for when they make that move in the ring.
Outside, Johnny Gargano walked on the sidewalk behind the performance building, holding an imaginary mic and practicing his lines as he prepped for his time inside the ring. Someone heard that Steve Cutler, one of The Forgotten Ones, had thrown up so they asked if he was OK. “No worries,” Cutler said, just nerves. “I’ve done it since playing sports in high school. I’m fine afterward.”
Vanessa Borne, Candice LeRae and Aliyah filmed a spot that could be used during the show’s airing. They exchanged insults and retaped the spot several times. If not because of a tweak to their lines, it was the interruption of a crash from the production crew moving equipment, or a plane flying overhead.
Crews attached wheels to a couch that would be used by the Velveteen Dream during one of the three shows that would be taped during the night. They spray painted goblets in the Dream’s trademark purple.
The tapings quickly sell out the 500 available seats that go for $20 each. These folks also will play a key role in who makes it to the next level based on how they react.
“If you grew up watching a band that played in a club down the street, when they make it big, you’re connected,” Levesque said as a comparison.
Levesque watched the night unfold from The Gorilla Room — a small production room affectionately named after Gorilla Monsoon, a legendary wrestler, announcer and booker — but not before he made a rare appearance in the NXT ring for the show’s taping. That was necessary because the NXT champion, Tommaso Ciampa, had suffered a neck injury that required surgery. Levesque, as Triple H, needed to go on camera to set up the evening’s main event, a five-way match to decide who would fight for that title against Gargano in NXT TakeOver New York prior to WrestleMania. Aleister Black, Ricochet, Velveteen Dream, Matt Riddle and Adam Cole would do battle that night.
Despite all of the training, with the level of stunts and the stress on the body, injuries are inevitable. On this evening, Chelsea Green would break her wrist in an opening match against Jessie Elaban. She would still finish.
“There’s a fine line between it looking real and it being real,” Levesque said. “This is the edge that we walk.”
In between several matches, Levesque walked outside and provided instant feedback to the talent. After Jaxson Ryker’s match, he huddled with Ryker and told him to let his opponent take him down more often. It’s his ability to keep getting up and keep charging that gets the crowd going.
“You can go down all you want, if it’s something big,” Levesque said. “You’ve just got to be getting up and fighting. You’re constantly coming forward, or at least coming up. It’s the Terminator. Even the Terminator goes down for a second, then when you think you’ve killed him, nope, here he comes. Give them that moment when they say, yeah, and then take it away from them.”
The five-way headline match for the first show taped that evening set the standard for the rest of the night. The flips, slams and acrobatics kept the live audience roaring.
“This is awesome!” the crowd chanted. “This is awesome!”
In The Gorilla Room, the team knew it was going to be a good night.
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At the end of the final taping that evening, Ricochet and Aleister Black told the crowd that this was their last NXT show at Full Sail. The pair had been mixing in performances on the WWE’s top shows. Now they’ll do it full time.
They’ve made it.
After winning a tag-team match, the pair was showered with a confetti cannon. Then they thanked the crowd and stopped by The Gorilla Room to thank the production team and the coaches before leaving the building.
Two departures, two opportunities for others to step up.
For Bloom, the other coaches and Levesque, these are the most satisfying moments.
“This is the guts of what we do and it’s invigorating being around all of these young people who are just waiting for someone to unhook the leash and let them out so they can go crazy and be the biggest star in the world. It’s inspiring,” Levesque said.
Those moments aren’t lost on Flair. WrestleMania was the payoff for all the training, for going from someone who felt like fainting from nerves at early practices, to someone carrying on the family tradition. Or as someone recently told her:
“Your dad didn’t pass the torch. You took it.”