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Wrestlemania 40: WWE searching college sports world for next generation of superstars

Every professional wrestling fan has heard some variation of it in their lives.

“You know it’s fake, right?” they’ll say.

Predetermined? OK. But fake? Not even a little bit.

The intersection of sports and entertainment that is professional wrestling is meeting in a marquee way this weekend in Philadelphia with WrestleMania 40 and its surrounding events.

The days of a couple of oafs working headlocks and arm bars for 80 percent of the match as part of their four-move skillset are long gone.

The modern day WWE “Superstar” routinely blends acrobatics, athletics, daredevilry and bouts of brutality into a physical brand of storytelling that is worthy of the designation of professional athlete.

The increased athleticism has changed the game in WWE.

WWE has held tryouts in recent years predominantly featuring current and former college athletes to find their next stars. That trend continued during WrestleMania week at Drexel University on April 2-5.

The NXT developmental brand was previously stewarded by Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who now oversees all creative in WWE after the exit of former owner Vince McMahon. It’s now in the hands of fellow legendary wrestler Shawn Michaels, who continues to be impressed by the next generation.

“I really enjoy the fact that we’re out there recruiting out of these colleges and going after these young men and women. We had (a tryout Thursday) and it’s staggering,” Michaels said.

“They’re unbelievable athletes and the great many that we end up choosing are getting it so fast. I think that speaks very positively to the future of this industry.”

WWE legend and NXT head of creative Shawn Michaels speaks during a news conference at WrestleMania Media Day on April 5 in Philadelphia. (Austin Hertzog - MediaNews Group)
WWE legend and NXT head of creative Shawn Michaels speaks during a news conference at WrestleMania Media Day on April 5 in Philadelphia. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Among the prospects were Lehigh wrestling alum Karam Chakif, two-time U23 World wrestling medalist Jacob Cardenas, a large group of Division I football players on the men’s side; past NCAA volleyball players made up a large swath of the women’s hopefuls.

There’s a history of elite athletes finding professional wrestling. Arguably the greatest athletic bona fides that have come to WWE were wrestlers-turned-wrestlers: Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar.

After winning an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling in 1996, Angle was a natural and went on to become four-time WWE Champion and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017. Lesnar was an NCAA heavyweight champion before becoming the youngest person to win the WWE Championship, which he won seven times, and headline WrestleMania five times.

Current talent Chad Gable competed for the U.S. in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Football has served as a breeding ground for WWE, too.

Look no further than the main event of WrestleMania Night 1. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Roman Reigns were Division I defensive tackles at Miami and Georgia Tech, respectively, before joining the family business.

WWE wrestler Bianca Belair, center, poses with fans during a Make-A-Wish event on April 4 in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau)
WWE wrestler Bianca Belair, center, poses with fans during a Make-A-Wish event on April 4 in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The pathway hasn’t entirely changed. But the hit rate has.

The new generation arrived with Bianca Belair, who has gone from Tennessee track and field to women’s champion and WrestleMania main-eventer. She’ll compete alongside Jade Cargill (Jacksonville Univ. basketball) in a 3-on-3 tag team match Saturday.

Rising talents include Trick Williams (South Carolina football), who is the headliner of Saturday’s NXT Stand and Deliver event at Wells Fargo Center; the Creed Brothers, Julius (Duke wrestling) and Brutus (Otterbein wrestling); and Tiffany Stratton (USA Gymnastics).

Former NCAA and Olympic wrestling champion Gable Steveson has been on a developmental contract since 2022.

The makeup of top college athletes segues perfectly into the performance art of pro wrestling.

“The recruiting system that we have with these athletes coming in, they’ve been taught from a very young age and their normal is to perform, to get better, to achieve goals,” Michaels said. “That’s why what we’ve done in the last couple of years is so amazing to me because that’s all they know. We’re not taking them out of their normal, except teaching them a new craft. They’re born and bred to look at a goal and make it happen.”

It’s not exactly professional athletics, but a blend of it in the eyes of veteran Tomasso Ciampo, who will wrestle in his first WrestleMania match during Saturday’s Night 1 as part of the 6-Pack Ladder Match for the Undisputed WWE Tag Team Championship.

“I don’t think so. It’s improv, right?” Ciampa said Friday at WrestleMania 40 Media Day when asked if he and his colleagues are professional athletes. “There’s some acting involved, there’s a pro-athlete element to it.

“I think there are wrestlers who are capable of it, like a Ricochet, or Montez Ford, whose vertical is there, whose sprint is there, who can probably put up good numbers in a combine. The rest of us, it would be embarrassing, because we’re not training for the same thing.”

WWE wrestler Tomasso Ciampa (Courtesy Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau)
WWE wrestler Tomasso Ciampa (Courtesy Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Professional wrestling is instead a unique blend of fitness, physical improvisation, endurance, appearance, acting and showmanship.

“There’s explosive elements, but there’s also aesthetics,” Ciampa said. “A quarterback doesn’t have to worry about taking his shirt off, no matter how he looks. They don’t have to worry about their physical appearance in the same way. I think there’s elements of pro-athlete to it, but I think it’s more, in a sense. It’s a whole different skill set.”

Other sporting pursuits carry a component of physical punishment, but elsewhere the goal is to avoid that, not embrace it.

Ciampa knows that experience as much as any. His wrestling career began in 2005 before joining WWE in its developmental brand NXT in 2015. His NXT run included a tag team title run with Johnny Gargano – his DIY partner in Saturday’s title match – time as the NXT champion and an iconic feud with Gargano that ranks among the best rivalries in recent WWE history.

The road to his first WrestleMania required endurance through countless injuries, torn ACLs, neck surgery in 2019, hip surgery in 2022, among them.

“I don’t think there’s a way for people to understand it,” he said. “The matches are one thing. They’re short sprints with a lot of heavy impact. But then it’s get in a car, drive a few hours, get on a flight that’s early with lack of sleep. Your cortisol levels and inflammation’s through the roof.

That’s the hardest part. And there’s no off-season. So the grind just continues.”

Philadelphia hasn’t been kind to Ciampa in his earlier years with some failed tryouts on the independent scene and matches in Ring of Honor that ‘didn’t live up to the hype for me.’

A ladder match is uniquely brutal in pro wrestling where getting hit, rammed into and jumping off ladders comes with the territory.

Yet it will hold a special place for him after WrestleMania 40, regardless of the physical toll that comes his way.

“This ladder match should top the chart for me,” Ciampa said. “This will be my biggest moment in wrestling ever.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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