Arash MarkaziESPN Senior WriterClose
- Former columnist and writer after five years with Sports Illustrated
- Markazi has also written for Slam, King, Vibe and Playboy
- On board of directors for Jim Murray Memorial Foundation.
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PHOENIX -- It's hard to put one of the greatest moments of your life into words minutes after it happens.
Sometimes you don't know the significance of it in real time. Other times you realize it but can't quite process it yet in a way that allows you to describe it. After all, it's hard to explain a feeling you've never had before.
As Bray Wyatt walked into the media room of the Talking Stick Resort Arena moments after winning the WWE championship in the main event of Elimination Chamber, the final pay-per-view for the SmackDown brand before WrestleMania, he shook his head as laid the belt down on a table and sat down.
"To be honest with you," he said, "I don't think I've come to grips with this yet."
His mother, Stephanie Rotunda, was waiting for him in the room and gave him a hug as soon as he walked in -- her voice nearly gone from cheering him on from her ringside seat. His father, Mike Rotunda, was outside the room wearing a smile almost as big as his son's; fielding congratulations from anyone passing him in the corridors of the arena.
Wyatt, born Windham Rotunda, has wrestling in his blood. His father had a distinguished career, in which he won multiple WWF world tag team championships as IRS. His mother is the daughter of Blackjack Mulligan and the sister of Barry and Kendall Windham. And his brother currently performs under the ring name Bo Dallas for WWE's Raw brand.
But on Sunday night in Phoenix, Wyatt became the first member of his family to win the WWE championship.
"This is something that cements my legacy," he said, looking at the title. "This is something that I've accomplished -- but I want to accomplish more. WrestleMania is right here."
Before the event, Wyatt introduced his mother to several of the wrestlers backstage, who had never met her but were more than familiar with the legacy of her family.
"Anyone you love, seeing someone they love succeed is something to be proud of," he said. "I would be proud to see anyone I love succeed, so I'm sure anyone who loves me is proud of me right now."
While Wyatt was seemingly born to be a professional wrestler, his path to becoming the WWE champion was far from easy. Over the past eight years he has wrestled under six different names, ranging from his birth name to Husky Harris. He was viewed, at times, as a solid talent who could one day become a tag team champion like his father, but little more by his detractors. On Sunday, Wyatt silenced all of the doubters and critics he's encountered through the years.
"To me it was an up-yours to the authority, because when I walked into this, I don't think anyone ever looked at me and said, 'One day you're going to be WWE champion,'" Wyatt said. "I've seen so many come and go over the years, and so many that look the part and thought they were something special and they just weren't. And someone like me, I had to cut my teeth for years just to be recognized. No one looked at my direction. I had to grab them by the throat and make them look me in the eyes and say, 'Look at me.' This is a huge accomplishment for me, because no one else expected it but I always did."
Not only did Wyatt win the WWE championship, but he also is currently positioned to face Randy Orton in the main event of WrestleMania 33 in Orlando. Wyatt's father and uncle as well as Orton's father, "Cowboy" Bob Orton, were on the first WrestleMania card back in 1985.
"This pretty much tells me I'm in the main event at WrestleMania," he said. "That's pretty cool."
While Wyatt smiled and refused to reveal his Sunday night celebration plans, he admitted the party won't last long with his next event scheduled in less than 48 hours and a six-hour drive to Anaheim, California, awaiting him in the morning.
"I really don't get to enjoy it," he said. "After I'm done here, I have to race to get to the next town. That's what I do. That's who I am. I'm a nomad. I kept traveling and I kept working and scrapping to get by all these years, and finally I get this moment, but I'm 29 and I have so much work left to do. Tomorrow is no different. Well, the only thing that will be different is that I'll be recognized as the champion I already knew I was."
World Wrestling Entertainment will once again return to Legacy Arena in Birmingham with "SmackDown Live" on Tuesday, Sept. 20, bringing with it a cavalcade of superstars including John Cena, A.J. Styles and the enigmatic Bray Wyatt.
The Florida-born third generation wrestler played a little college football at Troy University and once again returns to Alabama after climbing the WWE ladder and becoming the company's "new face of fear."
The son of Mike Rotunda (perhaps best known as I.R.S.), grandson of Blackjack Mulligan and brother to Bo Dallas (whom we interviewed in January), Wyatt (his real name Windham Rotunda) comes from a pretty unique wrestling pedigree that certainly shaped him into one of the current faces of WWE.
He developed a wholly unique and frightening character in NXT, a long-bearded, evil cult leader who manipulates dangerous men into following his word, eventually creating the stable known as the Wyatt Family that introduced the likes of Luke Harper, Erick Rowan and Braun Strowman.
Wyatt has since feuded with John Cena, Daniel Bryan, Roman Reigns, The Undertaker and a host of other top-tier stars. Vince McMahon clearly sees serious star power in the 29-year-old, pushing one storyline after another and plastering his face on much of the company's branding.
Watch out for Wyatt on Tuesday, when WWE television returns to Birmingham for the first time in more than seven months.
"SmackDown Live" in Birmingham will kick off at 6:15 p.m., with doors opening at 4:45.
Due to the recent widely publicized brand split between "SmackDown Live" and "Monday Night Raw," the company cut the roster in half via draft, meaning you'll see a very specific lineup that still includes plenty of your favorite superstars.
The scheduled main event is a 6-man tag match between John Cena, Dean Ambrose and Randy Orton vs WWE Champion A.J. Styles, Bray Wyatt and Intercontinental Champion The Miz. Also scheduled to appear are SmackDown Women's Champion Becky Lynch, Natalya, Nikki Bella, Apollo Crews and more.
Tickets range from $15 to $100. You can purchase via Ticketmaster right now.
The WWE last performed a televised show at Legacy Arena in February when "Monday Night Raw" rolled through town. WWE's developmental brand NXT performed in the BJCC Concert Hall last month.
"SmackDown" last taped in Birmingham in July 2015.
We talked to Wyatt about his recent bout of injuries that kept him out of action, his stint as a football player at Troy University, his relationship with Vince McMahon and his growing legacy he hopes will land him in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Listen to the whole conversation or read it below:
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN/DOWNLOAD!!!
Injuries are obviously a part of wrestling, something you've experienced over the last couple of years, that have impeded stories you've tried to tell. But you've worked really hard to get better and get back in the ring. When you get injured and you know you're going to miss some time, what is the level of disappointment you feel and how do you replace that with the drive to work your way back and start fresh?
Bray Wyatt: I can only speak for myself, obviously, but this injury that happened to me, I was in Milan, Italy. My calf just exploded, man. I really felt like I was on fire. Maybe even more so than they already had, people really started getting behind me and understanding what I was really and truly about. When I went down, I remember sitting there and thinking to myself, "Why me?" I felt as if God was punishing me. And as I sat there for a couple of months in misery and just thinking about where I was going to go when I came back, it put a lot of things in perspective for me. It helped me realize the values that I have and the objectives that I want to accomplish. It kind of gave me laser focus. Throughout my career, when I was at my most miserable, I have always become my most focused and dangerous. I feel like I'm already at that point again right now to where it's make-or-break Bray Wyatt time. I want it all. That's where my head is at. That all came from
After the Daniel Bryan-Miz moment on "Talking Smack" a few weeks ago, there was a lot of discussion about wrestling style and how that affects the longevity of a person's career. Has there been a company-wide shift in in-ring approach following the recent string of injuries?
BW: Again, I can only speak for myself. When you go into a WWE ring, you know you're going to compete. You know that things are going to hurt. It is a dangerous, dangerous place. No matter what people think or say, it's a very, very dangerous thing. You have to prepare yourself mentally and physically by training and knowing how to take care of yourself the best you can so that you're able to fight and get to where you want to be. For me, it's a mental preparation. It's between me and God, not between me and anyone else. Just me and God, and I am right with my God. So when I go out there, I have no worries. Never.
You're from Florida. Played high school football. You earned a scholarship to play at Troy University, which isn't far down the road from here. Can you tell me a little about your experience in Troy and what you think of Alabama?
BW: I'm going to tell you this right now, man. The person you're talking about is now me, and I don't mean this in a generalized professional wrestling type of manner. I'm telling you -- my brain, my soul, everything has changed. I'm not that same person. I never will be. That person is gone and dead. But while being at Troy, it was a tough lesson for me. It kind of helped me get to be the person that I am now because I never experienced such things that I saw there. I love Alabama. It's beautiful, but I started destroying myself while I was there, emotionally. Troy kind of helped pick me up and set me to where I am right now. And the Troy Trojans should have beat Clemson the other day, just for the record. They're a better team than Clemson. If we had 75 5-star recruits like Clemson, we would have smoked them, they never even would have had a chance. That's my take.
Over the years, we've seen so many football players attempt to make the transition to wrestling, some of them really successful like yourself and Roman Reigns and others. What about your training, skillset and experience in football helped you in your pursuit of wrestling?
BW: Well, I also started wrestling when I was 3-years-old. The discipline of wrestling, the way to control your balance, being out on the heat with all of this equipment on...all of that helps. Some guys, they never really competed in their whole lives. They came into this, and this is all they've ever known. But when you're out there, and you're out there playing Division I college football, and you're getting in a 6-second fistfight with another huge, tough guy every play, it toughens you. It makes your skin thick. You can't put a price tag on that, on the lessons of actual competition. It teaches you to fight.
You're someone who clearly cares about building character and telling good stories. I heard Kevin Owens on Chris Jericho's podcast where they talked about being guys who had a lot of ideas for themselves and how that can sometimes rub people the wrong way behind the scenes. Has that been your experience? Why is it important for you to have a major creative input in what happens with your character?
BW: Because no one can tell me what I should say or how I should act. No one knows me better than me. As far as rubbing people the wrong way, I ain't too sure about that. I'm the time of person that...I kind of do it my way, and that's the only way I know. I don't need anyone creatively to tell me how I'm supposed to be. Only I know the answer to that. Only I know what I would say. That's always been my outlook. I haven't really worried about rubbing people wrong because I only know how to be Bray. And Bray is always going to bee Bray.
You have one of wrestling's all-time best entrances. I've been in the room for it a couple of times, and it really is an amazing sight and feeling. What do you remember about the night in London when you first noticed the fans going with it, turning on their cell phones, and the feeling you had then and what do you think about it now as you walk into an arena?
BW: I will never ever, ever forget that moment. Never. No matter what happens to me in life, I think I will be on my deathbed thinking about that moment. It's something you can't write, something you can't script. It's not something you can plan or tell people to do. It's one of those 'it just happens' moments. It was surreal. I remember walking down, and it was a promo the fans have named the 'Miss Teacher Lady' promo, which is one of my all-time favorites not just because of the birth of the fireflies. I was so into it and what I was saying, I didn't even notice what was happening. The fans in London are unlike any other. London is a beautiful place for what we do, maybe the best in the world. I don't know. I remember [Luke] Harper grabbing me by the arm and whispering in my ear, 'Are you seeing this?' And I looked around, and...right now there is a chill running down my spine. It's surreal. When I looked around, I couldn't help but just soak it all in. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life, and it's carried on. I didn't ask anyone to do it. I never called them the fireflies, they called themselves that. It's just a beautiful thing, man. They were able to create something for themselves and for me. People come just to be a part of that. I'm forever in debt to the people.
Could you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Vince McMahon? What was your impression of him before and when you got hired at WWE, and how has that changed since then?
BW: Vince McMahon is not a human being. They don't make people like Vince. Vince is Vince. I can't even describe to you what it's like being in a room with Vince McMahon. He is above man. That's the best way I can put it. Like-minded people take over the world, so I've always had a great rapport with him.
I assume everyone in WWE has a drive and goal to be the company's "top guy." I wonder if that's something that you and other wrestlers think about on a day to day basis. You've said before this is a marathon, not a sprint, you've made it in your 20s when others are getting called up in their late 30s. How do you maintain that level of patience even if and when you feel like you are that guy now or whenever?
BW: I think I'm someone that is recognized right now. I hate to keep using this word, but it's a surreal feeling to walk into a building anywhere in the world go, and people know who you are. As far as wanting to be on top, if you don't want to be on top, you don't deserve to be here at all. There are thousands of people across this earth who would die for the opportunity to get in front of these people and be what we already are. All I can say is that I'm 29-years-old. I started here when I was 21. In eight years, I'm come this far. My tank is completely at the brim full. When I die or when I am inducted into the [WWE] Hall of Fame years and years and years from now, I will have a legacy and I will be remembered forever. Already, I know that. And I still have so much more to do, man. I have at least 10 title runs in me. [Laughs] That's got to come sooner or later. I'll take that.
WWE "SmackDown Live" comes to Legacy Arena in Birmingham on Tuesday, Sept. 20. The show will kick off at 6 p.m., with the live broadcast beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $100. You can purchase via Ticketmaster right now.