He may be a star in World Wrestling Entertainment, and one of its current tag champions, but Big E wasn’t always a WWE guy.
“I was a big wrestling fan as a kid,” said the former NXT champion and Florida native, “(but) if I’m being honest, I had more of a slight lean toward WCW. Actually, more than a slight lean,” he added in a telephone interview, referring to the once major rival of his current employer
“I remember watching Nitro with my dad and during commercial breaks we would flip to Raw. I don’t know if it was growing up in the South, in Tampa, in Florida, but something about WCW always kind of caught my ear and my eye. I definitely grew up a big wrestling fan,” said Big E, who was born Ettore Ewen in the mid-1980s. “I always liked the big guys. I was a huge Goldberg fan, I liked Vader, Ron Simmons,” said Big E, himself something of a big guy at five-foot-11 and 285 pounds of pure muscle.
Given his current physique, it comes as little surprise to learn that the New Day member’s relationship with physical fitness can be traced back to very early in his life, after his father handed him something that would set him on a path with destiny.
“I started young,” Big E said when asked at what age he began working out. “Without really knowing exactly when this was, I remember I would hang out in my garage, and my dad got me these sand weights that he just found in a junkyard,” adding he figured he was around the age of seven at the time. “They were covered in plastic, filled with sand and we found this old, rusty bar and I would just do a hundred curls.
“Sometimes I would do a set of eight, go back inside, watch a Saturday morning cartoon (and when) a commercial would hit, I’d come back out to the garage and do another set until I got tired. I didn’t know what I was doing, but something about it always enamoured me.”
Pumping his sand-filled weights served him well until he met the man who would teach him the skills he still employs today.
“When I was 12, in seventh grade, my wrestling coach at the time, at Tampa prep, taught me how to properly work out,” Big E said. “He was such a great mentor for that because I learned pretty much the basics and fundamentals, which I still use today. I started young. Ever since then I’ve been hooked.”
In college, the then teenaged future wrestling superstar was a member of the vaunted University of Iowa wrestling team and a football standout. Injuries derailed his football career, but thanks a twist of fate, he hadn’t wrestled his last match when his college days came to an end. Far from it in fact.
“I was at Iowa, I was actually working on a Masters to finish my undergraduate degree and things were going well,” Big E recalled. “I was a teaching assistant at the time.”
A close friend had a connection to someone in the Iowa wrestling program, who was connected to former WWE talent relations czar and hall of fame commentator Jim Ross.
“It was really me knowing a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy,” Big E said with a chuckle.
Ross was on the lookout for former college wrestlers who might be interested in pursuing a career in professional wrestling. Big E’s friend threw his name into the hat. The rest, as they say, is history.
“If I’m being honest, I was very fortunate. A lot of guys always dreamed of being a sports entertainer or pro wrestler and they set out from (the age of) 15 or earlier. For me, honestly it wasn’t, but as soon as I got to (Florida Championship Wrestling), I had so much fun. It was something that I thought was enjoyable, something that I thought I could grow to be good at and it was perfect because I was born and raised in Tampa. It just kind of worked out. It was definitely something that I’ve grown to have a passion for. I’ve learned to love what I do now.”
Shortly after signing his WWE developmental deal, it was suggested to the hulking Big E that he try power lifting.
“Power lifting started about a year after I had been signed,” Big E said. “I think there’s a big of a misconception that I was power lifting before I got signed. I was actually in FCW, I had never competed (in power lifting). I just always worked out, I played some football in college. I was training to wrestle and Rob McIntyre, who grew up with (John) Cena and actually lives 15 minutes from where I live and still train, he was the one who suggested, ‘Hey, you’re pretty strong, your numbers are getting better, maybe we should try doing power lifting.’
“So I entered one in South Florida, qualified for nationals the next year and then won nationals as a super heavyweight. That was kind of my path with power lifting.”
Big E does believe that power lifting helped him find a niche.
“I think more than anything, for me at the time, a guy who was brand new to the business, (who had) only trained for about a year or so, (who was) still trying to figure out what I wanted to be in the ring, I think it gave me a direction, it gave me a purpose. It gave me a bit more confidence and a bit of a direction, which is a good thing.”
Today, Big E is one of the most imposing stars in all of wrestling, often manhandling opponents with his brute strength. For his part, Big E says, he’ll always be grateful for Rob McIntyre’s push.
“I’ve always been very grateful to Rob, because he was the one who suggested it, he kind of put me through the paces, taught me the commands and really was the one who tailored my workout.”
In his still young career, Big E has already been two-time tag team champion (once in FCW, currently in WWE), an NXT champion and the WWE Intercontinental champion. And while he dismisses the suggestion that he and others laid the groundwork for the current success of NXT, Big E said he does have fond memories of his time in NXT.
“I still remember we shot a pilot, which I don’t think anyone ever saw,” he said. “It was the very first time we ever shot at Full Sail (University), just for the cameramen to figure out, just for the talent what we were going to do. (Current New Day member Xavier) Woods and I were actually the very first match. We were the dark match. I think we had a quick, maybe three-minute match. We were the opening dark match of that pilot so to be the very first match ever to go on in that building is pretty cool. It’s really cool to see the evolution of the product now. I’m a big fan of NXT and the talent that is there right now.”
These days, Big E and his New Day partners Woods and Kofi Kingston are busy carving out a new identity.
“It’s cool because it feels very organic,” Big E said. “I think a lot of times when you say, ‘This is what a talent is and this is how we’re going to push him in this direction and it doesn’t matter what the crowd says or what they do,’ sometimes you can make that work if you shove things down peoples’ throats, but a lot of times there’s resistance toward that,” he said, adding that he believes that’s what happened when New Day first emerged as a team in WWE.
“If you remember the original promo with Woods in the red and white suit, that happens and then we disappear for a couple of months. I think there was some buzz with that, which we were all excited for, and then that kind of just disappears. And then when you see us again, we’re in a different incarnation of what people thought we would be. For us, it was kind of an uphill battle to get things off the ground for the first several months, but I think more than anything, we believe in our talent.
“It’s really cool to get to this point of things feeling organic, where we’re not in a box that people are force fed, and that’s something we’re excited about. I think it’s a cool thing to not necessarily have a strong label. But I do think we’re going to start moving in a certain direction that’ll make it pretty easy for people to figure where we’re going.”
The next opportunity for New Day, and for fans, comes tonight in Montreal as Raw returns to Canada. For his part, Big E loves coming to Montreal.
“I know the crowds in Montreal are always great, always very rabid and vocal, which we love. For (wrestlers), the death knell is lack of response. When (the crowds) quiet, when they’re not doing anything, that’s when you really start to worry. Our biggest thing is going out there and performing.”
That’s exactly what the trio plans to do when Raw hits the airwaves in front of one of the most ravenous wrestling crowds on Earth.
“Obviously we’re newly crowned tag champions and we’re trying to do something different. I think it just went up on the website that the three of us are listed as champions to bring back the Freebird rule, which we’re trying to get referred to as the New Day rule, which I’m sure will upset Michael Hayes. We’re excited about it and I don’t know exactly how we’ll be received, I have an idea. I’m sure it won’t be overly positive, but we’re always excited about it. It’s Monday Night Raw, it’s a big show for us, and we’re excited about the opportunity.”