What Mojo Rawley has to do to crack into pro wrestling superstardom

THE HITS, HYPE AND HOPES OF THE WWE

Dean Muhtadi was a college football star. As "Mojo Rawley," he's trying to be the next big thing in the ring

Published on January 27, 2016

Dean Muhtadi sat down in one of the folding chairs he helped assemble, stared at the canvas of the wrestling ring he helped put together and began to vent.

About the two-hour drive spent on desolate Florida highways in the August heat. About the tweet he sent to his 56,000 followers to let them know he would be performing tonight. About the text message he just sent his mother, telling her to turn around and drive home.

It was three hours before about 500 fans would come into Building B of the Citrus Springs Community Center, and a sheet of paper taped to the metal post behind the turnbuckle listed the competitors in eight matches. “Mojo Rawley,” Muhtadi’s in-ring character, would not be performing tonight. For Muhtadi, it was another reminder of the precarious path to pro-wrestling stardom.

Muhtadi, 29, turned down a contract with the National Football League and a six-figure job on Wall Street three years ago, and here he was, in a room normally reserved for wedding receptions and Zumba classes, eating his fourth meal of Boston Market chicken in four days. More than 80 miles from the closest major city, he was, in every way, far from where he wanted to be.

“It’s infuriating,” Muhtadi said. “Hopefully I’ll have the big payoff, but the reality is it’s not for a lot of guys. I’ve had a lot of friends come and go.”

As he watched the show unfold on a monitor backstage, he grimaced when a camera panned to one young fan wearing a T-shirt with Mojo Rawley’s catchphrase, “I don’t get hyped! I stay hyped!”

“It’s like twisting a knife in,” Muhtadi said.

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At NXT, World Wrestling Entertainment’s developmental arm, bursting onto the scene as a superstar is about much more than body slams and biceps. The wrestler must achieve an all-encompassing lifestyle change to manipulate a global audience into believing characters and story lines that they know are created and decided by writers and executives backstage.

In NXT, WWE executive vice president for talent, live events and creative Paul Levesque centralized the training under one roof outside Orlando. The WWE Performance Center opened in 2013 and features rings, a mock entrance ramp and announcer table, green-screen rooms for filming vignettes and daily instruction from wrestlers-turned-coaches.

Elias Samson (L) practices kicking Dean Muhtadi (LR who wrestles under the name Mojo Rawley, during practice in Orlando, Florida in August, 2015 where World Wrestling Entertainment has its development facility for male and female wrestlers not on the organization's primary roster, called the Performance Center. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

“Every single superstar that has come before you, as successful as they were, they did not have the tools that you have to get the job done,” Levesque tells new wrestlers.

Levesque understands that superstar landscape well, since on WWE television he is known as “Triple H,” a 14-time world champion and a principal character in some of the organization’s most memorable feuds over the past 20 years. He is also the real-life son-in-law of longtime WWE chairman Vince McMahon.

The NXT roster of 65 men and women, all signed as independent contractors, are recruited from around the world. A few come with an established persona from other pro-wrestling circuits. Several are transitioning from the NFL and have no experience with wrestling. A couple earned spots on a WWE reality show. Others are former Olympians, NCAA champions or models, or participated in World’s Strongest Man competitions.

Each NXT wrestler receives public-speaking lessons and quarterly visits from renowned Hollywood acting coach Howard Fine. Characters are dissected and perfected. Roles in plotlines are defined or dismissed.

Some WWE characters, like “The Undertaker” or “Brock Lesnar,” become overnight sensations. Others’ identities morph multiple times before they develop a following. And some wrestlers just don’t take off and are never seen on television. Mojo Rawley, a party rocker with boundless energy and the ultimate good guy who refuses to quit, is somewhere in between.

A section of crowd shouts during a WWE match in the Citrus Springs Community Center in August, 2015 where World Wrestling Entertainment held an event for locals. (Andrew Innerarity)

Born to parents of Syrian and Palestinian descent and raised in Alexandria, Va., Muhtadi developed an insatiable urge to entertain at a young age. He was part self-promoter, part class clown, cracking jokes while delivering the morning announcements every day at T.C. Williams High School. He starred on the football team, got voted homecoming king and president of the student government and worked as an intern for Morgan Stanley beginning in the seventh grade.

“He couldn’t even walk down the hallway without every single person trying to shake his hand,” says his younger brother Casey.

College football recruiters, however, were not as impressed, and there were no Division I scholarship offers. Instead, Muhtadi went to Division III Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., on an academic scholarship.

He transferred to the University of Maryland after two years and walked onto the Terrapins’ football team as a defensive lineman. He broke numerous team weightlifting records. He was named captain by his senior year and delivered emotional pregame speeches in the locker room. He won awards for having one of the highest grade-point averages on the team.

Muhtadi earned a training camp invitation from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers; he later signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2010, days before he was to begin a job as an analyst with Merrill Lynch. But during the first week of training camp, he suffered a devastating calf injury. Doctors said it was career-ending.

When Muhtadi moved back home he couldn’t walk. A month later, he and his childhood sweetheart broke up, ending a 13-year relationship. He remembers sitting alone in the dark for hours, depressed. I just lost everything, he thought.

This, Muhtadi insists, is where Mojo Rawley’s “Stay hyped” mantra began to take shape.

He emerged from the funk by completing 28 hours of credits in one semester to obtain his MBA at Maryland. He continued to rehab the injury and, 18 months later, learned he could resume playing football.

“The next day I showed up at the gym, and it was kind of that light at the end of the tunnel, that hope,” he says.

Muhtadi works out at a fitness club in Orlando. He has taken off 45 pounds since his days of playing football at the University of Maryland. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

But a new path to possible stardom was opening up courtesy of a friend’s father. NFL superstar Rob Gronkowski’solder brother, Dan, and Muhtadi had played on the same Maryland team, and Dan’s father was telling his friend Mike Rotunda, who wrestled in the WWE as “Irwin R. Schyster,” a tax collector, in the ’80s and ’90s, all about Muhtadi’s infectious personality. Rotunda, now a producer for WWE, was intrigued and asked for more information.

Though NFL teams were calling Muhtadi’s agent again and financial institutions were lined up to hire him, Muhtadi was thrilled by the interest from WWE, which triggered happy childhood memories of Casey and his father trying to imitate pro-wrestling moves they saw on TV. Before football, becoming a pro wrestler had been his dream.

Muhtadi sent a cover letter, an athletic résumé and pictures to WWE headquarters, not expecting to hear back. But the vice president of talent development, Canyon Ceman, called him, and soon Muhtadi was invited to “Monday Night Raw” at Washington’s Verizon Center, where he cut a tryout promo in front of the camera describing his life story. He needed only one take.

A formal offer followed. By Muhtadi’s calculations, his starting salary as a pro wrestler would be around $37,000, or about 8 percent of the $465,000 he was set to earn with an NFL team.

“It made the least sense. It was the biggest risk,” Muhtadi says. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

Inside the WWE Performance Center sound studio, Mojo Rawley’s raspy yell into the microphone pierced the room: “I don’t get hyped. I stay hyped!” Muhtadi was with his new tag-team partner and the other half of the Hype Bros, Matt Cardona, whose character goes by the name Zack Ryder. They had been together for just a few matches so far and were creating new entrance music. Muhtadi asked Cardona if he’d say “Bro me” during the introduction, a potential catchphrase for the team.

“It made the least sense. It was the biggest risk. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

—Dean Muhtadi (Mojo Rawley) on becoming a pro wrestler

Cardona tried it out. “Bro me.” He wondered if WWE officials would think it sounded too much like a sex act.

Cardona started his career more than a decade ago on independent wrestling circuits before finding a prominent role on the WWE main roster by becoming one of the first performers to embrace social media. (He has nearly 2.5 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram).

Cardona initially balked when Levesque asked him to team with Mojo, “because I’d seen him before and he’s kind of goofy,” he says. But his own career had grown stale, without a consistent story line or regular appearances on WWE’s main televised shows. Cardona saw the chance to create an odd-couple dynamic, with his “Long Island Bro” Zack Ryder serving as the straight man to Rawley’s raw energy.

“The Hype Bros get up there, and I get another shot,” Cardona says.

Muhtadi wasn’t too old to break through on the main roster himself, but he is one of just three NXT wrestlers remaining from the original crop of recruits at the WWE Performance Center. More than 20 other performers have already been promoted to the main WWE roster. And there are new wrestlers and new characters walking in the door every day.

Ryder, left, and Muhtadi are still getting to know each other as tag-team partners and still working out their approach in and out of the ring. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

Mojo Rawley burst through the swinging doors of a country western backdrop wearing bright teal Speedo trunks and walked through a Parisian cafe movie set, usually reserved for film students at Full Sail University, an entertainment and media school in a suburban Orlando strip mall. Across the parking lot was a 1,500-seat studio with bleachers where the Hype Bros would have another televised match.

One wrestler, wearing tights like a vaudevillian boxer, curled the handlebar in his mustache with Vaseline. A 7-footer with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent sprayed water judiciously into his long hair.

“Just a normal dude wearing a cape,” an Irish-accented character said as he passed by Muhtadi, who was warming up alone next to a dumpster.

Muhtadi’s mind raced with anxiety. He didn’t want his moves to look fake or to forget any of the choreographed spots or to injure anyone, or himself.

As his match got closer, Muhtadi, seven other men and one woman crammed into a skinny corridor with steps leading to the studio. Suddenly, word came from the executives watching the taping on monitors: The match, scripted to be nine minutes, had to be trimmed to seven. The sequence of moves they had carefully constructed needed to be condensed. Muhtadi listened intently as the team reimagined the match.

Everybody nodded in agreement, and the Hype Bros’ entrance music hit the speakers.

Muhtadi ran across the ramp screaming at the top of his lungs.

Wrestlers, from left, Collin Cassady, Mojo Rawley, Enzo Amore and Zack Ryder pose for a social media picture after their four-way tag-team victory. Rawley and Ryder are the tag-team partners known as the Hype Bros. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

As Muhtadi recovered from shoulder surgery in the fall of 2014, after wear and tear from the job, he had time to reflect on the state of his career and his creation of Mojo Rawley. He had settled on the first name Mojo because it would be easy for fans to chant; he figured his slogan would easily transfer to merchandise. He had dropped 45 pounds from the 310-pound frame he carried as a football player, concerned for how he’d look on camera. He learned to speak Farsi, hoping it might open up branding possibilities within WWE’s worldwide empire. He went to a tanning salon for the first time.

While rehabbing, he and Casey talked about the wrestlers they had loved growing up and how those characters also seemed to be an extension of the individuals themselves. Muhtadi had marveled at the controlled insanity of “The Ultimate Warrior,” a popular character from the ’80s. The key, Muhtadi realized, was not to just make something up, but to dig deeper into who he was. He couldn’t just be another party animal in the ring. He had to be the life of the party.

“If my character is over the top talking about partying and chicks and living the dream, then I’m going to go out and want to party more.”

—Dean Muhtadi, also known as Mojo Rawley

So he embraced the wilder side of his personality and regularly hit the club scene in Orlando, break dancing to techno music late into the night and using those moves in the ring to taunt opponents. He deprived himself of sleep. He even began sharing short videos of his antics in public to show that Dean and Mojo were indistinguishable. One, featuring Muhtadi and Rob Gronkowski, went viral.

“If my character is over the top talking about partying and chicks and living the dream, then I’m going to go out and want to party more,” Muhtadi says.

Once “WWE NXT” began airing on the WWE Network in March 2014, Mojo Rawley immediately went on a long winning streak and became a main character on the show. But his matches were disjointed, and they lacked the pacing and storytelling that engage crowds. He used only a few moves, and his finishing maneuver was awkward: bounce off the ropes and jump into the air before landing on an opponent’s chest with his butt. His promos revolved around a single emotion: full-throttle energy. He ran around the ring with tireless gusto and yelled in people’s faces, but when the character didn’t evolve beyond that, fan interest waned.

Muhtadi began to hear the occasional boo. The feedback on pro-wrestling websites and social media could be withering. One commenter called him “cheesier than mozzarella.” Entire message board threads were dedicated to “why I hate Mojo Rawley.”

“Love him or hate him, as long as they’re loud,” Levesque says of fan reaction to Rawley. “He’s a polarizing person, but that’s awesome, and I think that’s his charm.”

Near the end of a 12-hour day, Muhtadi greets fans as he departs from a monthly taping of matches in Orlando. The wrestlers have a dress code of business casual for arrival and departure at events. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

Eventually, WWE writers wrote his character off television when Muhtadi needed the shoulder surgery, creating a story line in which another wrestler had badly injured him. Muhtadi knew Mojo needed more tweaking, and when he returned to action this past spring, he was intent on proving that audiences would ultimately embrace Mojo Rawley.

Which is why, in August, even a short television appearance in an eight-man tag-team match carried so much weight. Muhtadi couldn’t afford any setbacks.

When the match began, he barely avoided a collision with Ryder barreling down the entrance ramp. He slid into the ring, bouncing off the ropes before sliding back outside. He screamed at fans in the bleachers: “The Hype Bros are here! Welcome to Hype City!”

Fans briefly chanted, “Let’s get hyped!”

But the crowd saved its biggest roar for the Hype Bros’ teammates, Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady, two Jersey Shore caricatures with an established catchphrase: “Bada boom, realest guys in the room. How you doin’?” Muhtadi began the match by throwing his opponent to the mat and yelled, “He ain’t hype!” He paused and said it again, hopeful the crowd would repeat after him.

The muffled chatter hanging in the air was worse than silence.

Mojo then tagged in Ryder and didn’t reenter the match until the frantic finish, completing a 360-degree spin that started from one corner and ended with him landing a punch in the middle of the ring.

Backstage, Muhtadi was thrilled that the new move was included on the end-of-match recap by “NXT” producers. He asked for feedback from a trainer, wondering if the abbreviated ring time muted his effectiveness.

“It was exactly what it was supposed to be,” producer Adam Pearce said. “Everybody went home happy.”

Muhtadi watched the rest of the night’s television tapings from an auditorium-style classroom at Full Sail with the rest of the NXT roster.

Dean Muhtadi, whose in-ring persona goes by Mojo Rawley, walks through the studio backlot of the multimedia school at Full Sail University in Orlando, where some NXT matches are recorded and broadcast on the Internet. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

He ate another Boston Market meal as another new tag team, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable, battled on-screen. The precision, acrobatic moves and elaborate finish all made for the best match of the night. Jordan even adjusted on the fly to catch a performer who had taken the wrong trajectory on a backflip off the top turnbuckle. The wrestlers seated around the room broke out in applause. Muhtadi acknowledged it was a great move, but he also seemed deflated.

He looked straight down at his food.

Jordan, he said, “looks like a million bucks.”

In December, Muhtadi had his first run of shows with WWE’s main roster, teaming with Cardona in several big arenas. These weren’t televised, but they were in front of new crowds and could work out the kinks of the Hype Bros’ act. The fans who hadn’t said a word four months earlier when he debuted the “He ain’t hype!” line were slowly, finally responding.

More important, Muhtadi and Cardona traveled together for the first time — to Charlotte; Augusta, Ga.; and Johnson City, Tenn. During the long car rides, they were getting to know each other better, and that newfound intimacy would surely help them in the ring.

“Before this weekend, I wasn’t sure if we were ready for ‘Raw,’ if we were ready for the main roster, to debut this on a large scale,” Cardona told Muhtadi. “After this weekend, we’re ready to show them something they’ve never seen before, and it’s going to work.”

But the Hype Bros were still a work in progress, and the reaction to them varied from city to city. In London, an entire arena of fans showered the Hype Bros with boos throughout the match. A week later, when New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski came to a Providence, R.I., show wearing a “Stay Hyped” shirt, Mojo Rawley was featured on “CBS This Morning.”

Backstage, officials seemed optimistic. The Hype Bros were booked for more WWE appearances following the Christmas holiday.

“Now, it’s legit,” Muhtadi says. “It literally could happen at any time. Mojo Rawley is ready to be Mojo Rawley.”

Mark Giannotto is a Washington Post staff writer in the Sports section. To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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