Rich Swann may not be a name on everyone's radar, but he could be soon in a big way.
Swann was born and spent much of his childhood in Baltimore. After traveling around during adolescence, he ended up in York, Pa., for his high school years, where he started taking up professional wrestling. What followed was a career that brought him all over the world, to places like Japan, Europe and Mexico, before finally, last year, he was signed to WWE.
Swann, while well-known to independent wrestling fans, is about to get the biggest spotlight of his career as he competes in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic. He is one of 32 cruiserweights from all over the world, most of whom are not signed by WWE, who will take part in a single-elimination tournament. It will be aired all summer on the WWE Network, with Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan providing the color commentary.
I had a chance to talk to Swann, who says he's proud to represent Baltimore, about his career, the tournament and what the event says about the changing business of sports-entertainment.
You were signed by WWE nine months ago. What has it been like?
They've been great. I think the WWE has really rounded my skills as a sports-entertainer. It's been a great experience.
Has it been what you've expected so far?
It actually hasn't been exactly what I expected. But I didn't expect to come in and for it to be sunshine and rainbows either. I'm coming in, I'm busting my tail, I'm working hard and enjoying the challenges that are being thrown at me every day.
What about it weren't you expecting?
I didn't really expect it to be quite as rigorous in the gym as it has been. I knew it was going to be tough, but in the gym they push you super-hard. But it's only because they want to see you at your best. They want to see you as a top notch athlete. And I have no problem being pushed and everything that they do there is great.
How does it compare to some of the other places that you've trained, like Japan?
The biggest difference is that the Performance Center is a top-notch facility. You ain't going to get anything better than that. In Japan, it's more of a gritty feel. Yeah, you'll get a hard and tough workout, but it's nothing compared to the coaches and the trainers and everything that the WWE provides for you at the Performance Center.
While you haven't become a regular at NXT yet, you have made some appearances, including TV matches against Finn Balor and Baron Corbin. What was it like to have those matches?
Baron Corbin, I watched him a lot when I was in Japan, and I saw the way that he was making waves. I knew that he was going to be one of the best. He's proving just that. I was in a losing effort against him. He's a big, tough, guy. He doesn't take anything from anybody. He's doing great on RAW now.
As far as working against Finn Balor, I always idolized him. I looked up to him. When I was in Dragon Gate Pro Wrestling, he came to Dragon Gate, and was the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. I always wanted to get the chance to wrestle him, and to do it in a WWE ring was priceless.
Has it been hard at all to not be on TV as often, and to not get the exposure yet?
It's not really hard at all. You just have to sit by, work hard, and bide your time. Then you have to go out there when you get that opportunity and kill it.
Well, you have that opportunity now in the Cruiserweight Classic. How excited are you for the start of this?
I'm very excited. Guys like Rey Mysterio Jr., Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, guys like that, they've inspired me. They made me want to do this. Those guys were three of the top cruiserweights that you can name. The fact that all the cruiserweights, not just myself, but everyone who is competing, are getting this opportunity, it's great for the business. It's good for sports-entertainment. It's good for the WWE, for NXT, for everyone.
What was it like before the matches started to have everyone come together in the days leading up to and conducting the weigh-ins?
It was really different. I don't think the WWE has ever done something like that before. It was an eye-opener. It definitely makes you sit back and wonder 'Ok, I'm going to have to weigh in every single time there's a CWC event.' So now you gotta watch what you eat. You have to train super-hard. You have to do everything you can to stay under 205 [pounds]. I think it's a great element to put in the CWC.
We know in wrestling that weights generally get exaggerated. How crazy is it that WWE is now conducting legitimate weigh-ins, and that you can be penalized if you don't make weight?
It's crazy. There are guys who are sitting back waiting, who are wanting guys to maybe have a little extra water in their stomach, or maybe just ate a few too many carbs, and hoping they step on that scale and it reads 206. Because they'll be out.
[WWE announced the alternates here: http://www.wwe.com/shows/cruiserweightclassic/article/cruiserweight-classic-alternates]
Have you ever had to make weight for anything before, whether it's amateur athletics or anything else?
I've never had to make weight for any sport before. Because, get this, I was not allowed to do any sports in school because I was a professional athlete. I was doing wrestling at the age of 15, so the school districts and the board of directors said that because I was a professional athlete that I couldn't do anything. I couldn't play basketball, I couldn't play football, wrestle, nothing. So I've never had it.
Wait, so they classified professional wrestling as making money off of sports and said you were ineligible?
Yeah, and I could have been a great athlete. I really wanted to play football. I really wanted to play basketball. I wanted to get my hands in any sport that I could. But they said no.
What school distract was this?
This was in York, Pa. I went to West York High School, then I went to York County School of Technology, and they both said nope.
Is it weird to you that they'd consider it a sport considering much of the stigma that still exists around pro wrestling?
Yeah, it is, but wrestling is a sport. The guys go out every single day. They put their bodies on the line, and they work as hard as they can. Their bodies are sore, aching, and they do it every single night. If you don't call that a sport, then I don't know what a sport is. And there's no offseason, there's no sports like that.
This is such a unique event, in that the WWE is bringing in so much outside talent. Even a year ago, could you have possibly guessed that something like this could happen?
I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would see guys like Lince Dorado, or Mustafa Ali, or Jason Lee or Ho Ho Lun, or Kota Ibushi. I would never, in my wildest dreams, think that I'd see Gran Metalik in a WWE ring. It's joyous. I'm happy about it. It really makes you feel good.
What does it say about WWE, and particularly Triple H, that an event like this is taking place?
I think it says greatness. There's no words that I could put that into. It's making this business great again. Not to say that it wasn't great before, but it's changing on us. It's bringing an audience that probably did not watch before, now they're seeing something different. They're want to take a look at this. They're getting the WWE Network, which you can get for $9.99, and it creates greatness.
While you are currently signed to WWE, last year at this time you were just like everyone else in this tournament. World-traveled, on the independent scene. What does a tournament like this do for the guys who are in it, and independent wrestling as a whole?
It opens peoples eyes to new talent that they probably haven't heard of. They may follow guys they like after this. There's also a lot of die-hard indy fans out there. Those people may have been hesitant to get the Network before, but they're going to get it now to watch their favorite guys get their debut in a WWE ring and prosper. It's great. It does big things for the business, not just WWE but sports-entertainment everywhere. It does well for all the independent wrestlers who become the future of this business.
There's a ton of talent in this tournament, from top to bottom. Is there any one that jumps out at you as someone you're dying to get in the ring with?
You know, there's one guy who I'd love to wrestle. That's Kota Ibushi. I met him in Japan. Just like with Finn Balor, I met him in Japan, we've been cool, cordial, but I'd love to wrestle him.
He seems to be everyone's top choice for a match. We keep coming back to this, but especially with the huge matches he's put on over the past few years, how wild is it that we're seeing him work with WWE?
It's great. It's absolutely fantastic. But on a side note, thinking about it in my head, I'd also love to re-link up with Johnny Gargano. We've had plenty of battles at EVOLVE, and it's always great entertainment. To have the WWE Universe see that, I'd love it. It'd be crazy.
There are a number of guys you've wrestled in the past, you mentioned Gargano, you won your first singles title against Lince Dorado. When you were wrestling them in the past, did you ever think you guys could be meeting again under a WWE Umbrella?
It's crazy, it really is. It's really going to open up the WWE Universe's eyes when they see us all link up. There's not going to be a bad match in the whole tournament.
WWE aired the Cruiserweight Classic Parade live, and when you were introduced, you had one of the biggest reactions of the night. What was the parade like for you?
I'll tell you what, when I was standing there, in that parade of cruiserweights, if you look on the video, you can see me smacking my chest and my face. I was trying to hide the fact that I was crying a little bit. There's no feeling that could have matched that, other than maybe wrestling at Wrestlemania. It was just so crazy. To hear the crowd screaming all night long, and especially the way that they took to me, that was a humbling experience. It was humbling. I never thought that I'd be in the middle of a WWE ring and getting a reception like that from the WWE Universe.
You have been around NXT a little bit, so the crowd knew you better than some, but how surprised were you that the reaction was as big as it was? You were right up there with reactions for guys like Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr.
I was very surprised. To get a similar reaction to guys like that, guys who have done so much in their careers...not to say that I haven't, but Kota has been IWGP champion, Zack Sabre has been a champion all over the world. To get that reaction like that, with those type of names in this tournament, it was absolutely a humbling experience.
We've talked about your experience all over the world, and yet your big break started from a tweet from Wale. Do you ever go back and marvel at the fact that with all the wrestling, it was a tweet that really got the ball rolling?
It was crazy man. I had got back from England the day before, and I just woke up. Before that, I wasn't too big of a Twitter guy. I woke up that day, and my girlfriend tells me that I have to look at Twitter. I look, and there he is, endorsing me and Apollo Crews, who was then Uhaa Nation. Next thing I know, I'm getting a call from WWE asking if I want to do a tryout. So Wale and Mark Henry, those are the dudes that really helped us out, me especially. When you think about my size, just getting the tryout can be hard. I worked so hard for those three days of excruciating pain, three days of going crazy trying to get that spot. And I was told maybe. Fast-forward nine months later and they gave me a contract, not because great people backing me, but because of my heart and my determination, and they see that.
You've done so much in your career, but what would winning this tournament mean to you?
There's nothing to compare it to. It would be putting the cherry on top of everything that I've done in my career. To be the very first Cruiserweight Classic champion, you couldn't take that away. That's why I want this so bad. Especially to be able to show everyone who said that I wasn't going to be in WWE. Or the people that said, “this kid just doesn't get it.” So many of the guys in this tournament were told that, and this just shows those people that they're wrong. That's it. If I can say that I am the first ever Cruiserweight Champion would show everyone who doubted me that they're wrong.