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I conducted a phone interview earlier this week with WWE star Alex Riley, who will be challenging Dolph Ziggler for the U.S. title at the WWE Raw live event Sunday night at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Riley (real name Kevin Kiley, 30) grew up not far from Upper Marlboro in Fairfax Station, Va. Riley, whose father is former ESPN and TNT broadcaster Kevin Kiley Sr. and whose mother is former Miss Virginia Lauren Kiley, played college football at Boston College and was a starting linebacker during his senior season in 2003.

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Riley, who graduated with a degree in communications, spent a few years unsuccessfully pursuing a career in professional football before eventually setting his sights on getting into professional wrestling.What led you to the sports entertainment industry?

I was a fan of it my whole life. As I grew up with football I was also very into sports entertainment, watching it on TV constantly, but never really knowing how to pursue it. As soon as football had kind of runs its course, I contacted the WWE and called [head of talent relations] John Laurinaitis, waited a couple months, got a phone call back and then they invited me to Ohio Valley Wrestling for a week tryout. I didn't really know what the process was – if I was going to get a deal, if I wasn't – and before I got off the plane on my way back on a Friday morning, they had left me a message saying if you're interested, we'd love to have you. That's how it played out.

What year was it that you had that tryout?

I think it was the end of 2007, moving into 2008.

So you've had a pretty quick ascension from getting a tryout with no prior experience to making it to WWE TV.

Yeah, I think it was about two and a half years, which when you're down there actually seems like a lot longer, because I was very eager to get on television. I thought I had a lot to contribute. I don't think people really understand how hard this is and how long it takes to pick it up. It's a craft and it's extremely difficult to learn the art of it and to really get in touch with yourself and the performing aspect of it. When you play football your whole life – I also played basketball in high school – you're just a number under a helmet, but here they see your face constantly, you're completely exposed , they hand you a microphone, so you really have to know yourself in the ring and the performing aspect of it, which took some time with me and it was difficult at first to learn that. But once I got into the WWE, I've been extremely lucky that they've given me some serious opportunities to contribute and to be on Raw for about a year, so it's been great. Once I got into the WWE it's taken off for me.

You mentioned being handed a microphone in WWE. I think one of the things that was impressive about you when you were on NXT was your ability to talk. Did you have a background in public speaking?

I'm very close with my father and always have been growing up. He was a sports broadcaster for ESPN and TNT, and he covered a lot of the NFL and also some boxing and basketball. I always watched him and listened to him on the radio as much as I could. Toward the end of my football career and before I got into sports entertainment, I was doing sports broadcasting for a local cable television station in Washington, so that's something that I've always been interested in as well. So I kind of had a little bit of a background with sports broadcasting. I did it for a couple months before I got the opportunity to come to the WWE and then left all that behind me because this is what I thought I was meant to do.

What was your parents' reaction when you said, "I'm going to give this sports entertainment thing a try?"

My dad was in the NFL, and growing up, a lot of people were always like, "Your dad's making you play football." But my dad actually wouldn't let me play football because he thought I was too thin and was going to get hurt [laughs]. And he knew how hard the game was and how dedicated you needed to be to be good at the game, and the same thing with the WWE. You need to be extremely dedicated to this and the travel and everything that makes it so hard. If this isn't the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about before you go to bed, it's going to be very hard for you to make it. So he wouldn't let me play football or even get involved in athletics until I lifted weights for a year with him when I was 13 or 14 and he knew that I was serious about it. When I told him that I wanted to be a part of the WWE, he said, "It's really your life. If you feel like this is what you're meant to do, then we're behind you and will support you in anything you do and go do it." He's been great. I always call him with questions and that stuff, so he's very, very supportive of what I wanted to do.

The Miz played your mentor on NXT and then you were paired with him on WWE TV after the show ended. Was he also a mentor to you behind the scenes?

Absolutely. When I was told that I was going to be paired with him on NXT 2 – I had seen what he had done on NXT 1, and he's obviously very talented and was a huge part of that show – I was extremely ecstatic about that. There were some similarities to our characters: I could speak, he could speak; I felt like we could play off each other very well. Miz treated me very fairly. A lot of guys are willing to help you, but he really went the extra mile with me. If I had questions before the show or the little details that I wasn't used to coming from Florida Championship Wrestling moving into the WWE, he was always there to help and absolutely was a mentor there to me.

What's the best piece of advice that he gave you?

If we had a great episode or they gave us an opportunity to do something that went real well, he would always say – and I believe this to be very true with the WWE – that you're only as good as your last show, and you've always got to be looking for a way to stand out and looking for a way to bring a moment to TV that people are going to remember. If you're not doing that every Monday night, you're not doing your job. We're all trying to create those moments for the viewers. We're all trying to be as entertaining as possible or have those moments that are remembered. He said that when Monday rolls around, you always have to be trying to steal the show, and that's probably the best advice that he ever gave me.

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Were you surprised at how big the reaction was for you the night on Raw when Miz was berating you and you had finally had enough and fought back? The crowd went from not liking you or really even caring about you to chanting your name.

I kind of was surprised, but, you know, Miz is so hated, so anybody who beats the hell out of him, I would think that they were going to like and respect, so that was one aspect. I knew if I really let this guy have it, they should get behind me. But you're right, I was kind of a guy that was just his sidekick, nobody really knew me, so I was dealing with that. I remember standing there [laughs], and this is God's honest truth, in the middle of the segment – and I want them to get behind me – they started chanting, "Fire him! Fire him!" [laughs] So I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm dead." So then when he fires me, they erupt. So then I'm thinking that I'm even more in the hole. They don't like me, they're not going to get behind me. That moment with Miz was so parallel to reality that a lot of stuff came out that I kind of believed and he believed. Some of those things he said, I think he really did feel, and some of the things I said, I really did feel. So I think they got behind that moment because it really was a real moment in my career and in his career, and I beat the hell out of him when it finally happened, and I think they enjoyed that. So was I surprised? Yeah, a little bit, but I think they appreciated the reality of it and me beating up on him.

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I agree that what made it so good was that you and Miz really made the brawl look like a real fight.

Yeah, and it was. When somebody does start saying those things to you and you know that you're out there for the world to see, you can't help but get mad. From time to time you do kind of lose yourself in it, and I think he lost himself and I lost myself in the whole thing and we went for it and it was a really good piece of my career.

I've heard a lot of guys in the business say that it's much easier to get the fans to hate you than it is to get them to like you. Can you talk about how it's been for you making the transition from heel to babyface?

I try not to think about whether I'm a good guy or bad guy – heel or babyface – I just try to be myself and just try to react the way I would react. That night that I went out there with Miz and they chanted "Riley," that just happened. I couldn't control that. I'm going to do the best I can, and if they get behind me, great, but if they still hate me, there's really nothing I can do. The only thing I can control is making what I do as real as possible, if not absolutely real at certain times. So that's the way I try to approach the heel and babyface thing. When I'm out there, I'm not really trying to be a good guy or a bad guy, I'm just being me. I think the WWE Universe is hard to trick. They'll see through you if you're trying to be a good guy or trying to be a bad guy, but I think they appreciate a guy that's really being himself. I think it's worked pretty well for me so far, so I'm hoping they continue to get behind what I'm doing because they respect the fact that it is real.

What can people expect when they come out to Sunday's show in Upper Marlboro?

I got Dolph Ziggler for the U.S. title. That'll be a great match. I think John Cena has got Alberto Del Rio in the main event, and the Divas are there. The thing about the live events is that they're fantastic shows for the fans because there's so much fan interaction. I'm going after the U.S. title. I've been put in a lot of great positions so far in my career – had an opportunity to be part of WrestleMania in the main event – but I've never had a title, so you're going to see the best out of me that night, obviously. Dolph Ziggler is a great sports entertainer and it's going to be a fantastic match. I don't think I've ever seen Dolph Ziggler have a bad match, and to be paired with him is going to be great. And it's always great to be back around where I grew up. So it's going to be an awesome night and well worth the price of admission.

For more information on the WWE Raw live event Sunday night in Upper Marlboro, click here.

Photo courtesy of WWE

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