Have you ever wanted to be a WWE performer? To walk down the ramp with your own personal entrance theme and video? To cut a promo on somebody, or act as a manager or announcer and get involved in the action in a different way?
For most of the history of the professional wrestling industry, this would be an impossible to achieve pipe dream unless you fully committed yourself to wrestling as a career. But the world of wrestling in 2016 is far different from days past, and the WWE now offers fans an opportunity to fulfill all of those dreams and then some at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, -- the same state-of-the art training center where all of the currently signed WWE hopefuls sharpen their skills.
When a fan signs up for a WWE Performance Center: All Access tour, they get to live a day in the life of an NXT superstar -- and some of the best and brightest stars of the future are right there alongside them for the whole ride. In November, I received an invite from WWE that allowed me to take off my ESPN hat and get the inside skinny on this one-of-a-kind fan event.
Let's start from the beginning.
We began by going through a formal sign-in process in the lobby of the Performance Center, which required signing a document that said, among many things, that we would not be doing any physical contact during this event. For fans who are considering an All-Access tour in the future, be aware that these tours will not include any body slams, dropkicks or bumps of any kind.
After the legal waivers are taken care of, the fun begins. Each participant is offered a one-day promotional contract, and Matt Bloom, (a.k.a. Prince Albert and A-Train in the late 1990s/early 2000s days as a WWE performer), who is the head coach of the Performance Center, welcomes fans to the event with a formal ceremony, complete with a WWE camera crew and photographers (to provide some visual memories to the fans after the event is complete).
Once the promo contracts are all signed, fans are led into the training area for an all-access overview from WWE Creative Producer Ryan Katz. After walking us through the itinerary for the day, he filled the role of ring announcer and introduced some of the wrestlers who would be on the show at the end of the event.
These performers walked through the curtain and down the ramp to the ring as if they were coming out for a match, but the entire section on the right side of the ring was also filled with NXT performers. It was only natural, then, for the wrestlers coming into the ring to start cutting promos on the wrestlers in the crowd and vice-versa. These confrontations set up all of the matches to come, led by a main event of Tino Sabbatelli and Riddick Moss versus Tucker Knight and Otis Dozovic.
This part of the show ended with No Way Jose popping the crowd by using the infectious dance groove of his entrance music to start a conga line and inviting everyone -- wrestlers and fans alike -- to follow him in a "No Way Jose" dance around the ring.
The fan sections were then broken up into different groups to enjoy the various elements of the "All-Access" experience.
The first area my group went to was the promo room, where we filmed on-camera promos of our own in front of a green screen. On the walk over we passed through the physical rehabilitation area and saw Finn Balor training with one of the strength and conditioning coaches, as he continues to get his shoulder back to 100 percent after his devastating injury back at SummerSlam.
Ryan worked with Sara Amato, the women's producer and assistant head trainer of NXT, to educate us on how to approach our interviews. They had one of the Performance Center talents start us off by doing a sample promo, and then we got our shot.
The fans really got into this, as many of them channeled their passion for becoming a WWE talent into cutting fired up interviews. The most memorable example was one fan who kept to himself and seemed really nervous about doing a promo. After a bit of prodding to get him to step in front of the camera, once he got there he went into full over-the-top mode, saying he was going to main event WrestleMania and even calling out the wrestler who did the sample promo.
We then got a chance to fill the shoes of Corey Graves for a day at the commentary desk. The room where we recorded had two screens and two sets of headphones, with a NXT taped event playing on the screens. NXT announcer Mike Rome did the play-by-play, and fans got to provide the color commentary.
Rome did a superb job of setting up the fan announcers to provide quality insights, but the main takeaway here was that it gave everyone a new appreciation for just how difficult it is to do color commentary. Doing it well requires a lot of prep work, and future versions of "All-Access" could benefit from walking fans through some of the prep process as a lead-up to donning the headphones.
We then proceeded to a dining area upstairs where we all got to sit down and mingle with other fans and some more of the wrestlers. Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, better known as The Revival, were waiting to greet everyone at the entrance -- and they were in full heel mode from the get-go. They brought along the NXT tag team belts that they'd ultimately lose the following weekend in a classic match against Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa in Toronto.
This lunch segment was one of the most entertaining and eye-opening portions of this experience for me. Billie Kay and Peyton Royce came by to sit next to our dining group. I asked them how they broke into the business, and they told us their compelling backstory of landing a tryout when the WWE traveled to Australia (where Kay and Royce are from). That led to a gig with NXT, so they moved to Florida to chase their sports entertainment dreams.
I then ran into No Way Jose and found out that he is a huge fantasy football fan. His team hadn't done quite as well this year as it had in previous seasons (the side effect of many injuries), but he did note the exact statistics of Ben Roethlisberger from the previous day's NFL games, so it's clear he keeps up with fantasy football player performances.
After lunch, we all moved back to the ring area, where we were told that we'd each get to do a full-scale entrance where we would walk down the ramp to music of our choosing (blasted in via the powerful, arena-quality sound system) before ascending the steps into the ring.
Because this required getting into the ring, we were each assigned one of the talents to walk us up the ring steps so we would know how to properly enter the squared circle.
I was fortunate enough to have NXT champion Shinsuke Nakamura as a guide. He was friendly and helpful, and even gave me a heads up on where the hard camera (the main camera for a televised show) would be in a setup of this nature. But what really stood out is how quiet and reserved he was; on-screen, Nakamura is one of the most charismatic performers in the business, and getting to see another side of his personality offered a view of just how much of a transformation he goes through in becoming "The King of Strong Style."
Bloom then asked each of us what music we wanted to come to ring to. Fan picks included theme songs from Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair and The Undertaker.
As much fun as those were, the best entrance had to be the fan who paid homage to Triple H via a supremely confident walk to the ring. A Performance Center employee knew what to do and immediately furnished this fan with a bottle of water. The fan cracked the bottle open, took a swig and threw the bottle away. He then held his stance, looked confidently over the crowd, reared his head back and proceeded to spit water all over himself without sending much in the air. The ending made everyone laugh in delight and we all cheered his efforts -- gaining a newfound appreciation for how difficult that move is.
There was plenty of compelling in-ring action during the six matches on the show, but what really stood out were the interactions between the fans and the performers.
The NXT in-ring talents, from wrestlers to managers to referees, enthusiastically included the fans in every part of the match. They never treated the fans as if they were anything other than actual workers on the show. This welcoming mindset allowed the fan managers to fully channel their inner Paul Heyman and vigorously advocate for their clients.
The NXT wrestlers in the crowd were just as important to the event's vibe, as they helped lead the fans in cheers (including the NXT staple of yelling "ONE FALL" every time a one-fall match is announced) and bantering with the in-ring talents.
A fan named Tom also ended up playing an important role in how the show ended. He was assigned the timekeeper role for the main event. I was the heel manager in this match and my team (Sabbatelli and Moss) won by cheating. As heels will do, we celebrated this tainted victory by bragging about our greatness and then we left the ring and started to walk up the ramp.
Tom then decided in his timekeeper's role that justice had not been served. He ran up the ramp, asked for a microphone and yelled into it that this show was not going to end with one team cheating to win. He insisted on a resumption of the match, which the entire crowd popped for. The referee immediately agreed with Tom by calling Sabbatelli and Moss back into the ring. Our heel group protested this vigorously, but we eventually relented and upon our return were defeated in less than a minute -- thus sending the crowd home on a happy note.
What made Tom's involvement in the event even more memorable became clear after I ran into him following the show. We had sat down in the same area during lunch, and therefore we were a bit familiar, so I asked him if the show-ending change was something that had been planned out. Tom said absolutely not. He just figured that's what his character would do in that moment and that everyone, from the wrestlers to the NXT officials to the fans, knew their cues and therefore would know how to ad-lib events to their proper conclusion.
The show then ended with Nakamura doing his riveting ring entrance for the assembled crowd.
After the show, fans were given a 30-minute window to walk around and take photos with the wrestlers.
An entertaining sidelight here came when I ran into Knight and Dozovic, the eventual winners of the disputed main event match. This duo immediately went into full-scale angry babyface mode upon seeing the heel manager who tried to screw them out of a win. They stayed in character for a minute or so and then finally broke into smiles and talked about how much fun it was to work the show.
After the photo ops were finished, each fan was then given an NXT gym bag full of NXT memorabilia (including their signed promo contract) and a copy of a program that is made specifically for the show.
While mingling around during the photo ops, I ran into a fan named Ashley, who had served as Mada Abdelhamid's manager during the show. I asked her what she thought of the day and Ashley perfectly summed it up by saying, "I feel like it's almost like Willie Wonka, where they give you the golden ticket and you get to see inside and see how everything works. To watch the show and be a part of it, this is a dream come true."