LOS ANGELES -- The defining moment in the career of most professional wrestlers is typically a title win, a headline-worthy match against a legendary opponent or some other kind of memorable milestone. But for Fred Rosser, who wrestled for the WWE under the moniker Darren Young, the biggest impact he ultimately made on the business during his tenure with WWE didn't happen inside the ring.
It happened at Los Angeles International Airport, in front of TMZ cameras.
In August 2013, Rosser came out and became the first openly gay active wrestler in the company's history. At the time, he had very little idea of just how big a moment it was, how far it would reach or who Rosser would impact with his message. The immediate reaction on social media and a variety of other platforms would ultimately go on to change the path of the rest of Rosser's WWE career -- and everything afterward.
"When I came out publicly to TMZ, I didn't really think it was a big deal when I said it," Rosser said. "But when the news hit the world, Cher was actually the first person to contact me on social media. She told me her friend was a big wrestling fan and that my story made him courageous enough to come out to his family.
"That's when I knew that my calling became much bigger than wrestling in the ring. It became about fighting bigotry and hatred, and trying to be the voice of the voiceless. That's how the Block the Hate movement came along."
Being the first openly gay performer in the WWE could have been a treacherous road to navigate, but despite their wildly varying backgrounds, others in the WWE locker room went out of their way to make sure Rosser knew that nothing had really changed in their eyes. One moment in particular, with CM Punk, stands out in Rosser's mind to this day.
"After Punk had his SummerSlam match with Brock Lesnar [in 2013], he came up to me in catering in front of everyone while he was iced up from the match," Rosser said. "He approached me and told me to stand up. He said, 'Hey, man, I heard your story and I'm very proud of you for being so courageous to make that move to come out. If anyone has a problem with it in the locker room, you let me know, and I'll take care of it.'
"Same thing with Randy Orton. He's one guy who gave me a big hug and much love, still to this day. Big Show was always complimenting me too. Just the love from those guys, and knowing that those particular guys have my back, means the world to me. I'll never forget how much love those guys showed for me, then and after."
Once Rosser came out to the world, he became more than just a WWE superstar -- he became a role a model for other LGBTQ athletes, someone who paved a path for them to follow. To these other athletes, Rosser has one piece of advice: "Come out when you feel comfortable, but at the end of the day, make sure you come out. When you do come out, you'll feel so much better."
For all of the good and the outreach Rosser was able to accomplish during his eight-plus years with the WWE, that part of his story didn't have the kind of storybook ending he might have hoped for. On Oct. 29, Rosser was released from the WWE. Less than 24 hours prior to the release, he had been representing the company at an LA Clippers game as an ambassador for WWE -- something that had become commonplace when the WWE needed someone to attend events on its behalf.
The timing of it all made the release a complete shock to both Rosser and his peers.
"I'd been doing so much PR work since I've been signed, I was one of WWE's main guys that always did PR work," Rosser said. "When I was a guest at the Clipper game, and then getting released 24 hours later, it was a little rough for me. A bit of a tough pill to swallow. I didn't know why the release had happened. What was even rougher was that the release came right before my birthday on Nov. 2. I never even received the usual birthday message, so I was a little hurt by everything."
Though it ended in disappointing fashion, Rosser accomplished more than most could have imagined -- both in the ring and outside of it -- considering how his run with the company began.
"I had to pay to try out in 2009," Rosser recalled. "I paid $2,000 out of my own pocket just to try out. It was my last resort. I had the door shut in my face so many times with WWE, but I was consistent. Without commitment, you'll never start, but most importantly, without consistency, you'll never finish."
The world Rosser first walked into, in Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), no longer exists. He paid his dues and ultimately found himself on the original version of NXT -- a reality show that aired on the SyFy network. Watching what NXT eventually became, a place where the stars of tomorrow are crafted in a state-of-the-art facility, is something that Rosser takes a great deal of enjoyment from.
"Nowadays, it's a little bit easier in the developmental system, but when I first started, it was a grind," Rosser said. "Now, with the Performance Center in Orlando, WWE really focuses on lifting properly and taking care of your health better. I really respect where NXT is today, because it's incredible to watch."
He didn't win the scripted reality show, or get to train in the modern NXT, but it did lead to Rosser's role in one of the most memorable moments of the past decade in the WWE. He was a part of the original Nexus, a group made up of the eight "rookies" from the original season of NXT, who interrupted a Monday Night Raw main event between John Cena and CM Punk to cause chaos and destruction.
"The night the Nexus debuted was a nerve-wracking experience for all of us," Rosser said. "We had no idea what to expect; everything was pretty much on the fly that night. We were given instructions to tear up the set, attack John Cena and beat up the ring announcer. I think only Cena, Vince [McMahon] and the Nexus were in on it. I could tell by looking at the timekeeper that I hit that he wasn't expecting me to come over and attack him. I could see the fear in his eyes."
The debut didn't sit well with some of the veterans, though, as it immediately catapulted rookie wrestlers into the main event from their first night on Raw.
"People in the back were shocked," Rosser said. "Some people didn't like the idea of these new guys coming and roughing up the veterans. There were a lot of guys backstage who didn't like the idea of the Nexus coming over and being at the top of the game. It was rough for us, but we kept our heads held high and moved forward."
There were other highlights in Rosser's WWE career, including two runs as part of the Prime Time Players with Titus O'Neil. They won the WWE tag team championships in 2015 and were the last team to hold those titles before The New Day began their historic 483-day run. There was a singles run with Bob Backlund as his manager, but after suffering an arm injury in January 2017, Rosser never got back on track on WWE TV.
Despite the upsetting nature of his release, Rosser remains positive about the situation. The now-former WWE performer became known for being a motivating and positive figure on social media, and it's a lifestyle he continues.
"Nothing lasts forever, and I've had a wonderful career with WWE," Rosser said. "I hope to continue my relationship with WWE as an LGBTQ ambassador or a talent scout. Michael Jordan can't play basketball forever, and I can't wrestle forever. So I've enjoyed my time from 2009 to 2017."
"I want to be remembered as a good human being who was the first in an industry to pave the way for LGBTQ athletes in wrestling and beyond to come out and live an honest and authentic life. Being the first openly gay wrestler [in WWE], I've been able to encourage and inspire wrestling fans all over their world to chase their dreams. I've been able to show other LGBTQ athletes that they have a duty to instill confidence in the youth and lead by example."
But even though his in-ring career with WWE appears to be over, at least for now, the responsibility that comes with being the first openly gay wrestler in WWE history is something that Rosser doesn't take lightly. He has become heavily involved in LGBTQ charity work, working with the Covenant House and the Trevor Project in L.A.; the Covenant House helps homeless teens and the Trevor Project deals with LGBTQ teen suicide prevention.
But Rosser's primary focus is a project he started while still with the WWE -- his Block the Hate movement.
"The Block the Hate movement originally started with me being an openly gay WWE superstar," Rosser said. "But it's more than just an LGBT movement; it's a movement for anyone that is bullied for various reasons.
"The whole model behind it is in this world we all receive hate for various reasons, but in order to be strong and successful, you must block the hate. Hate is just a fear and not a characteristic. I actually partnered the movement with my business partner and friend Pedram [Tehranizadeh] and his clothing brand, HeadQuarters Clothing. It's a lifestyle clothing brand that really wants to inspire others to achieve greatness through messages in their brand."
The legacy Rosser ultimately wants to leave goes far beyond the squared circle. He wants to be remembered as a beacon of positivity for a community that often times hasn't had a voice.
"I want to be remembered as a good human being who was the first in an industry to pave the way for LGBTQ athletes in wrestling and beyond to come out and live an honest and authentic life," Rosser said. "Being the first openly gay wrestler [in WWE], I've been able to encourage and inspire wrestling fans all over their world to chase their dreams. I've been able to show other LGBTQ athletes that they have a duty to instill confidence in the youth and lead by example."
Rosser is stepping back into the ring, including a Friday night show for WrestlePro in New Jersey, and he has other big plans for his future outside of the WWE. He's even getting some help from Backlund, his former on-screen manager, to get his foot in the door in Japan. Rosser also recently launched his own YouTube channel.
But Rosser's life has been forever changed by his eight years in the WWE -- and he wants to do as much as he can with the status and recognition he attained during that time.
"Being a wrestler is a great. It's something I've always wanted to do. But my calling is to help educate, motivate and inspire others to be their true, authentic self," he said. "I want to be remembered as someone who'd go to battle for you. I always say in my speaking engagements, if you don't have anyone in your family that supports you, be a part of my family. That's my calling going forward."