The wealth of talent currently performing under the NXT banner, in addition to those training diligently off-screen at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, proves that WWE doesn't let many stars slip through the cracks these days.
NXT is still a developmental system at its core, but it has also established itself as its own brand with its own identity -- littered with top names that established themselves throughout the independent wrestling world and now bolster the NXT product.
It's part of a movement spearheaded by WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events & creative Paul "Triple H" Levesque and NXT trainer/on-screen general manager William Regal, who scour the globe monitoring promotions big and small in search of their next breakout star.
When Regal heard about a 22-year-old phenom who, after just a couple of years of training, was already one of the top prospects on the independents, he had to see it for himself. Regal met Lio Rush for the first time when he led a seminar at an EVOLVE show in 2016. EVOLVE and its promoter Gabe Sapolsky have had a working relationship with NXT in recent years, exchanging talent for select shows and regularly hosting Levesque and Regal to get a closer look at prospects.
In that moment, Regal was impressed -- but WWE wasn't ready to offer Rush a contract quite yet.
"He just told me to keep working hard. Keeping pushing," Rush recalled in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "'Good things happen to people who wait.' He definitely noticed my hard work and the passion that I had to be a professional wrestler and be one of those top-tier athletes and top-tier wrestlers in the sports entertainment industry. That was my first interaction with anybody from WWE."
It wasn't his last. Canyon Semen of WWE Talent Relations called Rush a year later with the news that WWE was offering him a contract, no tryout needed. He would report to the Performance Center in August 2017, four years after attending Full Sail University as a student with the hopes of one day becoming a WWE superstar.
"WWE took notice," Rush said. "They saw the heart, the drive, the determination, motivations that I have to be one of the fastest rising stars professional wrestling has ever seen. My journey to get to the WWE was a lot different. It's definitely unheard of for a guy of my age and level of wrestling experience to be able to create a name for myself and get signed to the WWE within less than three years.
"It's incredible. Being at Full Sail University, not knowing one day it would lead me to be back in Orlando, but this time not being a student at Full Sail but actually being an employee at the Performance Center".
Despite entering the PC as a young newcomer out of Lanham, Maryland, Rush felt right at home during his early days in NXT. His first match on NXT TV in October was against Velveteen Dream -- former WWE Tough Enough contestant Patrick Clark -- who trained and tag-teamed with Rush for Maryland Championship Wrestling when they were teenagers. On top of it all, they also trained at MCW alongside Jessika Carr, the first full-time female WWE referee, who just so happened to be officiating the all-Maryland matchup between Dream and Rush.
"That being my first match was pretty cool," Rush said. "We've known each other for years now. We all went through Maryland Championship Wrestling and trained together, so for that to be my first match with Velveteen being across the ring from me and Jessika Carr officiating that match was a pretty cool feeling."
Rush, at 23 years old, has always looked like a wrestler well beyond his years inside the ring -- but he was still young and finding his way. Shortly after the excitement of his first televised match for NXT, a serious error in judgment outside of the ring made Rush the center of attention for all the wrong reasons.
Rush drew intense criticism from wrestling fans and several of his peers for his tweet aimed at Emma (now wrestling by her real name, Tenille Dashwood, independently) after she was released by WWE. With her final televised matches having come against Asuka, Rush took Asuka's on-screen catchphrase and took things a step too far. In the tweet, which has since been deleted, Rush said:
"I guess these are the things that happen when you're not TRULY ready for @WWEAsuka".
Rush quickly apologized, and although Rush claimed there was no formal punishment, he wouldn't appear on NXT TV again until January.
Though a number of people in the world of wrestling reached out to Rush in that moment, he was clear that he wanted to own the mistake and learn from it moving forward.
"It was definitely a difficult situation," Rush said. "I've worked so hard and spent years trying to brand myself and to show the world that Lio Rush is a top prospect in the professional wrestling world. So it was a bit rough to see so many people turn on me for that, but I've owned up to my mistakes.
"I have said my apologies. What else can you do? You live, you make mistakes and you learn," Rush continued. "I know a big thing that I tweeted out shortly after that -- 'a mistake shouldn't be your attacker, it should be your teacher.' I've definitely learned from that situation. I definitely have not let that situation change the pacing of me succeeding in anything."
A month after returning to NXT TV, Rush welcomed the birth of his second son, Dakai Green. Living in Orlando has given Rush the chance to see his 4-year-old son more often than his hectic indie schedule allowed, but Rush's now 3-month old son is staying with his parents back home in Maryland.
When the older boy graduates from preschool in a week, he'll join his little brother in Maryland to start kindergarten. As Rush continues to pursue his own dreams in Orlando, he knows that the sacrifices he's making are ones he feels he has to make in order to provide for his growing family.
"It's a bit of a rough situation," Rush said. "Trying to find that balance in life on the personal side and the professional side. It is a little rough having a newborn and not being able to be there 24/7. That is a little bit of a rough thing to deal with too knowing that [my 4-year-old] will be starting school and having to come home and have homework and go to school every day and I won't be there for him as much as I'd like to be.
"[But] this isn't just for me. It started out as a dream job for myself, but the older I got situations change. I fully started to realize it wasn't just for me anymore. I wasn't wrestling for 5-year-old Lionel Green anymore, I was wrestling for everybody who had to go through the struggles I went through in life and my family and friends who stuck by me and supported me since Day 1."
Rush's dreams reach beyond the ring as well. In addition to wrestling, which has been a central focus through much of his life, music has been an outlet through some of his most difficult times. He grew up in a household with parents who were both gospel singers and sisters who were also musicians. Rush traveled the country listening to his parents perform in front of thousands of people. He wanted to be involved in music in one form or another, whether it was singing, dancing or playing an instrument, but until recently he had put that thought in the back of his mind to focus on his blossoming wrestling career.
"[My passion for music] has always been there. I always knew I'd get into the music industry in some kind of capacity," Rush said. "I've been influenced by friends that I've made over the years and the culture that I've been around the years. That led to rapping."
Rush, under the alias L.I, released his debut single "Money Money" on Friday alongside his childhood friend Marcus Phillips (aka Drett1). The two wrestled on the same amateur team growing up and always talked about working together on a project. Their lives took them on different paths, but Rush finally found a chance to pursue another childhood passion with this project. Even though he's still laser-focused on his wrestling career, Rush wants to prove his talent goes beyond his athletic prowess.
"All of this is just about continuing to brand yourself. Continuing to make a name for yourself. Continuing to show that we wrestlers aren't just one-trick ponies," Rush said. "People are constantly asking, 'What's going on with wrestling? What's happening with wrestling?' The perception of a professional wrestler only knowing how to be a professional wrestler and nothing else is a little crazy to me.
"Yes, I'm still a professional wrestler. Yes, I'm still a father. I'm still everything else, but yes I can do other things, and yes I can be successful in other things. We're capable of many things, whether that's bodyslamming somebody in the ring or whether that's, for me, making an impact in the music industry."
Rush knows he still has a lot to learn in both industries before he reaches his long-term goals. At 23 years old, he's well-positioned to find success within NXT, with more than enough time to do whatever it takes. Rush has appeared on NXT TV just once since his debut in October, but he's been making strides big strides in recent weeks. He featured prominently at WWE AXXESS during WrestleMania weekend, where he won a tournament for a United Kingdom championship opportunity against Pete Dunne on the morning of WrestleMania 34.
As he prepares to make his return to NXT TV in the weeks to come, Rush has spent the last few months performing at live events and absorbing all the knowledge he can from the top minds in the business on a daily basis at the Performance Center.
"The fact that I'm being able to be trained and coached by one of the greatest in-ring performers who has ever lived -- and that's the 'Heartbreak Kid' Shawn Michaels -- for him to be one of the trainers there and to be able to learn from him and just follow in his footsteps is a pretty cool thing," Rush said. "Even Triple H. Him being the boss of everything is absolutely incredible. Being a fan, being somebody who's wanted to be a professional wrestler since they were 5 years old and growing up watching Triple H, watching Shawn Michaels, and then to one day wake up and report to work and that's my coach. That's my boss. It's absolutely incredible."