Pat McAfee on WWE debut: Ex-NFL punter discusses high spots, props from wrestlers, in-ring future

There's a long history of athletes and celebrities stepping into a WWE ring for a match or special attraction. Whether it's for a wave to the crowd or a few simple moves to get a cheap and easy reaction, those matches rarely amount to more than a promotional appearance.

It was a different story with Pat McAfee. He walked into NXT TakeOver: XXX with most fans expecting little more than the typical sideshow, but McAfee stood toe to toe with former NXT champion Adam Cole, held his own throughout and even showed off some top-rope acrobatics.

Two days removed from his WWE debut, ESPN checked in with McAfee to get his thoughts on the match, as well as whether he'd consider a return to the ring in the future.

Can you give us a little backstory behind the trio you chose to accompany you to the ring.

Pat McAfee: Well, first thing's first, you got the greatest jawline in the history of sports, A.J, Hawk. A.J. was obviously a Super Bowl champion with the Packers, fifth overall pick for the Green Bay Packers and a co-host of mine on a show that we do four times a week called McAfee and Hawk. As soon as he heard that I was getting involved in this ... he wanted to go in there and make sure I didn't get my ass kicked, is what he said. Darius Butler, a teammate of mine, a good friend of mine, host of the "Man 2 Man Podcast." He's another guy who saw me get booted out of there, heard that I was going back in and said, "Hey, you want me to roll with?" And he's from Florida, so he was in the area. I was like, "Absolutely."

And then, although Corey Graves called him a world class table tennis enthusiast, Nick Maraldo, he's been one of my friends since high school. He's part of the show.

What were you feeling like the night before your match?

McAfee: I was very intrigued to see how I would feel when I woke up, because I didn't know. Toward the end of my career, the last five years of my career in the NFL, when I woke up on game days, I wasn't nervous anymore. I was excited and ready to go out there and do my job. When I wake up on days where I do stand up in front of these theaters and stuff like that, I get excited as opposed to nervous. And I didn't really know how I was going to feel.

I woke up just ready to go. I wasn't nervous at all. I felt very prepared. I felt very confident. I felt very comfortable, and I think excited would be the proper way to describe it, just ready to do it.

And I think for me, it was 20 years in the making ... it was something I've always dreamed of being a part of. And that morning when you wake up and say, "OK. Here's a chance for me to do something I've always dreamed of doing." You can face that in two different ways. You can be nervous about it and be like, "Well, I hope it goes how I always dreamed of it." Or you can be excited and be like, "Well, I can't wait to do this because I've always wanted to." I think that was how I attacked the day. I was like, "I just can't wait to do this. I'm going to enjoy the entire thing and let's see what the hell happens." And yeah, I enjoyed the hell out of Saturday a lot, all the way up until losing, obviously. But I just enjoyed the day as much as I possibly could.

So you hop on the microphone and cut a short promo, and then you have your own entrance music and all that. Does the adrenaline and excitement pick up?

McAfee: I think as I'm on that microphone, cutting that promo before I went out, I think that is when my mind fully grasped what was happening. Like, "OK, here we go." And I think the adrenaline pump, I think that's a real thing. I think the level of excitement gets up there. And then, as I go out there after I'd had the promo, the music hits and I walk out there and then I signal in my boys. As I'm waiting there for the boys to come out, I'm obviously watching Cole, but I just took a look around the arena like, "All right. Here we go. This is awesome." And then, as you start walking to the ring, it's just one of those things like, "It's put up or shut up time." So, you either show up and show out or show up and get s--- on. And that's kind of how I looked at the whole thing.

You had some pretty impressive moves in the ring. The moments that people are picking up on and you're getting the most attention for are your escapades flying off the top rope. Can you walk me through your state of mind just before and as it happened? Let's start with the flip to the outside onto the Undisputed Era and the few unfortunate security guards.

McAfee: Well, it looked like the perfect opportunity to do something I've seen people do since the beginning of my wrestling fanhood. Big crowd of humans outside of the ring, seemed to be set up in a perfect fashion for somebody to jump on their heads.

Jeff Hardy came to my studio a year ago to be a part of the show, he and Matt. And we actually did a Swanton Bomb contest onto a trampoline that we had built in the office, off of a ladder. And he gave me a high score, rave reviews. He taught me that. And that just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. When I got up onto the rope, I think [there was] an alternate angle -- I almost fell off when I got up there, which was a surprise. I did not expect the ropes to be as tight as they were. There might've been a little moment of, "Oh, no."

But then as I'm flying through the air, I had no thoughts at all. Just was excited to see what happened and excited to see how bad it hurt me and how bad it hurt everybody else. It was just a pretty cool feeling to be completely candid, to be flying through the air in a group of humans like that.

Then we get to obviously a very pivotal moment in the match, you're battling with Adam Cole on the top rope, then you do a backflip, and then a full running leap from the ground to the top rope, to hit a superplex. It's one thing to do when you're messing around in your barn or working on it or training on it. But in the moment, what was it like to actually pull it off?

McAfee: As the backflip off the top rope is starting, because he pushes me off, kind of off-balance, [I'm thinking,] "Here we go. Let me hit a backflip here instead of falling on my back, hopefully." I've never done that before off the top. Even on my own ring that I have, I've always done a moonsault onto a bed, but I had never done a backflip and landed it. So doing it there, attempting it there, it goes very much along the framework that I am such an idiot that I think I can do things. And I think that has been an advantage for me in my life for a lot of different professions that I've tried.

For me, I think that doubt never ever creeped in. ... So, wherever I choose to hit that backflip, in my head while I'm flying through, I'm like, "OK, I'm going to land this." And then the thought is, "How can I get back up there as quickly as possible?" And just jumping up to the top as if I'm Shelton Benjamin just felt like the right move.

I have this confidence that I can accomplish things. But after watching it for the first time yesterday, I got a chance to watch the match back, it was very interesting to see myself in a ring and something I've dreamed about doing for a long time. Getting to watch it for the first time was cool. But as I was watching it, I was like, "That could have went wrong so many different ways." And I'm just very thankful that in the moment, I didn't even have those thoughts. So, maybe me being so new and it being my first time in there benefited me greatly, especially in those particular situations.

Overall, how do you think you did?

McAfee: Well, I think overall, I paid respect to the business. I think I very much understood the outrage that came when my match was announced -- when Triple H went on Get Up and issued me a challenge, and I accepted it from my honeymoon -- the immediate reaction from the wrestling community was a negative one. And I very much understand why, because being a lifelong fan, anytime an outsider comes in [from a wrestler's perspective], not only are they taking a spot that I dreamed I was a part of, but they're also taking a spot that somebody else could potentially have. And I very much understood why people were upset about it.

But I think also it was because in previous outsider matches, it seemed as if the outsider didn't care to learn the profession. You're not going to put me in an NBA All-Star game [where] I'm not going to practice at least a couple of jumpers. You just have to at least look as if you know what you're doing. And a lot of outsiders, they look like they've never, ever stepped foot in a ring before. It looked like they did not care. They're there to get a little pop, a little bit of a shine and keep it moving. And I was dead set, since the beginning of my fanhood of wrestling, that if I ever got a chance to get in there, I was going to go. And was going to pay respect to the people who have done this before, because I am such a big fan.

So watching it back, there were so many things I made mistakes on and messed up. There were so many things I messed up in there, but I think the texts that I've gotten from people who are wrestlers now, or wrestled in the past, or DMs, that basically said they appreciated that I went for it in there. And I think for me, that was the biggest part of it all. And I think that's my biggest takeaway from the entire thing. The people that have been in the ring before, at least people who have messaged me, have reached out and said, "Thank you for your effort." That was big to me. And that's all I was really looking for.

So after a performance like that, is it just a matter of, "OK, I've checked that item off the bucket list. Left it all out there. That is my wrestling dream accomplished." Or maybe, somewhere down the line, would you like to have another go at it and step back into the ring?

McAfee: That seems to be a conversation that has been circling me for the last couple of days, and even maybe the last week or so in the buildup to this. And this is going to sound very cliche, but it's 100% real and it's how I literally operate with everything. I just focus on literally what's next in my life. Because I run a business. I've got a daily show. I got a merch business. We have a touring company. I mean, there's a lot of advertising, marketing. There's a lot of things I do. And I just focus on what's next for me.

So for when it came to the match on Saturday, I was only focused on that match. I was only focused on, "OK, how do I go in here, put on a hell of a show, hell of a fight and get a win? And then, we'll worry about everything after that on Sunday." We'll cross that bridge whenever we get to it. And I've heard the conversation start all around me and there was a lot. ... Even my mom was asking, "Well, are you going to do this again?" I'm like, "Well, let's worry about that on Sunday."

And then I got to Sunday, obviously, and I woke up. Neck was sore, back was sore, foot was sore. I got flipped on my head. To be completely honest, I'm not 100% sure what's going to happen. I'm not under contract to do anything else with Mr. H. I assume he and I will talk about this at some point because I heard his comments in the press conference afterward, which were very nice.

But for me, all I was worried about was that match at NXT TakeOver: XXX and then I'll let everything else kind of sort itself out. And I think that's where I'm at right now. I feel good. If I never get in the ring again, I'll be very thankful for the opportunity and I'll be proud of it. If something pops up and it's right and my wife doesn't mind, because I did miss some of the honeymoon for this whole thing and she's been incredibly cool. There's a lot that goes into it. To be honest, I just started thinking about it within the last 24 hours, and have no idea what the future holds.