'He's a natural heat-getter': Inside Austin Theory's transformation into a WWE headliner

Best moments in Royal Rumble history (3:31)

Check out some of the best moments from WWE's Royal Rumble including Stone Cold Steve Austin winning it three times and John Cena making a shocking return in 2008. (3:31)

NASHVILLE -- WITH OVER 48,000 fans on hand, Austin Theory strutted through the curtain for the biggest match of his career, a U.S. title defense vs. Bobby Lashley at SummerSlam. Every wrestler dreams of the moment they take center stage on a WWE pay-per-view (now referenced as a premium live event), and as he exited Gorilla position -- the holding location before entrances are made -- he was welcomed by an overwhelming chorus of boos. Which was precisely what he wanted.

Theory was defeated in less than five minutes, much to the appeal of the crowd, but it was ample time for Theory to show why he's earmarked for such grand plans in WWE.

At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, the one-time bodybuilder boasts the physique WWE founder Vince McMahon has always coveted. Theory didn't look out of place while sharing the ring with the hulking Lashley and displayed his athleticism when he evaded one spear attempt by leaping over his foe with a jumping jack.

In another instance, Theory performed a rolling thunder maneuver -- a la Rob Van Dam -- before he delivered a picture-perfect dropkick. The match ended with Lashley putting Theory into the Hurt Lock. But Theory's night in Nashville wasn't done just yet.

When Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar battled it out in a Last Man Standing Match for the Undisputed WWE Universal championship in the main event, Theory attempted to cash in his Money in the Bank contract to escape with the titles. Theory sprinted to the ring, but a Lesnar F-5 thwarted him before his official cash-in could be made and ended his night without any gold.

Less than one year into his second run on WWE's main roster, Theory showed the ability to generate heat -- a negative reaction by the fans -- in ways few others on the roster can. WWE is stacked with far bigger names than Theory, but scan the roster (and their ages). Lashley, a former Bellator heavyweight and accomplished amateur wrestler, is 46. Lesnar, the former UFC heavyweight champion, is 45. Reigns, the company's top star, is much younger, but even the ex-ACC first-team defensive tackle is 37.

Behind the scenes, both Lashley and Lesnar have played their part in shepherding the 25-year-old Theory and ensuring he realizes his vast potential and talent, something McMahon valued before he handpicked Theory.

"He's a kid that's hungry and that's a big thing with him," said Lashley. "Some of these kids, they wanna see if they can kind of wait for their turn. He's the kid that's like, no, I'll step up. And if you step up, you're gonna be seen and you're gonna be heard. And right now, he's seen and heard by a lot of people."

WWE is constantly searching for ways to infuse its talent pipeline with new players. Through its NIL (name, image and likeness) deals, WWE has found ways to attract athletes before they turn 21. In the lead-up to SummerSlam, WWE held a three-day tryout with D-1 athletes where they ran through in-ring exercises and promo auditions. The company signed 14 men and women.

But at a time when the top wrestling company in the world is scouring the college ranks to replenish its feeder system at the Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, WWE has tapped an independent wrestling star, Austin Theory, as the future of the company. His traditional journey to WWE -- a tried-and-true path stars like Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins and AJ Styles also used -- isn't as common as it once was, but it's paying dividends for both the company and the wrestler.

"He's so young in the business," Lashley said. "But he's got all the tools and everything that he needs right now. It's my responsibility and a few of the other guys' responsibility to keep him moving in the right direction."

AUSTIN WHITE'S METHODICAL transformation into WWE superstar Austin Theory began at age 8, in McDonough, Georgia, a town of 8,000-plus 28 miles outside Atlanta. Austin's mother routinely worked out at the local Gold's Gym; during that time, he often stayed at the fitness center's daycare.

When Austin was leaving with his mother one day, he saw a large man at the check-in counter and inquired: Who are you? He was a wrestler for Deep South Wrestling, a promotion that held events behind the local Kroger supermarket.

"I remember going to the show with my grandfather... you've never seen that before and you're a kid; I was really drawn to it," Theory said. "It was almost like real-life superheroes."

When he left, Austin saw a "Raw" poster featuring John Cena and asked his grandpa how he could watch it.

"First time I saw it on TV, it was John Cena and Johnny Nitro and Melina," he said. "Cena was just roasting Melina. And it was funny, man. I just instantly was connected to it. And that's kind of the first time I ever saw wrestling. You know how it is when you find something you're just, like, super into. And that was it for me."

At that moment, Theory didn't simply want to be a fan of wrestling. He wanted -- needed -- to be a wrestler, too. When he was 12 years old, his mother snuck him into the gym, even though the minimum age was 13 to lift weights.

Theory maintained the dedication to his workouts so he could "be ready for WWE when I got older." The organization is composed mainly of wrestlers with incredible physiques. He even competed at a bodybuilding event at 17, hoping WWE would notice him and extend a tryout invitation.

Theory looks the part with a chiseled, muscular frame that allows him to work a powerhouse style while still maintaining agility. His moves are innovative, like his signature A-Town Down finisher, a fireman's carry that leads to a facebreaker knee smash.

It's a style he ironed out during his time in the indies. He made his pro wrestling debut as Austin Theory on May 5, 2016, at a dingy wrestling gym in front of dozens of people. He won the World Wrestling Alliance championship with a victory over his trainer, AR Fox. He went on to compete in various independent organizations in the United States and Mexico over the next two years and made his name in Evolve with matches against recognizable wrestlers like Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano and Keith Lee.

In February 2018, he landed a tryout with WWE, but it would be another year until the organization signed him.

"It was definitely times where it seemed like such an impossible dream," Theory said. "There's just nothing else that I want to do. I was always so motivated by the idea of you only get one life. You only get one chance. Why not risk it all for this?"

Theory made his NXT debut that December and his main roster debut in March 2020 when he teamed with Rollins and Angel Garza against Owens and the Street Profits. Theory and Garza unsuccessfully challenged The Street Profits for the Raw tag team titles at WrestleMania the following month, and to Theory, it wasn't clear that WWE had big plans for him.

He spent the next few months back in NXT but returned to Raw in October, where everything began to click creatively. That November, Theory made his premium live event debut when he eliminated Sheamus in a Survivor Series match. The following night, he received McMahon's seal of approval when he was applauded on screen for showing "intestinal fortitude" by stealing Cleopatra's Egg, which resulted in a shot at WWE champion Big E, which Theory lost.

It was apparent then that Theory was destined for big things. After all, McMahon doesn't give his seal of approval to just anyone.

"Wow, this is a big deal," Theory said. "And then noticing each week doing different [backstage segments] with [McMahon].... I know how long I've worked for this and wanted to achieve this, but at the same time, I'm getting that credibility now."

THREE RINGS WERE set up at the Wildhorse Saloon in front of a stage to host more than 50 male and female athletes from college football, basketball, track and field, amateur wrestling, gymnastics and cheer. Former NBA all-star Dwight Howard even joined the festivities.

WWE Hall of Famer Paul "Triple H" Levesque, who spearheaded the company's developmental brand, NXT, and days earlier replaced his father-in-law, McMahon, as the person in charge of WWE's creative direction, milled around the downtown Nashville establishment scouting talent. His wife, then the company's chairwoman, Stephanie McMahon, was on hand, along with WWE CEO Nick Khan. So, too, were some of the company's top stars, like Rollins, Becky Lynch and Lashley, all to grab a glimpse at the next crop of WWE hopefuls.

Also in attendance at Wildhorse Saloon was The Undertaker, who was taking in the festivities and preparing for his "UNDERTAKER 1 deadMAN SHOW" storytelling experience in Nashville. When 'Taker was asked to single out his favorite emerging talents, he mentioned two names. Riddle, a former UFC fighter who plied his craft on the independent wrestling scene before signing with WWE in 2018, was one. The other?

"Theory is gonna be one of those [top] guys," Undertaker told ESPN. "He's a natural heat-getter, but he's gotta develop a mean streak. Once he does that, once he develops a good mean streak, then he's gonna be a real, real viable heel."

That's exactly what Theory's been in the lead-up to the Royal Rumble. Following SummerSlam, Theory became the sixth person to fail in a Money in the Bank cash-in attempt when Rollins defeated him in an impromptu U.S. title match. His gimmick, which involved taking selfies with fallen foes, was remixed into a character with the nasty edge The Undertaker was looking for.

After he lost the briefcase, fans and critics wondered if WWE brass soured on Theory without McMahon at the helm. Theory entered programs with Rollins and Lashley and delivered a thrilling triple threat match for the U.S. title at Survivor Series, which he won.

Triple H, who began his in-ring career in 1990 and is regarded as one of the sharpest wrestling minds in the business, knows what he's looking for in a future star. After all, he founded NXT in 2010 when he officially began his career as an executive and has been hands-on at the Performance Center, helping to smooth out the rough edges of WWE hopefuls.

"It's a nuanced feeling... once you see this guy's a great athlete, I'm looking for their personality, their charisma," Triple H said. "Austin Theory has it, and then some.

"Do I think he has all the potential to be one of the biggest stars in the business? Absolutely. What determines that? A lot of that is up to him now."

Theory has proven to be a reliable hand for WWE, counted on for media appearances, charitable endeavors and ample on-screen time on both Raw and SmackDown. He's also featured in the new commercial for the upcoming WWE 2K23 video game. Triple H said he talks to Theory weekly as the 25-year-old comes to him "looking for the little nuances" that will take him to the next level.

"You give him little bits of things here and there and he's improving his game and he's smart," Triple H said. "He listens to the crowd, he listens to the people. He sees all the stuff that's going on, and he adapts his game on a regular basis."

After Theory took a major bump from Lesnar at Elimination Chamber last February in Saudi Arabia -- an F-5 off the top of the pod -- it led to another teachable moment.

"That was something cool, Brock giving me the opportunity to watch the match back with him, giving me advice and critiques, somebody that's just had the success he does," said Theory. "It's like, wow, [he's] taking the time out of his day, and he's not gonna waste his time.

IT MAY APPEAR minor on the surface, but no detail is spared in the carefully curated world of WWE. Vince McMahon preferred mononyms for many of his stars, eliminating either the first or second part of their names. Big E Langston was changed to Big E. Matt Riddle became Riddle. Austin Theory was later shortened to Theory.

One of Triple H's first orders of business was restoring some first names to his on-screen characters.

"It's a little bit hard to just refer to him as Theory," Triple H said. "And even to me, it was a little awkward when he was announced, like 'Theory!' It's weird.

"Is that Stone Cold Steve Austin coming in? Is it confusing for fans? I'm of the opinion that if you don't know the difference between Austin Theory and Stone Cold Steve Austin, there's already a problem, right? So, we're fixing the wrong end of the problem."

Theory has already shared the ring with one of the biggest stars in wrestling history after he was on the receiving end of a Stone Cold Stunner at WrestleMania 38 in April. The following night, Theory was defeated by former NFL punter and media celebrity Pat McAfee at 'Mania. The event was Theory's first-ever singles match at one of WWE's premium live events, and it came on the grandest stage of them all.

Since 2022 kicked off, Theory has been front and center in WWE's weekly storylines, and as he prepares for his second Royal Rumble, he appears poised for an even bigger '23.

His booking as the youngest-ever Mr. Money in the Bank did Theory few favors. Now his character has been revamped, and he holds the U.S. title entering the Rumble. With a few more career-defining wins over major stars, he's poised to become a main event regular, joining the likes of Reigns and Lesnar.

Theory could obtain that in the form of his childhood hero. Cena celebrated his 20th anniversary with WWE on a "Monday Night Raw" episode in June when he was confronted by Theory, who cut a promo on the legend.

Theory continued to tease a possible WrestleMania match with Cena earlier this month on Raw when he mocked the wrestler-turned-actor by holding his title high in the air and repeating Cena's trademark catchphrase, "The champ is here!"

"Something I learned from John Cena was people don't attach to your performance. They attach to your personality," said Theory. Triple H echoed those sentiments, saying, "Charisma's king."

That, more than anything, is why WWE has such grand plans for Theory. Now, he'll look to make good on his promise and live up to the immense pressure McMahon placed on him just 15 months ago. At 25, he's both WWE's youngest active champion and the youngest wrestler on the roster who is consistently featured in TV main events. The pivotal road to WrestleMania and the kind of rub Theory desires begins now.