How do you describe a once in a lifetime experience? Do you talk about the facts and figures, the dimensions of the place you visited, and try to paint a picture for those who couldn’t be with you on that day? Where do you begin in an explanation of what you saw, how you were treated, and what a glorious game-changing edifice looks like in reality? How can you make people believe that the truth matches the hype? How do you avoid sounding almost Stepford Wife-level positive about one solitary 90-minute period on a Friday in February?
Quite frankly, I have no idea, but I’m going to try to do this justice.
Last week, I ventured to Orlando alongside one of my co-hosts for Squared Circle Radio in Nashville, Tennessee. The purpose of our journey was to cross "Attend NXT at Full Sail Live" off our collective bucket list, which we did on Wednesday for Takeover: Rival and the next night’s set of television tapings. In the final two weeks before departure, I was luckily able to set up a visit to the WWE Performance Center, where I was told we would meet head trainer Bill DeMott, who would guide us through the facility. It certainly was the perfect capper to our itinerary and once Friday came, the drive was a mix of anticipation and anxiety. We knew we would be seeing something special, but how special? Could what we would view with our own eyes have any chance of rising to the level of what we’d envisioned behind those same eyes, in our minds, for nearly two years?
Walking out of the Performance Center, which was founded on July 12, 2013, after taking the full tour with Bill DeMott and a member of WWE Corporate who accommodated all of our Vince-related activities that week, I was blown away. After the tour and following a sit down with Bill for a twelve-minute interview, which can be heard HERE, I took two things from the opportunity and from what I was shown, and immediately I knew exactly what to do with this article.
NOT JUST "WRESTLING SCHOOL"
The first takeaway seems very mundane; well, it’s anything but. There’s a reason World Wrestling Entertainment calls this building a "Performance Center." It’s not called "WWE Wrestling Academy" or "Bill’s Wrestling School" or "Learn to Bump University". Certainly WWE’s developmental triumph, NXT, is the reason for the building’s existence, but it’s so much more than the in-ring training. The wrestling side of the equation, while they main key, is just one of the pieces of the Performance Center (PC) puzzle. The entire facility covers 26,000 square feet, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,500 devoted to the seven-ring boss battle at what feels like the conclusion of the third labyrinth in a top-down Legend of Zelda game.
As DeMott walked us through the hallways, opening each side door to explain what goes on inside and speaking to the history that has happened already from each room, the size and efficient use of that space jumped out as highly impressive. Also standing out are the lines of framed photos in each hallway, every single one displaying a WWE Hall of Fame member. From the outside, as you pull up, the Performance Center feels like another part of the warehouse district landscape and doesn’t stand out, with the exception of the white WWE logo. It would be extremely easy to drive past it everyday and never know it’s actually the training ground for Vince McMahon and his company. Perhaps that’s by design. It’s non-descript and doesn’t stand out, but then the door opens. Think of it like a hardbound book with no cover and almost no markings. For whatever reason, you pick it up anyway and open it. A few days later, as you finish the final words, you realize some story about fantasy creatures. Then the title emerges, but it’s on the back cover. You just read The Hobbit. You just read Crime and Punishment. You just read (insert your favorite book here).
In the lobby, taped to the tabletop of the front desk, are two sheets of paper. One of them is labeled "NXT Presentation Skills Class" and a note informs every NXT performer of what they need to know about their respective expectations and how being scheduled for television changes class requirements. Immediately, I knew this wasn’t just a gym and a state of the art weight training area. Of course, taking the virtual tour at WWE.com would tell you that, but there was a level of detail right there in front of me that I never expected to see. To get in the door, meaning the front door, meant proving who you were and why you were there. Anyone who shows up without a purpose or an appointment or an invitation will be left outside in most scenarios, but more on that later.
WWE THOUGHT OF EVERYTHING
After a few short minutes, in comes a WWE official who takes us one room further into the inner sanctum and introduces us to Bill DeMott, who couldn’t have been easier to deal with or more willing to give us the lay of the land. That first room has what appears to be the table a shadowy cabal might dream about, something fit for the Star Chamber. It’s heavy, it’s steel, and it’s enormous. It’s the table for the trainers, where they sit and talk and plan out schedules and brainstorm and do a tremendous amount of work and preparation. Surrounding the table are several offices, including one for Bill and one for Dusty Rhodes, which DeMott gleefully shows us as he’s still almost childlike that Dusty creates his version of story-driven art right there in that very room.
To the left is a decent-sized room with another table, this time more boardroom-style. At one end of the room is a huge flat screen television with a mounted webcam above it and a bookshelf to the left stocked to the gills with WWE Home Video releases. We’re told that’s a character and creative room, and that monitor can show footage, but can also display the live face of a man you may know, who can communicate real-time amidst character idea sessions. His name is Paul, but they usually just call him Hunter, or Triple H. Bill uses Bray Wyatt as an example of someone who has been a major topic and who has been tweaked and reimagined in that small area. In that room, on the wall, framed pictures of the NXT roster and specific photos of the current NXT Champions. Bill laughs and says Charlotte and Sami Zayn need to be replaced following Takeover: Rival. Nothing is left untouched in this place.
Hallway number one is all about audio and video editing and creativity. First, we’re taken into a video-editing booth with all sorts of bells and whistles. As someone with a background in television, the first thing I take note of is WWE’s reliance on AVID editing software, which I spot via the recognizable color-coded keyboard. The next room is a sound booth where voice-overs, ad spots and the like are performed and completed. Mixing board, monitors, audio pots, everything you could think of, and of course several microphones.
We then come to a small area used for training and working on commentary. There are three separate computers, split with slats. Think of what it looked like 15 years ago when people used Microfiche technology or when you were in high school and took a digital exam and the systems were positioned for privacy and to prevent cheating. In the corner of the room is a small computer monitor with another webcam. On the other end of the webcam is Michael Cole, who can coach and teach announcers of the present and future. Bill tells us Corey Graves came there and still comes there as part of his transition from in-ring performer to NXT color commentator. Renee Young came there and still visits to work on things. Byron Saxton learned in that area. Everybody comes to that spot to work on their craft and get better at what they do. The computers can bring up just about anything in the NXT and WWE library for practice work or for people to hear how they sounded during various broadcasts or past training sessions.
As an aside, watching the pretaping of the NXT Takeover: Rival pre-show on Wednesday night, I saw Michael Cole coaching the four hosts on what they should say to push the event, how they should say it, how much time to spend on each element, and then during the show, he was wearing a headset almost like a floor-director but almost assuredly in an executive producer role. I thought to myself, now THIS is what Michael Cole is really good at, even on RAW. While his match-calls often bring criticism, the way he can seamlessly move from promotion to timing to selling third party products or pushing sponsors has always been strong. These observations made more sense once DeMott showed and explained the commentary training room.
Across the way in a room to the left is a fully equipped green screen set, created with a high enough ceiling to accommodate the Big Show, even if he were over ten feet tall. Bill stands in front of us and talks openly and glowingly about the reciprocal relationship with Full Sail University. Many of their students arrive to help without being WWE fans but hopefully leave with a new respect. He mentions a few that graduated and immediately joined the main roster production team. On that very green screen, he continues, the Los Matadores tease videos were done, amongst many others. It isn’t just used for NXT, but that’s true of the entire building. The main roster, NXT, the beginning trainees, the announcers, the production side, fitness, everything inside is put together to be what he calls a "one stop shop" for World Wrestling Entertainment. Once again, it’s called the WWE Performance Center for a reason. It isn’t wrestling school, instead it’s a building to train and ready an entire WWE show, be it on television, the Network, or even house show events.
And that was it. Yes, that was the Performance Center. So impressive, every square foot utilized, it was something el…oh my fault, that’s just half of it. There’s still three huge areas left, plus a second floor, the latter of which we didn’t visit on this particular day. It’s a top of the line locker room area and full kitchen, which Bill compared to the best available in the top NFL stadiums or practice venues.
OH BUT THERE’S SO MUCH MORE
We enter the medical wing and the first things that stand out are the two men lounging on parallel training tables. First, flat on his back, watching the Friday morning SportsCenter, is Finn Balor. He waves and greets us and, as DeMott explains the elaborate inner-workings of that portion of the building, chimes in to say "They take really good care of us here, like really good care of us." To his left, sitting up on a training table with a machine attached to his left leg, is Hideo Itami, who smiles and raises his left hand to say hello. He’s quiet, but he did just work two matches the day before, on top of the excellent Takeover opener with Tyler Breeze on Wednesday. This isn’t just a miniature clinic like you might see in a large airport. This is a fully loaded doctor’s office, with a few side areas, a pair of hot and cold tubs, and anything else necessary to keep the roster healthy. Just over Itami’s shoulder is the end of the room, wide open with glass everywhere. Beyond that wall, the real hard physical work gets done.
We say goodbye to Balor and Itami and leave them to their Magic-Knicks highlights and proceed into the weight training facility, which is jammed with talent. CJ Parker is running on a treadmill. The NXT Tag Team Champions, Blake and Murphy, are to the far left working on their upper body. Enzo Amore is on the floor stretching. Tye Dillinger is working on his shoulders. Trainer Billy Gunn is working on pull downs. The list goes on and on. Training regimens are built individually for each person, though there are basic set workout plans as well. As we walk through, walking past Enzo, he says "Hey, how you doin" in slightly less worked style, and I have to restrain myself from saying "SAWFT" or "How you doin," responding with "Hi Enzo, how are you?" Incidentally, whenever we encountered anyone on the roster, they all said hello. They’ve been trained well. They’ve been trained how to deal with the public. It didn’t come away fake in any way.
Then, Bill gets very excited as he leads us into one final 5,500 square foot room that might be better labeled a small hangar. We could see it two rooms before due to the enormous window separating the weights and exercise area from this final portion of the main floor. We step inside and count seven separate wrestling rings. They aren’t equidistant from one another, but they’re placed with some type of purpose. Each trainer has his or her own ring. The ring furthest from the door on the right side is a crash pad with ropes, used for practicing and work-shopping aerial high spots or to keep beginners safe as they learn how to bump. Each ring is exact WWE specification at 20x20.
One ring post of each ring has headgear hanging from it, which Bill explains is extremely important. The old wrestling adage that a body has only so many bumps in it, something I was told first by Ricky Morton at a show in North Carolina, is true. While training, the company doesn’t want to destroy its own in-ring future. DeMott trained in a small northeast gym and learned to bump on concrete, a story not out of the ordinary for veteran workers. Here, WWE protects its talent from bumps in front of an empty arena. The hope is for the talent to be healthy and not beaten up as they hit the main roster.
THE PERFORMANCE CENTER’S "MAIN EVENT"
Near the center of this enormous portion of the PC is a squared circle called the "Main Event Ring," which is Mecca at the PC. It looks the same, because it is the same. It’s the main event ring because of everything else around it. In front of it is a RAW ramp. It’s not a replica. It’s a RAW ramp, built identically. Atop the ramp, a pair of WWE curtains to mimic a switch between the gorilla position and the main arena floor. Above the ramp is a small but still a large screen that can show the ring, which allows the workers to see how they would look against a hard camera. They can work on promos and see how they look as they talk and where they’re standing. They can fix their posture real time and see if their face displays the right level of emotion. Above the ring, on the ceiling, is the actual lighting grid used at WWE live events. It isn’t there for show. Officials and trainers can turn it on and operate it as part of instruction or presentation. Dusty can sit at the control booth, turn on the lights, and work with guys on their promos in a ring that duplicates exactly what they would see at NXT or RAW or SummerSlam.
The entire point of this final room is to create a training ground that leaves no surprises at all for call-ups. The nerves will be there, but they’ll be working with people they know, who’ve visited or trained or helped them at the PC. Merchandising and promotions officials meet with the workers about gimmick designs or products and they are the exact people that work with the main roster. It’s all to breed familiarity and a comfort zone for the young future of the company.
On the other side of the Main Event Ring, mounted high on the wall, are two cameras. Both are direct lines to WWE Headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, one to Triple H and the other to his wife, Stephanie. DeMott tells us the story of a weeknight at 6:30 PM, long after many have left for the day, where Bill, a few of the trainers, Adam Rose, and Triple H via that camera and an iPad attached to the nearside wall, came up with Rose’s entrance. On another day in that very same spot where we’re now standing, Triple H and Fandango came up with his redesigned entrance, again with Hunter in Connecticut.
Bill gives another example, this time fictional. Sheamus is nearing his return, perhaps he has a new move he’s been working on and wants to show it to someone. Now he can go into the Main Event Ring at the PC, show it to H real-time, and get feedback, positive or negative, and even potentially get suggested improvements without wasting any time to send a DVD or travel to Connecticut or even have to record it at all. Triple H watches that live feed to Florida quite frequently, Bill says, to the point it’s almost an obsession. He then points to the success rate of many of the call-ups and simply tells us, "This place works."
The walls of the in-ring training hangar are covered with encouragement banners, including those pictured above. The "Take a spot" sign is Bill’s favorite. I ask Bill if he has Proud Papa Syndrome and he begins to open up, and now we come to my second takeaway from the WWE Performance Center: Bill DeMott’s smile.
This is a man nearing his 30th year in the professional wrestling industry, training the old-school way up north at Gleason's Gym, working and paying his dues, getting to WCW and making the most of every opportunity he was given. It would be so easy to be jaded after all this time or at the very least to be burned out. This guy has done time that approaches the equivalent of two Jon Stewart Daily Show runs, and Jon’s moving on later this year. Bill DeMott has three children, one about to graduate college, another who already crossed that milestone, and a third son who is six years old. He has a beautiful wife and doesn’t have much free time. Yet, he spends not just the usual hours of 8 or 8:30 to 4 or 4:30 at the Performance Center. Instead, Bill is there early and leaves late. He’s there nearly every weekend if he’s not on the road. When he’s not at the PC, he’s on his way to a show.
Coming off two straight days of NXT, following our sit down interview for radio, he had to leave to make it to an NXT house show event at Fort Pierce. When we ask him about the challenges or nerves in leaving Florida to begin taking the show literally on the road, first to Ohio in March, he can’t fight back the pearly whites. He knows the challenge is there, but he believes in NXT and in the PC. He’s so proud of Paige, of the Shield, of the Wyatts, of Emma, of Adam Rose, of Bo Dallas, and the way you know it is his ability to rattle off each name without having to think about it.
DeMott’s biggest smile of the day comes as he talks about what he called the best day in the history of the building. The first time Vince visited, he walked in, looked to the sky and marveled at everything he was walking through, glared at the two Big Ass Fans on the ceiling of the wrestling area (that’s not slang, that’s the name of the company, which Bill absolutely loves), and cocked a smile. At that moment, DeMott knew what they had created.
We meet two other members of the NXT and WWE family before concluding our afternoon. First, a woman walks in wearing a WWE hoodie and Bill asks her to come over. She introduces herself, shakes our hands, and talks with us for a minute or so, before heading out the nearby exit to travel to Fort Pierce. She didn’t need to introduce herself. She’s the NXT Divas Champion, Sasha Banks, one of the most talented female performers in the world. Screw that. She’s one of the best performers in the world. She was soft spoken, and, as my co-host Brandon Haghany would remark to me later, much more shy than The Boss on her least confident day, but she’s gorgeous in every way. No makeup, just a natural beauty. She was supremely nice in our brief encounter.
Just before we leave the ring area, in walks Drake Wuertz, who, along with Sasha in how she carries herself, is the epitome of this place. Wuertz, who wrestled as Drake Younger and was known for his hardcore style and his passionate Independent following, now has a different gig. Today, and for nearly a year, he’s been a referee with NXT. His story was featured on WWE.com last week in an exceptional piece. If you research him online, you’ll find a lot of fans on message boards, which I like to call unscrubbed public bathroom walls (not sure where I heard it, but it’s great), who take WWE to task for not giving Drake a chance in the ring. These people clearly have no clue what they’re talking about, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, at least believe me when I say Drake Wuertz looks like the happiest person on the planet. And, after you meet him, you’re better for it.
As DeMott raves about Wuertz, Drake drops his head and grins in an understated fashion. He replies with "Thank you so much sir" as Bill’s superlatives continue. Then, he looks up and talks of what a blessing his life has become and how he adores being a referee. There’s no show here. This is a man who is content, perhaps more than just content, and can’t believe he was featured on the front page of the company’s website during a busy time of year. It’s impossible not to root for this guy. I will follow his career for the rest of my life. He made that strong an impression. I read a tweet from Adam Pearce that said ten seconds around Drake was all it took to know he was a "good brother." I’m not sure it even takes five.
How do you get to Orlando as an aspiring performer? Well, the PC holds tryout camps throughout the year, visiting multiple countries and even events like the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, where they found Alexa Bliss as a bodybuilder and fitness competition model. DeMott made it clear that even if the "A" team begins touring, they’ll still have their 70 or 80 people at the Performance Center. They’ll always have the next group ready to take over as the current crop advances and progresses to WWE’s main roster. It’s not easy, not at all, but if you want to do this, it’s the goal. Find a way to get there. Whatever issues you may have with WWE’s product or this or that, it’s undeniable that the PC is pure genius. I have absolutely nothing negative to say about what I saw. Even if it creates very similar workers, it’s creating a very informed and talented brand of performer. It’s also creating the behind the scenes people that make everything run smoothly and professionally. The tools are there. Every tool is right there in Orlando.
It was just 90 minutes. It wasn’t even two hours. I strolled in with a notepad and a brand new ink pen, set to take a ton of notes. I had a flash microphone in my right pocket, which I only used for the sit down. I didn’t write a single word, because it would have detracted from the day. It would have been like going to see your favorite band and taking hundreds of pictures. Sometimes, life has to be experienced, not captured. Hopefully, my memories were all accurate. It’s possible this room wasn’t on the right and this room had four monitors and not three and this guy’s workout might have been something different, but I wanted you to feel what I felt inside that place. It was an unmitigated passion emanating from every solitary body inside that place. There was so much determination and want in that building and Bill DeMott’s enthusiasm alone was palpable. At times, Bill was so excited and fired up in his descriptions, I felt like I was wading through liquid positivity. As I left, I was a river of that same stuff.
Nothing I can say will get everything about that day and that trip across sufficiently, and when we asked about Bill’s opinion on ever opening the building up to the public, even on a limited basis, his answer wasn’t particularly surprising. No. Let’s leave some magic out there. Let’s provide the public with the finished product and leave them marveling at what they saw. How did they do it? How are those video packages so polished? How are those announcers so comfortable in their own skin? How does the lighting not bother anybody? In short, just how on earth did WWE do ALL of that stuff?
The answer and its proof is in the quality of the NXT shows, top to bottom, and in the now visible and soon to be TOURING future of the wrestling business. It’s not some kind of elixir. It’s one building, created with time and care, constantly expanding, trainers learning along with their trainees, everyone growing, everyone engaged and involved in overall and individual success. From the workers to their coaches, from the hopeful production students, learning in such a rare way, to the hopeful announcers, learning from top professionals, is it any wonder that when Shawn Michaels walked in and saw everything, he looked to DeMott and said…
"Where the heck was this when we were getting into it?"
My thanks and gratitude to Adam Hopkins and everyone who made the tour and the two days of NXT possible, with special thanks to Bill DeMott for his generosity of time and information. Everyone was so accommodating and so willing to help, and after the trip, which I hope to make again, I understood why they were all so eager to show all of this off to us. I knew it beforehand, but now I KNOW it…
Because it’s friggin awesome - because it’s a triumph, that’s why.