It’s December 2014 and, for WWE Superstar Big E, “things have gone awry.”
Then Intercontinental champion, the powerhouse favourite is playing the role of babyface, the wrestling world’s version of the good guy, who is universally adored and cheered by fans.
On this night in New Jersey, however, a raucous crowd is going against the grain. His opponent – the supposed villain of the piece – is the one with the support of the 16,000 in attendance.
It’s not a new sensation in wrestling. Occasionally audiences will gravitate to a charismatic, cheeky ‘heel' – this one being played by Britain’s Wade ‘Bad News’ Barrett.
Their fondness for the brash, loudmouth Barrett is not because of any dislike of Big E, but that is scant consolation to the man who now stands at the very top of the sport as WWE Champion.
Now at the summit of the industry after a career-making win over Bobby Lashley last month, the 35-year-old looks back at that night seven years ago as one of his undoubted lows.
“I was in a programme with Bad News Barrett,” the champ tells The Independent. “He was super over and had that scissor lift and was getting great reactions.
“The night that I dropped the title, I was blowing my comeback and getting booed and, as a babyface, that’s the worst!
“When you’ve got your heel rocking and rolling and you’re getting booed... oh no! Things have gone awry!
“I ended up losing the title that night and it got to a point afterwards where [WWE agent] Road Dogg said: ‘We need to get you to work on something and find something because we have no plans for you right now.’
“Thankfully, that same day [Xavier] Woods came up to me and pitched doing a faction [group]. That took some time to get going of course!”
If that was a moment when Big E feared for his WWE future, it wasn’t the only one.
He recalls the sinking feeling he had after receiving an e-mail telling him he’d no longer be required to travel to their Monday Night Raw television show.
For talent of the time – prior to WWE’s brand split – such a message could often be perceived as a death knell for careers.
Big E remembers: “It said that [I] wasn’t going to Raw anymore and was only needed for SmackDown... at the time it typically meant those people were either doing dark [non-televised] matches, and not long after were either back on [developmental show] NXT or were fired.
“For me that felt like, ‘Oh, my career is not going the way I wanted it to…” and that I was either going to be either demoted or let go very soon.
“Those were moments where I thought, ‘I need a life raft here,’ and I’m very grateful that some idea, some person came along at the right time and kept my career afloat.
“I look back at those moments and I’m thankful that I survived, thankful that I could ride those waves and those rough times, and I’m still here.”
It’s safe to say that things did indeed pick up for Big E after that. Not before long he was part of The New Day alongside Woods and Kofi Kingston.
They’ve since established themselves as one of the industry’s most successful and popular tag teams of all time, racking up title reigns into double figures as they dance and gyrate with an enthusiasm that’s without equal.
Big E of course now holds professional wrestling’s most prestigious and storied singles title, with his teammates always there to support him – similar scenes surrounding Kingston when he won the WWE title in a fairytale moment in 2019.
Despite all the success, fame, money, and notoriety that’s entered Big E’s life in the last few years, one remarkable trait remains – his humility.
His own title win was greeted with a reaction amongst his peers that was universally positive – overwhelmingly in fact.
While kind wishes being thrust upon a new incumbent is far from rare, for the Floridian it felt different. It was genuine and comprehensive.
The reason why seems clear: Big E is plainly a nice guy. It’s not an act or facade, and that can at times be equally rare in an industry that has historically played host to more than its share of selfishness.
“I never want to lose myself to fit a certain mould or to feel like I need to be less nice to be a champion or a locker room leader,” he explains, when asked how he manages to stay on the side of good when it is so easy to fall astray to fame’s temptations.
“If that’s what it takes to be successful in this industry, that’s an industry I don’t need to be a part of. It is vitally important to me to be a human being I can be proud of and be the kind of person I want to be.
“That has been a point of emphasis for me during the pandemic: working on myself and growing. I feel like I have worked through a lot in my life, and I feel more clear about my purpose and direction.
“I don’t want to sit here and pat myself on the back for always doing the right thing, because I’m flawed, we all are – but it is very important to me to continue to do my best... to have a positive impact on people.
“There’s the mantra that people will often forget what you did for them, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.
“I don’t know when my time on this earth will be over, but I hope that the world will be better off for having me.”
Catch WWE Champion Big E defending his title against the UK’s Drew McIntyre in Saudi Arabia at WWE Crown Jewel on 21 October, airing in the UK on WWE Network. Visit wwe.com for more.
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