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Trainers talk Matt Riddle's preparation for WWE tryout

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Former UFC fighter Matthew Riddle first stepped into a pro wrestling ring for his first class at the end of October, and has only had seven matches so far. But he's been invited to a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) tryout camp in May, where he'll be competing with wrestlers who have spent years practicing their craft.

Riddle and wife Lisa have been training at The Monster Factory in Paulsboro, N.J., making nearly two-hour drives each way several nights per week, to a somewhat legendary facility that opened in the 1980s and gained fame when student Scott "Bam Bam" Bigelow quickly became an international star.

While it hasn't been an easy ride, he's gotten a lot of praise for his athletic potential.

"Put it this way, he has the potential to be Kurt Angle caliber," said Sean Waltman, a major star during pro wrestling's heyday in the late 90s as X-Pac, Syxx and 1-2-3 Kid, who has worked with Riddle on a regular basis. "He's a way bigger fan than Angle was for starters. His technique is razor sharp. His mind hasn't caught up with his physical attributes and aptitude for pro wrestling yet, but when it does, this guy's going to be a big time player.

"I like (Phil) Baroni (who is currently training as a pro wrestler in Las Vegas), but he doesn't have the tools Riddle does. Riddle is 6-1 1/2 and a superbly conditioned 230 pounds. His promos (interviews) are where he's insecure. But that's because he's still new and hasn't figured out how to just be himself. He will, though. He'll ace the tryout. He'll leave most guys in the dust conditioning wise."

Riddle fought 2008 to 2013 with UFC, compiling a 7-3 record with no contests in his last two fights, both wins he had overturned due to him testing positive for marijuana. The second positive test led to his being released from the company two years ago. He was a big pro wrestling fan from childhood who got into amateur wrestling largely for his ultimate goal of being a pro wrestler. But his amateur wrestling, and winning a high school state championship in New York in the same tournament as Jon Jones, along with his look, led him to a spot on The Ultimate Fighter season seven. He had never fought professionally up to that point, but was signed by UFC off the show.

But pro wrestling is a different animal. It takes a unique skill set, both physical and mental. You have to be coordinated and conditioned enough to do the routines without tiring, and skilled and practiced enough to not have the moves look bad. You have to be tough enough to take the pounding on the body. A lot of success is also luck, right place at the right time with the right people backing you. But a great deal is mental. It's the understanding of what to do when, understanding crowd psychology, and then to reach stardom, a key is the ability to sell oneself and ones personality to the public through interviews.

It's also hard to know what WWE wants, as the standards change frequently. Sometimes they want tall guys with good bodies. Sometimes they want wrestlers who are advanced based on skill set and experience in smaller promotions. Sometimes they are looking for the best conditioned people. Sometimes they want former Division I wrestlers or football players. Plus, age is a factor.

Riddle is 29, which puts him in a borderline position. Many guys that age get signed, and some signed are older, but guys have also been nixed based on being past 30.

The WWE has camps several times per year, usually with two or three dozen prospects. Sometimes almost nobody gets signed, somebody several do. Being offered a position is a slow process. It usually takes a month or two to hear back. If accepted, the talent is put through extensive medical testing, looking for drug issues, hidden injuries or other health issues, which have ended many promising careers before they start. Due to the preponderance of early deaths of pro wrestlers, the company is now very cautious about who it signs.

The 11 wrestlers signed from camps in September and October just started with the company on April 6. The process involves moving to Orlando, Fla., and being based full-time at the WWE Performance Center, a gym that has been compared to a pro football team training room. While what the company wants changes at different times, today they want everyone going to a ring name rather than a real name, so WWE can own the merchandising rights and the wrestler can't leave and use the name that they made famous, which they'd be able to do if they used their real name. Once there, it usually takes several more years to make it to the main televised roster.

Brock Lesnar, who was rushed because of his contract size, made it in less than two years. The company's current golden boy, Roman Reigns, who was an All-ACC football player under his real name of Joe Anoa'i, was rushed to the main roster and that took him two years and four months. Seth Rollins, arguably the company's best all-around performer and its current champion, wrestled on smaller shows for seven years, and was already acknowledged as one of the most talented performers in the business when he signed with WWE in 2010, but it also took him another two years and four months in Orlando before he made the main roster.

Riddle's UFC career didn't end because he wasn't a good enough fighter to cut it, but because of marijuana use. WWE does test for marijuana, but doesn't suspend, but it's a hefty $2,500 fine.

"His wife (Lisa Riddle, a former Louisiana State University gymnast) is a great athlete but never really wanted to be a pro wrestler before, so she's seeing and doing things for the first time," said Danny Cage, the owner of the Monster Factory, who is training both. "But her being a great athlete helps her get over those hurdles, just not as fast as Matthew. Pro wrestling has very little to do with the moves, more the story, the struggle, the connection (with the crowd). She struggles most with that."

Riddle grew up a fan of ECW in the 90s, a smaller promotion that was known for crazy moments, whether they be flying moves, or falling from great heights through tables, that turned Riddle on to the industry. But he's had to learn that crazy spots are just part of the game.

"When he first came in, he wanted to do big moves and have holy s**t moments," said Cage. "It took a bit for him to realize you can tell a good story and get a better reaction. His attitude is great. The only problem he's had really is that he has to realize that sometimes the best lessons learned in wrestling aren't always learned in the ring. He's used to MMA, so he always wants to go go go (in the ring and in training). But promos and psychology are part of pro wrestling. So is learning locker room etiquette and pitfalls that may happen along the way. He's coming around more now. Before he couldn't understand why we weren't sweating or bumping or doing drills or matches. He couldn't understand why he drove two hours to talk. Well, that's the way the business is."    

Another of his trainers has been Brian Heffron, a 21-year pro wrestling veteran who had a short run in WWE, and was best known in ECW as The Blue Meanie, a character taken from The Beatles' Yellow Submarine album.

"When it comes to me, I've tried to be a producer of sorts with him," said Heffron. "Especially with how he should approach his style of making his MMA expertise work in a pro wrestling world, the psychology of his style and critiquing his matches at training and at our shows.

"His attitude has been good. He's doing everything alongside his fellow students, from training, to ring crew, to cleaning the facility which is required of everyone, which he's done with no push back whatsoever. Now with his tryout on the horizon, it's important to prepare him mentally to what they expect of him in and out of the ring."