Every job has a first step, a very basic task to begin the employee’s evolution into whatever he or she aspires to be someday. In professional wrestling, that first task is called a flip bump or, in plain English, a simple front somersault in which the wrestler launches himself from a standing position and flips forward to land flat on his or her back. The way wrestling works, until you can do a decent flip bump, there’s no need to move on to the next step.
When Brennan Williams did his first flip bump as a professional wrestler, his somersault made it only about half a revolution. He landed awkwardly on the back of his neck, and crumpled like a 300-pound, dreadlocked human accordion. “It was ugly,” said Erik Lockhart, one of the seasoned pros in WWE Hall of Famer Booker T’s Houston-based Reality of Wrestling promotion. “My [twin] brother [Andrew] and I had to give Brennan a double suplex just to get him to see what it felt like to have his entire body flip all the way over.”
Lockhart is one of several Reality of Wrestling performers who had a hand in grooming Williams over the past nine months, going all the way back to November when we featured the former Houston Texan’s decision to set aside his injury-plagued NFL career and chase his dream of signing a contract with World Wrestling Entertainment, a goal Williams achieved last month when WWE inked him to a deal to begin training this month in its developmental program in Orlando, Florida.
The irony in Williams’s inauspicious first training session as a wrestler is that the result of his first training session as an NFL player was even more disastrous, as Williams, an offensive tackle, got rolled up in a simple blocking drill and suffered a knee injury that would eventually require microfracture surgery. While that injury didn’t directly finish Williams’s NFL career, it certainly derailed it, and it triggered the series of events that led to the Texans cutting him, the Jacksonville Jaguars signing and cutting him a year later and the New England Patriots finally signing him before deciding to release him after just two days of employment last October.
That would be the end of Williams’s football career — three years and no regular season games played.
When Williams arrived back in Houston to begin wrestling in November 2015, he was armed with determination and the confidence that he had the perfect trainer to help him chase his dream. “I approached training to get to WWE the same way I trained to get to the NFL,” Williams said. “I knew training with [Booker T], it would be like my training for the NFL combine in Arizona back in 2013. Book knows exactly what WWE is looking for. It was perfect.”
For Williams, patterning his training for his de facto WWE tryout after his training for his NFL tryout was necessary. However, the fact is that football players generally fail as wrestlers, in large part because they see and treat wrestling like it’s their fallback plan, like they’re settling for something less. They disrespect it. Williams, a lifelong wrestling fanatic, was the exact opposite. He immersed himself in it. Even when he was drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Texans, wrestling was always the eventual goal for Williams, just not at age 25. At age 25, he was supposed to have Derek Newton’s right tackle spot on the Texans’ offensive line, not doing flip bumps in a dank gym in southeast Houston.
“We’ve had football players come in before and they not only failed, but they didn’t respect the business,” Lockhart said. “Brennan came in, and he was great. Very humble, very willing to learn, and had a lot of knowledge already from being a fan.”
Williams’s botched flip bump in that first workout would be an outlier in his warp-speed evolution as a performer. Through hours of cardio each morning, and the in-ring training sessions in the evening, Williams dropped his weight to a more svelte 280 pounds, alleviating the strain on his surgically repaired knee.
Williams’s in-ring character for Reality of Wrestling was named Marcellus Black, the “shogun of the ROW,” and his presentation was a spectacular visual, complete with dramatic ring entrance music, Williams’s multicolored dreadlocks and a meticulous, colorful face paint job. As you can imagine, a performer with Williams’s size and newfound speed on two healthy knees was pushed like a monster on Booker T’s ROW television show, rapidly ascending to where he was one of the top-of-the-card performers. ROW fans, who knew Williams from when he would sit in the crowd with them as a fan at the shows, embraced him immediately.
Ultimately, Williams’s grasp of professional wrestling and its various nuances, in and out of the ring, made his signing with WWE a formality. He shows that much potential. But even a formality can be extremely satisfying. “My NFL experience had put me in a frame of mind where I always prepared for the worst,” Williams said. “So [signing my WWE deal] was much cooler than signing my NFL contract. Seeing my name on the page with the WWE logo, it sent me over the hills.”
Lockhart looks at Williams and sees a potential star in WWE. “Brennan can really make an impact on the next level,” Lockhart opined. “He is smart, and he is safe. He is someone [WWE] can really invest in. He’s got a great look, and I think he is really someone who can also help African-American wrestlers continue to get more chances too. He can be a guy who changes the business.”
So as it turned out, what appeared to be three years of torturous adversity unleashed on Williams by the football gods wound up being some oddly disguised karma. At least that’s how Williams’s father, Brent, sees it. “We are a family of faith, and so, looking back, the fact that Brennan was drafted by Houston, that allowed him to meet Booker T,” reasoned the elder Williams. “His NFL signing bonus gave him the financial freedom to try his hand at wrestling, and now look where he is. It’s proof that if you have faith, God takes care of everything. As a family, we believe that.”
In wrestling, there is a time-honored tradition in which a wrestler leaving a territory for greener pastures always makes his colleagues look good on the way out by taking a pin. Williams’s final match in Booker T’s ROW was a title match in which Marcellus Black challenged ROW champion Gino, a flamboyant, Latin lover-type character about half Black’s size, in a “no disqualification” match, which is code for “There’s going to be a ton of chicanery and about a half dozen other wrestlers interfering in this match!”
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened, with multiple wrestlers emptying the locker room and interfering on behalf of both men. The match itself was a raucous back-and-forth with both performers hitting multiple big moves, pushing the crowd into a frenzy. Ultimately, tradition being tradition, Gino reversed Black’s finishing maneuver by hitting his own finisher (creatively called the “scarlet letter”) and pinning Black cleanly in the middle of the ring.
In the aftermath, Marcellus Black sold Gino’s “scarlet letter” as if he’d been shot with a tranquilizer dart, lying in the ring “unconscious” for several minutes, the ultimate show of respect from Williams, the man behind the Black character, to Gino and the rest of the ROW performers, the story line message being that the ROW’s champion, Gino, is “good enough” to render unconscious a 6-foot-7 monster on his way to WWE. Eventually, Black climbed to his feet and, amid cheers, made his way backstage. Once through the curtain and into the locker room, Black became Brennan Williams again. There he broke down in tears, knowing this was his final match in the formative chapter of his dream.
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“If a guy walks into a place with a twinkle in his eye, and walks out with a tear, you know there is a genuine love and respect there,” Lockhart reflected.
Indeed, these tears were different from the ones Brennan Williams shed less than a year ago in the New England Patriots’ parking lot, minutes after football had just finished chewing him up and spitting him out. If it can’t use you, the NFL sees you as disposable and moves on, and that day, football left Brennan Williams behind.
Nine months later, finally on his way to WWE with his childhood dream coming into focus, on that night, Brennan Williams was a star. He was the one leaving football behind.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.