For more than three decades, WWE has brought dozens of larger-than-life superstars to televisions and arenas around the world. And increasingly, they look and move less like body builders and more like functionally fit, professional athletes. Part of this transformation can be credited to the WWE Performance Center, a state-of-the-art warehouse in Orlando where most WWE Superstars, as they're called, are trained.
A few years ago, Paul Levesque (better-known as "Triple H"), who now operates as WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events, and creative came to the table with the idea of building a 26,000-square-foot facility would serve as a place where WWE could train and create their next crop of sports entertainers. What resulted was less a training ground for in-the-ring entertainment than an Olympic-style facility that built big, agile athletes. After Men's Journal's exclusive tour of the facility, here's what we found.
The building is packed with seven wrestling rings (including one designed specifically for practicing aerial maneuvers), a full fitness center with weights, tires, and even kegs for lifting, a medical and physical therapy room, instructional areas where wrestlers practice interviews (or "promos" as they're known in the industry) against a green screen, a space where commentators and broadcasters can hone their craft, and an entrance ramp identical to the one on WWE TV. It's all visible to coaches, trainees, and WWE suits.
"There're always eyes watching; it's kind of like a big brother atmosphere in here, where there's a direct link to Stamford," Superstar Enzo Amore says. "I've heard stories of Vince McMahon being in the elevator in Stamford watching a live feed of what's going on in the Performance Center… Vince is riding up and goes, "Oh, who's that guy?"
Technology is a huge part of what makes the WWE Performance Center special. Everything here is run on iPads — entrances, interviews, personalized video libraries of what WWE's trainees are doing in the ring — with an app specifically designed for the Center.
New recruits watch classes online for two to three weeks before stepping in to a ring. That way, they develop a mental foundation and understanding for what they're about to undertake. Students are then grouped in beginner, intermediate, or advanced classes, all of which are taught by former wrestlers-turned-coaches, like Robert Brooks, Adam Pearce, and Billy Gunn (formerly known in the wrestling world as "Ass Man"). Coaches then decide when a student is ready to graduate to the next class, and the final decision is left to head coach Matt Bloom (known as "Prince Albert" and "Tensai").
While (spoiler alert) results are predetermined in WWE, and competitors work in cooperation, pro wrestling still remains one of the most dangerous forms of athletics anywhere. Knowing that, the Performance Center has some of the most cutting-edge injury prevention and treatment methods anywhere. When new recruits are learning how to fall (or "bump"), they use a unique ring designed specifically for the WWE. It has a thick layer of foam beneath the canvas, which makes the impact significantly easier on the body. Each ring is equipped with special helmets, designed to avoid concussions. "WWE is trying to stay ahead of the curve, rather than catching up to the curve," coach Bloom says. "This place is setting the trend in sports entertainment for years to come."
With on-call physicians and an envy-inducing physical-therapy room, many current WWE Superstars are coming to Orlando from across the country for therapy and treatment. In addition, WWE gives random drug testing once or twice a month to every talent in the Performance Center.
The NXT Step
Anyone who's watched WWE knows it's about far more than athletics. Creating a memorable, entertaining, and (sometimes) relatable character is sometimes equally important to what goes down in the ring. Recruits are required to participate in regular promo classes, where they learn to create a character, communicate, and perform as their new alias. Formerly taught by the late Dusty Rhodes, one of the greatest "talkers" in wrestling history, this class has built some of the most marketable and entertaining characters in WWE.
After going through months or even years of training, qualified wrestlers advance to NXT. Originally used as a feeder system (think the minor leagues of the WWE main roster), NXT has become its own brand, with its own championships and tour. Here, wrestlers experiment with reactions they can get from the fans and learn how to work with one another in front of a live — intense — audience.
But of course, the end game is the big stage: The WWE main roster. Superstars will leave behind families and careers for the chance to move on from NXT and become a part of WWE's weekly global television programs Raw and Smackdown. Athletes go down this path in the hopes of becoming the next Randy Savage, John Cena, or Stone Cold Steve Austin.