About a year after his WWE tryout, and about eight months after signing with the organization, former U.S. national team gymnast Stacey Ervin Jr. hit a milestone.
“I was told that I was the fastest ever to go from no wrestling experience to a TV match,” he said.
Ervin made his WWE Network debut as part of an NXT tag team with Humberto Carrillo against the Street Profits on Feb. 13. It would be his first and last TV match. A belly-to-back suplex gone wrong left Ervin landing on the back of his head and viewers wondering if he broke his neck or suffered a concussion.
“That is not true, actually,” said Ervin, who continued in the match, even nailing a tsunami-sault, and later shared video on social media with a woozy face emoji. “I didn’t suffer a concussion, but I did have a scary spill.”
That served as a catalyst for Ervin’s decision a month later to walk away from a promising career at age 25. His goal — headlining WrestleMania — unmet.
“I don’t walk away from the company with any negative feeling,” Ervin stressed. “Everyone that’s with me has been very supportive and looking out for my best interests.”
Ervin was 7 or 8 years old when his mom, Stephanie Hayes, suggested gymnastics after he ran across a balance beam at a rec center.
“Kind of freaked out the instructor,” Ervin said on the GymCastic podcast in 2013. “They pointed us to a different facility, which was Michigan Academy of Gymnastics.”
Ervin proved a natural. He was profiled by the Detroit News at age 12 and a U.S. junior champion on vault at 16. He matriculated at the University of Michigan, where he would be part of an NCAA champion team and place third on floor exercise.
Before his freshman season, Ervin’s mom died of T-Cell lymphoma.
“I struggled dealing with grief over her death,” he told the University of Michigan Depression Center. “Not to mention living in a new environment with increased athletic and academic demands. I consistently found myself alone, spiraling downward.”
The Michigan team helped. Gymnasts and coaches attended his mom’s memorial service, months before Ervin would don the maize and blue in competition for the first time.
The most meaningful of Ervin’s seven tattoos is his first one — a cross with a ribbon wrapped around it topped with “Mom” on the left side of his ribcage. His second tattoo, on his right chest, was his Michigan team’s mantra — “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack” — from Rudyard Kipling‘s “The Law of the Jungle.”
“It also resonated with me as an individual,” Ervin said. “I like to think of myself as a leader, and I don’t want to be the one to hold any community back that I’m a part of.”
Ervin graduated from Michigan in 2015 and began working for Oracle as a customer success manager in Austin, Texas. He soon became discontented with spending eight hours a day at a desk.
Through a friend, Ervin found a path back to gymnastics in early 2017. He interviewed with Nellie Biles and became a coach (and then a director) at the Biles’ gym, World Champions Centre at Spring, Texas. By August of that year, he and Nellie’s daughter, Simone, were an Instagram official couple. They had met at the 2013 U.S. Championships, but didn’t know each other extremely well until he moved to Texas.
But Ervin still sought an energetic, competitive outlet. He took part in an American Ninja Warrior qualifier. He also brought up another idea to his girlfriend. What about the WWE?
“Before really knowing what it was or anything, I automatically said no,” Biles said. “[Later] I was like, actually, that would be pretty cool. I would always watch like ‘Total Divas’ and that all the time. So I was kind of a little bit familiar with it, but not the guys’ side, I guess.
“I thought they, like, beat each other up. They do, but it’s in kind of a safer way. It’s not like UFC. You’re not trying to kill them. This is to entertain.”
Biles kept her mind open and, apparently, her eyes peeled. She woke from an airplane nap to see wrestling on the TV in the seat next to her. She saw a WWE billboard while driving. She had a dream about it.
Then in September 2017, Biles was in New York City for a benefit for The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis. So was Paul Levesque, better known as WWE superstar turned executive Triple H, and his wife, Stephanie McMahon. Biles texted Ervin and asked if she should approach the bulging man 20 inches taller and double her weight. Ervin said no.
“I’m like, it’s too late, Stacey, I’m already talking to them,” she said. “Then I started showing him pictures of Stacey. He said, well we have these open tryouts, here’s a card.”
Ervin tried out in February 2018. He described it as “an overall test of physicality and personality.” Every one of the nearly 40 prospects had to give a minute-long monologue in front of the group, plus coaches and executives.
“I let everyone know that I’m here on purpose,” he said. “I’m here to do this because it’s on cue with who I am and that I’m going to be the next great WWE superstar.
“I had never really gotten away from staying in shape from gymnastics. I think they were rather impressed with what I was able to.”
Ervin believed that when he started with the WWE’s developmental NXT promotion last July, he was the first male gymnast to do so. WWE spokespersons declined interview requests for this story.
He thought decision-makers liked not only his athleticism, but also the charisma that dripped from the curls he began growing out the day before his 23rd birthday.
“The technical aspects of working a match and wrestling, those presented the biggest challenges to me,” the psychology graduate said, comparing it to coding computer software.
For both Ervin and Biles, nerves came with watching the other compete.
“I don’t know,” she said last fall. “It still looks like they’re beating each other up.”
Then came the night before Valentine’s Day, when Ervin landed on the back of his head in his TV debut. He had already been questioning the career. Other opportunities sprung in health and fitness.
“I made a 17-year gymnastics career and pretty successfully walked away with no injuries that would impair me to function at any other level,” Ervin said while noting he knew what he was signing up for with WWE. “It occurred to me that the risk versus reward through my path at WWE just wasn’t worth it to me personally. I felt there were other ways for me to achieve my personal vision without risking life and limb.”
Just before Ervin decided he wanted to walk away, he tuned into John Oliver‘s “Last Week Tonight” segment on the WWE and how it takes care of its wrestlers.
“When I watched that, I wasn’t blown away,” Ervin said. “This is exactly what I’m going through.” Ervin went public with his decision last week via Instagram. His amicable release from WWE is expected to become official later this week. He remains a WWE fan.
“Even more so now because I’m seeing friends and people that I know who are super passionate about it,” he said. “I still have my wrestling trunks and my attire. I’ll probably be hanging onto that.”
Ervin transitioned his persona — “The Wave” — into a health and fitness venture, starting from the ground up with help from friends. His Instagram stories — broadcast to 122,000 followers — are a daily diary of diet and wellness. He launched a website and a $25 workout guide last month.
Ervin says his “The Wave” philosophy is the reason why he chased the WWE dream and the reason why he ultimately gave it up.
“Be one with the path, so to speak,” he said. “Ride your path. Ride your intentions. Ride your intuition. You know, ride the wave.”
MORE: Simone Biles talks anxiety medicine, therapy in up-and-down year
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!Follow @nzaccardi