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Stacey Ervin
Courtesy Stacey Ervin Jr.

Riding The Wave: How Stacey Ervin went from gymnastics to WWE, and why he left

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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

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Ronda Rousey: UFC return just as likely as Olympic return

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Ronda Rousey repeated that she doesn’t know if she will return to UFC in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres published Tuesday.

“It’s just as likely as me going to back to another Olympics for judo,” the 31-year-old Rousey said. “No one demanded a written resignation from me for judo, and I don’t really think the same thing is necessary for fighting. I’m just doing what I enjoy, and WWE is what I enjoy right now.”

Rousey, a 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist, is now under contract with WWE. She is scheduled for a match debut at WrestleMania on April 8 in a mixed tag-team event with 1996 Olympic wrestling champion Kurt Angle as her partner.

“I’m nervous, but it’s not like Olympics nervous,” Rousey said. “The worst thing that’ll happen is I’ll look stupid.”

Rousey said in an ESPN interview published Jan. 28 that WWE has “first priority on my time the next several years.” Rousey shrugged off a question about retirement from mixed martial arts.

“That’s what everybody else seems to say,” Rousey said. “I mean, I never retired from judo. If that’s what you guys want to think, all I know is that I really want to devote 100 percent of my time to wrestling right now, and whatever people want to call that, they can call it.”

Previously, Rousey said she needed “to take some time to reflect and think about the future” on Dec. 31, 2016, one day after losing her second straight UFC fight via a brutal TKO at the pummeling hands of Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 in Las Vegas.

Rousey has been out of MMA ever since.

UFC president Dana White said in January 2017 that he believed Rousey would never fight in UFC again.

“I think she’s probably done,” White said then. “I think she’s going to ride off into the sunset and start living her life outside of fighting.”

White said he made those comments after speaking to Rousey earlier that same day.

“Her spirits are good. She’s doing her own thing,” he said. “In the conversation that I had with her, if I had to say right here, right now — and, again, I don’t like saying right here, right now because, you know, it’s up to her and her thing — but I wouldn’t say she fights again.”

MORE: U.S. goalie receives letter from U.S. Defense Secretary

Catching up with Mark Henry

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Mark Henry‘s future was set before his final Olympic lift in 1996. He had inked a 10-year contract with the WWF.

Henry competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics in super heavyweight weightlifting, finishing 10th at age 21 in Barcelona and 14th in Atlanta.

He weighed in at 411 pounds in 1996, making him then the second heaviest Olympian of all time (since a judoka from Guam weighed in at 462 pounds in 2008 and 481 in 2012, shattering the record), according to Olympic historians.

He’s snatched 402 pounds, clean and jerked 501, squatted 985, bench pressed 585 and deadlifted 903.

Henry transitioned into pro wrestling entertainment following the 1996 Olympics and has been plying that trade for the last 18 years.

Henry, once self-dubbed “Sexual Chocolate” in the ring, is better known by his title during his Olympic-style weightlifting days: The World’s Strongest Man. Even now at 42 years old.

He reached pro wrestling’s pinnacle in 2011, holding the World Heavyweight Championship, punctuating a career that’s included a broken ankle, torn rotator cuff, torn meniscus, broken kneecap and, currently, a torn hip flexor.

OlympicTalk recently caught up with Henry before he embarked on a four-day trip to Saudi Arabia.

OlympicTalk: You were a pro wrestling fan before you were an Olympic weightlifter and met Andre the Giant as a child. What was that like?

Henry: My grandmother used to take me to the Beaumont (Texas) Civic Center to watch wrestling on Saturdays. One time Andre the Giant was wrestling. On his walk to the ring, all the kids would run up toward him to these bicycle rack type barricades.

I’m leaning against the fence to touch Andre, and some kid knocks me over. I’ve got one hand on the barricade and my butt on the floor. Andre sees this, picks me up and puts me on the other side of the barricade. You never know what’s going to move you in life, but that moved me. That moment changed everything.

OlympicTalk: One of your notable headlines during your Olympic career was doing a nude photo shoot. What was that like?

Henry: It was an honor to be able to do an athletic Olympic shoot. When you’re a big guy, people won’t respect your body. They want to see the swimmers’ and track athletes’ bodies. For them to say, “We want to see your body,” I was like, ‘Wow, me?” For big guys, to be able to look at us artistically with a beautiful body, it helped with their confidence. It was very tastefully done.

OlympicTalk: How did you get involved with WWE?

Henry: I did Oprah [Winfrey], Jay Leno, every show you could imagine being a notable Olympian [for the 1996 Olympcs]. I would always get asked what’s the World’s Strongest Man doing. I told them I’m like a giant kid. I play video games. I’m a poet. I like to cook.

Then I told them that on Monday nights and Saturday or Sunday mornings, those are the days I can’t be bothered. Those are the days I watch [pro] wrestling.

The WWE — or WWF at that time — powers that be heard that, and they reached out and contacted me. [CEO] Vince McMahon himself called me. I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke, so I hung up. He called me back and said, ‘No, Mark, this is Vince McMahon for real. I want to invite you to come out to Connecticut. We would be honored to have the World’s Strongest Man come to our family.’

I’m a wrestling fan, so I said yes. What time and where? I’m on my way to the airport. Here I am, 18 years later, knocking down the door of being a Hall of Famer.

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OlympicTalk: Was it tough to give up Olympic weightlifting for pro wrestling?

Henry: It was bittersweet that I was going to have to retire, but also during that time I was a little bitter because there were guys that were allowed to compete against me [in weightlifting] that I knew were dirty [not Americans]. They took drugs, performance enhancers.

The [International] Olympic Committee, I wanted them to kick those guys out. It didn’t happen. The U.S. weightlifting team was the best in the world, so it was pitiful to have eighth place and 10th place when it should have been gold, silver or bronze. I’m not pointing fingers. I’m over it now.

There’s going to be a time, if I’m allowed to be a watchdog and work in the Olympic movement, that I’ll work to make sure kids compete on an even playing field so they don’t have to go through what I went through.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, you came out of retirement though.

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Mark Henry finished 10th and 14th in two Olympic super heavyweight competitions. (Getty Images)

Henry: People were saying I didn’t deserve to be called the World’s Strongest Man anymore because I wasn’t competing. I was angry about that, and the last thing you want is an angry, focused Mark Henry.

I told Vince [McMahon] these guys are talking bad about me, and what they’re saying and how I’m being portrayed are not real. And I don’t like it. He asked me if I thought I could win. I almost cussed him at him. [Henry won the prestigious Arnold Strongman Classic in 2002, named after Arnold Schwarzenegger.]

In my prime, I was the Michael Jordan of weightlifting. I shut a lot of people up [in 2002].

OlympicTalk: What did your Olympian friends think about your move to the WWF?

Henry: Some people were disappointed. They didn’t respect pro wrestling. They didn’t respect sports entertainment. They were ignorant to the fact that Vince McMahon was changing the business to something that families can watch.

They didn’t realize how intellectually stimulating wrestling really is. We have presidents who are huge wrestling fans. Bill Clinton is one of them. If wrestling is good enough for the president, it should be good enough for everyone else.

OlympicTalk: What’s tougher — Olympic weightlifting or pro wrestling?

Henry: They’re equally difficult. Not everybody gets to make an Olympic team. Not everybody can hold world titles in pro wrestling. So I’ve really, really been blessed.

To be a main-event wrestler at an elite level, you have to be able to do complicated, intricate, strong, athletic movements for 20 to 30 minutes straight all year long. I challenge anybody who doubts what we do as a sport, as a thinking man’s game, to go to our training facility in Orlando and try it out just one day.

OlympicTalk: Pro wrestling has come under scrutiny in recent years and even last week because of wrestler deaths. Does that concern you?

Henry: I don’t think it concerns me. I don’t really know all the facts, so I won’t comment on [The Ultimate] Warrior [who died last week], but what I will say is bug guys don’t live long anyway. And you have to take care of your body and your mind, no matter what you do.

Other sports, marbles, Tiddliwinks, you name it, if you don’t take care of yourself then you have a problem.

Our company has the most diligent drug testing. We have the same as the Olympics — random testing — as well as every six months doing cardio tests as well as blood tests. We are very, very stringent in that area.

OlympicTalk: What about when you first came into the business?

Henry: When I met Vince McMahon for the first time, he told me, “I’ve gone through some things in this business, and I want to let you know right now, if you’re taking any drugs, then it’s not going to work because we don’t have that here.”

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. The only juice I’ve ever had was orange juice.

OlympicTalk: You want to get back into the Olympic movement?

Henry: I want to help the 10 or 15 sports that are suffering the most, the ones that don’t make the money that track and field and basketball and tennis and other sports make.

I want to help weightlifting, of course, but I was very, very offended that wrestling was taken out of the Olympics [though reinstated in September]. [1972 Olympic wrestling champion] Dan Gable did everything to get wrestling back in. I want to help people, like he did. I want to put together a group that fundraises and helps the sports that can’t thrive on their own. I think I can give back, and not having me as an ally is a mistake.

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