WWE has a long and successful history of luring professional athletes away from the field and into the squared circle. From as far back as 1969, The likes of Ernie Ladd, Bill Goldberg and Roman Reigns have all made the switch from the cut-throat world of NFL but no one has made the same transition from the other kind of football – until now.
After a successful ten year career in the lower reaches of England's Football League – where he played in goal for teams including Crewe Alexandra, Port Vale and Burton Albion – Stuart Tomlinson made the switch to Orlando, Florida to join NXT, WWE's developmental territory, in a bid to hit the types of heights that are hard to reach on blustery nights in League Two at Vale Park.
Since his transfer to Vince McMahon's team was made public in 2014, Tomlinson – now operating under a typically brash ring name of Hugo Knox – has become a familiar face on feeds like BBC Sporf and The Sport Bible. Tomlinson's story has captured public imagination – most people don't get to live out one childhood dream, but he's already on his second.
Complex invaded the WWE Performance Center just days before the Royal Rumble to get the inside story on Hugo Knox and ask how different life looks when you're on the top rope instead of between the sticks.
Let’s take things right back to the beginning with you because it’s such a big career change. How did you wind up here in WWE?
Long story short, when I was playing football, I always had an interest in wrestling. You can ask any of the guys I used to play with and they’ll tell you I was talking about wrestling, what I’d watched on Monday nights and the pay-per-views. I would have loved to have known how to get into it but I never really knew until I heard about the Performance Center when it opened a couple of years ago. I made some enquiries about how I could get there whilst I was playing.
At the same sort of time I was getting on some Men’s Health covers – I ended up doing eight of those internationally – and Canyon Ceman [Director of Talent Development at WWE NXT] saw me on one of those. When they went to England looking for talent – originally trying to find rugby players, I think – they put my picture together with my athletic background and offered me a trial at The O2 Arena. It must have gone quite well because I ended up here.
Were you still contracted to your last club, Burton Albion, when you did the trial?
Yes, I was! It was behind closed doors. It wasn’t too bad though as my contract was coming to an end with Burton, and I turned down the chance of a further year there so I could come and pursue a career here. I also did my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) at the end of my last season. There was maybe six or eight months between the season ending and me getting back to fitness, ready to come here.
So as soon as WWE offered you the chance to come out here to Orlando, you didn't think twice about trying to get back to football?
It was too good of an opportunity to turn down. If someone had said to me ‘you can spend another three years playing football, or you can have three years with WWE’ – I would much rather have come here. This is a chance to work with the biggest company in the world. My brother and I grew up watching Jake the Snake Roberts and the Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan – the list goes on. You’d see us giving each other DDTs in the living room and our mum would always try and split us up. I’ve always loved this.
"You can’t compare the set up here to what I was used to in League One and League Two, this is the best of everything – everything we need is here." – Hugo Knox
How different is the pressure and atmosphere in the locker room of a professional football club to what you’ve got here at NXT?
The banter is the same, to be honest! Over here in America everyone has close camaraderie. Slightly different in that it’s a team sport when I’m playing football and it’s arguably more competitive between us here – but I know for a fact, in NXT at least, we’re one big family so everyone wants each other to put on the best show. There’s still pranks being played on people here, just as there was in football, but boys will be boys!
Traditionally, WWE’s developmental territories have gone under the radar a little but NXT has changed all of that, becoming arguably the hottest brand in all of wrestling. How much did you know about it before making the switch to Orlando?
I was aware of it, yeah. FCW was around before NXT and I actually saw the last FCW show before the set up moved to Orlando. I’d heard about the Performance Centre and I was told about how many rings there’d be and what would be going on, but seeing it for the first time made me pretty overawed. You can’t compare the set up here to what I was used to in League One and League Two, this is the best of everything – everything we need is here.
We’re always told that we’ve got everything at our fingertips here and if we don’t succeed, it’s down to us. I would fully approve and agree with that. It’s all about having the hunger and desire to chase it now.
How different is the training and technology here to the likes of what’s on offer at somewhere like Port Vale, Crewe Alexandra or Burton Albion?
It dwarfs it. I was at Burton towards the end and luckily enough, we used to train at St. George’s Park – which is the FA centre that England use – and it still doesn’t compare to what we’ve got going on here.
Has your past as a pro athlete given you a head start in the ring?
Definitely. I think when you get a gist of people’s backgrounds who are here – there’s some who have wrestled for eight or ten years independently to get here, others who have come from Strongmen or amateur wrestlers who have competed at Olympic level – it’s a wide variety and you need to be at the top of your game. For me, fast feet and agility definitely help me in the ring. Having an agile past has helped me bring something different to the table here.
You’re now known as Hugo Knox in the squared circle – how do you begin to put a pro wrestling character together?
It’s not 100% laid out yet but at the minute I’m a bubbly person who’s quite energetic so when I’m in the ring, I just want to amplify that as much as I can. I’ve gone for polka dots for my ring attire, which I’m sure you’ll recognise from the late Dusty Rhodes…
So it's a tribute?
Well I used to see him and couldn’t help but think how charismatic and noticeable he was. I’d see a lot of people wearing stuff that I wouldn’t want to call bland…but for me, I want to wear something that gets me noticed. I started to wear polka dots and Dusty saw that in a promo class we had once and he was fine with it. The worst thing for anyone here is to be average, you want to be noticed!
There’s a pretty strong British presence in WWE right now, both in NXT and the main roster. Has that helped you settle in?
Certainly, Wade Barrett was very friendly to me when I first came over. Finn Balor is the current NXT champion and I speak to him regularly and Neville was also here, though he’s on the main roster now. It definitely helps to talk to them, understand their scenarios and what they had to learn and overcome. These guys have got so much experience, between them over 30 or 40 years in this industry, so if I can get a small percentage of that it’ll push me in the right direction.
"I remember Playing at West Ham away – literally stones or bottles getting thrown at you, I remember the bus getting attacked when we left Millwall once." – Hugo Knox
You’re used to being in front of live crowds and as a goalkeeper with his back to the stands I’d guess you’re used to being subject to a fair bit of…
Abuse?! Loads of it! Everyone used to call me fat or chunky…it must have been the way the top fitted me. I think I surprised loads of people when I ended up on the covers of fitness magazines.
How does your relationship with wrestling crowds compare to what you experienced with football fans?
The crowd seems to have reacted well to me at live events, to be fair. Wherever we’re going I’m getting good reactions so it’s a lot more friendly as opposed to a Tuesday night away game somewhere. I remember when I played at West Ham away or even Millwall away – literally stones or bottles getting thrown at you, I remember the bus getting attacked when we left Millwall once.
Do you miss much about professional football?
I do miss it because it’s something I grew up with but at the same time, I’ve always wanted to do this and there’s not many people lucky enough to be here. I don’t take it for granted. There’s 80 people training here but there’s probably 5 million more who want to be here. I’ve got goals I want to achieve but I need to be patient.
Is there anyone you played with or against that you also think could make a career out of life in WWE?
Everyone always asks me this question! Everyone thinks Akinfenwa because he thinks he’s strong and he’s got the highest rating for strength on FIFA. In fairness though, I don’t know if he could actually roll around with some of the boys here…
And if the boot was on the other foot, who are the WWE talents you’d like to make a 5-a-side team out of?
Neville is very good I believe, so is Finn Balor. I’d also throw Braun Strowman in goal because he’s massive, keep myself up front – because I can do a bit as a striker – and Sheamus, because if anyone gets past us he can chase them down with a Brogue Kick.
Did you ever have to play up front as an emergency striker with a few minutes to go?
No but to be honest, when I was at Crewe from 10-years-old to 24, Liverpool and Everton were trying to get me to go and play outfield for them. I was more than capable of doing it but my dad supported Crewe so I just stayed there.
You’ve been pretty vocal on Twitter with your support of Skepta, JME, Stormzy and more – are you trying to bring grime WWE locker rooms?
I always play UK music to guys I travel with and there’s one guy here, Selmani, who’s big into it. I’m trying to get it onto people but it’s difficult. When we spoke about getting me entrance music I asked for something with a heavy bassline and they didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to show them some JME, Skepta and old school D Double E – we’ll wait and see how that goes down.
You can see Hugo Knox on WWE NXT each and every Wednesday night on WWE Network.