From the wrestling mat to MMA ring and now the squared circle, Matt Riddle has come a long way since his collegiate days as an amateur wrestler.
Now almost four years after signing a WWE contract, Riddle is preparing for his first Money in the Bank match on Sunday. Competing against seven other wrestlers, he’ll have a chance to win the Money in the Bank briefcase, which will allow him to challenge for any WWE Championship at any time over the course of a year.
But, before teaming up with veteran wrestler Randy Orton to form their tag RKBro and having fans chant “bro” (thanks to his character’s nickname being the Original Bro) during his matches, we find out how exactly Riddle found his way to becoming a professional wrestler.
Growing up in upstate New York, Riddle excelled at amateur wrestling, becoming a state wrestling champion and earning a scholarship for university. However, while he was a top athlete in the sport, he still felt he was missing something.
“I think the one thing I missed when I was doing amateur wrestling was that I was performing in a sport, but I wasn't a star. It's one of the things that is a lot of hard work with no real payoff,” he says.
After wrestling at university for a couple of years, Riddle decided to utilise his skill set and turned to mixed martial arts.
With a strong background in amateur wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it was an appearance on the seventh season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter that got him recognition, with a debut in UFC following shortly.
While he spent five years there and a couple of years afterwards with other MMA promotions, he eventually trained to become a professional wrestler.
“After I was done with mixed martial arts, I felt like wrestling came full circle. It's what I started with, it’s my first love. And then I did all the amateur, jitsu and MMA. And then I came right back to pro wrestling. And I feel like it's just been a perfect circle of life,” he says.
But how was the transition from MMA fighter to professional wrestler? Even though Riddle is a natural showman, often pumping up and celebrating with his fans, he admits learning how to entertain the audience while maintaining focus on performance in the ring was one of the more difficult things he had to adjust to.
“In a fight you just focus on the sport. You don't let any of this get to you and this is all you worry about. And then before and after, you can acknowledge the fans and the crowd but focus,” he says.
“Well [in wrestling], I had to focus on that but I also had to focus on all the people ringside ... So my hardest thing was trying to connect with the crowd while performing."
While finding that right balance between engaging fans but also staying focused is something he was concerned about initially, it’s also been something that has been dearly missed.
During the pandemic, wrestlers continued to perform on television weekly, but it was in front of an empty arena or with fans virtually tuning in. On Friday, for the first time in over a year, a physical audience returned for Friday Night SmackDown, one of WWE’s two flagship programmes.
Although Riddle competes on the other WWE flagship brand called Raw, he’ll get a chance to perform in front of a live crowd again on Sunday night when Money in the Bank comes lives from Fort Worth, Texas. It's something he says can’t come soon enough.
“Honestly, I think having the crowd back is going to help out a lot. A lot of times when you don't have that crowd there, you do what you do, but you don't feel it, you don't know if it's going to get the reaction you want it to get because the crowd isn’t there to personally react to it,” he says.
“I can’t wait to hear that crowd pop. I think even the fans watching at home can’t wait to hear those fans screaming and making some noise. You do not want to miss it."
Money in the Bank streams on WWE Network at 4am on Monday, July 19 in the UAE