Long before he was on top of the WWE world, Ettore Ewen was still trying to find his way at the University of Iowa in the US.
More than a decade ago, he was a collegiate American football player who had his promising career cut short owing to injuries, including two torn ACLs and a broken patella. Although his football dreams were dashed, it would only end up leading him on to a new path.
These days Ewen goes by a shorter moniker of “Big E” and is the current WWE Champion, becoming the fourth black wrestler to hold the title in the company’s history. He will defend his lead against Drew McIntyre at Crown Jewel in Riyadh on Thursday.
Ewen says his journey from the football field to the wrestling ring was a long one and that it took him a while to get to where he is today.
“In football, in my mind, it's always about ‘just work hard, shut your mouth and put your head down’. And that's kind of the mould that I've been in, but in WWE you have to be an entertainer," he tells The National. "You have to be charismatic and comfortable talking.”
Although he realised his dreams of playing professional football were probably over, he knew his athletic career hadn't ended. That's when an opportunity came with the WWE in 2009, something he had never envisioned for himself, but it was “worth the gamble", he says.
It was the right decision. Fans who watch him on a weekly basis are used to seeing his colourful and quirky personality, most notably when he was a member of The New Day, a popular trio with fellow wrestlers Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston.
But it did take some getting used to. "It took me a little while just to get my footing and find my comfort zone. That’s an adjustment, too, walking around in spandex. So that did take me a little bit of time, but I feel like I found what I was meant to do.”
Despite his success, Ewen admits the journey wasn’t always smooth. He reflects on when The New Day were pitched to WWE creative as a wrestling faction in early 2014, saying there were people who weren’t originally very supportive of the idea.
“The three of us really believed in our collective chemistry. We spent so much time around each other. We really felt like that kind of [obstacle] brought us together more. We had so many doors slammed in our faces, people who laughed at us.
“But instead of that pushing us to give up or move on, we all felt that we knew what no one else outside of the three of us can understand, what we have here in our abilities and chemistry."
The New Day would make its debut in July 2014 and go on to become one of WWE’s most popular groups, setting several records along the way, including the longest tag team championship reign as well as the most reigns as SmackDown Tag Team Champions.
This resilience is something Ewen has shown throughout not only his career, but his life outside the ring, too, in particular when it comes to his mental health.
“I really struggled with mental health for so much of my life," he says. "Just a lot of issues with self-loathing and not really valuing myself. And over time, meditation has helped me immensely.
“I feel so settled in myself, who I am. I feel like for the first time I found actual self-love and it feels good to be proud of myself and feel like I’m settled in who I am, and that’s been a journey.”
He says it took “years and years” of work to feel this way. But this positive outlook has helped to boost his career and make him feel confident about performing abroad.
In Saudi Arabia, he hopes to put on a good show for fans.
“I really appreciate going over there and getting to entertain all the fans in Saudi Arabia, they are so into it and excited for the show. That feels fun to give people all across the world an opportunity to have a brief escape from their life, troubles – whatever it is,” he says.
“The past couple of years have not been easy for so many of us." Travelling to Saudi Arabia, he says, "is really a blessing".
"I’m grateful. And it's also fulfilling. That's another part that makes me feel like I found my purpose. When I was younger, I found so much value in entertainment.
“I really resonated with the fact that entertainment does have a real impact and, sure, maybe I might not actually be saving lives. I'm not, you know, sewing people's bodies or fixing their hearts or anything like that, but I’m happy to provide a positive escape. That's what I'm excited about.”
WWE Crown Jewel can be streamed on the WWE Network on Thursday at 8pm