To be seated in the same office with the legendary Dusty Rhodes is an honor but then having the American Dream pick your brain on talent is amazing.
Norman Smiley never envisioned being a trainer and a producer for a pro wrestling/sports entertainment company, let alone WWE, but the former national and international wrestler is doing just that, working for WWE NXT with an all-star cast which includes Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat, Bill DeMott, Billy Gunn, Terry Taylor, Joey Mercury, Sara Del Ray and Steve Keirn.
Their mission -- to develop the next wave of WWE superstars and divas.
Smiley, a Miami product, showcased some of their latest developments to his hometown crowd when the WWE NXT Live Tour invaded the Miami-Dade County Fair.
What a show.
WWE NXT is the developmental group of WWE. More than 50 superstars and divas on the current WWE roster are NXT alums, proving the value of a solid feeder program.
“I’m not going to say that every single time that I’ve made a prediction it has come true, but the first time I saw Jack Swagger I told him point blank, ‘You have it. You have the presence.’ He has a legitimate background. He has the personality, and he’s a great athlete, and now he’s going to be semi-main eventing WrestleMania.”
Swagger with Zeb Colter will challenge World champ Alberto Del Rio with Ricardo Rodriguez at WWE’s WrestleMania 29 pay-per-view on Sunday, April 7 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Smiley continued: “Bray Wyatt is another guy. He’s a third generation wrestler, a natural performer, a great character.
“But it’s not only a producer or a trainer predicting somebody’s future, it has to come from that talent’s heart. Even though our classes that we have are approximately three or four hours a day, being a WWE superstar is a 24-hour a day job. You have to research. You have to watch matches. You have to work on your conditioning, tanning and going to the gym, your character, getting to know each other. We have situations now where some of these students have taken it upon themselves to learn a new language.
“For some of the international markets that we’re going, if we’re going to Turkey, and somebody can speak that native tongue, it will help put them at the forefront of the pack.”
Nearly 50 superstars and divas currently on the WWE roster traveled through the doors of NXT, formerly FCW, to hone their craft. They include Aksana, Wade Barrett, Evan Bourne, Daniel Bryan, Camacho, Cameron, Antonio Cesaro, Brodus Clay, Johnny Curtis (Fandango), Bo Dallas, Ted DiBiase, Alberto Del Rio, Epico, Alicia Fox, Justin Gabriel, Hunico, Kaitlyn, Tyson Kidd, Big E. Langston, AJ Lee, Brad Maddox, Jinder Mahal, Michael McGillicutty, Drew McIntyre, Rosa Mendes, Naomi, Natalya, Titus O’Neil, David Otunga, Primo, Ricardo Rodriguez, Alex Riley, Damien Sandow, Sheamus, Skip Sheffield (Ryback), Heath Slater, Tamina Snuka, Jack Swagger, Yoshi Tatsu, Jey and Jimmy Uso and Darren Young.
Smiley’s brother, Shaun, and his friend, Double J (South Florida’s version), are proud of his efforts and glad to catch-up for a few minutes at The Fair.
They had a longer visit when Miami-Dade County welcomed WWE WrestleMania Week last year.
“The high school I went to was right across the street from the Miami Beach Convention Center which is where WWE Fan Axxess was during WrestleMania Week,” Smiley said. “When we left Fan Axxess, we all took buses from there to Sun Life Stadium. As we were driving by, I was telling all my guys that’s the high school I went to. That’s where I used to have lunch across the street. It was very intriguing and very gratifying to come home [for WrestleMania Week] and witness that.”
Smiley, a 1984 Miami Beach Senior High School grad, trained under Boris and Dean Malenko and South Florida’s Rusty Brooks. Born in Northhampton, England, he grew up in Miami, debuting on the Florida circuit as Black Magic in 1985. Best known for his time in WCW with Ralphus, his manager, Screamin Norman won the WCW Hardcore title twice, the first time to become to the title’s first holder. His signature Big Wiggle a crowd favorite.
Smiley also worked as Lord Norman, and he competed throughout the world, including stints in Japan and Mexico, winning the CMLL title. His demeanor, experiences, knowledge and skill set make him good at what he does.
“I loved [traveling the world],” he said. “The art of sports entertainment goes much deeper than a lot of people imagine. Having the luxury of working out with the same guys who you have a match with is one thing, but then when you consider that you might have to go to Korea or Africa or Japan or Mexico and perform with somebody who you’ve never met, doesn’t speak your language, his style is totally different, the psychology is totally different, that’s when you know that you’re beginning to learn this art.
“A lot of the public says it’s acting, but it’s not acting. It’s reacting. So you have to be in a situation that something happens in the ring, and you’re reacting to your opponents. It’s a fascinating art.
“Many, many students that I have came from different walks of life -- playing in the NBA, NFL, MMA. There’s not one person in the close to six years that I’ve been here -- way over 1,000 students -- who have ever said what we do [pro wrestling/sports entertainment] is easy. Not one. They all say it’s difficult, extremely hard.
“There are so many different elements one has to consider when performing. It is acting? Yes, to a certain degree, because you have to be aware of camera angles, but it is so much more that that. Regardless of what determines their success or not, they all walk away with a newfound respect for what we do here in WWE.”
Smiley also wrestled for Mexico’s AAA, ECW, NWA and TNA. He returned to South Florida in the mid 2000s with Four Star Championship Wrestling under the guidance of Rusty Brooks. While there, Smiley helped Antonio Banks, who later became MVP in WWE, and Ryan O’Reilly, who is currently Conor O’Brian of the Ascension in WWE NXT.
“MVP was driven, and he achieved so much more than I thought he could ever do,” Smiley said, “Conor O’Brian, right now, he’s on the right track. In 2006, I took him with me on a wrestling tour in Korea.”
This is O’Brian’s second tenure with WWE developmental.
“He’s now got a newfound hunger, and he’s driven, and what a character,” Smiley said. “When his character gets up and off the ground, it’s extremely entertaining. It’s one of those personas that as soon as his music plays, until the second he goes back, it’s captivating to watch.”
Smiley, 48, has accomplished plenty inside the ring and out.
“It’s been a tremendous ride over the course of the past 27 years,” he said. “I broke in here [Miami], originally the company was Championship Wrestling from Florida, which had the great [announcer] Gordon Solie and the great legends like Dusty Rhodes and Blackjack Mulligan. It’s just so ironic that 27 years later I find myself in a position that I’m able to give back, not only give back to the talent that we see on TV on SmackDown and Raw, but training legends’ kids -- Ric Flair [Charlotte], Jimmy Snuka [Tamina], Haku [Camacho], Carlos Colon [Primo], Ricky Steamboat [Richie]. So I’m truly, truly Blessed. I feel extremely lucky.”
• Interview etc.
Norman Smiley reflects on Florida wrestling, South Florida home and the WrestleMania extravaganza.
“I recall doing TV matches at 106 North Albany [Tampa] on a Wednesday morning with the filming starting at 10 a.m., and they had fans out there. They were out there early, and they were loyal. You’re talking maybe 40, 50 people.
“To go from that to what I witnessed last year at WrestleMania in Miami was incredible. My brother, Shaun, went to WrestleMania. He said to me, like I didn’t know, ‘Did you know that’s the most people they’ve ever had in Sun Life Stadium?’ I said, ‘Shaun, you don’t realize how big this is. It’s huge.’
“Fan Axxess, the Hall of Fame, Raw the next night after WrestleMania, you’re talking a couple hundred thousand people for the week. It’s unbelievable.”
Smiley walked around Fan Axxess at the Miami Beach Convention Center, which is the old stomping grounds for Championship Wrestling from Florida.
“To be at Fax Axxess and walk around, and you hear all these different languages. There’s people from Europe, Africa, Japan, and it’s still thrilling to me that some recognize who I am,” Smiley chuckled.
Growing up in Miami, Smiley dreamed of competing one day at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
“That’s where I grew up watching Dusty Rhodes and Barry Windham and Sweet Brown Sugar,” he said. “That was my Madison Square Garden or the Meadowlands or the Dallas Sportatorium. When I talk with other superstars now and they tell me about their childhoods and they discuss certain buildings and what it was like to walk through those hallways, I get it because the Miami Beach Convention Center -- Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston and all these great shows.
“I went to Miami Beach High School which was right across the street from the Miami Beach Convention Center. I can literally stand in the school parking lot and throw a rock and hit the convention center. So every Wednesday night as a kid, loyally, I was there for years.”
The Miami Beach Convention Center hosted Championship Wrestling from Florida each Wednesday night.
“We’d hang out in the back afterward, waiting for Dusty Rhodes or Ric Flair to leave the building, maybe to shake their hand or take a picture or get an autograph. Life has come full circle, because Dusty Rhodes and myself now share an office together.”
• Full circle again
Smiley also recalls high school helping educate him on pro wrestling in Apter 101.
“I was in 12th grade in a government class, and I sat in the back of the class because I had an ‘Inside Wrestling’ magazine inside my government book.”
Inside Wrestling, one of the Apter Mags, nicknamed for legendary pro wrestling journalist and photographer Bill Apter.
“So I’m reading this thing from cover to cover, and at that time they used to give wrestling results from different countries all over the world. I remember there was a match they gave the result. It was [WWE Hall of Famer] Mil Mascaras, who’s an idol of mine and happens to be Alberto Del Rio’s uncle, versus Sweet Brown Sugar. I was a huge fan of his, too. I’m sitting in the class thinking how that match went.”
Fantasy turns to reality.
“It seemed like in a blink of an eye I’m in Tokyo, Japan wrestling, and I look across the ring, and it’s Mil Mascaras. That gave me goose-bumps. I was there with Tenryu and also Ultimo Dragon in a tag match. I actually got in the ring with Mil Mascaras in Tokyo, Japan, and that’s when I realized anything can happen.”
• Smiley is in New York/New Jersey for WrestleMania Week.
For information on the event and more, visit http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania.