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NXT Takeover: Toronto
Rich Swann v Kona Reeves during NXT Takeover:Toronto at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada. The event will be produced by WWE, featuring the NXT brand, and streamed live on the WWE Network. Vaughn Ridley for ESPN

WWE’s Rich Swann is changing the way that we look at diversity in professional wrestling

The Baltimore native is near the top after beating tragedy and working to get on the top rope

On the evening of Nov. 29, 2016, Rich Swann was almost three seconds away from losing it all. It was the premiere of WWE 205 Live for the cruiserweight division, and Swann had to face off against the Brian Kendrick for the championship title, someone whom Swann had looked up to for years.

Blow by blow and slam by slam, the two wrestlers clashed viciously throughout the bout, moving the crowd with hard-hitting spin kicks and backflips. At one point, Kendrick had Swann pinned and on the verge of keeping his reign alive. But everything that Swann’s been through in his life prevented him from quitting in only three seconds, and he shocked the world by kicking out. Three Swann kicks to the face and a pin later, Swann was the WWE cruiserweight champion.

The 25-year-old Baltimore native made a statement that night for himself, proving that he had what it takes to be a WWE champion. But it also symbolized the wrestler’s perseverance through many obstacles in his life to give him the skills, experience, and swagger to be just that. The story of his emergence is dim and dark, but fuels the fire that burns through his electrifying performances in and out of the ring. In many ways, Swann is changing the way that we look at diversity in professional wrestling.

Swann is no longer the reigning WWE cruiserweight champion, after losing the title to Neville at Royal Rumble in January and a rematch earlier this month, but Swann is and will be one of the top competitors in his division.

‘What is this? I need more’

It all started in 1996 in a small house in Baltimore. Swann was 5 years old and had no clue about the WWE. He was mainly preoccupied with Power Rangers until one day his older brother Robert changed his life with the flip of a TV channel. “My brother said, ‘No, Monday Night Raw is on USA Network … Give me the remote,’ ” said Swann. “He flips the switch, and out comes the heavyweight champion Bret Hart. The lights, the electric guitar, the jacket, the fireworks, everything! He’s just talking smack on the mic, and I’m like … what is this? I need more.”

That day sparked Swann’s interest in the world of professional wrestling, and one moment with his brother and the TV remote was soon transformed into a deep love for the sport. He watched classic cruiserweights such as Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero wrestle and dominate their bouts long before he would take strides to the ring, making an impact like he would hope to do one day. His interest in the sport took him to live matches by the Maryland Championship Wrestling (a league that he would soon compete in himself), watching local legends such as his idol Adam Flash ignite the crowd as the league’s former three-time Maryland Championship Wrestling (MCW) heavyweight champion.

It would take more than inspiration for him to climb the ranks of wrestling stardom; perseverance was the key factor he needed to survive. Living in Baltimore wasn’t easy for Swann. His father was stabbed to death by his girlfriend when Swann was 12. His mother was fighting lupus. They frequently moved around the Baltimore area, from Security Boulevard in Baltimore County to East Biddle Street in the city, and the moves were disruptive for Swann and his older brother when they were kids. At one point, Swann moved to Arizona with family for a couple of months after his mother had a nervous breakdown. Swann’s older brother moved out of the house when he was old enough, leaving his younger brother with their mother.

Wrestling takes him on different journey

Swann’s interest in pro wrestling was growing, and along his journey would be a promotion where he would truly flourish. It was Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), one of the most recognized hardcore indie wrestling promotions in the world, known for teaching many current indie and WWE wrestlers, including Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose. Swann wrestled in MCW before training in the CZW, but his time there would become a foundation for what was to come next. When he met one of his earliest mentors, current CZW owner D.J. Hyde, his life changed forever.

“Rich was 15 or 16 years old. He was a kid, and he was wrestling [in] the show in jeans and sneakers,” Hyde told The Undefeated. “He was pretty much the guy you see today, he really hasn’t changed as a person.” Hyde wasn’t the owner of the CZW at the time, but knew that the league’s academy would help Swann polish his skills and help him become an elite force in the indie scene. Swann already had a foundation that he wanted to build on when it came to his wrestling style. The images of Rey Mysterio’s 619 is a connection to Swann’s aerial dropkicks to the face, even to this day.

“Rich [at that age] had a base foundation, he kind of knew what he was doing a little bit,” said the CZW owner. “He could take falls and perform maneuvers, but he didn’t really understand a lot of things … and then he started showing up.”

Rich Swann vs. Kona Reeves during NXT Takeover:Toronto at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Vaughn Ridley for ESPN

The room for improvement was all that Swann needed to start training at the CZW Academy, first starting weeks before moving to York, Pennsylvania, and continuing while he lived there. He even slept on wrestler Sami Callihan’s couch for a while, according to Hyde. During his lessons in the ring, Swann learned how to put his moves together cohesively with lessons from CZW legends willing to give the younger trainee a hand. One of his first teachers was his local hero Flash, and other veterans such as Ray Alexander and Darren Wyse gave Swann the tips he needed to succeed, and by 2008, he was soon thrown into CZW events in different ways.

“Rich wanted it,” said Hyde. “He learned from so many guys … [and] he has a charisma that not lot of people have, and it comes natural to him. He was a singles competitor for a while, [and] he was a part of a tag team here and there. He did whatever he needed to do and he was still a young guy.”

Wrestling with demons

Swann’s victorious run in the independent wrestling was just beginning, but the most important person in his life would not live to see his progression at his peak, the day he held the purple belt as a WWE Cruiserweight Champion. His mother Rochelle had lost her fight with lupus when he was 16, and that’s when things took a turn for the worst. The death of his mother was yet another loss to face, and Swann turned to new things to cope with his sorrow. Swann’s teen years introduced him to new friends, and new ones weren’t always good ones.

“At that time, I got into things that I shouldn’t have. I was doing things that I shouldn’t of been doing,” the WWE star told The Undefeated. “When somebody grows up, they get to 15 years old, they think they’re invincible, especially when you don’t have anybody to guide you. You think, ‘I’m an adult. I can do these things and there’s gonna be no consequences.’ Well, there were, and they smacked me.”

Swann left wrestling behind and drifted into something he was introduced to when he was 5. During his guest appearance on The Art of Wrestling With Colt Cabana in 2014, the wrestler opened up about the time he was introduced to a local chapter of the Bloods gang; he was a lookout kid and was very close to joining but decided not to. Swann also used drugs to cope with the pain of losing his mother, specifically cocaine, he said during another appearance on The Kevin Steen Show that same year. However, he stopped doing cocaine after his dealer, who introduced him to the drug, died of a heart attack.

“One of these dudes was like 18 or something like that, he was a drug dealer and he had cocaine … He was like, ‘Yo, try this’ and I was, like, ‘F— it. My life is already f—— up, why not try it?’ Boom, I did it and it made me feel like Superman and I was like an angry person,” said Swann on the show.

“I was, like, a really aggressive person, and the thing is, once you get your first taste of it, it’s like, ‘I gotta do it, I gotta do it,’ ” said Swann.

Steen asked Swann how he got out of the drug game.

“The same person that gave it to me … had a heart attack, and it was from that. So I was like, no, never again.”

York was a refuge

With so much death and sorrow, Swann had to make a change. He used his mother as the main source of motivation, and wrestling as the main focus. “My mother had passed away [when] I had started training,” said Swann. “She never actually got to see me wrestle, but I used that as drive to get to where I’m at today.” He was always known as a WWE and WCW fan while attending York County School of Technology, and his reputation as a professional wrestler at the school began to spread. However, it also made pro wrestling the only sport Swann could focus on. At the age of 15, he was ineligible to participate in any high school sport. “I wanted to play football and basketball, but they wouldn’t let me because, at the time, I was a paid athlete,” Swann told The Undefeated. “I had a couple of professional wrestling matches in New Jersey, so the state commission of Pennsylvania wouldn’t let me play.”

Although Swann couldn’t take on another sport, it wouldn’t stop him from showing his skills to his school. With his high school and the state commission aware of his professional wrestling career, Swann was given the opportunity to wrestle in a bout at his school, which would legitimize a moment he would never forget. “There were like 30,000 people packed in that auditorium, and I would never forget it, that was an awesome feeling.”

Even with the obstacles that were present in his life as well as the inner demons he had to battle throughout his journey, Swann’s motivation would help him dominate the independent pro wrestling scene. He had an electrifying way of entering the ring, with Lionel Richie’s hit single “All Night Long” playing while he hit a Zandig pose dedicated to the CZW’s founder. Once the bell rang, Swann’s athleticism would be a problem for his opponents, supplying speed and strength to pull off incredible body slams and kick flips.

He won Open the Triangle Gate and Open the Owarai Gate tournaments in Dragon Gate, won the FIP World Heavyweight Championship Belt twice and was also a Full Impact Champion. By 2011, Swann had become one of the most talked-about wrestlers in the independent scene. His success as a professional wrestler internationally eventually caught the attention of former WWE heavyweight champion Mark Henry and rapper Wale.

“Independent wrestling has taken me to a path that I wouldn’t change for anything,” said Swann. “It has brought me to the WWE, and brought me to be able to be brought onto 205 Live.” Once he was recognized in the WWE, Swann made noise in the NXT, the WWE’s developmental league, before entering the cruiserweight championships in 2016.

The sky’s the limit

With all of the obstacles and tragedies in his past, Swann was not only able to persevere and become a champion, but his story and timing of winning the cruiserweight title was important to his journey and diversity in the WWE. His legacy has already made a crucial impact on both fans and mentors who continue to watch his emergence in the sports entertainment league, even those who live just 45 minutes away from the city he used to live in.

“To see a guy rise up to adversity like that and to actually overcome it and make it to the grand stage … That speaks volumes to me,” said Kaz King, a fan of Swann who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland. “That makes me feel like I can do something like that [as] just a fan. I’m sure Rich Swann grew up as a fan, as most wrestlers do.”

In December 2016, Swann was the Cruiserweight Champion, Sasha Banks was the Raw Women’s Champion, and The New Day still were the WWE Tag Team champions. It was rare that three championship titles were held by people of color, and they solidified it with a photo of them together on Twitter. It was an uncommon display of diversity in the WWE’s championship legacy and inspired more than those who wanted to wrestle. “They were able to get past all of that [adversity] in the WWE and have their success, and for them to put it on display like that, mad respect to them,” said King, “As a fan who grew up to watch other people shine (you got your Hulk Hogans, your Shawn Michaels, your CM Punks), but you never see a real African-American reach the level of WWE Champion.”

Swann was very proud to drop the photo on Twitter that day. “That picture was a picture to show black youth, white youth, Latino youth, to show all cultures and all races around the world, no matter what you are, who you are, you can do anything and make anything of yourself and the best version of yourself.”

With Swann already making noise in 205 Live, he has already reached heights he only dreamed of, but the drive to make his mother proud continues to push him, no matter what the situation was in the past.“That’s what I feel has got me here, not only my talent,” said the wrestler. “You gotta take those lessons you’ve learned in life, and be the best of your opportunity.” As his journey continues in the WWE, there’s a lot of anticipation about his success from both fans and mentors. “I look forward to seeing his progression to climb higher heights,” said King. “If he goes to Raw or Smackdown and gains success, winning the United States, the Intercontinental Championship, the field could be very different at the top. There’s a lot of success and a lot of setbacks.”

For Hyde, he has seen the progress from Swann’s earlier years until now.

“As far as how he’s going to do at the WWE, there is no glass ceiling for him there,” said Hyde. “I think when Rich gets a little more seasoned there, he could be one of the biggest stars in wrestling ever. He has the charisma, he has the ability, he has the talent … They’re just going to have to let Rich be Rich and let him go, and once they do, I think the sky’s the limit.”

Vance Brinkley is a young writer based in Washington, DC. He loves playing lacrosse, watching indie films, and listening to music from Project Pat to Toro Y Moi.