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WWE superstar Big E on wrestling the past year: ‘This has been the most turbulent time of my life’

The Money in the Bank winner talks being a ‘first,’ post-George Floyd, COVID-19 and his most embarrassing moment

There were many positive things to come out the last year-plus of wrestling for WWE superstar Big E. After six years as a member of The New Day, an all-Black trio that became one of the most popular acts in the company, Big E (real name Ettore Ewen) broke out on his own as a singles competitor, complete with new theme music from Washington rapper Wale. In July, Big E became the first Black wrestler to win the Money in the Bank ladder match, which in “kayfabe” (wrestling parlance for “fake”) means he can cash in a contract at any moment to challenge for the world championship, but in non-kayfabe, means the company likely plans to make him a future world champion. (Of the 21 winners of the Money in the Bank ladder match dating to 2006, only four, or 19%, have failed to win the world championship after cashing in.)

For any performer in this business, this is the apex.

But mixed in with all those triumphs were just as many tribulations. The New Day, which also includes Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods, has spoken for years about never wanting to break up, and all three still appear to be reeling from the behind-the-scenes decision. And months before the breakup in October 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought the world – and the WWE traveling schedule – to a complete halt, followed by months of anti-racism protests following the police killing of George Floyd. By the end of 2020, one of Big E’s closest friends in professional wrestling died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which causes scar tissue to form in the lungs.

As a Black wrestler, Big E has had to bear the weight of not only trying to make sense of yet another senseless killing of a Black person at the hands of the police, but also being the Black wrestler.

Big E, who does not have a scheduled match at Saturday’s SummerSlam event but could, in theory, cash in the Money in the Bank contract, spoke with The Undefeated about being a “first” in wrestling, how meditation helped him in dealing with the pandemic and the period after Floyd’s murder, and his most embarrassing moment as a wrestler.

In July, you won the Money in the Bank ladder match, making you the first Black wrestler to ever win the briefcase. What type of joy and/or pressure comes from being the first in your profession to do something?

I don’t know if pressure is the right word. For me, I don’t look at it as that. I just am going to continue to stay the course of what I’ve been doing as far as my preparation and how I see my job. But it is a great honor for me. I’ve taken a lot of pride, especially as of late, of being a Black wrestler and looking at this beautiful, burgeoning community of Black wrestlers in WWE and outside. I just feel like it’s a really good time to be a Black wrestler and to be a fan of Black wrestling right now. I’m honored. In many ways I hope that my journey and the journey of The New Day allows the next performer of color to have a bit of an easier path to be themselves, or to portray a character that feels a little bit outside of the box or that isn’t in that typical lane that people want to put you in when they see you a certain way. I’m glad to be holding that mantle right now.

Kofi Kingston won the WWE championship a couple years ago and became the fourth Black world champion ever. With you having Money in a Bank, that means there’s a good chance you could be No. 5. What conversations, if any, have you had with other Black wrestlers about what it means to have that championship and be considered one of the top people in the company?

Kofi’s not the type to sit down and tell you, ‘This is how you should handle things,’ but he’s the guy who just leads by example. And seeing the way he carries himself, seeing him the night after becoming champion, seeing him not sleep at all, do a whole round of media, and then add it to Raw … the amount of work that was on him without ever complaining – he’s just such a consummate professional. But it’s actually funny. One of the things I was talking about to [wrestling journalist] Andreas Hale, one of my really good friends and someone I worked on Our Heroes Rock!, he’s done a lot with wrestling stereotypes in his panel. And I kept telling him, ‘Man, I would love to one day very soon just have, I don’t know if it’s a get-together, a panel, but I would love to have more of these conversations with Black wrestlers and just be able to talk about our different paths and how we arrived here and how we handled dealing with certain things that non-Black talent might not have to ever encounter or think about.’ Because it’s important to me, and I think establishing those communities I think is really beautiful.

You said how proud you were to be in this position as a Black wrestler. With what’s gone on recently since the murder of George Floyd, how’s it been balancing doing your job and acknowledging what’s going on outside of wherever you’re performing?

I think everything has just made me more in tune. For instance, I’ve been to Tulsa many times, and I’m currently in Tulsa; we have SmackDown here tonight. But I realized I had never stopped at the Black Wall Street memorials, or I’ve never taken the time. I woke up and I worked out and got all my stuff done, but I said, ‘Let me make sure to take some time just to be there, to stand in those areas on those grounds.’ So I just spent a few minutes getting to walk around, and for me, my first feeling post-George Floyd was this feeling of hopelessness in many ways, because when you talk about these larger things, I think, ‘What can I actually do?’

I spent more time learning about systemic racism, learning about housing discrimination, discrimination in employment, redlining, gerrymandering, a lot of the systemic things that have existed and exist now. And these issues, even when you break them down, still feel so massive and hard to tackle. And that’s one of the reasons that we decided, eventually, between the three of us, Andreas Hale, [artist] Jonathan Davenport, myself, to tackle a project like Our Heroes Rock! And so for me, that’s the way that I deal with my feelings and my perspectives post-George Floyd. When I came to the conclusion of me sitting here stewing in anger or sadness is not productive, especially knowing that I have a voice and I have a platform and I have people who watch me and are fans of me, so I should do something with that. Maybe nothing will actually be solved, but I feel like being able to tell the story of Ruby Bridges using animation, using hip-hop, I feel like we’re doing something. And I feel like it’s driving a positive force.

But I feel like I’ve been in this avenue where I’ve learned to entertain people to a certain extent. And I feel like this is my wheelhouse, but if we can use the ability to entertain people, but actually inside of that, stuff that with a real message and with some real heart and actually tell a meaningful story, then in many ways I’m walking in my purpose, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

So the last year wasn’t just that, it was also COVID too. You all went from live shows to the WWE performance center, to the various ThunderDomes, now you’re back traveling again. Mentally, for you, what’s this year-plus been like trying to perform in the middle of all of this?

Typically with the road, I was used to doing four to five shows a week every single week. And sometimes on top of that, you have to go up to [Los Angeles] to shoot something or to record something else. And there are certain months in my career where I’ve looked at the calendar and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be home three days in this whole 30-day block.’

But I think the one benefit of the pandemic was, because it forced me to slow down, it forced me to work on myself. I will beat the drum of meditation all day, because it’s been so impactful for me. But I had a friend put me onto [meditation app] Headspace, and before I wasn’t consistent with it because I always had an excuse. I’d have to wake up at 4 a.m. because of a flight, or I’ve got this thing going on. But when I realized, ‘Hey, you are at home every single day. Even when you have shows, you’re going to make your way back home. You’re going to sleep in your own bed every single night there. There’s no excuse.’

I was meditating every day. I was going on walks just around the neighborhood, just taking more time to be mindful, taking more time to meditate, to be grateful for life, to be grateful for my career and all the things that I’ve been blessed with. So that’s been the biggest thing is I really feel like I have a better perspective. I feel like I’ve grown this last year and a half. But in the same vein, it’s also been hard because … I had a friend, one of my best friends on the earth, who was in the hospital for eight days. He’s my age. He was in the hospital with double pneumonia. I had another one of my really good friends who is a little bit older than me, but not much, who also was in the hospital for more than a week.

Thankfully, I hadn’t really been hit personally by COVID. I was in great health and there were so many benefits to it. But then I also look around and see so many people close to me who are losing their jobs, losing their businesses, have their hours cut, are dealing with just really rough health situations now with battling COVID. And even on top of that, losing one of my best friends on the earth, losing Brodie [former WWE wrestler Jonathan Huber] and seeing him pass in December, it was awful.

This has been the most turbulent time of my life. But, I suppose from all just the loss and grief and pain, I guess I hope there’s something good that comes of all of it, and that’s my hope: trying to find that good.

I didn’t want to make this a downer. So I have a upper for that. This year you probably haven’t been able to do things that you normally had been able to do just because of COVID. Whether it’s work or in life, what’s the thing that you missed the most that you can’t do?

I’m a homebody for the most part. So I’m still at home all the time. There’s some of my friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I have a core group of college friends. There’s four of us that lived in a house together. One lives in South Carolina, one lives in Iowa, one just moved to Cali. So we’re all over the place, but the beautiful thing with being on the road and traveling so much is … it was one stretch where I saw all of them in, like, three months. And I miss those guys, and I think that’s one of the things of feeling connected to friends and family has been harder with COVID. Even being able to go out carefree and enjoy a good brunch or go out and go to a show. Because even now, even being vaccinated, even being cautious, there’s still a part of me that worries, like, ‘Man, is interaction going to lead to someone getting sick, or if I go and hang out with a couple of friends of mine, can I do that guilt-free?’ I miss the days where we could just guiltlessly go out and experience life and be in large groups.

From left to right: WWE wrestlers Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston and Big E at Super Dancer Chapter 3 in Mumbai, India, in 2019.

Milind Shelte/The India Today Group via Getty Images

By the same token, The New Day was split up last year. But you haven’t been on a road, so you haven’t had to go to separate shows due to not being on the same brand. That being said, what’s it been like riding solo for this last year after being a part of a group for the previous six?

Oh, it’s been different. The old model is I would see those guys solely at pay-per-views, and that’s about it. At least the nice part is, because of the Supershows, we’re on different brands, but I’m going to see Kofi and Woods tomorrow. We have a live event in Charlotte, I’ll see them there. I’ll see them the very next day. It’s not the same, it’s virtual, but we record our podcast on Zoom. It hasn’t felt like this massive split where we have no interaction. I realized, man, I really do love those guys. Not that I ever doubted it, but my excitement when I walked into a locker room, it’s very real.

I’m just grateful that we have never had a real butting of heads. It’s been no falling-out. You’d think we’d be sick of each other by now, but we haven’t. So it didn’t feel like this big divorce because things were different anyways. And now with the different structure, and there aren’t separate live events, it doesn’t feel as drastic of a split.

This year you also got new theme music, which was helmed by rapper Wale. How did that come together?

So the very first thing, as soon as I heard that the company wanted solo music for me – as much as I love The New Day music, I love what [former WWE music composer] Jim Johnston did with that – I thought … reach out to Wale. Let me reach out to my friends in hip-hop, who I’ve been a massive fan of for a long time, because I know they’re fans, I know if they have the time and the ability to do it, that they’ll do it. So I’m so glad. As soon as I thought of that, I talked to [WWE Music Group general manager] Neil Lawi and pretty much before I could get it out, I’m pretty sure he suggested, ‘Hey, what you think about getting Wale?’

I got so much love for him because he just does it. Don’t worry about financials, any of that other stuff, he’s just been so supportive of the three of us, of me, of my career. Such an incredible human being, and beyond just being an incredible rapper, he’s such a great dude. And a side of him that I wish more people got to really know. I feel like a lot of people jump to conclusions, but just such a tremendous human.

From time to time, wrestlers have embarrassing moments in the ring. There’s examples of wrestlers pooping themselves, or I heard just a couple of weeks ago, one performer almost lost her top. What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve ever had in the ring?

This one is easy for me. This is 2013. I come out. I’m very much used to coming out alone. So I come out, I’m with Dolph [Ziggler] and [then-WWE wrestler AJ Lee], and my thing was I would come down the ramp and I would just swing my arms to warm up and also to get into that spirit of being intense. My character in 2013, there’s a drastic difference from me now. I remember winding up, and I throw my arms back, thinking for some reason – I didn’t judge the distance well at all, I thought I had enough room – and I know where Dolph is, I see Dolph with my peripheral, and I swing and I ended up hitting something. And in that moment I can’t see what I hit, but I know it’s AJ, it’s obviously AJ. And I think, ‘Oh, my God, I just ruined this before my performance.’ So, I had the tag match the night before WrestleMania, but this was my first singles match. I’m about to wrestle [then-WWE wrestler] Daniel Bryan, one of the greatest of all time; I can’t speak highly enough of him. I’m about to wrestle Daniel Bryan on this really big night, and I expected to turn around and see this poor woman on the ground, blood streaming out of her face, just something that I can never come back from.

There was a moment where someone slowed it down [on the internet], and you could see the look of just absolute terror in my eyes, because the moment I make contact, I know in my mind, I know I have injured this woman, and I know I can’t wrestle this match after that if she’s bleeding and she’s on the ground. I have to go to the back and say, ‘Sorry, thank you for having me here. I appreciate the time in WWE, but it’s clear that we have to move on.’ But thankfully I just hit her in the sternum. And she loves to joke that I broke her sternum. And I turn around and she just giggles it off and we go about our business and we’re all fine. And maybe this is not the conventional wardrobe malfunction or, ‘Hey, I just took a dump in my pants,’ but that to me was wildly embarrassing because it completely took me off track. That moment could have been horrific, but it’s not embarrassing in the conventional sense, but in the moment it was very, very embarrassing.

You’re not going to tell me the truth, but I figured, why not? When are you going to cash in?

You know damn well I can’t tell you that. My hope is that it’s a memorable one. SummerSlam, obviously, is right around the corner, the biggest event of 2021 in WWE, so it’s a big deal. I believe it’s the very first time that an NFL stadium has hosted SummerSlam, so that’s really dope. And that’s a great stage to do it on, but I just can’t be out here giving out – I mean, thanks for trying. I can’t fault you for trying. ‘At 8:27 p.m., yeah, that’s when I’ll do it.‘ So, unfortunately I’ve got nothing for you.

OK, well, since you brought up the stadium, I figure you’re just going to do it there. So I’m just going to tell everybody that.

I mean, you got the power, you got the pen. I can’t do anything about it, but, yeah, we’ll see.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"