While many of his counterparts within the locker room spend thousands of dollars on ring gear that is straight out of a video game or robes that have enough sequins to illuminate an entire arena, Elias keeps it simple with just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt carefully cut to show his well-muscled physique. The only pieces of flare in his wardrobe are a modest scarf draped over his shoulders and an acoustic guitar firmly gripped in his hand.
He looks like a rock star from the 1970s. He looks like his heroes.
Long before the 31-year-old Pittsburgh-native ever discovered he had a knack for wrestling, he discovered a love of classic rock and was getting lost in the wailing guitar of Jimi Hendrix, mind-altering riffs of The Doors, and the unique southern sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd. But above all others, it was Eric Clapton who was king of his musical kingdom. There was just something about blue-eyed soul that clicked with the future WWE 24/7 Champion.
It wasn’t long before Elias’ father recognized that his son had fallen in love with music. So, under the Christmas tree, Elias found a guitar when he was 15 years old, and soon after he was jamming along with the tunes he had come to love. The chords came naturally, and complex rhythms poured from his fingers with ease. This was the birth of Heavy Metal Jesus, the in-ring persona he adopted prior to signing with WWE in 2014.
Music had become a massive part of his life and his library went far deeper than just the hits. His favorite song from Clapton isn’t the ever-popular “Layla” or “Wonderful Tonight.” Instead, it’s “I Want A Little Girl,” a three-minute ditty off the little-known 2001 album Reptile with a sound straight out of a smoky jazz and blues club.
Wrestling has afforded Elias the opportunity to merge his two creative passions and perform in front of audiences that equal those of his rock icons. At WrestleMania 35, he revealed that his musical prowess is not just limited to six strings, as he tickled the 88 ivories of a piano and nailed a drum solo before being interrupted by John Cena. He also can wail on the harmonica, but hasn’t been able to debut that yet on television. And whether he ever does remains a mystery.
It is rare that he ever gets an opportunity to finish a full performance in the ring. Superstars interrupting his jam sessions has become a staple of Monday Night RAW and more recently SmackDown Live. But after two years of frustrations, Elias recently gave what was billed as his farewell performance. Naturally, that too was interrupted.
Like with any good rocker, that final performance is likely to lead to another and perhaps another and even more beyond that. After all, it’s tradition that musicians embark on a farewell tour mid-career and carry it on for decades.
For now, Elias says he’s ready take the next step in his career and evolve his character. He wants to be known as more than just the wrestler with the guitar. He wants to be known as the King of the Ring.
After defeating Kevin Owens in the first round of the 2019 edition of the tournament, with a little help from Shane McMahon, Elias will face Ali in the quarterfinals on Tuesday’s edition of SmackDown Live, emanating from Norfolk, Virginia. If victorious, he will move on to face either Chad Gable or the fast-rising Andrade in the penultimate match of the tournament.
I had the opportunity to catch up with the (former?) rocker recently to talk about some of the other bands that are at the top of his list, the King of the Ring, updating the Elias character, and more.
King of the Ring is something that WWE has been doing for a while. What do you remember about past tournaments?
Around the time that I really got into wrestling, it just so happened that King Mabel was the one, which I know people don’t have too many fond memories of. But that was around the time when I was really just starting my super fandom of wrestling. King Mabel was there, but I can remember the matches really that stood out to me in King of the Ring tournaments over the years, and of course Kurt Angle won or Brock Lesnar won, those are big moments. It’s definitely a very prestigious tournament within the WWE. I’m glad they brought that back.
Does that super fan in you still get excited at the fact that you’re actually in King of the Ring now?
You know what? No. I don’t have many geek-out moments, so to speak. Once I had made the decision to be a WWE superstar, I set my goals very high, and I’m not even anywhere close to accomplishing them. These are little steps I got to take along the way. Being in the King of the Ring and being at WrestleMania, things like that.
What are some of those other goals?
Main event being WrestleMania is the ultimate goal here. If that means winning the Universal Championship, if that means winning the WWE Championship, that’s a part of it. But really staking my claim as the number-one guy in the WWE, in the business as a whole, that everybody can say, WWE is cool and Elias is the guy making it cool.
How do you think winning King of the Ring would compare to some of the other accolades that you’ve already done? You’ve won the 24/7 title already, what four times?
Yeah. I’ve been the 24/7 champ a few times now. … Winning King of the Ring, which I’m about to do, in what is that? About three or four weeks here. It’s going to be a very nice accomplishment to have, and, if anything, I just believe it’s going to sell me on to bigger and better things within the WWE. I have to say this past week on SmackDown, I went up there, I put the crown on, I held the scepter, I had the guitar by my side. That was a hell of a look man. You got to believe that’s a good look, right there. Especially for our Elias. Not everybody can pull that off. That’s what I’m looking forward to in the immediate future.
Your next opponent in King of the Ring is Ali. You guys have two completely different styles. How do you mesh those styles when you have somebody who is so different performance-wise than you in the ring?
You know what? I think the style is actually going to really come together well, because I’m a brawler and more of a power guy. He’s a littler guy, high-flyer. I think it’s going to mix up nice. Now we’ve never been in the ring together, we’ve never touched anything like that. Hey, who knows I was going to go down once it’s time. But yeah, I think myself versus Ali is going to… It might surprise a few people.
It’s an interesting time in wrestling now. NXT is about to have a major national cable presence on Wednesday nights and SmackDown is moving to network TV on Friday nights in October. How do you think your time in NXT would have been different if you were on national television each week? How would it affect your psyche?
I’m going to say there is definitely that extra element added, but the fact is that we’re preforming live every time. Even in NXT, while it may be taped and they show it at another time, all the performance is going down live. For me, when I came from NXT to Monday Night RAW, I felt fully prepared to take on live television, because that was essentially how we treated it in NXT anyways. The fact is now more eyes are going to be on NXT. I just think more people are going to see how good the talent really is across the board.
Do you think that there’s a possibility that we may see some superstars from SmackDown, such as yourself, or RAW, make it a cameo on Wednesday nights now? Is that something that would even interest you?
If an opportunity shows up, I’m always ready to take it. If the story was right then yeah, absolutely, I can see that happening. I mean why not? It’s a ratings-driven business. There are certain stars on RAW and SmackDown that draw ratings. NXT is going to do great, but it wouldn’t hurt to add some help in the mix. I could see a crossover happening absolutely. All on the same network as well.
We’re talking about changes to NXT, but it looks like you’re undergoing some changes as well. You supposedly had your final performance this past week. Is that really it for Elias in the ring with the guitar?
Well, you can never say never. But listen, there comes a time in every wrestler’s career, if you really want to take those next steps, you’re going to have to evolve. You can’t constantly be doing the same thing. While I really do enjoy performing in the ring and all that, there’s going to come a time where I can’t be doing that every single week. Now, as far as that being my farewell performance, I don’t know if I want to say that is my last one, because it was ruined. R-Truth went at me, he messed up all the audio, he messed with my guitar. He tried to win the 24/7 Championship. Is that my farewell? I have to say no. But would there come a time where I have to do that? Quite possibly.
When did you take a shine to music? Was that something that you just always gravitate to as a child?
Not really. I was really into classic rock, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, things like that when I was about 15 and my dad just noticed it and he got me a guitar for Christmas one year. I just started playing. I was very natural picking [it] up. I remember I could almost right off the bat play Eric Clapton songs, and then, as time goes on, I would pick up the piano and I could relate one instrument to the other and keep rhythm with the drums, whatever it may be. It just kind of all evolved over time.
In your opinion, what is Clapton’s all-time greatest song? Are you one of those guys that’ll say “Layla”?
No, I’m not one of those. I do love that song. I love almost everything Eric Clapton does. In fact I’m going to see him soon. But man, there’s a song he’s got called “I Want a Little Girl”, where he’s just jamming on the guitar. It’s on this album, One More Car, One More Rider. To me it’s like the ultimate Eric Clapton song, playing his blues, playing his rock, singing real simple. That’s my song.
Who else? You said The Doors and Hendricks. Who else was your influences growing up?
Bruce Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin. I mean the classic rock bands. AC/DC, of course. Just ones that had good energy and just great lyrics…
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.