In pro wrestling vernacular, it’s known as a “babyface turn” — that moment when a bad guy, or “heel,” sees the light, turns over a new leaf and is embraced by the fans.
After losing a June 10 match in Florida for an independent wrestling outfit known as Evolve, a frustrated Tony Nese grabbed the house microphone and made his intentions clear. His days as a rule-breaking villain were “done with.”
“But Tony Nese is still here. And I know one thing that can turn my career around. . . . You see, there’s a little thing coming up called the WWE Cruiserweight Classic,” Nese, of Ridge, told the crowd of a few hundred fans inside the Orpheum in Ybor City, Florida.
He threw his hat into a six-man elimination match the next night in which the winner would earn a spot in the prestigious tournament. “I’m not asking for an opportunity,” Nese said. “I’m taking my opportunity.”
The next night, after executing his signature finishing move — a 450-degree flipping splash off the top rope — Nese, 30, had earned his way in. Of course, like so much in the theatrical world of pro wrestling, Nese’s victory was predetermined. But little else about the circumstances behind his big break could have been predicted.
Known to fans as “The Premier Athlete,” Nese is one of 32 pro wrestlers selected for the WWE Cruiserweight Classic — a first-of-its-kind showcase of some of the most athletic wrestling performers from around the globe. Wrestlers will “compete” in the single-elimination tournament for the title of WWE’s first Cruiserweight Classic Champion.
The 10-week tournament, which kicked off last month in WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando, began airing on July 13 and is carried each Wednesday on the WWE Network, a streaming service with about 1.2 million subscribers across more than 175 countries. It will culminate with a live, two-hour finale on Sept. 14, when a winner will be crowned.
Although no promises have been made, the tournament is widely looked upon as an “American Idol”-esque proving ground for young wrestlers looking to get their foot in the largest pro wrestling organization on the planet. For Nese, it’s the culmination of a journey he began as a teenage WWE fan.
“The ultimate goal for anyone in sports entertainment is to make it to the big leagues . . . and eventually be at WrestleMania one day,” Nese said, referring to WWE’s biggest event of the year. “This is finally a way to get in front of anyone and everyone that you can possibly get in front of in WWE.”
‘He just picked it up’
Nese, who holds down a day job as a personal trainer at Life Time Athletic in Syosset, began his wrestling training when he was 17. The Longwood High School student would regularly drive 45 miles each way to train in a dilapidated aluminum shed in a Hicksville strip mall that had been converted into a wrestling school.
The training center eventually moved to a space in Deer Park and became the New York Wrestling Connection — an “indie,” as independent wrestling groups are known, featuring ’90s wrestling star Mikey Whipwreck as its head trainer.
“I met him at a show one time, and then he came down to start training,” Whipwreck recalled. “He was still skinny. But he just picked it up. We’d walk through stuff two or three times, and he had it down.”
Whipwreck, 43, said he noticed Nese’s “natural cockiness” right away, but decided to slowly groom him before letting him have his first match on a Wrestling Connection show in 2005.
“I really made him wait, and to this day, he appreciates it,” Whipwreck added. “I think it made him work harder to get where he’s at, because he felt like he needed to earn it.”
Over the next several years, Nese developed his wrestling skill, and his impressive physique, and carved out a reputation as one to watch on the Northeast independent scene. Some smaller breaks came along, including national television exposure and a contract offer in 2011 from Total Nonstop Action Wrestling — then the second-largest such company in the United States — and a 2013 tour of Japan with Kobe-based Dragon Gate group.
Whipwreck said that while Nese was a natural when it came to the physical side of pro wrestling, he struggled at first with the showmanship aspect. But Nese eventually threw himself into the character of the brash and big-headed “Premier Athlete” — going as far as dressing like a gladiator and riding a horse to the ring for a match.
When Whipwreck retired from teaching young wannabes at New York Wrestling Connection in 2011, he tapped Nese to take over as the school’s head trainer.
“He’s definitely hard on his students,” trainee Alvin Alvarez, 31, of Coram, said of Nese, who is known to drill routine moves, like hurling an opponent toward the ropes, over and over again until it looks just right. “He demands respect. He demands the correct way of doing things. He still lives by that ethic, for his students and himself.”
But for all his smaller successes, the big prize still eluded the “premier athlete” — an opportunity to work for WWE. While other New York Wrestling Connection alums had made it to the big stage, including Merrick native Zack Ryder, Nese was yet to get the call. Because WWE historically favors big men, Nese’s 5-foot-8-inch frame always presented a challenge. Entering his 30s presented another one.
“There’s been times that he didn’t think it was going to go anywhere,” Nese’s wife, Elizabeth, 30, said through tears. “And I’d just tell him, ‘Don’t give up. It’s going to happen.’ I just want this to all happen for him so badly. I know this is his dream. And he works so hard for it.”
After marrying his high school sweetheart in 2012, and having a daughter, Lucy, two years ago, Nese began struggling with the demands of providing for his family, while also wanting to spend less time away from them. He became more selective of the wrestling jobs he accepted, focusing on the New York Wrestling Connection and Evolve, a Philadelphia-based promotion that created some national buzz for its fast-paced, high-flying style.
In 2015, as the WWE looked for new content for its upstart streaming service and young prospects to flesh out NXT, its minor-league feeder system, the company struck up a working relationship with Evolve. When WWE came up with a plan to showcase the world’s best high-flying wrestlers under 205 pounds in a tournament, it looked to Evolve to help fill the brackets. By then, Nese had already long been bending the ear of WWE scout and veteran wrestler William Regal at Evolve events.
“These are all things that, even a year ago, you’d think would never happen,” said Evolve promoter and co-founder Gabe Sapolsky. “WWE has a very progressive mindset right now, and they definitely have an eye toward the future of our industry. It’s a real exciting time for a guy like Tony to get this opportunity in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic and to get this stage.”
Nese was among the last entrants announced for the tournament, which features recognizable WWE veterans like Yoshihiro Tajiri and Brian Kendrick, as well as international sensations like Japan’s Kota Ibushi and England’s Zack Sabre Jr.
WWE executive vice president Paul Levesque, better known to fans by his wrestling name, Triple-H, said in a statement that the company “scoured the globe to find 32 of the best cruiserweights to compete in this inaugural tournament.
“These performers will be given an unprecedented opportunity to showcase their elite athleticism and unbridled passion across WWE’s global platforms,” Levesque added.
In WWE.com’s official bio for Nese, the company contends he “may just be one of the favorites to win it all . . . and we’re sure he agrees.” But, for all the “natural cockiness” that Whipwreck noticed in him 12 years ago, even Nese is humbled by the opportunity ahead.
“When we finally got to kind of see this unfold, you started to feel the vibe that, wow, this is much bigger than one tournament,” Nese said. “This is going to be a game changer in the WWE. It’s definitely going to change a number of lives.”