NXT’s Hayes rediscovered wrestling just in time to become a superstar

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NXT champion Carmelo Hayes’ childhood hopes of becoming a professional wrestler were almost derailed before they could take hold — all because of a ninth-grade teacher.

Growing up in Framingham, Mass., Hayes was a child of WWE’s early-2000s “Ruthless Aggression” era, with favorites like Edge, Eddy Guerrero, Shawn Michaels and The Rock. By high school, his goals were clear: He was going to be in a WWE ring one day. Sure, his lean body was less than 6 feet tall, but why let that stop h …

“Oh, you’re way too small.”

The words of that teacher sting Hayes even today, more than a dozen years later. “It kind of killed my dreams,” he told the Sentinel this week without a trace of sarcasm. “She said, ‘Yeah, you’ll have to bulk up,’ and I just thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll never get there. You’re probably right.'”

Thankfully, Hayes rediscovered his calling a few years later. This Sunday night, he’ll return to Massachusetts for NXT Battleground in Lowell, defending his championship against Bron Breakker. The event will air live on the Peacock streaming service.

That teenage incident didn’t just stop Hayes’ aspirations, he said it stopped his wrestling fanhood for most of high school. His friends were into other things; he started dating and socializing; and he moved on.

Just after graduation, Hayes said, the New England Pro Wrestling Academy held a one-day seminar/tryout and, on a lark, he and a friend decided to go. The spark was almost immediately rekindled.

“I got in a ring for the first time. The trainers were really impressed. And then I just stuck to it,” said Hayes, now 28. “I took something that was just supposed to be an experience for one day and turned it into my career and my life.”

Hayes has wrestled for the WWE’s Orlando-based NXT brand since June of 2021 and has impressed from the beginning of his tenure, through long runs as the cruiserweight champion, North American titleholder and now as NXT champion. His cool exterior draws attention.

That all-business attitude is no act. In a way, it’s what got Hayes where he is today. He treasures his time training and learning the ropes in Massachusetts, but largely saw it as a means to an end.

“The attitude in the school where I trained was, ‘If you’re not trying to make it, what are you doing here?'” Hayes said. “You look at the lineage of the academy, all the guys that got signed (to wrestling contracts) from there, and it’s a big group. So when I was training it was no nonsense: We’re all trying to get signed, we’re all trying to make it out of here. That’s why I think my approach was a little different. It’s cool, I’ll make friends along the way, but the end goal is the end goal.”

Still, when he returned to the area for media events last week and prepares to wrestle there Sunday, the memories were fresh.

“I just paid a lot of my dues over there,” Hayes said. “Going back it was kind of a rude awakening like, ‘holy crap, I really put in a lot of miles in this town.’ I’m almost glad I didn’t know (what I would become), because it made me work so much harder. I’ve earned a lot of respect, and I’ve earned a lot of fans.”

More fans than ever cheer for Hayes since he became a sympathetic babyface last month after a Breakker attack. He said he’s enjoying the change.

“I’m still learning how to adjust to that, being now considered a babyface,” Hayes said. “It’s a nice little change of pace and change of scenery, in a sense. For so long, I was almost neglecting the fans. You don’t want to do that personally, you want to engage them, but the fact that I get to do that now makes my job a little bit easier.”

Hayes obviously has a bright future; many observers have wondered where that future would take place and whether a move to the WWE’s high-profile Raw or Smackdown brands could happen, but Hayes is just taking it day by day.

“I had a conversation with Shawn (Michaels, the legendary wrestler who is now NXT’s executive producer). A lot of times younger people, like myself, are always looking forward to the next thing, always trying to do this and this and this. And he made a great point: You’re trying to build a roof when you haven’t even laid down the foundation,” Hayes said.

“I’m still laying down these bricks over here, how can I add these windows and these doors when I’m still laying the bottom foundation down here in NXT. So when this foundation is built, I can add the windows. I refuse to think further than what’s in front of me, because that’s going to be there when it’s there.”

jreddick@orlandosentinel.com