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WWE's NXT big thing - from Lancashire
Stu Bennett - better known as World Wrestling Entertainment’s Wade Barrett - talks about his Lancashire roots, how he went from working in a science lab to grappling with some of the biggest names in sports entertainment and his excitement at potentially becoming the first British WWE champion.
WHEN he was a schoolboy Stu Bennett had a huge poster of his wrestling idol ‘The British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith on his wall.
Every week, like many of his classmates, he was glued to the TV screen watching the Wigan-born star battle it out with other larger-than-life American wrestlers.
Now Stu, who spent his early years in Preston, looks set to go one better than his childhood hero and become the first British wrestler to win the coveted WWE championship.
While pro wrestling has long been accepted as being sports entertainment - with wrestlers’ characters involved in scripted storylines and matches - championships still mean you are at the top of the industry.
Stu’s alter-ego bad guy Wade Barrett - “He's an extension of my dark side” says Stu - will compete for the title against current champion Randy Orton later this month.
Ten days later the WWE will begin a UK tour, including two shows at the MEN Arena.
“Coming back as the first British champion would be a huge event,” says Stu.
“When we were in the UK earlier this year I told the crowd I was guaranteeing them one day I would become the first ever British WWE champion and I still stand by that.
“It's going to be a huge deal if I do get to win the title and bring it back home.”
The 6ft 6inch grappler, who weighs in at more than 18 stone and now lives in Tampa, Florida, has come a long way from his Lancashire roots – and his original career plans.
He was born in Penwortham and lived in Preston until he was six when he moved to Wales with his parents and older brother. But the rest of his family are from Preston.
He said: “They are all Preston North End fans and I’m a Preston North End fan.
"I also went to Ewood Park a couple of times with my grandfather when I was younger as he's a big Blackburn Rovers fan.
“I’ve spent a fair bit of time visiting family and stuff over the years and I have obviously kept in touch with the area.
"But it’s really difficult now that I’m in the States and I’m lucky if I get to go back once a year for a week or so.
“Hopefully I’ll get a bit of time to see some people during the November tour and say my hellos before we fly back off to the states.”
Stu's also looking forward to catching up with something else he has missed in his three years in the States.
“People always talk about how the UK has terrible food and that American food is the best in the world,” he says.
“But the weird thing is the food out here (in the US) tastes completely different.
“More than anything I definitely miss the food over in England.
"While I’m in the North I’ll be getting myself a nice meat and potato pie which is something I really enjoy eating over there.”
Despite his love of pies, he says he was “a bit of a beanpole” as a youngster and, although he was “the tallest kid in the class”, that he only began to fill out after deciding to become a professional wrestler at the age of 20.
His first job, having gained a degree in marine biology, was in a science lab “working on medical kits to diagnose diabetes and things like that” and he later worked in recruitment.
But he says: “It really wasn’t for me. A lot of people had grown out of wrestling and moved onto the next thing but I had kept watching.
"Literally from the day I first watched wrestling as a nine-year-old boy it brought out emotions in me that nothing else I had ever seen had.
"It lit a passion in me that day that remains to this day.
“It's very difficult for me to say that there’s one thing I love about it - whether it’s the performance or the showbiz - I can’t.
"I just love engrossing myself in the whole world of sports entertainment.
“But, while at university, I decided I wanted to become a wrestler.
"At that point I was pretty skinny so I needed to beef myself up a bit.
"I started working out and hitting the gym while I was doing my studies”.
Then, while working in the lab, he began to wrestle part time, joined a wrestling school and hit the independent circuits in the UK with Dropkixx Promotions and later All Star Wrestling.
“I think my friends and family thought it was a bit of a joke at first,” he laughs. “They knew that I was a huge fan as it was something I talked about all the time.
“But to suddenly go from what I’d done in the past - from being very academic – to doing something like sports entertainment and going off and wrestling, they found very bizarre.
“A lot of people probably thought it was just a phase I was going through. And there were people who said “You’ll never make it!”.
“But my parents certainly never told me that it was the wrong decision.
“I’m not sure how many people genuinely thought I would ever get as far as WWE but I’m pleased to say I did and obviously I’m having a great time there now.”
Stu was signed to the company - which screens shows in 30 languages to more than 145 countries - in April 2007.
He said: “WWE were doing a tour of the UK and they gave me a call for a try out. They gave Drew McIntyre, Sheamus and a few others a call as well.
“I wrestled Drew and then later on that day I wrestled Sheamus.
"This was before the crowd showed up so we were basically wrestling in a ring in an empty arena with all the WWE superstars stood around watching us.
“It was pretty nerve-racking to be honest with you - especially when you are just a local independent wrestler - having all these big American stars watching you like the Undertaker and people like that.
“But then later that day we got the call to go to the boss's office and he offered us a developmental deal which involved moving to the States and working in their developmental territory - Florida Championship Wrestling - which allows younger or newer wrestlers to progress and puts them on global TV.”
And so Wade Barrett - named in part after former Preston rugby player and member of Lancashire Constabulary Wade Dooley - was born.
The character was created during Stu's time in the developmental school with help from WWE Hall of Famer and trainer Dusty Rhodes.
Stu said: “I think Wade Barrett is just an extension of my dark side. He's the side of me I tend to keep hidden from the public.
"There's the nice side that I show the public and then there's a dark side and Wade Barrett is just me expressing the dark side.”
Wade's TV debut was on the first season of NXT this February which began what Stu describes as a “pretty crazy year.”
The premise of NXT was that it was a reality TV show where eight 'rookies' were paired up with a WWE pro and competed with each other for 15 weeks to try and win a contract with WWE.
Ultimately Wade Barrett won but then formed renegade group The Nexus with the other rookies to take over WWE.
Since then the Brit has had a meteoric rise to stardom which included main-eventing SummerSlam, one of WWE’s biggest Pay Per View events,opposite another of his heroes, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart.
“I got to wrestle Bret as part of a seven-on-seven match at SummerSlam,” he says.
“To work with Bret and to wrestle him really hit home how far I’ve come with my career.
“To get to stand in a ring with a guy who I'd idolised as a small kid was huge. When I was 11 and 12 years old he was WWE champion and was the guy I was cheering for - that really was an amazing moment for me.”
Another amazing moment came last Sunday when he became one of a very small number of wrestlers to kick out of top star John Cena's finishing move The Attitude Adjustment.
There were even resounding cheers of “Let's go Barrett” from the crowd.
“It felt pretty strange actually hearing the Let's Go Barrett chants,” he laughs. “I'm not used to people actually supporting me.
“I'm not sure if they wanted to support me or they were just anti-John Cena for some reason.
"There was definitely a small section who were very vocal in cheering me which was very, very peculiar and I'm not quite used to that.”
But will the UK fans be cheering for Wade Barrett next month?
“It's going to be interesting,” he says. “I know historically the UK fans have always tended to cheer for the guys from the UK.
“When William Regal comes over to the UK he's like a big fan favourite - which is ridiculous really when you consider how much the American fans boo him.
“I'm not sure if I'm going to be cheered or booed or what - but I'm looking forward to seeing how they respond.”
Whether he will be sporting the championship gold by then remains to be seen but Stu certainly has a lot more that he hopes to achieve in the ring.
“I'm still improving as a wrestler and as a performer,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in developmental working with guys who were a lot less experienced than me.
"I'm at the point now where I'm working with guys like Randy Orton, John Cena, Edge and Chris Jericho - who are obviously veterans at what they do and the best in the world - so it's really quite a learning curve for me.
“I really feel I'm growing as a performer at the moment so I want to continue in that vein.
"Obviously I've got my sights very much focussed on the WWE title so I'm looking to get success there.
“As for Stu Bennet, well he doesn't get much time to himself these days – it's very much Wade Barrett at the moment.”
* WWE's Raw comes to the MEN Arena on November 8, Smackdown is there on November 9.