From Super League to Superstar

“He looks exceptional, you couldn’t draw this guy.”

William Regal

Luke Menzies is a dude that is easy to hate. With under a year of training he was signed to a developmental contract with the WWE, a goal that some strive for a lifetime to never attain. Trained by pioneer of British wrestling, Marty Jones, the former Super League prop was handpicked by chief talent scout and legendary competitor, William Regal, without ever having an official match. Appearing to be carved out of granite and a good looking cat to boot, there certainly is a lot to hate.

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Predictably, looks can be deceiving, this isn’t a story of overnight success. This is a chapter in a twenty-one-year grind to achieve success. A journey that began at age eight on the rugby fields that are so ubiquitous in his hometown of Liversedge, West Yorkshire.

Menzies isn’t the typical professional athlete that, retiring from their chosen field, sees pro-wrestling as a way to squeeze out an extra few years and make some good money while their body holds up. No. This is a lifelong fan of the genre that, having just been offered a contract to play for Canadian rugby league team, Toronto Wolfpack, took an incredible leap of faith to jump into the world of professional wrestling.

Reflecting on his life-long passion for pro-wrestling, he fondly recalls, at the age of 10, constructing a makeshift ring outside an old-peoples home, using smelly old mattresses, tarpaulin and sets of drawers as turnbuckles.

Growing up in a family where playing rugby was fait accompli, wrestling became a guilty pleasure. “Being from a working class town you are either a tradesman or some kind of sportsman, either rugby or football, that’s pretty much it,” he describes, “so if you go outside of the box it becomes kind of taboo and you get stick for it, so I never really pursued it.”

He courted success from an early age, signing for Super League Salford at age sixteen. Although he would have to wait until nineteen to formally make his Super League debut with Hull Kingston Rovers.

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Unfortunately, an ascendency to the game’s elite did not come. Now twenty-eight with a career that has lasted over a decade across a plethora of clubs, he admits to feeling short-changed; messed around by backroom politics. He feels his progress was curtailed by clubs who took advantage when he wasn’t mature enough to understand. This is in addition to a career on the field which was blighted by numerous injuries.

One year ago, while honeymooning in Mexico, a single tweet was to change the course of his life. The aforementioned William Regal in under 140 characters informed prospective grapplers that they should seek out the services of legendary veteran of World of Sport, Marty Jones. “It just transpired being disillusioned with rugby and thinking I’ve got nothing, what have I got to lose,” he explains. “I’m going to give it a go.” After emailing Jones from Mexico, he flew back on the Friday and was in the ring the following day.

He remembers this session vividly, taking a flat-back bump for the first time. A true student of the game, he’d always appreciated watching Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H, noticing how they were “snappy bumpers”. Jones told him to bump, and he mimicked this style. Jones then called over another experienced wrestler to watch and told him to do it again. Answering in the negative when questioned if he’d ever been in the ring before, he was met with disbelief.

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He explains that Jones has been adamant on teaching him the fundamentals, the psychology that is distinctive to British wrestling; a focus on in-ring storytelling. Between training twice a week at Jones’ academy in Oldham, Squared Circle, he was studiously researching U.K. legends such as Rollerball Rocco, Tony St Claire and Johnny Saint, analysing the way in which they used the old British round system to tell a unique story in each five-minute period.

His learning curve has been quick. Some of this can be attributed directly to his career as a competitive athlete. In rugby league, a contact sport where eighteen stone giants collide with one another at speeds of 20 miles per hour, players are conditioned to ignore pain, persevere through difficulty and not show weakness. These are not ordinary cats. The level of physicality that is a prerequisite for playing rugby at the highest level is something that already sets him apart from fellow wrestlers.

There is nothing in pro-wrestling training that he hasn’t seen during pre-season training, although he likens running the ropes to trying to run in quick sand. While recognising the importance of fitness and the coordination gained from rugby, he explains: “If I wasn’t a fan I wouldn’t have come on as quick – because I enjoy it, I wanted to learn.” Considering the importance of an athletic background, he acknowledges that it is beneficial, but an aptitude for storytelling trumps it. “Marty (Jones) would say ‘why are you doing that?’ you have to give everything a meaning”.

When pondering whether he had carried over any bad habits, “Rugby is very instinctive, your body takes over,” he explains, “in wrestling you have to think more and slow down.” He has been drilled with old-school principles such as: “think you’re going too slow, slow down” and “the more you do the less it means”.

He describes an anecdote, when after three months of training he accompanied Jones to a speaking event that William Regal was delivering in Manchester. After making the introductions, Jones informed Regal that his student was better than the all-time great Dynamite Kid was, after three months. While such high praise certainly does not come easy from someone with an old-school ethos like Jones, Menzies was under no pretences that this is the truth, but explains what an incredible compliment it is.

This view certainly held sway with Regal who invited him to a try-out camp. After only six months, he found himself among some of the U.K.’s elite including, Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate as the WWE scouted for wrestlers who would feature in their inaugural U.K. championships. The camp which took place over three days gave him chance to impress, facing physical trials, a promo test and also evaluation from WWE officials on “if you’re a good human being, that has something about you”.

His first sign that the WWE might have an interest came one afternoon during the camp. After returning to get coffee, Jones informed him that Regal was talking to Triple H about him. Without a chance to take that in or think, “wow, that’s cool”, Triple H walked past, stopping and sticking out his hand, asking “what’s your name kid?”.

Amazingly, without actually having an official match he was offered a developmental deal. Going over to train at the WWE’s Performance Centre in Florida —the state of the art facility where the company’s stars of tomorrow, learn and hone their craft— and spending a week there. As far as he was concerned it was a done deal, the contract was signed and the sizes were taken for his NXT tracksuit.

But, what should have been a fitting end to this chapter of his story was not to be.

His official start date was in May. After putting his house on the market —it was sold within a week all of his possessions were packed away into storage, he and his pregnant wife were ready to start this great adventure together. Then, his visa application was sent back twice before finally being rejected, after new legislation from the American government. The reason given: He hadn’t enough experience as a professional wrestler to justify it. A lifetime’s worth of athletic experience as a professional rugby player apparently held no weight. The WWE said that this was the first time this had ever happened to one of their overseas signees.

However, all was not lost, he was told by the WWE to get out across the U.K. and make a name for himself. Working on independent shows to gain as much experience as possible.

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Ruminating on the situation, he freely admits that it has been “a bit tough”. For someone who has already taken an incredible risk walking away from a sport he has spent his life involved in, and with a baby on the way, that is a fair assessment. But, he hasn’t become disillusioned, seeing it as just another roadblock. There are positives to it, he explains: “I’ve been learning how to wrestle, now I’m going to get out there and learn how to work.” Noting that, right now, he is a blank canvas, an open book. In the next few months he aims to learn his craft by being out there centre-stage, “adding new layers and having good matches with everyone.”

“There has been no British wrestler like me,” he says, “as a prop on the rugby field I used to rattle teeth and go ballistic, and that’s the intensity I am bringing to the ring. I want to tell stories and be aggressive.” Now is definitely the time to check this chapter of the story, as it’s only going to be brief, the next is waiting to be written.

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