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Welcome to Gronkamania

Rob Gronkowski is reportedly joining WWE. The stakes for WWE are clear. But what’s in it for Gronk?

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On April 2, 2017, at WrestleMania 33 in Orlando, when he was still a professional football player for the New England Patriots, Rob Gronkowski was seated at ringside during the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal when the nefarious Jinder Mahal tossed Gronk’s bro Mojo Rawley into the barrier in front of him. Gronk yelled in support of Rawley, and Mahal got in his face, swiped his beer, and threw it back at him. Of course, there are few more hidebound rules in pro wrestling than “if a celebrity is confronted in the audience, that celebrity will get in the ring and do some stuff.” And so Gronk high-stepped over the barricade, pulled off his T-shirt, and climbed into the ring to give Mahal a shoulder tackle that would have made “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan proud. Mahal went flying and Mojo ultimately won the match, and the two bros celebrated wildly, as good bros are wont to do.

According to Ryan Satin on FS1’s WWE Backstage, Gronk is close to signing a deal with WWE, presumably to be a professional wrestler. According to The Wrap, it’s a done deal, and Gronk will be on WWE SmackDown next week. Whether or not he’s ready to be an in-ring force (he isn’t), that’s the kind of news that’s sure to draw some extra eyes to SmackDown, the WWE show that Fox spent a reported billion dollars on in 2018 before debuting as the anchor of Fox’s Friday-night lineup last fall. So far, ratings haven’t been explosive, but the prospect of Gronkamania running wild is the kind of stuff that should make Fox execs mark out.

There’s a long history of pro footballers taking to the wrestling ring, from Gus Sonnenberg to “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd to Bill Goldberg. Current SmackDown baddie King Corbin is a former offensive lineman for the Cardinals and Colts, and major players like Roman Reigns and Big E played D-I ball in college. The allure of the squared circle as a post-retirement gig is obvious, but the job isn’t easy; when Shawne Merriman went to the WWE Performance Center in 2013 to work out, he left with his back turned to hamburger just from running the ropes. “This is a completely different lifestyle that is not suitable for regular people,” he later said. “These guys put their body through so much, that I don’t know if I was prepared to do that just yet.”

Most footballers who turn up in the ring do it on a short-term basis, a special attraction for a quick payday: William “The Refrigerator” Perry at WrestleMania 2, LT at WrestleMania XI, Kevin Greene’s brief WCW run. As big as such matches can be for mainstream media attention, WWE knows the real money is in making stars. The crossovers in recent years have come from the more legitimate combat world of UFC: Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, Cain Velasquez. But in an era when SmackDown is on Fox, sandwiched between football-centric programming blocks, a big-name NFLer becoming a WWE babyface could do massive business.

The stakes for WWE are clear. But what’s in it for Gronk? He’d get to live out a lifelong dream: “In elementary school I’d always go home, always pretend I was wrestling with my brothers, my friends, even at school,” he told WWE. He’d get to pummel dudes in a more predictable arena of violence, and he’d get to flex while the crowd goes wild. (If he had been allowed to play football in swim trunks with a camera trained on his face, I doubt we’d be having this conversation at all.) And he’d probably get to hang out with his real-life BFF Mojo. (In case you’re wondering, yes, Mojo was right there alongside Gronk on the Gronk cruise.) Rawley, for all his demonstrable upside, always had the whiff of a create-a-wrestler video game character—basic build, looks, and tights with a repertoire largely composed of running with an overabundance of energy into relatively simple moves. It’s long been joked that his best move is his ongoing recruitment of Gronk. Now that the former tight end is on board, it’s feasible that Gronk could make Mojo into the star he’d never have been otherwise. That’s what bros do: They lift each other up.

For his part, Gronk has played coy. “With wrestling, I don’t feel like I would be a full-time wrestler, but there is one thing I’m down for, and that’s to do one crazy match,” he said last August. “I’m not saying when, maybe five years. I got the rest of my life to do that. I’ve always dreamed about doing that, just one time, going in there and going full-out.”

Down the road may be closer than five years away—it seems destined that this news was timed to hype WrestleMania 36, coming up on April 5. But despite what one’s preconceived notions about pro wrestling might lead one to believe, Gronk has got a long way to go. Sure, he has natural charisma, some mic skills, a look, and a built-in fan base. (He’s also got a ready-made heel gimmick—he can wear his giant arm brace into the ring and use it as a foreign object, “Cowboy” Bob Orton–style.) It’s simple enough to get hyped for one match, and to learn enough to be carried, LT-style, to a noble victory. But there’s a big difference between chest-bumping Jinder Mahal and going toe-to-toe with a Seth Rollins or a Brock Lesnar.

Once, when swimming with sharks, Gronk was asked about the monsters he encountered. “I’m a shark expert. I heard there’s some great whites out there. I haven’t seen any great whites yet. They don’t know me yet. I only swam with tigers. So maybe I’ll go say, ‘Hi,’ to my friends.”

The tiger sharks of WWE better watch out come WrestleMania time. Whether or not Gronk ever decides to swim with the great whites is a question only Gronk—and his closest bros—knows for sure.