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Class Act: Carmelo Hayes’s Rise From Top NXT Recruit to WWE Superstardom

Under the guidance of WWE legend Shawn Michaels, Carmelo Hayes studies his craft to ensure that he will never miss

WWE/Ringer illustration

Adrian Peterson walked onto campus as the best player on his team, and one of the best players in the country. He was a year removed from an almost 3,000-yard, 32-touchdown senior season for Palestine High School, which he followed up with 1,900 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma. “All Day” was almost 20 years before “all gas, no brakes” became a catch-all for unlimited energy, potential, and brilliance, but there’s a reason football players don’t jump from high school to the pros. There’s the need for even the brawniest bodies to develop, the brightest brains to expand, and most colorful personalities to find new canvases. Carmelo Hayes is a five-star NXT recruit, and Shawn Michaels is making sure he’ll be a big-time contributor at the next level.

Next College Student Athlete, one of the nation’s largest recruiting organizations, lists three key qualities that coaches are looking for when evaluating prospective additions to their teams and campuses:

A student-athlete must be talented.

“The reason this match is this match is because of me,” Melo states, without a grin, a change in tone, or any hint of falsehood. He’s referring to his upcoming ladder match, a five-way match to determine the new NXT North American champion that takes place this Saturday at NXT Halloween Havoc. He lost the title under strange circumstances (losing an open challenge to rival Solo Sikoa, who was no longer part of the NXT roster), and is looking to become the second man to hold the title three times. “People can take it how they want, but without me? This match is not the match.” He’ll compete against former NXT Tag Team champion Wes Lee, NXT UK standout Nathan Frazer, and relative newcomers Von Wagner and Oro Mensah. Carmelo has the most wins, titles, and company experience out of the group—a rare distinction for him during his run. Upon signing with WWE, he was immediately pitted against NXT’s best and longest-tenured acts. Hayes’s first two matches were against two titans in NXT, the first being then-NXT Cruiserweight champion/international star/local time traveler Kushida, and the second being Adam Cole, record holder for the single longest NXT title reign. Though he lost both efforts, it was clear that the freshman didn’t need a redshirt year to compete at the highest level.

“I needed that,” Hayes reflects, sitting alone in one of the WWE Performance Center’s many study rooms. “I think I needed that, truly, because coming in, unless you’re in there with somebody like that, you’re not credible, especially being a new guy. So they gave me credibility right off the bat.” In the following months, Carmelo would continue down a murderers’ row of worldwide legends and American independent stalwarts. He would defeat current All Elite Wrestling star Swerve Strickland for the North American title, then successfully defend it against the likes of former NXT UK champion Pete Dunne, unify his North American title with Roderick Strong’s NXT Cruiserweight title by defeating Strong in January, then defeat former Impact Wrestling champion Cameron Grimes. That’s a lot of carries for someone just entering the fray. “That’s one of the things that I don’t take for granted. And I understand now, building credibility for myself … but no, you know what? I thrive off of that type of pressure, man. I really do, so the fact that [WWE officials] threw me in there was more like, ‘OK, watch.’ Like, [it was never a] ‘I don’t belong in this spot,’ or ‘I hope I do.’ It was like, ‘All right, these are the guys I want to wrestle with.’ When I told [them] my first match, I said, ‘I want to work with the top guys. I want to be a top guy.’ And [then] I said, ‘We’ll see.’”

Hayes lost the North American title to former challenger Grimes at NXT Stand & Deliver in April, then regained it two months later at NXT In Your House, starting one the greatest reigns in NXT to date. He was successful in his next 12 title defenses, beating fresh talents like Grayson Waller and Andre Chase, but also having one of the best North American title defenses ever, beating former champion Ricochet—known the world over as one of the most athletic, graceful, and tough-to-outperform talents going—at NXT Worlds Collide back in September. Whether Hayes was asked to run the ball directly at the do-it-all Giovanni Vinci, block a rusher like the baby bulldozer Solo Sikoa, or streak down the field for a long pass in a triple threat with speedy talents Ikemen Jiro and Wes Lee, no one would get the best of him for months. He was the talk of each match, the standout of each encounter. “I am…,” Melo’s traditional opening to state his standing, his mission, or his mood, rarely needs to be followed with any of these. He’s the biggest man on campus because production yields resources, and no one has been more productive since he walked on the lawn.

A student-athlete must be of strong character.

You don’t always get to see the effect that you have on people in real time. Austin, Texas, is known for Sixth Street, a long strip of bars and clubs off of the long-spanning Interstate 35 highway. It’s most popular two times a year: during the international music/media festival South by Southwest, and after a University of Texas Longhorns victory. You’re likely to see your classmates, your restaurant waitstaff, and the guy who made the game-winning tackle in the same line waiting to get into a club. In early 2006, if you heard a loud scream it was either a fight or Rose Bowl hero Vince Young, flanked by a teammate or a famous alum like Heisman winner Ricky Williams. People would see him, touch him, take pictures (this was before selfies), and CRY REAL TEARS at being in his presence. Carmelo Hayes is a first-generation social-media celebrity, so the touches and tears are replaced with views and likes, but he’s still very much aware of his influence and reach.

“I won’t even say necessarily say role model, because I’m not perfect, you know what I mean?” he ponders, borrowing a phrase from an athlete who retired when Melo was in kindergarten. He’s both brash and selective, fully aware of his talent and trajectory, but also careful about what he presents, and who he’s presenting it to. “Like, I’m very much, like, pretty much raw … [but] my heart is pure, and I care about my fans, and I care about the people that care about me. In that sense, I want to just continue to put out the best work for the people that care about me, because there’s so many people that tell me, ‘Man, Melo, I’m inspired by you’ and this and that, and I’m just going about my day and my week, you know what I mean?” What he means is what he shows. Carmelo Hayes doesn’t just have social media, he uses it as part of his presentation. If you post a Melo clip, Melo is reposting that clip. If you upload a pic in Melo merch, Melo is sharing that post with the world. And the world of Carmelo Hayes has one real rule: Back up what you put out.

Before his unification match with Roderick Strong, Melo had a line on his heart he was determined to make true. “I just knew it was going to hit, but I knew it was going to hit with … if you know, you know. That’s one of my big things. I’m very much ‘if you know, you know.’ And if you don’t, then that’s your problem. But if you know, you know; you’re respected. So when I hit [Strong] with the ‘don’t play with me, I’ll put you on a T-shirt,’ I didn’t think I was going to go much further than that, but I saw the reaction to it, to where it was like, ‘You know what? I am going to put them on a T-shirt.’” Melo reached out to content creators across Twitter and Instagram for merch ideas, and this time around, he came out in a Roderick Strong memorial shirt to signify ending his reign. “I put them on that T-shirt,” Hayes remembers, “and then I think from there, I realized, this is something that nobody’s doing.”

The key was with the perceived disrespect, he would go out and WIN. “Yeah, and that was big for the culture, too, because, like I said, if you know, you know. That’s the ultimate disrespect, in a way. I’m mourning your L before it even happens, and I’m putting your shirt on the ground and stepping over it. I just thought, ‘That’s the ultimate disrespect. I’m going to bring that type of energy every big match.’”

Big matches are the only matches Carmelo’s concerned about. Nobody dreams of their big moment in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Kyle Marshall doesn’t dream about the Meineke Car Care Bowl. It’s a lot like Oregon’s Dennis Dixon, a lot like West Virginia’s Pat White: the read option, a play in which a running quarterback can use his athleticism to create an extra runner for the defense to fear, turns a good offense into one that makes big plays on its way to big games. Melo’s introduction to the read option? The Ruthless Aggression era of WWE. Steve Austin retired. The Rock traded in his trunks and shorts for trailers and scripts. Brock Lesnar’s initial run was over, and the top-tier WCW talent was fully integrated into the ways of WWE. Where the Attitude Era emphasized shock and awe, glitz and glamor, by the time we hit 2005, WWE was more athletic, more polished, and there was more competition amongst on-screen talent. An 11-year-old Carmelo Hayes saw the Eddie Guerreros, the Rey Mysterios, and the Kurt Angles, and saw not only the in-ring talent, but the Saturday-afternoon–level pageantry from ramp to ring, the detailed ring gear, and the connection with the crowd that made the “SmackDown Six” so popular.

But there was one act that stood out, one that speaks to Carmelo’s desire to succeed, and thrive, and last. “Edge, he’s another one that reached out to me, who I never would have thought, you know what I mean? That’s one of my favorite wrestlers growing up as a kid.” Edge’s tale is well documented: lifelong fan, went to WrestleMania VI in Toronto, became one of the best tag team wrestlers, then a great singles wrestler whose career was cut short due to injury. After a decade-long retirement, he returned and is making up for lost time, having memorable moments and matches to this day. Carmelo seeing someone from his childhood still perform at such a high level motivates him to get to the top sooner rather than later, to make sure those memorable moments include him. He doesn’t want a ring for being on the practice team, he wants to play. “I really want to work with Edge,” Hayes states.

“I’d love to work with Edge. I’d love to work with Cena. I’m going to say all the guys that are probably more on their way out than the guys that are more [realistic], but I’d love to work with Edge. I’d love to work with Cena, man, there’s just so many.”

One of the great college athlete names is Peerless Price, and Melo watching WWE at its best pairing of star power and athleticism has made him almost the inverse of that name. Outside of a few, he expects matches with the very top talent. He’s sure to show respect, but simply does not think anyone’s out of his league. “I’ve kind of trained myself to look at everybody here as … it’s a pro game. Like when you play on the field with [Tom] Brady. ‘Oh, my God. That’s Tom Brady.’ It’s like, ‘All right, that’s going to be competition,’ and I don’t mean that competition thing in any way. Like, I want … that, you know what I mean? I’m going to see you down the road. I just believe in myself that much.”

A student-athlete must have academic success.

In 2006, Georgia Tech Wide receiver Calvin Johnson won ACC Player of the Year, ACC Offensive Player of the Year, was a Consensus All-American, and won the Fred Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top player at the position. While all impressive, he had a fifth feat that might be more daunting: He did this while also being a student at Georgia Tech. Why is a school in Atlanta, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the southeast, not a football powerhouse? BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO TAKE CALCULUS TO ATTEND GEORGIA TECH. Carmelo Hayes, for all his athleticism, confidence, charisma, and actual cool, is a student before anything else. “Yeah, so people don’t realize, man, we go on TV and we’re big stars and all this, and the next morning we’re back at it like training. Like, when I wrestled Roddy [Strong], I won two championships. I’m holding up two titles, and then I’m in freaking training at 8 a.m., you know what I mean?” Melo talks about the dedicated schedule he and his fellow NXT talents are expected to follow. This isn’t Grappling 102 followed by “Intro to Phone Etiquette” then “Advanced Frisbee.” This a gym, a lecture hall, a classroom, and then a stage until it’s decided you can be on the marquee and stay there. “We have in-ring training. We have tape. Study. We have strength and conditioning. We have promo class. They have a history class. Here [in NXT], it is college, but in all the right ways. I thrive with structure. The best thing that could have ever happened to me was this type of environment.”

Maybe the best thing about the tape study, the best thing about the history classes, is that the instructors, counselors, and deans are the tape. NXT is run by some of the all-time WWE greats, most notably Shawn Michaels. Depending on your relationship with your cable guy in the ’90s, there’s a good chance Shawn Michaels was who you called the best American wrestler of his time. Similar to Edge, an injury cut Michaels’s initial run short, but his stint after his back injury solidified him as one of the best to ever do it. Carmelo wasn’t two years old when Shawn won his first WWE world title, but 26 years later, Shawn instilled what he knew then, and what he knows now, into his star pupil.

Their parallels are evident. Young Shawn had a chip on his shoulder, outperformed his perceived size, had a style that bucked back against conventional “good guy” speak and attire, and knew he belonged. He sees a lot of himself in Melo, so much so that he’s taking steps to make sure Melo’s rise to prominence is a bit smoother than his was. “You’d be surprised how often [Shawn] pulls me back,” Melo says. “And there’s times where I have to be like, ‘Hey, don’t forget who you were.’ But he reminds me, like, ‘Hey, don’t do as I did. Do as I say.’ And he reminds me [that it] was a different point in his life. And if he could go back, I’m sure he probably would change a lot of those things.” In the past, Shawn has talked about being paranoid, combative, and dealing with addiction during his initial WWE stint, and is doing all he can to keep those things away from the next crop of WWE stars. While erring on the side of caution, Shawn is drawing from two of the strongest points of his past to help build “Heartbreak” Hayes—a barbershop and a bodyguard.

Outside of putting on some of the best matches North America has ever seen, Shawn Michaels has some visuals that will live on forever. One of those was Diesel, a moniker carried by his friend Kevin Nash. A former Tennessee Volunteer basketball player, Kevin Nash was almost 7 feet tall, weighed over 300 pounds, and added a level of toughness seconding the lightning-fast, ultra-smooth Michaels, later becoming a multiple-time world champion in both WWE and WCW. Michaels, knowing what this did for his legitimacy, paired Carmelo Hayes with former South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Trick Williams. Upon being introduced, the tall, chiseled, slick-talking, and slicker-dressing Williams asked Melo to remember where he came from, setting off his path to the North American title. Not just the self-confidence, but the acknowledgement of contribution, is very Michaels-esque. “It’s like a cheat code. I got it on my own. But it’s like somebody that just makes you so much better, you know what I mean? He complements me so well. I complement him so well. And there’s so many different things that we can do as a duo in one match. There’s so many different backstage segments, promos; it’s endless with Trick and I, we’re just so creative individually. Then we put it together, and we just make what we do every week on TV.” And what they do on TV, to the highest desired effect, is maybe the most notable play on the playbook, the Barbershop.

The scary thing about the previously mentioned read option is the fast quarterback. The aim of the play is to put the defensive end in a spot where he has to commit to going after either the quarterback or the running back. The natural inclination is typically to go after the faster guy, the stronger guy, the running back. Shawn and his longtime tag partner Marty Jannetty were headed in different directions, and Marty made the practical commitment to the team. Shawn not only kept the ball, he kicked it directly into Marty’s face and sent him through a window, solidifying his move to singles competition. “[Shawn] told us, ‘Hey, we need to get you guys doing something, but maybe we’ll throw you guys in a barber shop or something like that.’ OK, no problem. We get a couple of people, and we really just riff, man.” The Barbershop has been described many ways in many movies, but Melo and Trick use it to do a few key things: hold court, talk heavy, and lay claim to territory.

“We just sit in the barber chair and we just talk how we would talk. And obviously we still got to pull back on a lot of things that we would say we would do, but yeah, man. So smooth, man.”

Sometimes one voice isn’t enough, so just like a well-run college team, players can go to position coaches for details, strategy, and just life advice. Carmelo raves about the number of WWE Hall of Famers that can be tapped into for advice, notably Booker T, the most decorated Black champion in recent memory and a recent addition to the NXT commentary booth. “We have so many assets here that are so knowledgeable and sometimes you hear a lot of the same things, but sometimes you hear the same thing put in a different way. And Booker, in that way, was putting something I’ve been hearing in a different way that made me kind of understand something a little bit better. … He just got here, so I can only imagine in a couple of months, like, ‘We’re going to do a tape study next weekend.’”

Probably the best thing a good student-athlete can do for a program is practice like the lights are on. And for Carmelo Hayes, the lights do not dim. One goal of a big time recruit is to play games on national TV, and Melo found himself in the largest market. LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the most prolific college running backs ever “ended up” at TCU because other schools had committed to other backs early, and his coming-out party was his senior year of high school. Hayes admits to not having the huge independent career of a Seth Rollins, or the familial history and lifelong pedigree of a Roman Reigns or a Solo Sikoa, but that in some ways, that’s an advantage on this stage. “I feel like I just have a blank canvas. And even when I came here, a lot of the things that I’m doing here was a lot of ideas, things I had before I even got [here]. So it’s cool now to have people that are behind you to kind of allow you to do these things. And obviously, there’s money behind it, production behind it, lights, cameras, everything. I feel like I was built for the TV. … I feel like I thrive more with the production of it all. I’m so big on presentation because I feel like the presentation, people will remember more than the match. Man, it’s crazy. Like, I can go on top of that.”

Joe Burrow, quarterback of one of the best college teams in the past 30 years, did not earn his starting spot until the very end of his college career. Part of what makes him so relatable are the starts and stops, the ups and downs, the struggle, then ultimately the parting shot: Joe, in the locker room, smoking a cigar celebrating a national championship, an undefeated season, and a Heisman trophy. Carmelo Hayes has learned moves, learned timing, learned patience, and learned how to be a star. But the biggest lesson he’s learned? It’s making sure all these things are shared, and experienced. “Shawn talks about that a lot, people [going] along with your journey and people seeing you grow, and I do feel like I can feel it, and they can feel it. I think what latches people on to me is they can feel my rise and they feel like they’re a part of it … and they’re with me.” Carmelo Hayes isn’t just a blue chipper, he’s the guy you recruit to show the next class how it’s done. The only issue there? No one’s doing it quite like Melo.

Cameron Hawkins writes about pro wrestling, Blade II, and obscure ’90s sitcoms for Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and FanSided DDT. You can follow him on Twitter at @CeeHawk.