This January, WWE returns to Florida with the annual Royal Rumble event. The marquee showdown will take place on January 27th at Tropicana Field, home of MLB outfit the Tampa Bay Rays and it will officially mark the starting point of the Road to WrestleMania. The headline clash on the show will be the 30-man Royal Rumble match, with the winner punching their ticket to the main event of the Grandest Stage of Them All.
Last year, the matchup was won by Cody Rhodes, and he went on to headline the Show of Shows against reigning and defending Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns. But his first-ever shot at the gold wouldn’t have a happy ending, with the champion shockingly retaining his straps much to the amazement of everybody inside Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium. But the story isn’t over just yet, and many expect the American Nightmare to win the match once again this year and headline his second straight ‘Mania.
With Florida once again featuring prominently in the professional wrestling landscape, we decided to take a look at three noteworthy superstars who made their name in the Sunshine State, specifically playing college football. From the gridiron to the squared circle, let’s meet the three stars and just how they faired during their time in Florida.
Reigning Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns is the top dog in the professional wrestling world. He has been champion for over 1,000 days and his reign at the summit of the business shows no sign of ending anytime soon. He originally made his name however as a football star, firstly at Pensacola Catholic High School. He played there as a defensive tackle before becoming a three-year starter and captain for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
This year, their arch-rival Georgia Bulldogs are aiming to overshadow their local rivals and Reigns’ former team in their quest to win a third straight national championship. They have been made the +200 second-favorites for the championship by NCAA football odds, and if last season is anything to go by, they may well be the team to beat once again this year. The bookies aren’t convinced mind you, and they have made Michigan the narrow +185 favorites for glory this term.
Unfortunately for Reigns – real name Leati Joseph “Joe” Anoa’i, Roman Reigns – he suffered an injury at Georgia Tech and was never able to play in the NFL. But the big leagues’ loss was professional wrestling gain. The Tribal Chief has gone on to become one of the biggest stars the industry has ever known and his current title reign is the fourth longest in company history. He is expected to headline his eighth WrestleMania next year, tying Hulk Hogan’s record.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson
Who isn’t familiar with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? After all, he’s one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. But before he made it big in Hollywood, The Brahma Bull was a standout defensive tackle for the University of Miami. He helped Miami win a national championship in 1991 and even played a game against Florida State. After graduating in 1995, Johnson signed with the Canadian Football League but was cut from the team after two months., paving the way for a career in professional wrestling.
In the squared circle, The Rock became a household name and his rivalry with Stone Cold Steve Austin is perhaps the greatest feud in the history of the business. The pair catapulted Vince McMahon’s company to never-before-seen heights and the Attitude Era is still looked back on with fondness even two decades on. The Great One recently returned to WWE for a one-night-only unadvertised special, laying the smackdown on Austin Theory alongside former Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee. Whether he returns to wrestle an actual match at the upcoming WrestleMania however remains to be seen.
Titus O’Neil is a lesser-known star in comparison to the aforementioned duo, but he has still had plenty of success in his own right. He is a former Tag Team champion however, it is his charitable work that has seen him become a beloved ambassador for WWE. He does plenty of charity work in and around Tampa Bay and he has raised millions of dollars for non-profit organisations in the area.
O’Neil, real name Thaddeus Michael Bullard, was born in Boynton Beach, Florida, and grew up in Crossville, Tennessee. He played college football for the University of Florida and was a standout defensive end for the Gators, winning coveted awards such as being named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week in 1999. He also had a brief stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars at the turn of the millennium. His professional wrestling career started in Florida in 2009 with the WWE’s developmental territory NXT. He made his WWE debut in 2010 and has since become a mainstay on WWE programming. O’Neill’s size and brute strength make him a formidable opponent in the ring.