Rich Swann's first memory of pro wrestling is a vivid one: he was 5 years old and watching "Power Rangers" when his older brother came home from basketball and turned the TV to "Monday Night Raw," the flagship program of the WWE—then WWF.
"There's Bret Hart with the jacket, the awesome pink lights, the epic music, he gives his sunglasses to the kid," Swann, who grew up in Rosedale's Park East Apartments, recalls wistfully. "I was mesmerized."
These days, the 26-year-old mesmerizes audiences of his own on "Raw" and the WWE Network's newest show, "205 Live." He's billed as "The Outlandish" Rich Swann, but the focus-grouped nickname doesn't really capture what makes Swann great. At 5 feet 8 inches and 168 pounds, he's much smaller than the typical pro wrestler, but what he lacks in size, he makes up in speed and agility, flipping off and over both the ropes and his opponents like a video game character.
And as impressive as he is, the version of Rich Swann you see now is not nearly as "outlandish" as the one that dazzled wrestling fans for nearly a decade before making it to the WWE. In the independent organizations, he danced to the ring to The Lonely Island's 'I'm on a Boat' and Lionel Richie's 'All Night Long' in trunks adorned with wings straight out of "Super Mario World," earning the nickname "Mr. Standing 450" after one of his signature moves: a few bunny hops followed by a 450-degree front flip onto an opponent.
It's the type of move he learned to do as a kid, bouncing on a trampoline. Ever since first seeing Bret "The Hitman" Hart on TV, there has only been "wrestling, wrestling, wrestling" for Swann. But by his teens, real life would intrude on fake sports.
His father was an alcoholic and his mother had lupus. "I witnessed a lot of abuse between the two," he told WWE.com in an interview. "My father was … a real bad alcoholic and there was a lot of domestic violence." He moved around a lot, living near the Security Square Mall in Woodlawn, in White Marsh, and on Biddle Street. At one point, his mother kicked out his father; when Rich was 12, his father was stabbed to death by his girlfriend. As his mother's health failed, Swann was sent to live with family friends in Arizona for a year.
Through all of this, pro wrestling was Swann's rock.
"I grew up with my friends, wrestling around, imitating guys like Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko," he says, rattling off a list of undersized wrestling legends. "I always saw myself in that role if I ever made it."
When he returned back to Baltimore, his mother told him that she wanted him to move to York, Pennsylvania, to live with his aunt and attend a wrestling school so he could pursue his dreams of being a pro wrestler.
Doug "Adam Flash" Becker remembers the first day that Swann came to train. Swann recognized Becker from his work in the independent circuit and asked if he could show him something he was working on, nailing a standing flip.
"That was awesome, kid," Becker told him. "Now learn how to wrestle."
The wrestling school was run by Darren Wise (he wrestled for 22 years as "Dirty Deeds" Darren Wyse), who had some reservations about training Swann.
"My thing with Richie was, first of all, he was young," Wise recalls. "I can't take a 15-year-old kid who comes in and beat the hell out of him."
But Swann’s aunt signed a consent form—"she could tell I really wanted to do this," Swann remembers—and he stepped into a wrestling ring for the first time. Swann remembers Wise as a guy in tight jeans and shiny red boots with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and his imitation of Wise's voice is a high-pitched rasp: "Hey kids, you gonna be doing that high flying? What are you, a buck-thirty, buck-forty? Get in here and take some bumps."
Of his training technique (he retired in 2009), Wise mostly recalls the speech he would give to new recruits, full of "it's a long road to the top" and "it's gotta be in your blood" platitudes. He didn't recall any details of what actual physical training took place, but says he told trainees that, "I'll train you and make you into something, and if you follow the gimmick, you can have some fun and make a little money."
Ray Rosario, who wrestled as Ray Alexander, is less generous in his description of Wise.
"He was the typical booker who wanted your money to teach you the basic and move on," Rosario says. "He didn't care about your progress as long as you were making your payments."
No matter, Swann finally got to practice and train like an actual wrestler.
"I had this opportunity to be in a wrestling ring," he says. "I'll never forget that."
Swann quickly made an impression on his fellow wrestlers with his energy, athleticism, charisma, and desire to learn about the business. Rosario, who's about a decade older than Swann and had been in the business for a few years when Swann showed up in York, says he could tell immediately that there was something special about this teenager from Baltimore.
"I felt responsible to make sure he wasn't just another guy who came in, paid his money, and was pushed aside," he says.
Rosario quickly became like a "big brother" to Swann, picking him up at his house, training with him in the ring, and having him come along on road trips. Swann took it all in.
"He just wanted to learn," Rosario says. "I never met someone who had some many questions that would consume every bit of knowledge."
Becker would also take Swann under his wing, keeping "eyes and ears everywhere" to make sure that the young talent wasn't acting up. "I always looked up to those guys as great performers and entertainers," Swann says of Rosario and Becker. Seeing them train and wrestle "molded me into the man I am today."
Adulthood would come soon for Swann. A short time after he started training—and just a few years after his father's murder—his mother died. Swann seems to be at peace with the tragedies that befell him at a young age. "Those are the things that happen in life," he says. "All that matters is how you handle certain situations and how you can pick yourself up from it, you know?"
Rather than knocking him off his path, his mother's passing made Swann even more dedicated and driven. "He had every excuse to be the 'should've been' or the 'what if,'" Rosario explains, "but he did the complete opposite."
In states like Pennsylvania and Maryland, performers under 18 years old cannot wrestle professionally. Before Swann was legal, Wise would have him open shows by cartwheeling and backflipping from the dressing room to the ring, just to get him involved. Swann got a few matches under his belt in New Jersey, and wrestled about a dozen matches in Pennsylvania once he turned 18.
Nine months after his 18th birthday, he made his hometown debut at Maryland Championship Wrestling's "Season's Beatings" event in November 2009, at The New Green Room in Dundalk, a pool hall that he remembers having a "crazy, ECW-like atmosphere." ECW was an infamous wrestling promotion that lived up to its "Extreme Championship Wrestling" moniker with weapons, beer, and blood frequently part of the action.
"When I was finally able to wrestle in Baltimore, it was huge for me," Swann says.
He lost that first match in Dundalk, but his career took off from there. He wrestled extensively with Philadelphia's Combat Zone Wrestling—the spiritual successor to ECW—and in Japan, making a name for himself with an acrobatic style that combined high-flying and hard-hitting moves. In a part of the pro wrestling world that bounds from don't-try-this-at-home ultraviolence to winking-at-the-audience meta-theater, Swann could do both and have more fun than anyone. For a guy from Baltimore barely in his twenties, traveling the world and making a living as a pro wrestler, Rich Swann was living the dream.
Fans of independent wrestling—and even Swann himself—probably thought that was the high point of his story. Since winning the turn-of-the-millennium "Monday Night Wars," the WWE has really been the only game in town, and for decades, the company has been known as the "Land of the Giants." It built a billion-dollar business on the backs of bulky behemoths like Hulk Hogan, The Rock, The Undertaker and John Cena. Swann is in shape, sure, but he's no giant by any measure. "Everyone knew he had it," says Rosario, noting that there was always a "but": Swann was either too small or too short to make it into the WWE.
That all changed a few years ago, when the WWE started looking outside of their usual box for new talent and signing guys like Adrian Neville and Hideo Itami, who have similar physiques, styles and pedigrees as Swann. And in 2014, the call finally came, albeit in circuitous fashion. Rapper and wrestling superfan Wale took to Twitter to praise Swann. Soon, Wale connected Swann with WWE legend Mark Henry, who helped arrange a tryout. WWE passed on him the first time, but he had "earned people's respect"; they signed Swann a year later to a developmental contract.
Swann spent the next year making sporadic appearances on the WWE's NXT program but finally showed what he could do last summer in the company's Cruiserweight Classic tournament, which highlighted wrestlers from around the world that could make a (legitimate) 205-pound weight limit. The tournament was such a success that the WWE brought a cruiserweight division back to TV for the first time in a decade. Swann has been a featured player in the division, and in November, he became the WWE Cruiserweight Champion, an accomplishment he describes as "surreal."
"205 Live" is still figuring out how to best streamline a diverse group of wrestlers—Mexican luchadores, Japanese strikers, European technicians, and American high-flyers—into a cohesive, WWE-style show. But the Cruiserweight Classic (which was reportedly filmed out from under notorious micromanager Vince McMahon) already figured this out, and Swann had some of his best WWE matches in the tournament.
His second round match with Lince Dorado—a Puerto Rican luchador whose mask features a bushy mohawk—is a perfect example of Swann's in-ring abilities. Only 10 minutes long, Swann and Dorado raised the stakes from a playful dance battle to a sequence of dizzying counter moves to stiff strikes and body-contorting submissions. Even though both wrestlers came into the match as fan-favorite "babyfaces," the crowd was firmly behind Swann as he came back from a few increasingly hard-hitting moves, nearly frothing at the mouth with intensity. In the final sequence, Swann avoided one of Dorado's top-rope moves, his eyes and mouth wide at the chance to deliver one of his own, the Phoenix Splash. Facing away from his prone opponent, he flipped off the top turnbuckle, corkscrewing his body 180 degrees mid-air before performing one of his 450-degree splashes for the pinfall. Like an Olympic gymnastics routine, it's a move that requires slow motion to fully appreciate. After the match, a sweaty Swann would dance his way to the ropes, singing his theme song with the crowd.
Swann lives in Orlando now, near the WWE's state-of-the-art performance center. He flies out on Sundays, appears on Monday Night Raw the next night, drives to the next town to appear on "205 Live" on Tuesday, flies back to Orlando where he unwinds, trains, and gets ready to do it all again. In just a few months, he's traveled all across the country, but is still "chomping at the bit" for the WWE to return to Baltimore. "The moment we go to Baltimore, I’m going to be lit," he says. "That is going to be my moment."
When he signed with WWE, Swann had to stop using 'All Night Long' as his theme music. Instead, he dances to the ring to 'Around the World,' a knock-off of 'Uptown Funk' by WWE's in-house theme producers CFO$ with the hook, "Can you handle this?" According to Rosario, "can you handle this" is more than just a throwaway hook or a cheap catch phrase, it's "a way of life” for Swann.
"Everything I fear in life already happened to Richie when he was just 16 or 17," Rosario explains. "There's nothing that he can't handle."