Hip-Hop’s connection to sports was born out of its cultural competitive fervor, with countless links being made between the two past-times over the years. Yet, in recent years, rap artists have begun straying from the tried-and-true script of name-dropping their favorite ballplayers and pugilists in their rhymes and veering more towards championing the heroics of their favorite wrestlers, past and present. While Hip-Hop infiltrated the world of wrestling decades ago with the emergence of The Rock, Booker T, and others, today, the sport’s influence on the music, style, and other aspects of many of our biggest stars is evident. One wrestler who has managed to captivate wrestling fans while embodying the spirit is Ettore “Big E” Ewen, a WWE Champion and one of the sport’s most popular figures.
A native of Tampa, Fla., Big E’s love for pinning opponents began during his time as a football player. The defensive end capped off a standout high school career with an athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa. After a litany of injuries derailed his dreams of gridiron glory, Big E established himself as a U.S. Powerlifting Champion before trying his hand at wrestling. After signing on with the WWE in 2009 and gradually rising through the developmental ranks, Big E became one of the hottest new stars in the sport. He teamed up with fellow WWE wrestler Kofi Kingston and formed The New Day, a fan-favorite duo among wrestling fans, bringing new eyes to wrestling.
Since then, Big E has continued to break barriers in the sport. He became the sixth Black man to win the WWE Championship title while helping bridge the gap between wrestling and Hip-Hop, which are as intertwined as they’ve ever been. Nowadays, you’re as likely to hear a reference to an obscure professional wrestler as you are a recollection of the days when names like Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson dominated the sports pages. Yet, heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially when that adornment gets toppled in the midst of defeat, which Big E can attest to after losing his WWE Championship title to Brock Lesnar at WWE’s Day 1 on New Year’s Day.
Now, Big E has an opportunity to settle the score with a victory at the upcoming WWE Royal Rumble—which takes place this Saturday (Jan. 29) at 8 p.m. ET on Peacock—at The Dome in St. Louis. The winner of the Royal Rumble, which includes 30 contestants, will earn a title shot at the WWE’s annual WrestleMania event, which takes place in Dallas, Texas in April. While that challenge may be daunting, one thing we do know is that Big E will have a playlist from some of his favorite rap stars handy to help provide the extra motivation to get one step closer to bringing his Championship title back home.
VIBE spoke with Big E about his journey from the football field to the wrestling ring, the importance of inclusion and representation in the WWE, his favorite rap artists and albums of the moment, and more.
VIBE: Hey Big E, how are you feeling?
Big E: I’m good. A bit tired, but such is the life.
Definitely. A fun fact some fans may not know about you is that your first love was football and you even played for the University of Iowa as a defensive end. How was that experience?
I describe it as the best of times and the worst of times. And I loved my time at Iowa, [but] for me, the worst of times was the fact that I just had a slew of injuries. So, in two and a half years, I tore both my ACLs, broke my right patella and I tore my left pec[toral muscle], but college football was always my dream. That was always the one thing that I wanted to do that I loved and obviously, I had hopes of getting to the NFL as well. But yeah, that was my dream and I’m really fortunate that I got to play in the Big Ten. In 2006, the one season that I was healthy, I was on the field every single game. I played every game except for the Alamo Bowl against Texas because I broke my patella right before then, but we got to play [University of] Michigan in “The Big House” in front of over 100,000 people when they were [ranked] No. 2 in the country. We got to play Ohio State at home when they were No. 1 in the country. We played against Jake Long and I think he went No. 1 overall [in the NFL Draft] that year out of Michigan. So, to get to play against some of the most storied franchises ever, just to play against some of the best in the country was just really cool. Unfortunately, things didn’t go my way with all of the injuries, but yeah, it was a dream come true in many ways.
Do you still keep up with the league and if so, what’s your favorite team?
I will say I’m a massive college football fan. We’re on the road so much, so I essentially decided college football, that’s my baby. So, Saturdays, I’m more locked in than I am on Sundays, but I am from Tampa. I’m a Bucs fan and yeah, obviously it’s been really cool to see the excitement around Tom Brady being in town. Obviously, winning a Super Bowl and doing it at Raymond James [Stadium] in Tampa was incredible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in front of a full Stadium because of the pandemic but it’s just really cool to see the excitement that Tom and the Bucs have brought to the city these last couple of years.
Earlier, you mentioned having a lot of injuries that threw your football aspirations off track. How did that lead to you jumping into the wrestling game and becoming Big E?
I kind of had a unique and kind of conflicted path getting [to] WWE. I played football at Iowa, but like I said, I had all of those injuries. I was in grad school at the time, I had just finished up. I got my undergrad degree and I was working on a Master’s and I just happened to bump into someone. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone at WWE and they just said, “Hey, there might be an opportunity for you with WWE.” And there was a bit of a process, obviously. I’d send them pictures so they could have an idea of what I looked like, what my physique looked like. Then, they flew me out of Tampa for a tryout and the tryout went well enough that they offered me a contract. So, in many ways, it’s a job that I was extremely fortunate to luck into, a job that I took on a whim. I had no idea if I’d be any good and over 12 years later, I’m still doing it and got to the very top of my profession. So yeah, it’s [something] I never would have fathomed. If someone asked me when I was 22 what I’d be doing with life, if you asked me to list a hundred jobs, “WWE Superstar” would not be on that list. It just never crossed my mind, but I’m really really grateful that I got here.
You’ve been a part of WWE for about a decade now, a period during which you’ve become one of the most decorated and biggest stars in the business. Being that you started under a developmental contract, what’s it like having climbed to the height of your career?
I came from sports and I was a quiet introverted kid and I had to learn to be an entertainer. That’s a big thing. You can’t make it here, you can’t thrive here if you don’t learn how to engage people. If you don’t learn how to entertain people, you have to be good. We call it promos. You have to be good on the mic, you gotta be able to talk, you gotta be able to do interviews. There’s so many other facets of this job that I had to learn to do and that took time for me to just be more comfortable to get those reps. So, that was one of the biggest hurdles, learning how to be an entertainer and be comfortable in my own skin and go out there in spandex, half-naked in front of 100,000 people. It’s a little different, so it took me some time, but I feel so comfortable in the ring. I love what I do. I love love this job and getting to entertain people, man. It’s just so fulfilling.
You’re a member of the popular tag-team The New Day with Kofi Kingston. Tell me about the wrestling duo’s journey since forming the group?
First and foremost, I can’t forget my man Xavier Woods. For a lot of people who aren’t extremely familiar with us, we operated as a tag team for many many years, but it’s three of us. If anyone’s familiar with the [Fabulous] Freebirds, sometimes you have that rotating door, but we’re all champions and we just kind of pick and choose what two would be in the ring at the time.
So, yeah, The New Day is me, Xavier Woods, and Kofi Kingston, but we’ve been really fortunate just to do a lot of incredible things. I was harkening back to when we started and we got met with a lot of resistance. You know, people who laughed at us because we wanted to be a group. They didn’t understand the idea, they didn’t understand the vision. We have a cereal. It’s called Booty O’s. We’ve been able to host WrestleMania. We had a promo segment with The Rock…we’ve been able to do all these incredible things. We were voted the greatest tag team of all time in WWE history by WWE. So, these are all things that when we first started in 2014 together, we never could have fathomed. We had so much self-belief and we knew that we had great chemistry. We knew we were incredibly talented but looking back.
I feel like we’re so fortunate and so blessed. I have the best possible partners there are with Kofi and Woods. They’re not only great human beings, great performers, but selfless. And I think that’s been a big part of our success, that it was always about doing what was right for the group. I never had to worry about Kofi trying to elevate himself above me and Woods or Woods doing the same thing. We all just fought to elevate the group and that was always the big thing. So yeah, hats off to them because without those two, I don’t get to this point in my career and that’s a hundred percent. No doubt.
You became the sixth Black WWE Champion in history, following in the footsteps of legends like Mark Henry, The Rock, and Bobby Lashley, who you had to take down to get the belt. How does it feel to be a Black man representing and bringing more eyes to the sport?
Representation, I think, is huge. I harken back to Ron Simmons beating Vader in WCW to become world champion. I think oftentimes when you look on your screen and you see someone who looks like you doing something that you want to do, it makes you think, “Yeah, it’s possible. It is possible.” So, that’s one of the things that I think I really love is I think that we’re at this point in our company in WWE where you look around and you see so many extremely talented Black performers. Sasha Banks, Bianca Bel-Air, Bobby Lashley, Kofi, Woods, there’s just so many of us who are doing it and doing it at a very high level and I think it’s a great thing.
Our goal is to entertain people of all races, colors, creeds, but I think there’s such a special connection when you can look out in a crowd and see a Black boy or Black girl. They can see that someone who resembles them is able to do something at a very high level to get to the very top of that industry. It makes you think that this is also possible for me, whether it is that you have this dream to be in WWE yourself or even other facets of life. It makes you think, “This is possible for me. I’m not going to be met with barriers and restrictions solely because of the color of my skin.” And that’s our hope, to get to that point where you just see more of us and it’s more commonplace and it almost doesn’t even become a story. You know, I think back to the Black quarterback debate when I was a kid and it was a big thing because there weren’t that many Black quarterbacks and all the stigmas and things attached to it. But now, it’s just becoming more and more common where you don’t even really bat an eye in many ways and that’s the direction that I think we’re headed and I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Word is that you’re a big rap fan. You come out to Wale’s music during your entrances and all of that. What was your introduction to the culture?
I definitely consider myself a Hip-Hop head. Both of my parents are from the Caribbean, both very conservative. It was a Christian household. “Gospel is the only thing you listen to in this house.” My dad is a preacher. For me, my first introductions were just going to school and I might hear a song that I gravitated to or being in the weight room and kind of sneaking around [listening to it]. I remember the first couple of albums that I bought. I bought NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. I bought a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Hip hop group compilation. I remember kind of sneaking these albums in and out and just trying to put my little headphones on in my room. So, that was my first introduction to Hip Hop, just finding ways to sneak it in the house, but I just loved it.
I’m someone who always loved to read and write and I think Hip-Hop just reminded me of [that]. At its essence, when it’s beautiful, it reminds me of poetry. That ability to express yourself through 16 bars, I think, is so beautiful. And Hip-Hop expresses everything, whether it’s pain, love, struggles. It’s just not another art form like it that is so honest and can be vulnerable and beautiful but can be grimy, can be aggressive. It’s just something that I’ve always loved. I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with so many rappers who are fans of wrestling and as a wrestler, I’m a fan of Hip-Hop. Becoming friends with Wale, with Flatbush Zombies, Smoke DZA, Westside Gunn…so many of them are big wrestling fans and there’s just such a natural bridge there between what we do with WWE and Hip-Hop.
Speaking of that, you’ve got guys like Westside Gunn, who incorporate wrestling imagery. Wale has done it and a lot of people are doing so in Hip-Hop. How is it to see something that you love from your cultural background cross-pollinate with wrestling?
It’s been beautiful to see, and I always felt like this years ago, I wanted to see more of us bridge that gap between Hip-Hop and wrestling because it just fits. There’s something about it that’s synergistic. What I love is, for anyone who isn’t aware, Wale has been doing this thing called Wale Mania. It’s just a big party, but it combines and brings rappers and wrestlers together. And Westside has been doing a lot of that, bridging that gap. Smoke DZA as well. So, I think it’s really cool to see and I’d love for us to do more of it. I think when you hear these references in the music to people like me and other people that I work with, it makes you think.
For me, rap, Hip-Hop, that’s the culture. That is the culture of this country, of this world. That’s the language of this world. I don’t know if there’s a bigger art form than Hip-Hop right now. The way it’s just a part of the fabric of our society in so many facets. So, I think it’s just a good thing when you get exposed to someone like me. Maybe you’ve never watched what I’ve done or you’re not familiar with WWE currently, but when you can hear those references in the music, it makes you think, “Okay if my favorite rapper is talking about Big E or is talking about The New Day, they must be pretty important. Let me tune in.” I hope we do more of that just to expose other people like me in these different realms. I just think bridging that gap and bringing rappers over to WWE and WWE Superstars over the rap, just continuing to cross-pollinate, is a beautiful thing.
Have you ever tried to spit any bars of your own?
We did a rap battle, actually, MC’d by Wale, a few years ago with The Usos. I belong as a fan and I know this, I have no business trying to spit any bars. I was one and done, never again. Don’t ask me to rap again because I have no business rapping. I’ll leave it to the professionals, I’ll leave it to people much much better than I. So, yeah, that’s it for me.
What are some of your favorite albums of this past year that you listen to while you’re training or just to get you pumped up?
A great question. So, Folarin 2. I know I’m biased, Wale’s my man, but that’s an incredible album. I loved Isaiah Rashad’s The House Is Burning, I thought it was incredible, and I still think Tyler the Creator’s album [Call Me If You Get Lost] is still in contention for Album of the Year, for me. I thought this year started a little slow, but it really picked up with releases and I feel like we got a bunch of great projects. That J. Cole was really dope, too, but if I had to pick two or three, I’ll go with Folarin 2, The House is Burning, and we’ll go with Tyler’s album, too.
What are two or three albums that you’re looking forward to from artists that haven’t dropped music in a while?
A great question. I love J.I.D, I think J.I.D is so dope. I’m waiting for a big project from him, so definitely a J.I.D album. I’ve become such a massive fan of Benny the Butcher as well. I feel like Benny’s had an incredible year, man. It felt like Benny was everywhere. But yeah, those are two of my favorite artists on the planet right now.
What’s next for Big E?
You can expect me to continue to be the WWE Champion throughout 2022. But outside of the ring, one of the things that has been a real labor of love for me and my partners Jonathan Davenport and Andreas Hale, we have a project called Our Heroes Rock. It combines 3D animation, Hip-Hop, and science fiction to tell the story of Ruby Bridges. We want to tell the story of these Black figures, actors, authors, activists, whatever it is. These heroes of ours that aren’t taught enough [about] in schools, that we don’t know enough about, we want to use this medium of Hip-Hop and animation to do it in a fun and engaging way.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Ruby Bridges was a six-year-old Black girl in 1960 who integrated an all-white school. She dealt with these epithets and people who would line up and say awful things to her. She persevered and she did it and she’s still with us, man. You see these Black and white pictures and you think, “This was from years and years ago,” but she’s younger than both my parents, you know? She’s, what, 67-years-old I believe now? So, we want to tell her story. We want to tell more of these stories and that is our hope. We’ll have a short film out, hopefully, very very soon we’re working on.
On Instagram and on Twitter, you can go to Our Heroes Rock to find out some more information, how to support us, and how to follow along with the short film. But also, for you Hip-Hop heads, Erick the Architect produced the song for the Ruby Bridges film and he just killed it. And we have Rhapsody, she’s a two-time Grammy nominee who rapped on the song as well. We’re certainly excited about this. That’s definitely been a real labor of love for us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity