Before sports-talk radio became ubiquitous, D.C.’s WTEM-AM helped pave the way in 1992. Emulating the grandfather of sports yak, WFAN-AM in New York City, Sports Radio 570—- now Dan Snyder’s ESPN 980—-gave shows to Tony Kornheiser and others, one of whom was former New York Jet Kevin Kiley (“Kiley and the Coach”). Kiley’s son, Kevin Jr., followed in his pop’s footsteps and later played football at Boston College. But once the 6-foot, 4-inch, 250-pound kid decided his pigskin dreams were over, he turned his massive frame and did a top-rope leap into sports entertainment.
With no prior in-ring experience, the WWE signed Kiley—-now known as Alex Riley—-who rose up the ranks and is now on the company’s main TV show, Raw. He’s also about to debut as a featured performer—-in his former hometown. The now “babyface” Riley will take on his former mentor, the villainous heel The Miz, at the “Capitol Punishment” pay-per-view at Verizon Center June 19. Arts Desk chatted up the budding WWE superstar on the eve of his breaking-out party.
Washington City Paper: You grew up in Fairfax, Va., and get to make your pay-per-view debut in front of hometown pals. Geeked?
Alex Riley: I’m excited to come back to D.C. And turning into a face here, or at least moving in that direction, I think it’s a great place to start. If I can’t get [the fans] there, I can’t get them anywhere. … I think I might stay at my old house the night before the pay-per-view and get a nice home-cooked meal. … I’ll sleep in my old bed that I used to grow up in and just spend the day in Northern Virginia as much as I can.
WCP: It will be surreal to sleep in your childhood bed, wake up, and then go to work at Verizon Center.
AR: It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve done some great things with my life, and I had a pretty decent football career, but nothing compares to this. It’s going to be, “How far have I gone?” I’m going to go down to [my old street] Native Dancer Court, and when I pull in [to the driveway, I’ll] remember throwing the football in the yard with my dad and wrestling around with him. The first room he put together in this house was a weight room. … He was always into weights and I would go down as kid, and I remember he was working out and listening to Bruce Springsteen. Since I was 13 or 14 years old, I would go down there and lift weights with him. It’s going to be amazing to go back and remember when you’re 13 and then when you’re 30 and you’re in a pay-per-view for the WWE.
WCP: Did you go to WWE events in the D.C. area as a kid?
AR: We did. My dad is very close with Greg Gagne. He’s almost like Uncle Greg to us. [Gagne is a former pro wrestler and the son of legendary promoter Verne Gagne, who ran the the American Wrestling Association (AWA).] He played football with my father at Wyoming, and he was actually his roommate. My dad would follow him around to wrestling events, and we went to a couple when I was young, and did football stuff with him, too. I was always following [wrestling] and was a big fan of it when I was growing up.
WCP: But you never wrestled before you joined the WWE’s training promotions. How did you make the leap from the gridiron to the ring?
AR: I always really wanted to get into [sports entertainment], but I had spent so much time playing football, so much invested in that, that I really wanted to see it through. Once I felt like [football] was complete—-the wrestling was pulling me in direction where I really, really wanted to try it. … I think I was 25 or 26, and I decided this was the time to make this move. …I think there was an open tryout in OVW [Ohio Valley Wrestling]—-I kept calling and sending pictures, trying to get on their radars. They said they had some guys coming down—-some wrestlers, some not; some football guys like you—-and you’re welcome to come down. And that was that. I had never stepped into a [wrestling] ring [before].
WCP: But it’s a huge leap from just being a good athlete to being a great sports entertainer.
AR: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. …Yeah, being a great athlete absolutely helps, but it might be 15 percent of it, 20 percent tops. It takes a lot to be able to perform in the WWE. You have to be smart, you have to know timing, you have to get into the theater side of things. It takes a long time, and it’s such a craft, and the closer I got to it, I had an unbelievable amount of respect for the people who can pull it off. It’s extremely hard to do.
WCP: Your character’s heel-to-babyface transformation was really well done, but were you surprised how quickly you were embraced by the fans?
AR: If anybody stands up to the Miz, they’re going to get a big reaction. … Was I surprised it was going to be so big? I honestly didn’t know what to think. There had been a lot of stuff brewing between me and Mike [the Miz]. When I came into the company, I didn’t want to go in and carry somebody else’s bags. I wanted to go in as my own guy. I felt like I was talented enough and charismatic enough, and had the tools to make an impact. But I was extremely happy with the position they gave me. Mike is a great character, he was on a fantastic run, and he’s a great guy to work with and learn from. But when that moment happened [where I turned on Miz], there was a lot of realism in that moment. A lot of the things he said, he truly felt; and a lot of the things I did I truly felt. When you can capture that, and it is such a real moment in front of 20,000 people, it’s hard to not get a reaction.
WCP: WWE was also smart having you turn ‘face while accompanied by John Cena and Stone Cold Steve Austin one week, followed up by Rowdy Roddy Piper the next. That’s some positive rub from, arguably, three of the top names in WWE history.
AR: Yeah, and I’m extremely fortunate to be put in that position. Even when they put me with Miz to start. I went from [the WWE TV program] NXT, which is pretty much a reality show where I didn’t even have a contract, trying to fight for every word that I got to say, every match, every move. I’m out there fighting for attention and trying to get noticed to a point where I’m in the ring with The Rock, Stone Cold, John Cena—-because of Miz. But there comes a point where there’s a lot of pressure that goes with that: If they put you in the ring and you don’t stand out, or you don’t do well, or you get lost among 10 stars and have no presence, then you’re very exposed at an early point in your career, and you don’t want that to happen, either.
I think I did a pretty good job of handling my own in there, and then they gave me this opportunity. And, yeah, they keep putting me in the ring with guys who are legends, and I’ve been able to feed off their credibility and all that they’ve done and it’s worked out extremely well.
WWE presents “Capitol Punishment” at 6:30 p.m. on June 19 at Verizon Center, 601 F Street NW. $20-$300.