A.J. Francis, in red, competing against Joaquin Wilde in a WWE NXT match earlier this year. Credit: Courtesy WWE

A.J. Francis, a former Washington Football Team defensive tackle and ascendant WWE prospect, did not care much for bedtime stories growing up. He preferred bedtime professional wrestling matches. Every night, when his father, Mike, swung open the door to their Severn, Maryland, home, there would be Francis, an oversized 3-year-old boy in the flesh but a wrestling hero in his heart and mind. Mike would dutifully slip into character, and soon father and son would be fake brawling, having turned the bedroom into a makeshift wrestling arena where the battle between good and evil could be decided.

The fight followed a script. First, Mike would dominate and put his son in a pin attempt. The imaginary referee would count: 1…2…kickout! And again: 1…2…kickout! Then Francis would gain control, jump in the air, and land on his father’s chest with a frog splash for the three count. Francis celebrated. The crowd went wild. And then the lights went out.  

“That’s how he went to sleep,” Mike says. “Every night.”

Now, as an adult, he’s reliving those childhood memories. Francis, 31, a mountain of a man with a bald head and a thick black beard—his wrestling persona is crafted around hip-hop executive Suge Knight—was “called up” earlier this month from NXT, the WWE developmental brand, to Smackdown, the company’s flagship show that airs Friday evenings on FOX. Francis’ group, Hit Row, was selected during the first night of the 2021 WWE Draft in Baltimore. Inside Royal Farms Arena, where he grew up attending WWE shows, Francis defeated Cedric Alexander in a non-televised match.

The call-up comes just six months after Francis’ debut on NXT (wrestlers often spend years in NXT), and underscores WWE’s recent shift in philosophy. For the past half decade, NXT had been a showcase for stars of the independent scene, normally smaller, more technically sound wrestlers who’d spent years performing in bingo halls and high school gyms before getting signed by WWE. 

But those kinds of performers often struggled to find their footing on the “main roster” (Smackdown and Raw, which airs Mondays on USA Network), where WWE CEO Vince McMahon prefers to showcase bigger performers and elite athletes, like Francis, so WWE’s performer pipeline shifted to better align with that vision. The change has incited some backlash from wrestling purists, but Francis doesn’t believe he has to prove anything to that portion of the fan base, especially now that he’s on Smackdown

Francis is an athlete, but even more than that, he’s an entertainer. Professional wrestling is a vibrant blend of physicality and machismo, a morality play in which performers take on larger-than-life personas. It’s a natural fit for the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Francis, whose lively personality won him fans during a football career that winded through D.C. 

“He was blessed with the gift of gab,” says Kenny Lucas, his football coach at Gonzaga College High School in Northwest D.C.

And Francis is part of a long line of former football players to transition to professional wrestling, including WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns and WWE champion Big E, who played college football at Georgia Tech and Iowa, respectively. Francis has designs on reaching their heights, and he isn’t afraid to say it.

“I won’t be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished until I get the WWE Championship,” Francis says. “I’ll say that till the cows come home.”

Francis learned to wrestle through osmosis. From his baby chair, he watched with his father as Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and the rest of McMahon’s band of heroes and villains danced across the screen. Not long after he learned to speak, Francis began challenging house visitors to wrestling matches, projecting his voice into a toy Fisher-Price microphone. His late mother, Carrie Leanne, and Mike bought him a trampoline, which he used to stage matches involving the neighborhood kids. 

Professional wrestling is not offered as a varsity sport, so in middle school Francis threw himself into football. He earned a scholarship to Gonzaga, waking at 5 a.m. and riding the MARC train into D.C. For Francis, who was 3 when he encountered his first crack cocaine pipe while on a walk in his neighborhood, the swanky private school was a portal into another world.

“D.C. showed him who he could be,” Mike says. “We were the poorest family at Gonzaga, I’m sure.”

Francis says he wanted to build a life similar to that of his classmates’ wealthy parents and football was the most accessible route. After a senior season that included being named to the Washington Post’s All-Met first team, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Maryland. Francis was a productive college lineman, but he shone brightest in the interview room, with microphones and cameras in his face. It was like he was 3 again, cutting wrestling promos on opponents. 

After not getting selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, Francis signed with the Miami Dolphins. He bounced around practice squads before earning some minimal playing time in 2015, with the Dolphins and the Seattle Seahawks. In 2017, he played six games for Washington and recorded 18 tackles, but after not finding a home the following season, Francis realized it was time to move on. In search of his future, he turned to his past.  

His passion for professional wrestling had been reinvigorated in April 2014, when he traveled to New Orleans for WrestleMania 30. Seated just off the floor inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Francis absorbed the crowd’s crackling energy and knew he needed to find a way inside the ring one day. When Brock Lesnar defeated The Undertaker, snapping the legend’s 21-match WrestleMania undefeated streak, WWE cameras zoomed in on Francis’ astonished face. 

Francis got the WrestleMania 30 logo tattooed on his arm. 

“They always talk about [WWE Hall of Famer] Edge being in the crowd [as a fan] at WrestleMania VI,” Francis says. “I know eventually they’re going to run that WrestleMania 30 [highlight] package for me all the time.”

Francis enrolled at the Team 3D Academy in Florida, a wrestling school run by WWE Hall of Famers Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley, and after about a year on the independent scene, he signed a developmental contract with WWE in January 2020.

A.J. Francis, right, poses with the Rock. Credit: Courtesy Mike Francis

His knowledge of the scripted sport is undeniable. That’s part of the reason he was tapped to host WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures, an A&E show that premiered in April and saw Francis travel the country in search of historic memorabilia. He got to meet some of his childhood heroes, like Kane and The Undertaker. 

It was with those legends’ advice fresh in his mind that Francis debuted May 4 as a “heel,” or a bad guy, using the stage name Top Dolla. He aligned with Isaiah “Swerve” Scott, Ashante “Thee” Adonis, and B-Fab to form Hit Row, a group loosely based on Suge Knight’s Death Row Records label. 

The character is hardly a leap for Francis, who’s been rapping since he was a teenager and has released several music videos. On Aug. 24, Francis performed in his first main event, along with Scott and Adonis, against three members of a warring faction, Legado Del Fantasma. At one juncture, Francis managed to corral all three of his opponents—two on his back, one in his arms—and parade around the ring, looking mean into the camera, before dropping the trio to the ground.

Mike leapt from his couch and pounded his desk over and over—wham! wham! wham! The internet wrestling community was abuzz, and not for the last time, Francis hopes.

“I came here to be WWE Champion, and I came here to main event WrestleMania. If you didn’t come here to do that, you’re in the wrong business,” Francis says. “If that ruffles some people’s feathers, I don’t care.”