“People ask me all the time: Rinku, what are you doing?”
Sitting in a small dark room in front of a black curtain dotted with gold WWE and NXT logos, 29-year-old Rinku Singh poses the question that has followed him from his native India all the way to a nondescript office park in Orlando, thousands of miles from the home and life he was supposed to have. His audience is a small video camera positioned directly in front of him. Outside, a thunderstorm rips through the sticky heat of Florida in late spring, but here in the WWE Performance Center, the air is clean and cold. The only sound is Singh’s voice, even and lightly accented, as he walks his imaginary interrogator down the path that led him here.
“You had a great successful career in track and field,” he says, “and you were very close to going to the Olympics and representing our nation. Really, you’re going to the United States, where you don’t even know the language? And you’re leaving friends, family, and most importantly, your game, to become a professional baseball player?” He sits up. “Well, here I am. I conquered the track and field. I conquered the baseball. Now here I am, sitting in the WWE Performance Center and going after my dream.”
The promo that Singh is cutting—the little character monologue he’s doing—is exactly the kind of wrestling backstory you want: boastful, arrogant, larger than life. It also sounds as fake as the kicks and punches thrown in the ring. A baseball player from India who becomes a pro wrestler? That has to be, in the dense terminology of professional wrestling, a work—a scripted fib that everyone agrees to believe for the sake of the story being told.
But Singh’s tale is beyond even the writers at WWE. The 6’4”, 255-pound bruiser with long hair and a thick, jet-black beard really was once a lanky teenager with a wispy mustache hoping to become famous in a sport he’d never played or even heard of growing up. The world first knew Rinku Singh as the Million Dollar Arm, part of a grand experiment to put India on the MLB map. Ten years later, he has traded the baseball diamond for the squared circle, looking to become his country’s answer to the Million Dollar Man—the latest wild turn in a career full of surprises.
“Come join me,” Singh tells the camera, “and I’m going to show you the way to make your dreams come true.”
It was late on a summer night in Chicago in 2016, but in his hotel room on the Magnificent Mile, Rinku Singh couldn’t sleep.
It had been seven years since Singh had come to the United States on his quixotic quest, but after several seasons of grinding in the minor leagues, his baseball career looked finished. Arm injuries had stymied and exhausted him, and after one appearance in July, he had decided to step away from the game. It was time to find a new path. But what would it be?
It was hard to imagine it being more unlikely than his road to America. The son of a truck driver, Singh grew up on a farm in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, poor but not destitute. As a kid, he learned to throw the javelin, and was good enough at it to medal in a national competition as a teenager. But while training at a state-run athletic institute in 2008, he heard of a reality TV show that promised a big reward to anyone who could throw hard and with accuracy. It was called Million Dollar Arm.
The creation of sports agent J.B. Bernstein and entrepreneurs Ash Vasudevan and Will Chang, the premise of Million Dollar Arm was simple: In a nation of a billion people and where cricket was king, there had to be at least one person could throw a baseball well enough to pique the interest of a major league club. Over 30,000 people entered the contest, though the lefthanded Singh quickly stood out, for good and otherwise. “I saw video of Rinku,” Bernstein says, “and it looked like it was stuck, because he’s just standing there with one leg in the air and with the ball cocked. Then he lets this thing go, and it’s 87 mph. I said, no way, the gun has to be broken, or a car drove by.”
Though he knew nothing about baseball before taking part, a 19-year-old Singh ended up winning the entire competition, $100,000, and a trip to the United States along with runner-up Dinesh Patel, a fellow javelin thrower from the same state. Together, they came to Los Angeles in May 2008, where they lived with Bernstein and trained with USC pitching coach Tom House, in the hopes of signing a professional contract.
The early going was rough. “They couldn’t pitch, they couldn’t catch, they didn’t know the rules, they couldn’t speak English,” Bernstein says. “It was like starting with a six-year-old,” adds House. On the first day of training, he had to teach Singh and Patel how to use their gloves. Later, he had to enlighten Singh on the intricacies of a water fountain. “He was pushing the button with his right hand and drinking with his left,” House says. “He didn’t realize you had to bend over and slurp. I showed him how to do that, and he went, ‘Ah, American changeup.’”
Gradually, the two improved, and within six months, Singh and Patel were consistently throwing in the high 80s to low 90s. Bernstein scheduled a tryout for them in November in front of MLB general managers and scouts in Arizona. It went poorly, with their control and velocity both lacking, but a better second attempt in California garnered the attention of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“He had a good arm for not having thrown a baseball before,” says Joe Ferrone, one of two Pittsburgh scouts who watched Singh throw. “I remember being a little bit surprised that he wasn’t as raw as I would’ve thought.”
Seven months after coming to America unable to throw a baseball, Singh and Patel signed with the Pirates for $8,000. A storm of media attention soon followed: magazine stories, TV appearances, a visit with President Barack Obama, and film rights, which were bought by Columbia Pictures. The following spring, both were assigned to the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League team—the lowest level of the minors—in Bradenton, Fla., to begin their careers, with Singh making his debut on July 4 by working an inning of relief.
Patel’s time in baseball didn’t last long: just 13 2/3 innings across the ’09 and ’10 seasons before he was released, after which he returned to India. Singh, however, kept going, pitching not only in the minors but also in winter ball in Australia and the Dominican Republic. In 2012, he made it to the Class A South Atlantic League, just one level below Double A, and pitched well, with a 3.00 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 72 innings for the West Virginia Power.
But tendonitis in his pitching elbow suffered in Australia that winter turned into a torn ligament that required Tommy John surgery, costing Singh the entire 2013 season. Then he broke his elbow, which wiped out all of ‘14, followed by another elbow injury that knocked out ‘15 as well. By the start of the 2016 season, he hadn’t thrown a pitch in nearly four years, and though he remained in the public eye—the film Million Dollar Arm, chronicling the contest, was released in May 2014—his career had stalled out.
Singh finally got back on a mound in July 2016, but according to Vasudevan, now a close friend and advisor, he had become frustrated with and fatigued by the constant rehab. Singh, meanwhile, says he felt bad that he had been unable to contribute for so long. “If I’m not helping the team, I don’t want to be there,” he says. “I don’t want to take free paychecks.” He made one appearance that summer, throwing a scoreless inning, but that would be it. Nearly seven years to the day of his professional debut, Singh’s baseball career was over.
Now he was in Chicago, visiting friends and volunteering at the Lurie Children’s Hospital; community service had long been a favorite pastime of Singh’s. But he didn’t know what to do next. In conversations with his agent, Vasudevan, and others, he weighed heading to Arizona to prepare for the next baseball season. An offer to train as a football player in Los Angeles arrived, as did some interest from the UFC.
But one night, still unable to sleep, Singh reached out to his agent with an odd request: What about the WWE? Although he knew nothing about the sport and had watched little of it, the organization intrigued him because of its community outreach and how big of a platform it offered. He was drawn especially to superstar John Cena and his dedication to charity, particularly with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and wanted to make a similar impact on children. Having bulked up in muscle while rehabbing his injuries, he thought wrestling was something he could pull off. And though he’d never wrestled before, the challenge of learning it was something he welcomed.
“I’m the type of person, even though I know that I don’t know how to do things, I would never say no,” Singh says. “I would try my best until I get it.”
As his agent contacted WWE, Singh went home to India to see his family. While there, he heard back: Would he be interested in attending a tryout in Dubai the following April? Just like that, the next strange chapter of Singh’s story had begun.
The soundtrack of the WWE Performance Center is the thump of human bodies against canvas mats, like a timpani drum being smacked with a shovel. At any time, dozens of men and women work on bumps, kicks and the dizzying array of moves that go into making a professional wrestling match. Together, they practice and learn in the hopes of becoming the next crop of WWE stars.
First, they have to master the craft, and for that, they come to Orlando, where five years ago the WWE opened a gigantic complex that’s equal parts gym and school. Anywhere from 60 to 100 wrestlers—all part of NXT, the WWE’s talent development division and third brand behind Raw and Smackdown—train here, most with a background in the sport or from an adjacent athletic discipline, like football, bodybuilding, or MMA. Plenty, though, are complete novices like Singh, who on the morning of a late May day is rolling around a ring alongside three other trainees, all foreigners like him, under the watchful eye of former wrestler Norman Smiley.
For the next two hours, Smiley and two other coaches help guide Singh and his classmates through a series of holds, flips and grips. Singh, now in his fourth month with WWE, is paired off with Satender Dagar, another Indian and a former amateur wrestler who fights under the name of Jeet Rama and has been at the Center for three years. That might sound like a mismatch, but as they bounce off the ropes, you wouldn’t be able to tell that Rinku is the rookie. He moves gracefully and quickly, though he has to pause every now and then to reposition his hands and arms on holds and chokes.
Smiley, who possesses a slight British accent and a stunning resemblance to former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, is there for each step, calling out corrections and encouragement in equal measure. Once he’s done grappling, Singh retreats to a black-and-white composition notebook in which he takes down every piece of advice he gets from Smiley. He’s deeply inquisitive, peppering “Coach Norm,” as he calls him, with countless questions. “Rinku’s attitude is that he wants to learn everything today,” Smiley says.
Like baseball, Singh started his wrestling career from scratch. In Dubai at the tryout, his task was to stand out among several dozen other would-be wrestlers over a four-day test of skills and charisma. Matt Bloom, the wrestler formerly known as Prince Albert and now the WWE Performance Center’s head trainer, was there to evaluate candidates. Singh made an instant impression.
“He looked the part. You just knew that he was an athlete,” Bloom says. “And you could tell he was comfortable in front of the camera. We call that the It factor, and you could tell he had a touch of that.”
Wrestling-wise, though, Singh was completely raw. On the third day, Bloom and the trainers were demonstrating bumps—the wrestling term for a fall to the mat. Try as he might, Singh couldn’t get it right, but he was determined to learn the move no matter what it took.
“I came to my hotel room in Dubai, I put two beds together, and I started taking bumps until 3 AM by myself,” Singh says. “I got at least 14 or 15 phone calls complaining, people knocking on my door, what the heck is going on up there? I got only two or three hours of sleep.” The next morning at the tryout, he called the coaches over and showed off a textbook bump. “[They] looked at me like what have you been doing? I said, you wanted to see a bump, right? That’s what real athletes do. I got it right.” A spot in Orlando was soon his.
“Clearly he’s a quick learn and an amazing athlete, and he had the right look and big charisma,” says Paul Levesque, currently WWE’s executive vice president of talent but best known from his days in the ring as Triple H, one of the sport’s biggest ever stars. “He has all the tools.”
Since arriving at the Performance Center in January, Singh has shown that same aptitude. “He’s ahead of the curve,” Bloom says. “I can’t tell you how impressed I am by him.”
“For him to adapt as quickly as he has is very impressive,” says Smiley, who’s been coaching for the last 10 years. “He is devoted to this.”
That dedication to the craft is Singh’s calling card across sports. Ask any manager of his from his baseball days, and they’ll rave about his work ethic and desire. “He’s very ambitious,” says Phillies minor league pitching coach Steve Schrenk, who oversaw Singh during one of his winter ball stops in Australia. “He always wanted to do more, learn more.”
“Any time you asked about Rinku, it was always he’s first in conditioning, first in the clubhouse in the morning,” says former Pirates scout Sean Campbell. “He just struck me as a person who wanted to do anything possible to reach his goals.”
Singh constantly talks up the virtues of working hard and perseverance; if wrestling doesn’t work out, he could easily slide into a career as a motivational speaker. “How bad do you want success?” he asks while taping another promo. “Do you want it as bad as [air]? If you do, you’ll have it.” Whether he sticks with his Tony Robbins in spandex routine remains to be seen, but even if he doesn’t, his background and career make for easy selling points.
“If you did not know that about Rinku and he walked into a room, people would be like, that guy has something about him,” Bloom says. “And then you find out about his backstory and you’re like, oooh.”
“We can all talk about the American dream and whether it’s dead, and all I say is, look at Rinku Singh,” Bernstein says. “He’s like an athletic entrepreneur.”
But his story is more than just exciting fodder for WWE’s writers, should Singh make it that far. It also helps explain why he’s here, getting slammed into the mat day after day and waking up bruised and stiff every morning. He’d never held a baseball before the age of 19, and yet he threw himself into the sport like he’d grown up every day dreaming of major league glory. “I put my body through hell to make that happen,” he says. “As an athlete, I always wanted to do more and more. It was never enough.”
Singh wants to be a star. Baseball was his first attempt at that, and when it didn’t work out, he found a new challenge and embraced it, just as he did when he was trying to learn a changeup or a pickoff throw. His goals, he says, are many—inspire people, be a role model for Indians around the world, make kids happy—but the driving force through all of it is simply to succeed at his task, no matter how hard it is. The road from MLB to the WWE has had few if any travelers, but while no one could have predicted Singh would make this exact career switch, it’s not a shock that this—trying to shine on an unexpected stage—is where he ended up.
“Rinku was an experimenter, eclectic, bubbly,” says Tom House. “That’s just the way his brain works. He’s a surprise waiting to happen.”
In baseball, Singh could never get out of the minor leagues, but in the WWE, he’s already making progress toward the bright lights of a bigger stage. In June, he took part in his first house shows, or live performances in front of paying crowds—one a singles match against established NXT star Kassius Ohno in Tampa as a face (or good guy), and the other a battle royale in small Fort Pierce on Florida’s southeast coast. More should follow, and both Bloom and Levesque believe that within the next year Singh could be starring on taped NXT matches, which air online on the subscription-based WWE Network. He still has much to learn before that can happen, but he’s confident that a place in the WWE universe is his if he puts in the work.
“I’ve been through a lot in my journey, and I’ve learned from it,” Singh says. “I have a lot of examples where I didn’t believe in myself and it didn’t matter how hard I worked, it didn’t happen. If I believe in myself, and if you’re totally committed that you’re going to make it happen, it’s going to happen for you.”
From baseball player to wrestler, from India to Orlando, Singh has made a life out of ending up where you least expect him to be. His dreams are grand and outlandish, but that has yet to slow him down. The world will know him once more.
“If you’re willing to do something in your life bigger than yourself, you can make that happen, and Rinku Singh is the example,” he says. “The journey is not at an end yet.”