Aleister Black was not always covered in tattoos. But even when he wasn’t, he still longed to be covered in a combination of art and ink.
“My mom can vouch for this,” said Black. “I was nine when I told her, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to get a bunch of tattoos.’ And she said, ‘Sure you are.’ I came home with the quarter-sleeve when I was 19 and she said, ‘You weren’t kidding!’”
Black has used his body as a canvas to collect tattoos, capturing a piece of his soul on his exterior.
“I only thought I’d get one arm done at first,” explained Black. “One arm turned into the other arm. Then I started tattooing my lower arms. I remember saying, ‘Mom, don’t worry, I’m never going to do anything on my neck.’ Then I went to my neck and my chest and my legs, and I kept on progressing from there.”
Black, whose name is Tom Budgen, doesn’t count his tattoos. Instead, he sees only one, interwoven across him, exposing yet empowering him. Tattoos are one of only two sources of fascination Black has had since childhood. The other? Professional wrestling.
“My mother will vouch for this, too,” said Black. “I was six years old when I first said, ‘I want to be a professional wrestler.’ And my mom said, ‘If that’s what you want, OK.’ 28 years later, here we are.”
Wrestling and tattoos aren’t all that different. They are both fields filled with passion, with artwork that is entirely subjective. There is more connective tissue between the two, as the pain involved in both is requisite for the chance to create.
“These are the two things I am obsessed with,” said Black. “I’ll gladly sit through the pain for them.”
Raised in Amsterdam, Black quickly became enamored with pro wrestling. But he was not dreaming of becoming the next “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Shawn Michaels, or Bret Hart. His childhood heroes plied their trade in the same squared circle, just on a different continent.
“I watched New Japan growing up, and later WCW,” said Black, who listed Hayabusa, Yuji Nagata, Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask and Toshiaki Kawada as his early influences. “I loved the Japanese wrestlers.
“I was a big fan of the more Mexican-based wrestlers when I started watching WCW, and I saw guys like Silver King, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Mysterio. And where I come from, we have this European heritage with World of Sport with guys like Johnny Saint, Johnny Kidd, ‘Rollerball’ Mark Rocco, Robbie Brookside. I was always intrigued by the ‘wrestler’ wrestlers.”
Black finally saw a WWE pay-per-view for the first time when he was 15, unaware that his wrestling destiny would lead him exactly there.
One of WWE’s most mysterious figures, Black’s backstory is as compelling as his in-ring repertoire. A middle child, he has an older brother and younger sister. Competition has always been an area where he flourished, and strengths in his formative years were karate, kickboxing, and swimming.
“I’m lanky and I’ve always been lanky, but I was a really good athlete,” said Black, who was asked to be on the Dutch National Youth swim team. “Everything I’ve ever done in sports, I’ve done at a high level. I had a passion for what I was doing, and I had to be the best at everything.”
Black remains extremely grateful for the sacrifices made by his parents, who instilled a relentless drive in their children through their daily actions.
“We grew up pretty poor,” said Black. “Dad worked his tail off to provide, Mom did the same. My dad would go to work at 6:30 in the morning, come home at 4:30 in the afternoon, then he would work side jobs. They always found a way to keep money coming in. Despite there not being a lot of money, they made sure there was food on the table, no matter what it took. That’s why I have that work ethic where I can’t stop. I have to keep going.”
Now residing in Florida, or, more accurately, wherever the WWE lands next, home will forever be back in the Netherlands.
‘I spent most of my youth in Amsterdam,” said Black. “That’s a place I always miss. Every single time I come home, which is not too often, everything feels the same and it feels like I never left.”
Black is also his own harshest critic. A self-described eternal pessimist, he refused to allow himself to believe his success would ever be industry-wide.
“Every year that I was doing professional wrestling and I would gain momentum, I would think, ‘Well, that’s about as good as it’s going to get,’” he explained. “I never wanted to get ahead of myself. I’d wrestle in four European countries one year, then the next year I wrestled in eight European countries. So I said, ‘It’s never going to get any bigger than this.’ Then I took off in the United Kingdom, and I thought the same thing. We wrestled on TV in France, and I thought that was the biggest thing I’d ever do. It kept building and building and building, but I kept telling myself that it would never get any bigger or better.”
Despite building a name for himself across the European indie wrestling scene, Black forced himself to stay hungry.
“I kept myself reserved while also pushing myself forward,” said Black. “There was a very natural progression about it, and it felt like my destiny, but I just didn’t want to shout it too loud. I was afraid, that if I did, my accomplishments would no longer expand. I needed to keep myself back in order to go forward.”
Black worked as Tommy End in his pre-WWE days, convincing himself that he could not use his own name in wrestling.
“I started training wrestling in the pre-social media era and I was very cautious–I thought, ‘I can’t have people know my real last name,’” said Black. “So I changed my last name to End because I always called myself ‘The End.’ I thought that was cool. I thought I’d take my real first name and my ‘fake’ last name, and that’s how I came up with Tommy End.”
If you are eager to know more about Tommy End, keep watching Aleister Black. End displayed his raw ability across the indies, including sojourns to the United States, showcasing a violent, yet Zen-like approach.
Despite five years passing since he last worked a match on the indies, Black’s love is unyielding for the indie scene, a place that bestowed upon him the platform to evolve.
“Tommy End brought the grounds for what is now Aleister Black,” said Black. “It allowed me to earn my craft, see the world, become a better wrestler, experience many cultures, and evolve. I hold my heart out to the independent scene, and I always keep an eye on it. The independents made sure this could happen.”
Black stood out, as most originals do, generating enough notoriety to the point that he caught the attention of Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
“The good thing about what Hunter did, or as I call him, ‘Boss,’ he believed in me and he never tried to change me,” said Black. “He told me, ‘I signed you for you. Don’t be something you’re not. Never forget that.’
Overjoyed with the praise and thankful for the compliments, Black signed with WWE in January of 2016, reporting directly to the Performance Center in Orlando. He then endured the worst stretch of his professional career.
“When I started in NXT, I felt super insecure,” said Black. “For a very long time, I was completely lost. I lost my identity, I lost all sense of who I was.”
There are times, Black explained, when one must be completely destroyed in order to be rebuilt.
“That’s part of this process,” said Black. “It’s a process that is not pretty, but it’s something every professional has to go through. That’s helped to understand myself a lot better, not just as a performer but as a human being.”
Black found his sweet spot in NXT. Matches with Andrade seized the attention of power brokers within WWE, and he had the versatility to perform compelling matches against top-tier talent like Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano and unproven entities like Lars Sullivan, as well as work seamlessly in a tag team with Ricochet.
The transition to the main roster did not come without difficulty. Black has not been an overnight success for WWE, but rather has tapped into his resilience and persistence to ensure his talent would be impossible to overlook. He has finally gained legitimate momentum, capitalizing upon his increasing television time on Raw and looking impressive in victory against Bobby Lashley at this year’s WrestleMania.
Black has never had an opportunity like the one this Sunday at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, where Black will risk his body to elevate his status in the undeniably captivating world of pro wrestling. And we’ll also learn on Sunday whether there is a better result of the men’s Money in the Bank ladder match than Black calmly following around WWE Champion Drew McIntyre with his Money in the Bank briefcase in hand.
Black’s most ardent supporter in WWE is his wife, Zelina Vega, but not far behind is a kindred spirit in creative mastermind Paul Heyman.
“I’ve always been a little bit of an outcast myself, and I don’t say that to be edgy,” said Black. “It’s the way I lived my life. Paul Heyman knows what it’s like to be different. Paul was once different, Paul was once the outcast. We don’t have the conformity bone, not that there is anything wrong with it. It just wasn’t for us. Paul saw that in me.
“Paul Heyman is known for his eccentric approach and his aggressive approach to this business. He’s revolutionized professional wrestling. Whether people want to admit that or not, Paul Heyman is a crucial and vital part of how professional wrestling and independent professional wrestling is shaped. He makes you think, he makes you advance, and he makes you a better version with what you already have.”
Mystique and aura represent two of Black’s most powerful weapons. A proud atheist, there are very few WWE stars that can instantaneously convert serenity into a violent eruption quite like Black.
“The calm to the rage part, that is very similar to me,” said Black, who embeds a great deal of his own personality into the character. “A lot of patience until the flip switches to that anger and rage. And I have interest in world religion. Because of that, I started reading about the occult and I started reading about the things that are not so common in our society. I’ve always used that look, that aesthetic, that idea inside the character because I felt it made him intriguing. I always describe Aleister Black as a conspiracy theory.”
There is still so much to learn about Black. He has the chance to make a lasting impression at Money in the Bank, but what he truly desires will not happen this week or next. Black’s ambition to reach the top of the company will not be accomplished by climbing a corporate ladder, but rather by a deep, intrinsic connection with his audience.
“I’m not done creating Aleister Black," he said. "I keep finding new dimensions to him, ways to present him and express him, and the fans are such a vital essence to the character. If they’re not giving me that emotional response, I don’t know where to go with it. I need them to reach the next level.”