This past Friday on SmackDown, Jey Uso cut a promo that blurred the lines of storyline and reality.
Standing in the center of the ring, Uso spoke with conviction about his journey in wrestling. Listening to every word he spoke was his cousin, Roman Reigns, WWE’s premiere star.
“I’ve been battling this my whole life,” said Uso. “You’ve been number one, Uce. You’ve been on top. ‘There goes ‘The Big Dog’, ‘There goes Roman Reigns’, ‘There goes Mr. Main Event, Mr. WrestleMania.’ You know what they say when they see me, Uce? ‘Which one are you?’”
The words, genuine and raw, captured the essence of the Jey Uso story. But the result was no different than it has been for the past 20 years. All eyes in the WWE ThunderDome fixated on Reigns for his reaction, a response Uso is more than familiar with when standing beside his larger-than-life cousin.
“You’re watching the same story from when we were growing up,” said Uso, who is 35-year-old Josh Fatu. “People always noticed Roman. It happened when we were kids on the football field. It happened when Roman was prom king and my brother was in the prom court. I was just sitting over there on the side waiting to congratulate them when they got off the stage.
“This is what I’ve been doing my whole life, trying to compete with them. Trying to show I’m just as good. I hear the doubters, I’ve heard them my whole life. I’m going to open up their eyes, starting in this match against Roman.”
Uso challenges Reigns for the Universal Championship at Sunday’s Clash of Champions show. This is not a match that was ever expected to headline a pay per view, but the landscape in WWE is significantly different than it was six years ago. Due to concerns over COVID-19, Reigns chose to voluntarily step away from WWE earlier this year after the birth of his newborn twins. He missed WrestleMania, a show in which he was already on the marquee, long held as a cardinal sin in pro wrestling. But Reigns holds the leverage with WWE, as the company needs his star power and ability to spark continued interest in their product. WWE has no brighter star than Reigns, so Vince McMahon was willing to extend liberties to Reigns during their negotiations leading up to his return at SummerSlam.
Reigns is back in his role as the lead of SmackDown, no doubt pleasing executives at Fox, and finally received the opportunity to portray a more realistic, cutting edge character. He has more say in his promos, and there is even a new alliance with Paul Heyman, all of which Reigns wanted. And he also wanted input on his opponents, and it just so happened that one of wrestling’s most dynamic talents—and one he loves like a brother—was sitting on the sidelines. Jey Uso has the ability to make magic in the ring, but he has been off television since this past spring following Jimmy Uso tearing his ACL in a ladder match. There was no storyline for Jey without Jimmy, until Reigns stepped in and changed the course of his career.
Uso is best known for his work as one-half of The Usos. Six-time tag team champions over the past decade, The Usos have worked as crowd favorites and villains, evolving and maturing every week on live television. There are certainly benefits to a weekly spot on television, but drawbacks also exist. Uso was arrested for a DUI in January 2018, a moment that was exacerbated on social media.
“I knew I made a mistake,” said Uso. “I thought all my hard work was gone, thought I was going to get fired. I spent damn near two years beating myself down for that. On social media, you get hit hard. All my sacrifice, all my work, I thought it was all going to slip away. My wife was a positive force, she carried me through the toughest of times. I cried some tears, but she kept me moving forward.”
Viewers were introduced to Uso’s wife Takecia on the Chronicle: Jey Uso special that was just released on the WWE Network. Uso shared some of their intimate details, like falling in love with her in the ninth grade, then seeing that love evolve in an entirely new way while raising two children with her.
“My wife is more than my tag partner, she’s my life partner,” said Uso. “I have so much love and respect for her in my heart. She catches the good and the bad, all the hurt and grumpiness of this business and life. But she gets me ready for this, every single week, and she has for the past 10 years. We’ve sacrificed together. All my success is her success, too. We’ve done this together.”
The son of pro wrestler Rikishi, Uso knew about the sacrifice that went into pro wrestling. He remembered the stretches—months at a time—where the most time he got with his father was through watching him on television. He can still recall his mother’s loneliness, forever waiting for her husband to return home, and the manner in which his father’s bags were again packed up so soon after returning. Now that Uso has given his life to the business, he understands that, right or wrong, it is the sole way to succeed.
“There isn’t any other way to do it,” said Uso. “This business is your life. A lot of the young homies who’ve come in recently, they treat this like they signed up for a job at Enterprise Car Rental. They’ll see. This is a full-time grind. You need to put this before your family if you want it.
“This business will swallow you up. I missed 10 of my oldest son’s birthdays, I missed six birthdays of my younger son. The hotel life, the airport life, that’s where we live. I always thought this was physical, but I was wrong. It’s a mental game. A lot of blood has been shed to get here.”
A critical piece of success in wrestling is presentation. Stars needs to present themselves in a believable manner while still carrying an elusive, unattainable aura to their fan base. Uso captured a piece of that as a tag team wrestler, but he is venturing into an altogether different terrain as a singles wrestler, especially in the main event.
“This is my chance to get catapulted into a spotlight I’ve never seen,” said Uso. “I’ve always had my eyes on the prize, which was the tag titles. A singles main event? I don’t know anything about that.
“I’m damn near terrified. It’s all happening so quick. It would feel way different with anyone else, but I’m with Roman. He brings out a different side in me.”
The storyline between Roman Reigns and Jey Uso has the possibility of being rich and complex. There are shades of Bret Hart-Owen Hart, a captivating wrestling program from decades past that worked so effectively only because Bret fought for his younger brother to have a moment in the spotlight. History is again repeating itself, as a different family steeped in wrestling tradition looks to light the effervescent fire perpetually burning within the WWE torch.
There is far more at stake than a title belt. Uso is attempting, 10 years into his WWE tenure, to change the narrative of his career. And he needs to find a way to accomplish that against Roman Reigns, who drips with such charisma that those around him inevitably need to bundle up from the cold of standing in the wide shadow he casts.
“Roman always steals the scene, I know that,” said Uso. “I’ve been asking myself, ‘Am I on the same level as Roman? Do I believe that?’ Damn right I do, and that’s what I need to prove.”
Uso enters his match against Reigns at Clash of Champions with heavy shoulders. He will be thinking about his brother Jimmy, who has yet to be afforded this type of opportunity. In his heart, he is carrying the spirit of his uncle, Eddie “Umaga” Fatu, the man responsible for bringing Jimmy and Jey into pro wrestling. Another weight to carry is the legacy of his father. Rikishi dedicated his entire life to wrestling, and though he was honored with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, he fell short of establishing himself as a main-eventer. It is rarified air in wrestling, the spot everyone wants but few attain.
“I have to find out who I really am,” said Uso. “Am I worthy of this? Will people believe in me? Have all these sacrifices been worth it? This is the biggest match in my career, and it’s not what I expected. I expected the biggest match of my career to be tagging with my brother. This is different, but I know I’m ready.”
Uso takes comfort knowing he will not be alone when he enters his first-ever singles main event. Standing across from Reigns, he also proudly carries the ghosts of those who never had this opportunity—his father; his late uncle Eddie, who gave his life to wrestling; and his brother Jimmy.
“I’m bringing all of them with me,” said Uso. “It’s going to be a damn family reunion. This is going to be a moment for all of us, and they’re going to see that I am ready for this moment.”