WWE's Aleister Black discusses potential career changes - Sports Illustrated

Aleister Black: 'I Want People to Understand This Character to the Fullest Extent'

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What's next for WWE's Aleister Black?

The newest iteration of the WWE Draft is underway, and it is designed as a way to reset and reboot the shows for the upcoming six months of television–or whenever Vince McMahon determines it is time for the next shake-up.

Aleister Black is one of the stars that could benefit most from a new home. He looked to be on the verge of stardom this past spring, standing out as one of the top acts on Raw. But even with a recent heel turn, that momentum has waned, and a chance to move to SmackDown and challenge Roman Reigns, or even return to NXT, would allow Black the chance to enter the main event and show his worth to the wrestling world.

The 35-year-old Tom Budgen, who grew up in the Netherlands and is married to WWE star Zelina Vega, offers one of the most captivating presentations in all of wrestling as Aleister Black. He is physical and intense in the ring, showcasing a style that blends incredibly well with his look. If given the chance to return to NXT, Black–a former NXT Champion–would make for a tremendous opponent for Finn Balor, who is the reigning champ.

Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Black discussed his future and detailed the importance of making sure there is clarity and a complete understanding of the motives and mindset of the Aleister Black character.

Justin Barrasso: The WWE Draft is always fun to watch. For the wrestlers, it is more unique this time, since it doesn’t equate to a new travel schedule with everyone performing out of the ThunderDome in Orlando. Aleister Black’s destination will be announced tonight on Raw, and there is so much WWE can do with your character. How do you feel about the draft?

Aleister Black: I think the draft offers an opportunity for myself to have shining moments wherever I go. If I remain on Raw, I have business to conduct there. If I go to SmackDown, it opens up an entire new array of opponents and superstars I can compete with. If I get drafted to NXT, I can continue a legacy that I was already building. I was part of a changing tide in NXT, and I can bring NXT to a new level from what I’ve gained on Raw and SmackDown over the past year-and-a-half.

There is an upside to being drafted to SmackDown, there is an upside to being drafted to NXT, and there is an upside to staying on Raw. The change is not about wrestling on a different day. The interesting part for me is about a different set of competitors and a different mindset for those competitors on their respective brands.

Barrasso: There is so much untapped potential for you in WWE, when different layers were presented and your motivations were detailed and explained. No matter the brand, is that the goal moving forward–making sure the WWE audience understands who Aleister Black is and what he stands for?

Black: I think the reason for that is we moved so far away from what Aleister Black was in NXT that people started getting confused about what exactly Aleister Black was supposed to be. After a few conversations, I said, ‘I need a different direction.’ That led to the creation of this new Aleister Black, where he is a little more human and people can latch on to him quicker. Being human doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be a good guy. It also can mean that it is a villain, and you can better understand the motives of where the character comes from. You don’t have to agree with the motives to understand them, but the motive had got lost for Aleister Black on the main roster.

The opportunities presented on Raw and SmackDown are this great chessboard. Aleister Black, he feels that he has never had the opportunity to do what he needs to do. If he doesn’t get those opportunities, he’s going to burn the whole chessboard. If that means he’s sent to purgatory, that’s fine, because he’s been in purgatory. If you want to take it one step further and send him to hell, that’s fine, too. He’s accustomed to hell, his whole childhood was spent there.

If Aleister Black doesn’t get his opportunity, then no one does. That is a much more relatable antagonistic way of looking at things. Before, that motive wasn’t as clear. A few months ago, what did he stand for? He was fighting for himself, then he got entangled with Rey Mysterio, and that left himself open to vicious beatings each week. It seemed like he never learned from his mistakes, which is strange for Aleister, because he seems so calculated. That got shuffled away a little bit.

Barrasso: You mentioned working with Rey Mysterio. More recently, you have been in a program with Kevin Owens. What have stood out as your highlights during this run on Raw?

Black: Although for a lot of people it seemed like Aleister Black never really got his shot or his chance, Aleister Black was injected into so many different storylines with so many different high-level people that it’s been a highly successful period. I’ve been entangled with some of the biggest names in this industry. I had a short-lived program with AJ Styles that involved The Undertaker. I was involved with Rey Mysterio, and that also involved Seth Rollins. Before that, myself and Buddy Murphy had a chance to prove to the world that there is a new way of doing things, a style that showed there is an evolution to the business that still upholds old-school fundamentals and pacing. Some fans may feel like I haven’t gotten my due, but please look at the body of work I’ve laid down. I still did a lot of things and made myself a valuable asset, and I’ve proven over the past two years that Aleister Black can be thrown in with anyone and be successful.

Barrasso: And the versatility serves you well moving forward. On that subject, what is the goal moving forward? I don’t necessarily think Aleister Black will ever be defined by titles, but a run with the WWE or Universal Championship would be special, which means you could have a program with Drew McIntyre or Roman Reigns. Also, if you stay on SmackDown, a great fit would be challenging Otis for the Money in the Bank briefcase. What would you like to see happen next?

Black: Initially, I want to establish this character. I want to establish this entrance, I want to establish this aesthetic. I want people to understand this character to the fullest extent. My character has always been designed to generate a response. I want this character to be a fundamental piece within the WWE universe that is understood and can move forward on this chessboard, and eventually get to the point where we have title matches. If those title matches somehow fail, then what is the consequence? Then what happens? I don’t want to do this for a while, then do that for a while. I want there to be multiple outros and intros for any type of storyline where I get involved.

Barrasso: Your style is vastly different from Reigns and McIntyre, but you would add so much to a program with either of them. McIntyre’s run since WrestleMania has been excellent, but so many of his opponents were ones that Kofi Kingston also built stories with during his title reign the year prior. A McIntyre-Black story would be different, and you would also bring out a different gear in Reigns, plus it would be a story that also involves Paul Heyman. What excites you most about the potential of those matchups?

Black: Those are two things I would absolutely want to do. For Roman, I feel like this is the best work he’s ever done. Roman is in that super rare spot where he is so comfortable in the role that his confidence is Level 1000. Everything is presented in a way that is super organic, it makes you think he’s not even playing a character. To be honest, I don’t think he is playing a character. I think this is playing to every strength of Roman Reigns, of which there are a lot.

I’d love to be entangled with Roman and Paul, and I’ve spoken with Paul about this before. There are a lot of things that move the different pieces on that chessboard, getting me to checkmates, and that’s one of them.

When it comes to Drew, he is a true competitor. Drew is a goliath, a behemoth of a man, but he is also a giant in his dedication to this sport. Rarely do we see a redemption story the size of Drew McIntyre. He came in as the next big promise, then completely fell off, only to build himself back up and rise to the top. He’s carrying the WWE and the entire country of Scotland on his shoulders, and he’s not only good at it—he’s knocking it out of the park. Drew belongs in the position he’s in. He’s worked so hard for it and sacrificed so much.

If I were working with Drew, expect some of the hardest-hitting matches you’ve ever seen. There is no pulling punches with Drew, but there is also no pulling punches with me. As Europeans, we have more to prove that we belong on the American market, and this would be two hard-headed, hard-hitting Europeans going at it.

Barrasso: It’s so fascinating to get a glimpse inside your mind, especially considering that these are not all topics your character can discuss on television. This past Saturday was World Mental Health Day. You’ve touched on this before, but people can be paralyzed by anxiety and depression. Your voice has the ability to travel around the world. Do you have any words of advice or comfort to anyone struggling?

Black: The biggest problem is that, for people who have mental health problems, there are no words, there is no care, and there are no things you can say to someone having an anxiety attack or on the edge of what they’re mentally capable of. If the world starts to understand that part, it would mean a great deal. Sometimes, for people who have mental health problems, just being there is enough. Being able to let them talk and hear their voice. Even if you don’t understand what that person is going through, the fact that you’re there might make all the difference. The same goes for me and my wife. My wife doesn’t always understand what I’m going through, but the fact she’ll be in the room with me, there with me, makes all the difference. Knowing that there are people who care for you and won’t try to undermine what you’re feeling or influence how you should be feeling, that is very meaningful.

I heard someone the other day say, ‘Hey man, you just can’t take your work home with you.’ I wish it were that easy. But it’s not. It’s because I have that hyper-sensitivity and that hyper-anxiety that I take everything home. For people to understand that, that is where the difference is being made. Not in the, ‘Come on man, you’re going to be fine.’ That doesn’t help. But what does is, ‘Hey, I might not understand what you’re going through, but I’m here–if you want me to go, if you want me to stay.’ We shouldn’t tell people how to feel. For people with mental health problems, it sometimes takes hours or days. It has to click in your own brain. The metaphorical hand on the shoulder is often enough to help people. The understanding is needed.

Barrasso: Thank you for touching on that. We’re jumping around with the next question, but it is one important to your wrestling persona—right now, in October of 2020, are you happy with your entrance music?

Black: The entrance is not done yet. Everything you miss about the old entrance, there will be substitutes for them. It will come, but it’s going to take a second to get everything ready. Us pulling the trigger on the new music—could we have waited? Possibly, but we didn’t, so we got there the way we got there. But we’re not finished. The presentation of the new entrance is not done yet.

Barrasso: And that is definitely something for us to look forward to seeing. That also segues to my final question. No matter where you go next in terms of the WWE draft, when you reach that next level of success, do you feel you’ll be accomplishing it with your fan base?

Black: I have a very passionate fan base. I have people that will defend me until their death, which I’m very grateful for. I don’t care about naysayers. There will always be naysayers, so why waste energy on people that deliberately want to have a different opinion or a different view on you? They’re that way because I did something that agitates them or threatened them or made them feel insecure. Believe me, I’ve seen the most vile things come through from people that have never met me and know nothing about me. It’s weird that we live in a day and age with so much information in the world, but we base our opinion off what we read on Twitter or what we read on posts or what other people tell us. That tells me that some people don’t want to change, and they only want to hear the negative.

I want to evoke reactions. My fan base goes from people that absolutely defend me to their death all the way to people that hate my guts. And the second that things change, as they’ve done over the last couple weeks, there is a lot of outcry. There are a lot of people who are afraid, because of that change, that they will no longer connect with the essence of what Aleister Black is. That’s not the case, but it is different in today’s society to have long-term character development.

For people that have been involved in this character since day one, I want them to know they are with me at all times. Even if the character changes, I want them to change with him. You don’t have to be afraid that the core values of Aleister Black will ever change to the point where he is unrecognizable. Deep down inside, the same guy you loved before is still there—the character of Aleister Black is all about finding his way back to redemption. You can have an understanding for others while also sticking up for yourself.

A lot of my fan base are kids that are loners. They’re kids that get bullied in high schools because they look different, or feel different, or sound different, or have an affinity for different things in life and are judged because of that. That part of Aleister Black is still there. It’s just because the situation changed. Aleister Black changed, too. He felt more compromised than ever, and now he needs to fight that. My fan base, in due time, will change with me. There will be people who think this strays too far from the path, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s part of life. It’s natural that change happens. That’s a part of life, and that is something the character should reflect.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.