Eight months ago, Christian Brigham stepped onto the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport to board a flight to Orlando.
The brisk February air that Monday morning was quite familiar to Brigham, a Massachusetts native who wrestled throughout New England for six years as Christian Casanova. And as the clock struck nine and he settled into his coach seat on the American Airlines jet, Brigham understood the opportunity in front of him.
In his luggage, he carried hopes and dreams of a career in WWE. And while he boarded the plane as Brigham, he disembarked—not completely unlike Clark Kent leaving the phone booth as Superman—as Carmelo Hayes.
“I came to Florida with four bags of clothes,” Hayes says. “That’s it. No car, no furniture, nothing else. Sitting on that flight, I knew this was my opportunity at a fresh start. I struggled for a long time, just like a lot of people in this industry. I struggled and I sacrificed—with work, relationships, finance. I gave up a lot and lost a lot in pursuit of a full-time wrestling career. I gave up a lot to pave this path, and I worked my a-- off until I got signed. That’s why I was so ready once I got here.”
Eight months after that one-way flight, Hayes is the reigning NXT North American champion. He is now part of photo ops beside Shawn Michaels and conducting interviews with assorted media, all with every intention of turning NXT into his show. And it is remarkable how quickly Hayes became an integral part of NXT, beginning with his debut match against Kushida in June. That was also the night he made Michaels a believer in his work, a pivotal moment for the 27-year-old.
“We have PC Live matches, which are live events in front of the coaches. I performed in front of Shawn once or twice, and then he saw me wrestle Kushida on TV,” Hayes says. “I’d never been signed before I came here and I had no television experience until I got here. This is my first contract, and that match against Kushida was my first-ever TV match.
“After the match, we spoke. I told him I didn’t want to be on 205 Live—I wanted to be a top guy. So I shot my shot and asked him to help me. And then I put the pressure on myself to be that top guy.”
Another critical moment for Hayes took place later that month when he wrestled former NXT centerpiece Adam Cole. The 12-minute encounter was a stage for Hayes, a former indie standout, to showcase he has the veritable chops to make it on the industry’s grandest stage.
“That match was a test,” Hayes says. “If that match doesn’t go the way it goes, I’m not sure I get my opportunity to do what I did in the Breakout Tournament.”
The next breakout opportunity for Hayes was exactly that. He defeated Josh Briggs, Duke Hudson and then Odyssey Jones in the NXT Breakout Tournament. Before the tourney final in August, he thought back on his initial concerns during the recent NXT 2.0 reboot.
“I’d read all the same things online, that NXT was going toward big guys and all this other stuff,” Hayes says. “So if that was true, I thought that Odyssey was going to win the whole thing. But I beat Briggs, Duke and then Odyssey, the three biggest guys in the tournament.”
Hayes has made a career out of focusing on the areas he can control. That includes enhancing his look, presence, promos and in-ring work at the WWE Performance Center. And he has delivered every single time he has appeared on television, becoming the first to stand out in that role in NXT’s newest era. He even won the North American title in convincing fashion, cashing in on his title opportunity by defeating Isaiah “Swerve” Scott on Oct. 12.
Overflowing with charisma and ability, Hayes has the potential to one day become a WrestleMania main-eventer.
“They trust me and I trust myself,” Hayes says. “So I’m just going to keep working and keep grinding. I have one speed, and that’s full speed. That’s why I got this opportunity. I treat every day like it’s WrestleMania.”
Hayes has kept his inner circle small, primarily spending his time with Trick Williams, Parker Boudreaux and Bronson Rechsteiner (aka Bron Breakker). That crew is full of ambition, looking to become the signature stars of Raw and SmackDown for the foreseeable future.
“Those are my boys,” Hayes says. Those are the only people I’m close with, and we’re here to put in the work.”
Now afforded the single most valuable commodity in pro wrestling—TV time—Hayes is ready to showcase his talents to the world.
“I plan on making this North American championship the championship,” he says. “I don’t care if that pisses people off. I’m truly going to do that. I’m not just happy to be here. I’m here to be great.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.