Ali Khaled, Dubai
Saudi wrestler Mansoor will never forget the moment he felt like a true WWE superstar for the first time.
“It was incredible, that was my first ever one-on-one match on a big stage, in front of 60,000 people in my home town,” he said. “My family was there, my friends were there, some people I hadn’t seen for years were there. I was feeling really nervous beforehand, I’d never been tested on such a huge scale.”
It was Oct. 31, 2019 and waiting in the ring at Crown Jewel at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh that day was WWE legend Cesaro, someone Mansoor, real name Mansoor Al-Shehail, considered an inspiration.
“Once I got out there and saw the people of Riyadh and looked into the eyes of my father, my brother, my sister, I knew that I was born to do this,” he said.
“To wrestle someone like Cesaro, who is an incredible athlete, was amazing. I think that a lot of people didn’t really know how that was going to go because I hadn’t really been tested before. I think that I surprised a lot of people, not that I won, but that the match was very exciting and I think that made a lot of people very happy. I’m very proud of that match.”
Now other Saudi wrestlers are being given the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.
Ahead of Super ShowDown taking place in Riyadh on Feb. 27, WWE has announced it will return to Saudi Arabia in search of the next generation of superstars by holding a four-day open talent tryout in Riyadh in early June. Up to 50 athletes from the Kingdom will get the chance to showcase their abilities, with a WWE Talent Development contract and full-time training up for grabs.
“We are excited to return to Saudi Arabia following the success of our first tryout in 2018 where we recruited a variety of elite athletes from the Middle East, including standout talent Mansoor, who has already played a meaningful role in various WWE events in Saudi Arabia,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE executive vice president.
“I have a message for every athlete and performer in Saudi Arabia who has a dream of becoming a WWE Superstar: WWE is coming to Riyadh to help you make that happen. This is your chance to take an opportunity and one day you could be walking down the ramp as a WWE Superstar while thousands of fans chant your name.”
Having made the grade, Mansoor cannot count on being a surprise package any longer once in the ring.
“That’s very true,” he said laughing. “I was very much depending on that, and Cesaro even said ‘I don’t know who this kid is.’ There are no real videos of me to watch, to see what I can do, compared to the years that I can watch of Cesaro. I know I will be competing at Super Showdown, but I haven’t found out who my opponent will be yet. But I get the feeling that now it’s going to be a bit more of an even playing field, where both of us are going to be able to feel each other out and see what we’re going into.”
The element of surprise might be gone, but slowly it has been replaced by respect. It is a double-edged sword for Mansoor.
“I think whoever I share the ring with is going to be a lot more prepared, more wary, more aware,” he said. “They’ll know that I have the home town advantage. But I haven’t really done all the things that I can do, so there are still some more surprises, and they will know that. As far as Cesaro was concerned I was just some trainee from NXT who had barely ever been in the ring before. But now they’ll know that this kid will be dangerous, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Once again, Mansoor will be able to count on Saudi wrestling fans for support on the night, and perhaps even more than the first time around.
“I can tell you right now that with the things that I got hit with, if I didn’t have the crowd behind me, I would have stayed on the ground,” he admits. “It’s so completely different to feel thousands of people willing and inspiring you to reach victory. Honestly I’ve been on both sides, on the side when everybody in the crowd wants you to win, and on the side when everybody wants you to lose. And in a really interesting way, they both equally inspire you.
I’d never see that kind of passion before, the passion from the fans in Riyadh."
Beyond Super ShowDown, Mansoor has a vested interest in June’s WWE’s tryouts in his home town.
The first WWE talent tryout in Jeddah in April 2018 resulted in three Saudi talents signing WWE Developmental Contracts: Mansoor himself, Faisal Kurdi and Hussain Al-Dagal. Mansoor went on to win the first-ever 50-Man Battle Royal at WWE Super ShowDown in Jeddah last June before October’s success at Crown Jewel.
“I’m so incredibly excited and I hope to be there for that tryouts,” he said. “The first tryout I was at in 2018, that was one of the most amazing experience in my life. I got to see at firsthand what it was like for people to have incredible success or depressing failure. The fact that more people now get to be involved in this history is amazing."
Mansoor feels “privileged and blessed” to have entered that tryout having already racked up ring experience in the US. He hopes other compatriots now get to live the dream too.
“This is the best job in the world, and the fact that I get to share it with more Saudis is a complete honor.”
For the next generation of budding Saudi wrestlers, Mansoor has two pieces of advice, one pragmatic, and one more figurative.
“The real piece of advice is to listen very carefully to what the coaches say,” he said. “If they tell you to do something and you do it perfectly, that shows them that you’re coachable, that you’re adaptable, and that when you go to the performance center you’ll be able to learn quickly. You’ll be able to get in the ring quicker.”
The more figurative advice is to appreciate this once in a lifetime opportunity.
“This job, becoming a WWE superstar, requires a lot of investment from a lot of people. This is not just a hobby,” Mansoor said. “This is something that you love and if you’re having second thoughts, at the end of the day that will hurt your chances. I’ll say this, if you start wrestling and you’re not feeling like it’s something you should do for the rest of your life, you’ve got to reconsider. For a certain kind of person, this is the best job in the world.”