Before WWE, Mojo Rawley Was the Most Hyped Man on the Football Field

Thursday, October 12, 2017

 
Feed Source: WWE Bleacher Report

The Dean Muhtadi dial only has one setting—hyped. 

All the way hyped. All the time.

Whether he's charging toward the WWE ring like a kid headed to the swimming pool or bouncing up and down in his wrestling boots, he does so with boundless energy. The man now known as Mojo Rawley is the most spirited Superstar on WWE's roster. 

It's not an act. It's not something he slips on when the SmackDown cameras go live.



The powerhouse has been this same beaming, jubilant spaz since he went by his real name and was trying his damnedest to make an NFL team.

You couldn't tell by his attitude that he was an undrafted free agent with little chance to make a regular-season roster. Someone barely hanging on to an NFL dream shouldn't be as happy as he was.

But as former NFL defensive tackle and practice squad teammate Anthony Toribio recalled, Muhtadi was always energized.

"There was never a day that Dean didn't hit the field full of energy, loud, with a big ol' smile on his face," Toribio told Bleacher Report.

A nose tackle out of the University of Maryland, Muhtadi's first crack at the NFL came with the Green Bay Packers in 2009. However, the team cut him from the practice squad after training camp. 



He had hung up his cleats and begun to work for Merrill Lynch as an analyst when the Arizona Cardinals called the next year. The hard-nosed defensive tackle again looked to impress enough to land a full-fledged spot on the team.

In the meantime, he earned $120 a day, as Mark Giannotto of the Washington Post noted.

And while his play wasn't enough to land him a deal with either Green Bay or Arizona, he was a hard-to-forget figure on the field. A personality as aglow as his ensured he made an impression wherever he went.

              

Staying Hyped

In 2009, the Packers shored up their defensive front by drafting highly touted B.J. Raji out of Boston College.

That was sure to make Muhtadi's climb steeper, as Raji played the same position as him. And The Pack already had a first-round nose tackle on the team in Ryan Pickett.



The competition was crowded, but the 6'3", 296-pound Packers hopeful got himself noticed by way of his work ethic. Toribio, a nose tackle looking for a job himself, remembers Muhtadi's energy above all else.

"If I could describe him in one word, it would be energetic," he said. "Of course, some of us thought he was crazy and figured he'd slow down after the first week of a grueling camp, but nope. That guy never slowed down and never stopped smiling."

And that made it hard to forget him. Muhtadi made an indelible mark in a short time.

"I would say from the top to the bottom of the Packers organization, Dean was someone who was still talked about after his departure during the remainder of training camp and the regular season because of his 'hype' personality," Toribio said.

Defensive tackle Dan Williams met Muhtadi in his rookie year with the Cardinals and discovered this high-voltage prospect's personality for himself.

"He was definitely the life of the party," Williams recalled. "Dean was cool, a real funny guy, a jokester. Everyone on the D-line loved him."



And although training camp is a grueling ordeal, especially in the Phoenix sun, Muhtadi was having a blast. A childlike zeal powered him through the grind.

"All through OTAs, Dean was doing cartwheels," Williams said.

But Muhtadi wasn't goofing around. He poured every ounce of himself into workouts and practice. Williams noted that he memorized the playbook and retained that knowledge even years after the team let him go.

In the gym, no one was going to outwork Muhtadi.

"Dean was knocking out squats, the bench press like it was nothing. He was definitely a workout junkie," Williams explained.

Three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Darnell Dockett played alongside Muhtadi in Arizona, where the two became friends and workout partners.

The amount of weight the Maryland alum lifted caught his attention. "Dean was one of the strongest guys on the team. Watching him pushed me," Dockett said. "He was one of those kids who didn't want to be outdone by anybody."



He watched Muhtadi's incessant, buzzing motor up close. And he got to know the broad-shouldered spark plug one weight session at a time.

Muhtadi spoke loudly. He shouted "Yeah, brother!" at his teammates. He was always on, his battery seemingly never needing recharging.

Former Arizona strength coach John Lott would eventually christen Muhtadi "The Iron Sheik," naming the nose tackle after the barrel-chested former WWE champ from Iran. Cardinals beat writer Darren Urban noted that the nickname was trimmed down to simply "Sheik" at some point.

The wrestling-inspired nickname helped Muhtadi stand out, but more so, his personality left an impression on the reporter.

"There's no question that Dean was memorable," Urban said. "Dean was one of those guys who was always saying hi. I've never seen somebody so happy all the time. He was always smiling.

He was truly happy to be there. And that really resonated with me when he was around."

Urban noticed that Muhtadi's teammates took a liking to him, that everyone knew him despite his lack of stardom and that his positivity radiated throughout the practice facility.  

              

Muhtadi the Motivator

As he toiled in training camp with a grin on his face, Muhtadi often motivated the men around him.

"It was actually contagious and it personally helped me get through a couple of practices because of that energy and the laughs he brought to the field and meeting room.," Toribio said of Muhtadi's attitude. 



Muhtadi's energy would later rub off on those around him when he was training with Mac James, who runs Future of Fitness in Maryland.

Suddenly out of work after cut day, the man who would become Mojo Rawley traded his shoulder pads for a suit and tie. His stint with Merrill Lynch didn't last long, though. The Arizona Cardinals invited him to training camp in 2010.

In Arizona, Muhtadi's workout partner Dockett introduced him to James, who has helped train a long list of NFL players including Brian Westbrook and Visanthe Shiancoe.

James had Muhtadi dragging sleds, doing box jumps, running hills and lifting tires. The hyped one thrived in that environment.

"Dean was a complete workhouse. He changed the whole dynamic of the group because he went so heavy and pushed the guys so hard," James said.

Muhtadi urged those around to do one more set, one more rep. He barked. He cheered guys on. It was as if James had unwittingly hired another coach, one with an endless supply of stamina.

"He always had high energy," James said of Muhtadi. "There was never a workout he didn't come into yelling and screaming, bending bars, whatever it might have been. He never had a down day."



Training with Muhtadi was never dull. Nothing really feels banal next to a guy that charged up.

Dockett remembered a time when he saw his workout partner use a piece of swimming equipment to boost his training routine. 

"We were doing conditioning. We were getting ready for the 300-yard shuttle. He put on a snorkel mask. And he was running in it," Dockett laughed. "That will let you know he's the kind of guy to do anything to get an edge."

                 

Upbeat in the Face of Adversity 

As much as Muhtadi put into improving his game, he simply didn't prove to be an NFL-level player.

Two teams cut him. Superior athletes remained above him on the food chain. In Arizona, Urban remembers Muhtadi facing a tough challenge from the start.

"He deserved to be on a roster in the preseason. But they had some pretty good veteran defensive lineman at the time. It was going to be a massive uphill battle," he said.

Muhtadi never had more than a puncher's chance. 



"The reality was that he was limited in what he was doing," Urban recalled. "He gave it his all. He wanted to make it work in Arizona really badly."

During his many years of training NFL players, James has seen his share of world-class athletes. But Muhtadi stood out thanks to a rare amount of heart.

"Dean wasn't the most physically gifted player, but what he brought to the table that nobody could match was his motor," James said. "His motor never turned off. He was always ready to go. Every rep. Every play. It was 100 percent."

Dockett saw Muhtadi's motor more than anyone. He saw him flourish in the weight room. And there were definitely parts of the energetic lineman's game that impressed him.

"Really strong and physical as hell. Not really athletic. He just relied on his work ethic for everything," Dockett said of his workout partner.



The steepness of his climb or the many times disappointment came calling didn't phase Muhtadi. Those who encountered him struggled to remember a time when the big man was the least bit glum.

"He was always in high spirits. I don't think I ever saw Dean in a bad mood," Dockett said.

In covering the Cardinals during Muhtadi's brief tenure with the team, Urban witnessed the same thing.

"I saw a dude who was bursting at the seams to be happy. He was one of those guys who knew he was fortunate to be in the place he was," Urban recalled. "Smiling on the practice field, trying to get his teammates going, bouncing from drill to drill. And that's how he always operated."



When Muhtadi trained with James and Dockett in hopes of being a Cardinals proper, he did so wearing a ratty pair of old cleats from his Maryland days.

He had to keep tying the shoelaces tighter as they lost their tautness over time.

He couldn't afford new cleats. He couldn't afford to drive the kinds of sports cars and Range Rovers that filled the parking lot of James' training facility. 

But none of that seemed to bother Muhtadi. He beamed day in and day out like he was one of the NFL's highest-paid players. He did experience a touch of luxury, though, thanks to former Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Muhtadi had delayed a workout session after having overworked a weight bar. "He literally bent it from the amount of weight and power he was generating," James said.

And while everyone milled around waiting for the bench to be operational again, Shiancoe pulled out a pair of new Nike cleats he had bought for Muhtadi

The gesture wasn't surprising. Everyone liked him. They all rooted for him. 

It was hard not to.

Here was a guy who drove those around him, a guy who always brushed off a bad day like it was dust on his jacket. Even when a calf injury kept him off the field, the Cardinals released him and his NFL dream was all but dead, Muhtadi remained upbeat.



James remembered him saying: "It's going to be all right. I'm going to figure something out."

Urban believed that Muhtadi's attitude would assure him a triumph of some sort, somewhere down the road. "It felt like he was bound to be successful at something. He just wasn't going to feel sorry for himself. He was going to make something work," the sportswriter said.

Urban turned out to be right. Little did he or anyone on the Cardinals or Packers know, Muhtadi would soon follow his football career with one in the over-the-top world of WWE.

                   

A New Life in WWE

Muhtadi started anew.

With zero pro wrestling experience, he signed a deal with WWE in the fall of 2012. He adopted the Mojo Rawley moniker and slowly began to learn an alien craft in the company's developmental territory, NXT.

By May of the next year, he debuted on TV as a high-energy, supercharged good guy who relied heavily on shoulder blocks to take down foes.

His catchphrase "I don't get hyped, I stay hyped" couldn't be more fitting.



When James found out about Muhtadi's new venture via text, it caught him a touch off guard. "We've never known anybody who went into wrestling," he explained.

Dockett wasn't surprised at all where Muhtadi ended up. "It was either that or rugby," the former Pro Bowler said. "He's got the attitude for it."

His old Packers teammate Toribio feels the same way. "When I first heard of Dean joining WWE, it was no shock at all. It actually made all the sense in the world if you know his personality," he said.

And that personality moved from NXT to WWE's main roster, specifically the SmackDown brand, during the company's draft last summer. The up-and-coming Superstar has since won the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal and competed in the SmackDown tag team division with his tag partner Zack Ryder as The Hype Bros.



His friend, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, has made WWE cameos alongside him. Gronk actually gave Muhtadi an assist at WrestleMania 33, stepping into the ring to ensure a win for the Maryland alum. 

The Tasmanian devil in neon spandex on WWE TV each week looks awfully familiar to those who played football with him.

Williams remembers him even saying the "hyped" catchphrase back in Arizona. In his mind, the WWE persona most certainly matches the man behind it.

"In wrestling, you can definitely see his personality. It might come with a different name, but you know that's Dean," Williams said. "He's not putting on for a show or an audience. That's authentic." 

After seeing YouTube clips of Muhtadi as Mojo Rawley, Urban has a similar view. "It might be a slightly skewed version of the man, but it definitely reminded me of him," he said.

James agrees. "He's not acting. That's him," Muhtadi's old trainer said. "He gets to be a complete nut and get paid for it. Dean just gets to be Dean. He's like that with his family, his sisters, his brothers. He's just high energy and always going."



Moving forward, Muhtadi's success in the squared circle isn't guaranteed.

He's still learning the nuances of the art. And like in his NFL days, the competition is tough as hell.

AJ Styles is a wizard in the ring. Roman Reigns is a second-generation star with a prototypical look. Shinsuke Nakamura has more charisma than should be exuded by one human being.

But whether Muhtadi can keep up with these Superstars or not, he's sure to remain positive and a ball of energy. If his football career is any indication, he will leave quite the impression on his peers.

"In the NFL, you encounter a lot of guys scrambling to prove themselves to a roster, so faces come and go every year. You almost forget you were teammates at some point," Toribio said.

"The 2009 rookie class was a little different, especially in the defensive line room. Everyone will always remember B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews leading that draft class, but for everyone who was on that roster during training camp, they'll always remember Dean Muhtadi."

The buzzing, vibrant nose tackle tends to stick in one's mind.

                 

Ryan Dilbert is a WWE and pro wrestling writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ryandilbert.

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