This week's NXT was a recap of what happened over WrestleMania weekend, revolving around the tournament for a spot in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. I don't want to spoil it for you, but Hideo Itami won. Instead of covering that, I had the chance to speak with someone who also had a memorable WrestleMania weekend: CJ Parker.
While he wasn't involved with the show, 'Mania marked the end of Parker's four-year run with WWE, after he asked for (and was granted) his release from the company. He'd been with NXT since it was known as Florida Championship Wrestling, and as such, has had a ringside seat for the promotion's rise – though for part of it, he was flat on his back, the guy brought in to give burgeoning stars the rub...much to the delight of fans, who loved to hate him.
But he's not bitter, not even for a second, and as Parker (real name: Joe Robinson) begins to work the indie circuit, he took a moment to look back on his run in NXT, reflect on his decision to leave the promotion and reveal what's next for his eco-warrior gimmick.
What led to your decision to leave NXT?
I think it just came down to personal growth as a performer. For a couple years now I watched guys come in, all these guys who are now very good friends of mine, who had experienced things and made themselves stars before they got to NXT. So just for my wrestling soul, I want to experience those things too. I want to earn my stripes the old-fashioned way. I want to wrestle in front of small crowds and go from the ground up. I'm 25, so if I was going to do that, if I was going to travel the world and live out of a suitcase, then now's the time.
How long had you been thinking about leaving?
It was a really, really hard decision. It wasn't an overnight thing. It was something I had been playing with in my head for months and months. I had to do it. It was tough, but it needed to be done. I'm really excited and happy that I chose this direction for myself. It's going to be fantastic.
Looking at your last year in NXT, specifically the eco-warrior character that you had developed, how much input did you have in all that?
That character was a lot of me. It was a team effort to get it going, with the sign and coming through the crowd and talking about global warming and recycling and being very left-wing and liberal with it. As it started to go, it was then up to me to do with it what I wanted. The look, the gear, what was written on the signs – everything was me. That's what you have to do, take an idea and make it your own.
Was it disappointing that your character was basically used to put other guys over?
It wasn't disappointing at all. To me, that's a compliment. They have faith in you and they know you can go out there with anybody and make them look great. You can take the things that they're really good at and amplify them. Everybody wants to be the guy who's the star, the guy who everyone is looking at and the guy who the company is trying to get over. But sometimes you're the other guy, and it's your job to look as good as you can while making them look even better. It's a compliment. When you're a kid and you want to be a wrestler, you want to be a great wrestler. You want to be somebody who's looked up to by his peers and the powers that be. At the very least, I did what was asked of me, and I did it to the best of my abilities. That wasn't frustrating at all.
You've been with WWE in their developmental system since 2011, so you've seen a lot of changes – what would you say has been the biggest?
Everything. It was everything times 100. The roster got bigger, the coaching staff got bigger, the facility got bigger, what was expected of you as a performer got bigger. It went from FCW to NXT and got bigger, badder and better. It was classic WWE. When they want something to take off, it does. That's exactly what the developmental system did in the past couple years.
We didn't do as many live events [in 2011]. There weren't as many people coming to the live events that we did do for FCW. The TV show obviously changed a lot. There was one camera then, instead of four or five at Full Sail. NXT at Full Sail is like a mini-Raw. Back in FCW, it was pretty much like a live event with one camera. There wasn't really much pressure on you. But everything got bigger. We became stars in a way. At FCW, nobody really knows you, it was on its own island from the rest of the WWE. But then, when Triple H put his hand into it and put the time and energy into the developmental system, it grew and became its own brand. And that's exactly what NXT is, it's not really developmental anymore, it's the third brand.
I wanted to ask you about that. I've said before that the developmental label is misapplied to NXT at this point. Do you agree?
If you're talking about the show that's on Wednesday nights on the WWE Network, then no, I don't think that's developmental. However, if you walk into the Performance Center on a Monday morning and see some of the guys who are just starting and just learning the basics, that is developmental. I think a lot of people don't realize that on the TV show there's only about 20 guys featured, but at the PC there's about 60 guys. There's a lot of guys there who are trying to learn the business and prove themselves and earn their way onto the TV show. So there is still developmental, but when you start to get to the top of the roster, you become just a smaller version of a main-roster superstar.
In my eyes, it's like Triple H's version of an independent wrestling show, but with WWE backing. It's the best of both worlds. He's getting people from all over the world and bringing them here and putting them under the WWE umbrella. It's great and it's going to stay great.
Speaking of Triple H, what was it like working with him?
He's the best, man. He's so passionate, so smart. He's a great guy. He's very hands-on with everyone. He's the kind of guy who, once you have your match, he'll pull you aside and tell you what you did right, what you did wrong and what you could have done differently. He's constructive and he makes you feel good. He lets you know that it's all right to make mistakes as long as you learn from those mistakes. He's the man and NXT is his baby. It's cool to watch him be excited about NXT. It's cool to see how proud he is of what he and all of us are doing down there.
In NXT, you have guys like Kevin Owens or Sami Zayn, who have been wrestling for over a decade, but you also have guys like Mojo Rawley or Baron Corbin, who came in without any experience. What's it like having to work with both sides of the spectrum?
That's one of the cooler parts of what we do. Every single night you're going to be asked to do something a little differently. I've worked against all those guys you just named, and it's fun in every way. If you're in with a guy like Baron or Mojo, you felt like you had a hand in helping them learn. You had a hand in teaching them. You get to watch them grow and become WWE stars, which is awesome. On the other hand, if I get in there with Finn Bálor or Hideo Itami or Adrian Neville or Sami Zayn, now I get to step my game up to prove that I can hang with those guys. So that's cool too.
After all that, you said goodbye to WWE at WrestleMania weekend. What was that like for you?
I wasn't on the San Jose live event, with 5,000 people, but I did do Axxess that week. I knew that my time with WWE was coming to a close. It was just good. When you're in WWE you meet so many people and you develop relationships. That's what I was thinking about. I was thinking that I'm not going to be with any of my friends anymore. I'm not going to be with the coaches that I've loved for four years. All the relationships I've made, I'm saying goodbye to all these people. I was thinking along that route. As far as watching the San Jose show in the back – I wish I was out there. I wish I had been out there with my friends doing my thing in front of all those people, because it was incredible.
You've already booked some independent dates, including one for CZW this weekend. What do you expect the next few months to be like for you?
I think it's just going to be me introducing myself, you know? I'm going to hit the reset button a little. I just want to go out there and make an impression, and be good and show the world that there's more to me than you saw. The journey is just getting going, and I'm in the starting block. Right now, I'm just going to work as much as I can, wherever I can, for as long as I can. I'm just trying to go one week at a time for a while. I don't have a set destination or a specific goal, I just want to get out there and get working.
Are you planning on using some sort of variation of the CJ Parker character, or are you going to try to create a new identity in the indies?
I think over the next few months you're just going to see me being me. Not to be Chris Candido-esque, but "CJP, No gimmick needed." I think I have enough personality and enough charisma inside of me that I don't need to have a set gimmick. I'm kind of a gimmick in real life. I'm just going to be me, and I'm going to see where that takes me. If it pulls me in one direction, or pushes me in another, then it will. But I'm not set on any specific character or gimmick right now.
You're still younger than many of the wrestlers that are currently being hired by WWE. Could you see yourself returning to WWE in the future?
I don't know, maybe? That's years away. I'm only 25, so I have a while before a decision needs to be made. When I decided that I needed to leave, I knew that it might mean that I never come back. Even though we're on good terms, business is business, and in five years who's to say that they'll want me to come back? Who's to say that I'll want to come back? You never know. As they say in wrestling, never say never.