As Mojo Rawley prepared for the opening match of WWE Elimination Chamber last Sunday in Phoenix, he had to make sure his guests for the night were squared away with their tickets. While his good friend and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkwoski was still back east celebrating the Patriots' Super Bowl LI win, Rawley left two tickets to the show for Gronkowski's father, Gordon, and brother, Dan, who sat ringside for the show.
"They have business in Phoenix next week, but they flew in early because they wanted to see me," Rawley said. "They're like family to me."
- WWE (@WWE) December 30, 2015
Rawley, whose real name is Dean Muhtadi, was a defensive lineman at Maryland and a teammate of Dan and Chris Gronkowski. By the time he graduated in 2009, he had become an extended part of the Gronkowski family.
"They're my best friends," Rawley said. "Big G, Papa Gronk -- he calls me his sixth son, and I call him my second dad. We all grew up together before anyone achieved any kind of level of success. We push each other. We talk to each other every day. It's one of those things where I'll see Rob busting a move after a big game and the rest of us are like, 'We got to catch up with Big Rob,' and then Rob will come to one of my matches and he'll be all amped up and say, 'I got to step my game up, too.' That's just kind of our relationship."
Dean Muhtadi would never have become Mojo Rawley had it not been for Gordon Gronkowski, who was college roommates with Mike Rotunda at Syracuse, where they both played football. Rotunda just so happens to be former WWE superstar I.R.S. (and the father of new WWE champion Bray Wyatt).
"Big G is how I got my job here," Rawley said. "He knew I wanted to be here and I was always a fan, but I didn't have any idea of how to actually get here. I just thought it was some unreachable, unattainable goal I had. I mean, how do you get to the WWE? Well, one day Big G and Mr. Rotunda had a conversation about me and Mr. Rotunda seemed intrigued by who I was, and a couple phone calls later I had my opportunity. I've always said just give me an opportunity and I'm going to make the most of it."
Rawley is holding out hope that he can do more than repay the Gronkowski family with tickets to a pay-per-view. His goal is to one day have them be part of a match and maybe even convince Rob to get in the ring with him.
"Rob has been a fan of the WWE for a long time," Rawley said. "Trust me, we've been talking about this for years and whenever the time is right and whenever the stars are aligned, I can tell you he will be raring to get over here. He's fired up doing something with me here at WWE, and I can't wait to have him. We've been dreaming about it for years"
The return of Mickie James
Mickie James still walks around the backstage area at WWE shows with the smile of someone reliving a dream she thought had died long ago. James was released from the WWE on April 22, 2010, and she has spent much of the past seven years competing in independent promotions and wrestling in venues ranging from high school gyms to studio sound stages.
"It's pretty incredible to be back, it's not what I expected at all. It's funny how things happen in life," James said. "I had pretty much accepted the fact I was going to be a stay-at-home mom and do my other adventures in life. I thought coming back to the WWE was out of the cards for me. It's weird how things work out, but it has been amazing. The fans have been great, and so receptive."
James was re-signed by the WWE last October, made a one-off appearance at NXT TakeOver: Toronto against Asuka, and made her return to the main roster on SmackDown last month. As she prepared for her first WWE pay-per-view match in almost seven years last Sunday, she smiled and shook her head when thinking about performing in front of a sold-out arena and a worldwide audience again.
"It's very humbling when you leave here and you've wrestled in front of sold-out crowds of as many as 90,000 people, to go back to square one," James said. "I came from the independent scene and I've wrestled in front of a crowd of four people in a car lot in 104 degrees in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It's very humbling when you have to go backwards and after doing it for a bit, I was sitting there and debating with myself about what I should do. I don't want to retire on the independent scene. I don't want my legacy to be remembered as that. I wasn't sure whether it was time to walk away, but I didn't want to be remembered in that way."
James was a five-time WWE women's champion during her first stint with the company, second only to Trish Stratus in total number of reigns, and feuded with current WWE Hall of Famers such as Stratus, Lita and Jacqueline. She's hoping her current WWE run ends in similar fashion to all three of those women -- with an induction of her own at some point in the near future.
"I've been doing this close to 19 years now and I always dreamed of being in the WWE," James said. "So when you leave and come back you want your legacy to be something positive and helped change the business in a good way. I'm very happy to see people I know and have worked with and admire get into the Hall of Fame, and that's obviously one of those things we all secretly hope for. That would be pretty awesome. It's an acknowledgement of everything that you did and sacrificed and gave to the company, and a chance to acknowledge everything they gave to you, too."
Rhyno's political aspirations
In the wrestling ring, Rhyno is a two-time ECW champion and, more recently, one-half of the first WWE SmackDown tag team champions. But outside of the squared circle, Terrance Guido Gerin just wanted to represent Dearborn, Michigan, by becoming a state representative for the 15th District.
Gerin won the Republican primary in his run for the Michigan House of Representatives last year, but he fell a little over 8,000 votes shy of defeating Democratic primary winner Abdullah Hammoud in November's general election.
"One of the great things about me running is I became closer to my community," Gerin said. "When you're knocking on doors and explaining your views and asking for their vote, you're asking for something big. I really wanted to be a leader and champion on the next level in my community. I've never gone door to door like that, but I'm a people person. Every week I put myself out there in front of millions of people worldwide wearing spandex. So I have no problem putting myself out there."
If Gerin had won, he said he wouldn't have necessarily taken a break from the WWE. He would have worked with the company to be both a pro wrestler and a state representative, which could have made for some interesting storylines in and out of the ring.
"They said they would have worked with me 100 percent," Gerin said. "The WWE feels whenever you're trying to do something in a positive light to help out your community -- they always are appreciative of that. They were definitely willing to work around my schedule. I may not have been able to do all the shows but I definitely would still be part of the WWE family."
Gerin, who still attends city council meetings and watches them online if he can't be there in person, is once again focused on wrestling after his first political loss. But he said he can't completely rule out another role or another run for political office at some point in the near future.
"If I said no, I won't run, I think I would be lying to myself," Gerin said. "I want to be part of something bigger than myself, not only in wrestling or in the WWE but on the level of helping out my country and my community. So we'll see what happens."