Xavier Woods' path prepared him for WrestleMania's spotlight

Xavier Woods of The New Day will host this weekend's WrestleMania in Orlando. Miller Safrit/ESPN

AUSTIN, Texas -- In front of a crowd of thousands at the Hilton Hotel's Upper Ballroom stood Austin Watson. Watson's job on a hot, humid March day in the capital of Texas was simple: present gaming awards at one of the world's largest music, arts and film conferences, South by Southwest, while mixing in his natural sense of humor and putting on a good show.

For some it may have seemed difficult, but for Watson, a WWE superstar whose charisma shines through the screen, it was a breeze.

"It was fantastic," Watson exclaimed, reflecting on his time at SXSW. "It's cool, because I've never been to SXSW before, so this is my first time being here and getting to host. This Gaming Awards ceremony was amazing. We had a lot of fun on stage, and the crowd seemed to be receptive to it, so it was cool -- lots of fun."

The humor for Watson, which at times during the show came at his own expense, was never forced. Originally hailing from Columbus, Georgia, a smaller city a few hours south of Atlanta, Watson took acting classes, wrestled on an amateur level through high school and played a lot of video games. These three activities helped him overcome social anxiety, he says, something you likely couldn't guess ever existed looking at his outward-facing personality now.

Xavier Woods, Austin's character inside the squared circle, is an extension of what makes the 30-year-old tick. When he first started off in WWE's developmental branch, Florida Championship Wrestling, more than five years ago, his transition into the Woods character centered around '90s geek culture -- something he's very fond of outside of the ring.

During his time in the ranks of WWE's televised developmental branch, NXT, the successor to FCW, Woods appeared on ESPN's "E: 60: Behind the Curtain" special, an experience he believes was fundamental in showing what goes into "making it" in wrestling.

"I don't think a lot of people understood you don't just happen to land on the main roster," he recalls on the experience. "You go through some stuff first -- trials and tribulations, working random shows, building rings. It's different because that gave such a view of backstage, how it works, and the intricacies of coming up onto the main roster. I definitely think it was a good thing. I'm very happy that I got to be a part of it because it was so invasive, and that's a pretty cool thing, because we don't see the wrestling world and how it works."

Since his debut on Monday Night Raw in late 2013, Watson has become synonymous with modern professional wrestling culture, receiving praise, ovations and laughs that any professional wrestler would kill for.

As part of The New Day since 2014, a trio composed of Watson and friends Kofi Kingston and Big E, he has ascended to the top of the ladder as part of the longest-reigning tag team champions in WWE history -- bringing unicorn horns, a nicknamed trombone, customized cereal and, in recent weeks, themed popsicles with him.

Unlike other tag teams, the formulation of The New Day wasn't a manufactured product; rather, it was the result of the three men becoming friends and bonding over similar interests.

"[The New Day was] something I definitely believed in with all of my heart, and that's why we threw everything we had into it," Watson says. "We were at a point where we wanted to show that we were a viable source of entertainment in the company. It's like a live by the sword, die by the sword thing. We went and did exactly what we wanted to do, and it worked, luckily. It's something that I always believed in, Kofi and E always believed in, because we very much believe in chemistry.

"Regardless of what someone is given, we feel like chemistry is the key that could make anything work. We were lucky enough to ride together, travel together, have matches together, to where our chemistry is like none other. There are no other people in the wrestling industry that I'm closer to. Those are my brothers for real. That's definitely been the hype one, creating the relationship with those two guys."

The New Day hasn't just been about humor, either, unlike some other tag teams in the past. While they've filled the audience with laughter, they've been superior in the ring and months ago netted themselves the title of the longest reigning world tag team champions in WWE's long history.

Without the belts, the trio says they're looking to do more of the "E in WWE," which stands for entertainment.

The New Day is gearing up for a different kind of challenge: serving as the hosts of WrestleMania 33 in Orlando, Florida. They're only the third party to fill the role, following in the footsteps of Hulk Hogan and The Rock.

For Watson, SXSW Gaming's ceremony served as a hosting warmup -- a show before the big show.


"The difference in [WrestleMania from SXSW] is that I'll have two more people hosting with me rather than one," he exclaims, while sharing a laugh over the difference in size of the event. "A hundred thousand people. It's going to be very intense, from countries all around the world. It's fine; everything's fine. I think it'll be a really fun deal. The fact that only two other people have been the host of WrestleMania in the past and now we, as The New Day, get to collectively do this together, is just another really cool achievement for three guys who were just trying to keep their jobs at one point, have gotten the opportunity to do."

It's a long way for someone who, several years ago, was gleeful just to receive praise from WWE executive vice president of talent Paul "Triple H" Levesque. For most, hosting the world's most-watched wrestling event would be daunting, terrifying and a lot to handle, but for a seasoned Watson, he's confident in how things will turn out.

"[I'm] unbelievably excited. I think it'll be one of the coolest things we've ever done," he says. "We'll see how it all goes. Obviously, I have high hopes, going in superconfident, so we'll see how it turns out."