Gable Steveson, the heavyweight freestyle wrestler who won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last month, has signed a multiyear deal with WWE, Steveson told ESPN.
The 21-year-old signed a NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend the University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I national championship at heavyweight. WWE will set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he'll learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.
He'll also have access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where his brother, Bobby Steveson, currently trains. After Gable Steveson graduates in May, his multiyear talent contract with WWE will begin; he'll be a full-time performer with the company (but also appear on WWE programming during the school year).
"I've been on WWE since I was really young," said Steveson, WWE's first gold medalist since Kurt Angle. "I was on guys like Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman for a very long time. So growing up watching them, me being an entertainer on the wrestling mat, it just felt like it was the right choice."
The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Steveson held talks with the UFC and also contemplated pursuing a career in the NFL; he was a hot commodity coming off the Olympic gold-medal win in Tokyo, a last-second victory over Geno Petriashvili that he celebrated with a back flip.
Sources told ESPN's Marc Raimondi that the UFC wanted Steveson to gain experience on the regional MMA scene before potentially bringing him onto Dana White's Contender Series to compete for a contract. The formula would have been similar to what the UFC did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. But Steveson said, "We never talked about that, so I have no clue."
"We all saw his physical ability prior to and at the Olympics," said Nick Khan, WWE president and chief revenue officer. "What we also saw was that Gable has as much charisma as he does ability. Marketability and ability are both of great importance to us."
"This is just the starting line and nowhere close to the finish line. So our investment is based on how much we think of Gable now and how much bigger we think he can become."
WWE has a rich history of transforming top freestyle wrestlers into main-event Superstars. Angle won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and parlayed that success into a long run as both a WWE champion and a headline act. Lesnar, who, like Steveson, won the national championship at the University of Minnesota, is currently signed with WWE, where he's featured as one of the biggest stars in the company.
Steveson calls the former UFC heavyweight champion a "great mentor to me" and envisions a WrestleMania match against Lesnar in the not-too-distant future.
"Being able to learn how to take bumps and with the wrestling background I have right now, I think I can adapt to all of it really quick," Steveson said. "I think with the charisma and the confidence and the attitude that I bring to the wrestling mat, it will translate over to the WWE really fast, and I feel that I can ... go on screen and have a good role and know what to do perfectly."
In the meantime, Steveson will focus on the college wrestling mat, where he'll try to defend his national championship while completing his studies. He grew up in Apple Valley, Minnesota, watching Paul "Triple H" Levesque spit water in the air at WrestleMania as a member of D-Generation X. Now, he'll learn the craft of a WWE Superstar, and that same man will be integral to his development.
"Gable impressed us well before he became a U.S. Olympic gold medalist," said Levesque, who is WWE EVP of global talent strategy and development. "He has all the tools to be a generational talent: a world-class athlete with size, speed, determination -- and the ability to captivate an audience with his incredible charisma.
"The introduction of NIL allows us to create a more direct path from college to WWE, a benefit to athletes as well as the WWE universe, as Gable will have an immediate presence with our company while working towards earning his degree and defending his national championship. The future is bright for him in WWE."
Steveson said his breakthrough moment "might come sooner than you think."
And as for that all-important finishing move?
"I think I got one in mind," he said. " ... It's crazy how long I've been following them and now I've reached that point where I'm going to be walking out in front of WrestleManias and SummerSlams, and people are going to do my signature look when I'm an old man, too."