AJ Francis reflects on Hit Row getting called up to SmackDown and the unique way that they found out they would be.
AJ “Top Dolla” Francis was more than ready to be called up to the main roster by the time the call came in October 2021. Hit Row, which also featured Swerve Strickland, B-Fab, and Ashante Adonis was a unit for 6 months in NXT when they were called to the main roster.
Reflecting on finding out that they were going to be drafted to SmackDown, AJ tells Sean Ross Sapp that he had, personally, been pitching to be called up for quite some time at least for a dark mask.
“We found out at SmackDown,” AJ said. “They had been calling up a lot of people to do dark matches. I had literally went up to John Laurinaitis, ‘Hey. You’re calling up all these people to do dark matches. Why aren’t you calling me up to do a dark match? I’ve been here longer than some of the guys you’re calling up.’ The thing that kind of annoyed me about my time there is that they really didn’t know a lot about me personally. I’ve been there for a year and people would be like, ‘Hey, when the red light is on the camera, the camera’s on you.’ I wanted to be like, ‘Bruh, I’ve been on TV ten years. Why are you trying to tell me things that are obvious?’ I understand other people need things like that. But that’s the way I recognized, ‘Oh, they don’t know anything about me.’ They don’t know that I’ve been on TV for a decade, you know what I’m saying?”
“So I was wondering why my opportunity was taking so long to come,” he continued. “So I went up to John Laurinaitis and I was like, ‘Yeah, so what’ s the deal? Why aren’t we getting a dark match. Clearly we’re the talk of the show every week.’ Then we did the Championship Cypher, that can never be repeated again. It can never be redone. He’s like, ‘Alright, cool. I like that you’re willing to come up to me and tell me you want an opportunity.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna book you for October 1st,’ because I told him that Baltimore is my hometown. So he was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna bring you up.’ Then we found out the draft was October 1st. So I figured out we were getting drafted because at first it was just me, by myself, booked for a dark match and I was like, ‘Okay. Alright, we’re gonna be in Baltimore. I’ll get a hometown reaction. That’ll be dope.’ Then two days before the dark match they were like, ‘Alright, we’re bringing all of Hit Row.’ I was like, ‘And it’s the draft? Okay.’ Still nobody told us we were getting drafted.”
After all that, it was a fox executive that let them know there were going to be drafted and even then, AJ says they were told to "keep it Kayfabe.”
“We actually found out on accident because one of the executives from FOX saw us in the hallway before the show," AJ revealed. “Mind you, nobody’s told us we’re getting drafted, alright? I’ve got a dark match against Cedric Alexander. I’m getting ready for that, we’re about to take group pictures and all that. The executive from FOX is like, ‘Yeah, so, we’re gonna get the writing team with you guys soon because we know you guys like to write your own stuff. We just wanted to see what you guys had planned.’ We’re like, ‘Uh, sir, do you know something that we don’t know?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, nobody’s told you? Well keep it kayfabe, but you guys are going to SmackDown tonight.’
“The word for word he said was, ‘Keep it kayfabe.’ We found out about an hour and a half before SmackDown started that we were gonna be drafted that night,” AJ added. “It was cool because we all looked when he said, ‘Hey, you know, we’ll get the writing team with you guys and talk about creative and all that,’ we all looked at each other like, ‘Wait a minute. What?’ That was how we found out we were getting drafted. We didn’t know that we would be the first team on the board. We didn’t know from NXT. We didn’t know none of that. We didn’t know that we’d be a third-round pick. We didn’t know any of that. We knew we were getting drafted.”
Ultimately, AJ felt honored that he was wanted on SmackDown, but of course, feels like the group could have done so much more if they were given the opportunity.
“The crazy part about that is that we were so excited about the fact that we were there. I assumed that we were going to get drafted because why else bring everybody else when it was originally just me. But hearing that and being like, ‘You’re getting drafted by SmackDown,’ like, SmackDown wanted us on their show. That’s the A show. That was amazing. That was an amazing feeling. But then, obviously, we get released and that has nothing to do with SmackDown. That was the craziest part to me. We did so much and we could have done so much more.”
Now, The HitMakerZ are making their way through the independent circuit, and Swerve Strickland is rising through the ranks of AEW. AJ Francis recently revealed that he has a deal with WWE Studios to continue hosting WWE Most Wanted Treasures. Learn more here.