A five-tool player in wrestling is different than it used to be. In addition to charisma, in-ring aptitude, and the other intangibles, the "it factor" can be a result of any number of things. If his success outside the ring is any example, Anthony Bowens is what he says he is -- a five tool player.
The term is one that originated with baseball -- hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning skills, a strong arm and defensive success. Thrown on guys like Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Vladimir Guerrero, it's held to a high standard, one that Anthony Bowens holds himself to within the squared circle. The inspiration is somewhat appropriate, considering the man's background.
"I played baseball for eleven years. All through college, and that chapter of my life ended, and I was trying to find what was the next, I guess, activity to fill that void. And I wanted to give professional wrestling a try, I just really didn’t know how. So I looked into going to Lance Storm’s school, I looked into going down to— I think FCW was having, like, random tryouts that I thought I’d be able to go to. So I was like, “Oh I’ll go down there and do that”, but that wasn’t really feasible." Bowens told us.
Five tools in pro wrestling can mean a lot of different things, but Bowens says he has them. We're inclined to agree.
Making a jump from baseball to pro wrestling isn't the typical path most go. We've heard of a few success stories -- Randy Savage, TK O'Ryan to name a few -- but it isn't necessarily one that many follow. It just so happens that some shenanigans that Bowens had planned ended up going a long way, in the form of a not so chance meeting with WWE Superstar Santino Marella.
"One particular morning, I (laughs), I emailed all my professors and I called in sick — which is me— yeah, I called in sick from class. I went down to my local gym, which is where most of the roster lifts when they’re in the area. And I just went around, started taking pictures with everybody, and the last person that I saw was Santino Marella. And I actually wasn’t going to bother him, but thank god I did. I waited for him to be in between sets, I respectfully went up to him and was like, “hey! Do you mind taking a picture with me?”. And he stayed in gimmick, which is funny to think (laughs). He took the picture, and as I was walking away, he said, “Hey, you look like a professional wrestler. Have you ever thought about becoming one?”. And I was like, “uh, yeah.” And he pulled out his phone and gave my number to Pat Buck, who’s the current owner and head trainer at Create a Pro Wrestling, and then one week later I was training to be a wrestler."
The way Carelli tells it, Bowens' impressive stature actually led to him approaching the youngster and encouraging him to get into wrestling.
"I was at a gym and I noticed him. I actually walked up to him and said 'You ever think about pro wrestling? You have a good look.' He said 'actually I have been thinking about pro wrestling.' The guy I knew in the area was Pat Buck. I'd trained with Pat in Louisville and I knew he knew what he was doing. He went there and learned the ropes," Carelli told Fightful.
Even though the former WWE Intercontinental Champion (and originator of the Honk-A-Perfect-Mountie-Meter) Carelli discovered Bowens, he didn't actually have a hand in Anthony's training, but the two did run into each other down the line.
"I've never trained with him," said Bowens. "But we did do a spot together two years ago, which was very cool. Kind of like a life coming full circle moment.He did because we’re friends on Facebook, so I think he— we really don’t talk but I’m pretty sure he sees like updates and stuff, so he did remember the moment."
Much like Carelli would approach Bowens in the gym years before, Bowens returned the favor, telling him how much the moment meant to him.
"He told me about the impact I had when I came up and said that to him. That meant a lot for him to come up and let me know that those types of interactions are beneficial to people," said Carelli.
When you take a look at Bowens, it's not hard to see why the guy is memorable. He's built like few others on the independent wrestling scene, and if you were to mistake him for a model or actor, that's okay, because he's worked as both. The aforementioned Pat Buck took Bowens in, and gave him his training. But it wasn't just Marella or Buck that helped Bowens grow.
"I think Pat is bar none on one of the best trainers in the country. All of his knowledge, basically, has been instilled in our students and you can tell by the quality product that Wrestle Pro has and Create a Pro wrestling has. They trained guys like MJF, guys like myself. I think he’s one of the best out there," said Bowens. "One of the biggest I'd probably say is Dan Moff. He was a guy who had full confidence in me when I didn’t have it in myself. He was a guy who instilled aggression into me. I remember one of my— I guess first couple of matches, I asked him, “hey, could you check out my match?” And he was like, “yeah, I’ll be watching”. We specifically had worked on striking and stuff before that, so I wanted to make sure I impressed him, and once I came back through the curtain he goes, “You did everything well, but I was like really disappointed in your strikes. I just didn’t— there wasn’t any aggression, there wasn’t anything behind it.” And I just broke my— I felt like I was disappointing my father. From then on, I made sure to make everything to look like it was devastating. So I think Moth has played a big big role in my career. Other people have helped -- Kevin Matthews, Curt Hawkins. Heavenly Bodies, riding with them up and down the road. So, I think there’s a lot of people who’s had a helping hand in my career"
That career started as many did, in a battle royal to help fill out a card. Bowens, who considers himself prepared for anything these days, wasn't so much in 2013.
"I think it was about a month and a half into training? Pat came up to me and said, “hey, you have gear?” And I was like, “Uh, no.” And he was like, “Get some, you’re in the Battle Royal”. And I was like “Oh, cool!” My first match a month and a half in, this is pretty dope. And I woke up that morning and the feeling I had in my stomach, I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I was so, so nervous, like, to the point where it was almost debilitating. And I had that feeling throughout the entire day. And then, the second I went through the curtain, it disappeared. And that’s kind of how I knew I’d be able to get through this and do this for a long time," said Bowens."My first singles match was actually in my hometown in Nutley for a company which I don’t particularly want to name (laughs). But it was in my hometown of Nutley and I was wrestling in front of friends and family and it was very cool. I wasn’t really nervous because at that point I think it was me before five months in. I’d kind of gotten the hang of at least having a match called to me in the ring. I wasn’t incapable at the time of calling my own, but as long as I had a good heel in there that was able to call stuff to me, I followed very easily. So I was very comfortable"
Bowens' omen about doing this a long time ended up being true, but it's not without its struggles. Six years in, many with his skill set, look and features have been snatched up by WWE. For whatever reason, that hasn't been the case yet for Bowens. If he looks familiar, there's a reason for that. He did get a break of sorts. At the end of 2016, Bowens worked a televised match for NXT in large part because he made the effort to contact WWE directly.
"I actually just reached out and asked if there were any opportunities available. I’ve had a good relationship with WWE over the years. I first did extra work back in 2014 and impressed a bunch of the scouts there, I guess specifically William Regal. And then they offered me the tryout at the Arnold Classic in 2015, and then I ended up doing well enough there that they invited me down to the Performance Center at the end of that year, which went well. Obviously I wasn’t signed, but it was enough to keep me on their radar and stay in touch with them, so I was comfortable enough to kind of reach out and say, “hey, are there any opportunities available?”, and they said yeah and they brought me down," Bowens recalled. "I was booked for my first, I guess, loop as an extra in 2014. Pat had let us know that four of us were going to be doing the extra work and it was super cool for all of us, because any time we do that first time, it’s like “Wow! We get to work for WWE. It’s really cool!” I was the only one for some reason that did the four day loop, the house shows as opposed to just Raw and SmackDown, so I ended up doing the first house show in Trenton as a Rosebud."
We mentioned Bowens being memorable earlier, but this match was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Remember that little incident a few years ago where the up-and-coming Authors of Pain obliterated a poor guy's skull with their now-infamous Super Collider? That guy was Bowens, as his tag team partner Jonathan Ortagun came crashing down on top of him. Many called for Rezar and Akam's heads, thought Bowens wasn't one of them.
"I don’t particularly think it was their fault," Bowens admitted. "I watched that clip over and over again I guess after it happened, and what I think was the scenario is when a wrestler’s— a wrestler’s first instinct when they’re falling backwards and bumping is to smack their arms out to break the fall. His head and everything came down right where it was supposed to, I think it was more of a natural reaction for him to kind of extend his arms to break his fall, and as that happened, his elbow caught me in the head. So it wasn’t them just being reckless and him getting power bombed onto my face like people were claiming it was. I remember the power bomb, I remember Johnny coming down and then it was just lights out, like complete pitch-black. And then I woke up in the middle of their finish, and Eddie who was reffing said, he was like (laughing), “Bowens, are you okay?”, and I was like, “*concussed mess of noise* Yeah!”. And he was like, “No you’re not”. And then, I kind of, from what I remember, blacked out during that promo, and then I came to with the doctors in the ring, and they helped me out. The doctors checked me out afterwards, and I was kind of foggy for maybe a good thirty minutes, and then after that I felt okay. Because I was recalling conversations I had had the prior year being down there with some of the doctors and they kept me for testing the next day at the Performance Center and I just kind of hung around Orlando for a day or two, and they cleared me to go home."
The Authors of Pain are what we call on Fightful "sirloin beef sunsabitches" -- a couple of monsters. Brutal, physical, and with accolades that are perhaps even scarier than their on-screen personas. When the incident happened, whether it was their fault or not, Bowens remembers both Rezar and Akam taking care of him.
"They were super cool the following day. They picked me up early, they did all the errands that I needed done. Dropped off my rental car, went to the hotel and grabbed my things, that kind of thing. So they were very respectful and, I don’t want to use the word remorseful— apologetic is a better word (laughs). Very apologetic about what happened, I could tell they felt bad. And they were super cool the next day," said Bowens.
Before any of that happened, the standout Bowens had made a positive impression on WWE. Almost two years before that, Bowens had a very public tryout for WWE in front of thousands during WWE's Arnold Sports Festival showcase. WWE had bigger fish to fry at the time, considering longtime NXT coach Bill DeMott ended up leaving the company amid bullying accusations. This led to current head coach Matt Bloom taking things over. Despite the last minute change, Bowens didn't let it affect him and was among the most impressive participants.
"I was very confident going into that because I worked out pretty hard to stay in shape for it. Having people around me made it more fun because I like being in front of an audience. I was nervous going in though, because I had heard all the rumors of how DeMott was as far as his training, so I was expecting to get demolished, but when I landed I found out they had fired him and Coach Bloom had taken over. He’s a great coach, he worked us hard and I had a lot of fun, and it was very challenging. They said I did well and we’d be in touch. And then a couple of months later, I got an email that said they’d like to bring me down to the Performance Center, and I went down there for three days," said Bowens.
Sometimes opportunity trumps talent, but Bowens will be the first to tell you he's had plenty of opportunities, as well.
One public tryout led to a more private one, but it was an opportunity as an extra that saw Bowens get a very unusual impromptu "prove it" opportunity which birthed so much of the connection between himself and the WWE, well before any of the official tryouts took place.
"You get this email that gives you a list of instructions, and like, rules. Like, don’t show up more than twenty minutes early to call time, don’t go near the ring unless asked, all this kind of stuff. And I got to Allentown like, an hour early. Now I didn’t know it didn’t really matter what time you get there, but for me because it’s my first time, I was freaking out. So, I got there and (laughs) thought I was going to get heat for being there early and I ran to the locker room and just hid in there. And it got to the point where I needed to use the restroom. So, I kind of snuck out to go use it and then I ran into Titus O’Neil, who I’d spoken to the night before, and he was like, “Hey! Do you want to go work out in the ring?” And then a little thought bubble popped into my head, and was like, I just remember the rules - don’t go near the ring. So I was like, should I say no… ah, yeah. I’ll say yes. So I said yes. And I got changed, I went down to the ring. We were just chatting and Arn Anderson came walking down, and he was like, “Hey, son. Have you had a WWE physical?” And I was like, “No”, and he goes, “Get out”. (Laughs) So I had to get out of the ring, and he said, “Well, just go find one of the doctors and just have him take a look at you because for legal reasons we can’t have you in the ring," said Bowens. "The doctors don’t get there until like five or six, so I was running around the building, trying to find nobody, basically. So with all hope lost, I kind of went back down to the ring to just kind of learn, because Arn was in there kind of showing people different moves, and— it was almost like a seminar for the roster. And, out of nowhere, he leaves the ring and shows back up five minutes later and he was like, “hey, have you had a physical at all in the last couple of months?”. And I was like, “yeah”, so he was like, “Alright, well get back in the ring.” So I got back in the ring, he started to ask me a bunch of questions and then he just yelled out, “Everybody clear the ring! Titus, you’re going to have a match with Anthony right now for five minutes.” So I’m like, what? (Laughs) ‘Cos it’s kind of unheard of really to be doing tryout matches at shows before the actual show in front of the boys. So we worked a five minutes match, it went well. I ended up busting my lip, so he stopped the match and then he said, “You know, hey, Titus is 6’5”” or whatever he is, “Can you dropkick him?” -- the athletic Bowens would confirm. "We ran a quick spot, I dropkicked him flush in the face twice, and then he goes, “Yup that’s all I needed to see”.
The match got the attention of Scott Armstrong and Arn Anderson. An introduction was made to Triple H, Road Dogg and Michael Hayes. A few months later, Bowens was a part of the very public tryout in Columbus at the Arnold Classic. The tryout chain continued when Bowens returned for yet another later in 2015. Just mere days after Columbus, Bowens was contacted by WWE to come to Orlando and see how things would fare for him then.
As Bowens tells it, he thinks he cost himself a contract due to a poor promo.
"Probably the hardest three days of my life," Bowens said. "It was just straight conditioning. They always put up the videos so you see the kind of drills that people, or we went through. It was rough. It was very challenging. I think I did very well physically. The only part, and I say that if I had nailed the promo, I think I would’ve been there already but I bombed. I’ll just be completely honest. I cut a promo on, I guess my scars - I have scars on my legs. I had a skin condition when I was little called ‘Baldas Para Nevi”. Basically oversized birthmarks that could turn cancerous, and I had to have them removed so I just kind of talked about my story with that. Coach Regal asked me to do a more wrestling-type promo, and at the time, I was still very… I guess, timid as a performer. Still trying to find myself, trying to find a character, trying to find myself as a person in life. So I really didn’t have much confidence in myself as far as talking or anything in that aspect, and it just kind of threw me off guard. And I cut this really really bad promo; I think I made fun of Coach Bloom’s voice, or something. Just really cringey, and I’m pretty sure they had that on video and I hope that it never sees the light of day (laughs). But other than that, they gave me the feedback of: you have four of the five things that we’re looking for to make a WWE Superstar, it’s just it seems that your personality is kind of, you know, not there yet. And once I got that feedback, and once I heard also that they said we’re not pro wrestling anymore, they’re entertainment, that kind of set off a light bulb, and then I went out and started doing a ton of other things to make myself like an all-around complete Sports Entertainer."
There he was. Three tryouts, zero contracts. When you take a look at Bowens, a WWE opportunity seems like a no brainer. From a traditional perspective, he fits the template of what WWE wants. Yet he'd been within their grasp three times in a year, and the interest wasn't quite there yet.
"Anthony didn't seem natural when he spoke," an anonymous WWE source who was at the tryout stated. "He wasn't in his own skin, it wasn't him. It was his story, but it wasn't really him telling it. It was who he thought we wanted him to be telling the story."
The promo that Bowens says he failed at helped motivate him to expand his portfolio.
You'd spend all day counting the number of wrestlers who never followed up after being passed following a WWE tryout. History is full of them -- hundreds of wrestlers who faced that rejection didn't bother to go back to the drawing board. Anthony went a step beyond and attacked his perceived shortcomings in an effort to improve.
Bowens started going to improv classes and doing live sketch comedy shows. He landed commercial gigs with Dominos Pizza, Optimum Online, the NFL. The experiences have helped make Bowens a more well-rounded performer on the screen and in the ring. But then an explosion of another kind happened in his Youtube channel with his boyfriend, Michael. 75,000+ subscribers strong, the two have become Youtube sensations with videos averaging near 45,000 view each. For the world of pro wrestling, the implementation of vlogs to connect with an growing fanbase has proven important. Zack Ryder used it to help get to one million Twitter followers earlier than many of his contemporaries. Being the Elite used it to help run a successful pay-per-view and launch a promotion.
"I think a lot of people give up on it very quickly when they don’t see the results right away. YouTube is very analytic and algorithm driven so you either can get very lucky and pick up on it, or you can put out a video that just absolutely hits home with everybody and, you know, it’s off to the races from there. But you won’t get to that point if you don’t put in the effort and put in the time. And it sucks for a while sometimes, because again, you don’t get that instant gratification of, “oh I posted a video, and here’s 80 000 videos”. It’s going to start off very very slow but you have to have patience with it," said Bowens, giving advice to other performers looking to launch themselves into that digital medium. "We do a lot of brainstorming. We’ll sit down and have a little business meeting. Sometimes we’ll— his brother used to write and create shows or films, so sometimes we’ll sit down with him and he’ll throw ideas at us and we’ll go, “Oh that’s really funny”. Pretty much anything that pops us and we think would be funny, we’ll just… as long as it’s appropriate (laughs), we’ll toss up on YouTube and— essentially, we just wanted to be different than other, I guess, LGBT couples on YouTube. We found that, you know, not to drag them or anything, but we found that a lot of their content tends to be overly sexual and we didn’t want to go that route. We wanted to build our audience based upon our dynamic as a couple, and our personalities in general. So we put a strong focus on trying to be as real and authentic as possible. So people can connect with us that way, as opposed to just let me go to this channel because there’s two attractive dudes, you know, kissing or something.I’m bringing them to the product. I don’t particularly put a lot of wrestling material up there because we try to— since it is Michael & Anthony, the name of the channel, we try to keep it— keep videos between Michael and I, as opposed to just solo vlogs. But I like to incorporate in from time to time - I have I think two up there, I call them Show Days, where I take them through my entire process of selecting my gear and doing pre-tapes before shows, the match itself and the aftermath of it. We have a pretty good reach for the LGBT community and a lot of wrestling fans, so…"
If you haven't noticed the trend, giving up isn't something that typically happens for Bowens. That WWE call hasn't happened yet. The Ring of Honor call hasn't happened yet. Same for New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Elite Wrestling. Being a gay man in pro wrestling still isn't the norm, and neither is being a member of the LGBTQ community. Bowens, however, is happy with the progress
Well, first of all them signing in general is a very good step in the right direction. Sonny and I are friends and I’m very proud of him. I actually just met Nyla the other day at Capitol Wrestling and she’s very cool. So I’m very very happy for them. And, I honestly, I like it because it’s one of those things where I think a lot of people ask me to, like, “How do you feel about people attaching a label to your name. Like, it’s not just Professional Wrestling Anthony Bowens, it’s GAY professional wrestler Anthony Bowens. In the beginning that was something that kind of bothered me, but I think we’re in this time period where visibility is so important, and just, being able to have that platform, just being there to represent the community and just show that any athlete, no matter who you are, can perform and live their dream. I think is very important. As opposed to hammering people over the head at the fact Sonny is an LGBT performer. It’s a very delicate thing when you’re trying to make progress in society. People fear change, so hitting them over the head and trying to force it and push it, may get them to resist. So it’s a slow and gradual process. I think the more you make it a big deal but don’t make it an extreme thing and just kind of make it almost as if it’s a normal thing, as opposed to this is the most extreme, weird happening, if that makes sense."
Very little of my conversation with Anthony had to do with struggles as a gay man in wrestling -- he's quick to say he hasn't experienced many. Instead he uses his overwhelming positivity as an effort to set an example.
"The positive is I’ve been able to be a role model for a lot of people who are struggling with themselves, whether that be sexually or their identity in general - who they are as a person," Bowens told us. "My mantra is yes, to help the LGBT community, but I’m also out to help the people— maybe like the shy kid who wants to be more social. Just, anything to help people feel comfortable with themselves. So having the platform that I’ve had for the last couple of years, I’ve been able to help a lot of people, I get a lot of cool messages from people all over the world, thanking me for doing what I’m doing. Which reinforces the fact that it was a good decision to come out. The negative being… I guess, really it’s only online. It’s a ridiculous stat but like 100% of all negativity has legitimately just come from either YouTube or Twitter comments. Never once have I experienced anything in person thrown at me, whether physically or I guess mentally. Or verbally, excuse me. So a lot of it’s just internet hate, which I’m fine with because I understand it’s going to happen. There’s internet trolls, there’s people who are going through their own issues and they like to project that onto other people because it’s easy, because their sitting behind their screen. So, I really don’t read too much into that, but that’s mostly where all the negativity comes from."
Youtube stardom doesn't automatically guarantee you bookings. Bowens told me that despite the fact that he's worked for most of the top independent companies in the mideast, he feels like he should be working even more often. He's gotten a few more televised chances for Impact Wrestling, and even took on Eli Drake on a One Night Only show in the main event of the show in a 20 minute match.
Bowens is now six years into that development process. By now, most people with his tools have been picked up by WWE. If not, they're usually working one of the other major promotions, if not PWG and the like.
"Nothing with Impact or AWE. Again, WWE and I keep in contact, so I’m not sure what the future holds. Obviously I’d be with any one of those three. But we’ll see. We still have a good relationship, I keep in contact with them just to see if there’s any opportunities going forward. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to get there and be under contract and be a part of the roster, but that remains to be seen. Right now I’m not really worried about that, I’m just concentrating on continuing momentum that I have, both inside and outside the ring," said Bowens.
Bowens isn't where he thought he'd be yet, but it isn't without its glory. He serves as a role model for thousands even without the global exposure WWE can provide. He's more himself than he's ever been, and that alone is opening up doors
"It’s very fulfilling and rewarding to be doing stuff where you’re creative and kind of doing what you want to do. The scary part of it is it’s basically up and down. I was just on the cover of Gay Times, but who knows if I’ll get another opportunity in the next coming months. I did a couple of commercials but there may not be castings that fit my profile, so everything is very up in the air, so that’s the scary part I guess from a financial point of view. So I would love at some point to have a little more stability in one of those genres of entertainment so I can be a little more at ease. But I think that’s all part of the process. I guess, kind of paying your dues. And I feel like, eventually, it’ll all work out. Because I always— I always figure out a way," said Bowens.
Global exposure provided by WWE is often integral in a career. A man who knows that all too well is Carelli, who says that Bowens needs to reach a degree of that on his own to make himself stand out to WWE
"He's got it down, he knows what he's doing. Once you reach that level, it's about getting the breaks, navigating the waters and getting the right opportunities. WWE wants to see people grow elsewhere and make a name for themselves and get over around the world. When you go somewhere else and you're able to get the reaction of the fans, that's something they look favorably upon," Carelli told us.
That WWE source that we spoke to about Anthony's original tryout confirmed the contact and interest, closing out our story on Bowens -- for now.
"We do have our eye on him, we do stay in contact, and we've done that in the past both with people we've brought in and people that we've never ended up using. Anthony's destiny is in Anthony's hands, and that's probably a pretty good thing for him. If he says he'll figure out a way, he probably will."
Anthony Bowens undoubtedly has the five tools that he speaks of. But it may be patience, persistence, perseverance, positivity and optimism that lead him to where he wants to be.
You can see Anthony Bowens during WrestleMania week for WrestlePro and Capitol Wrestling. You can stream WrestlePro's event on Fite, along with many others.