When I first heard that former WWE champion-turned-executive Triple H (Paul Levesque) was high on the Adam Rose character, I had some serious reservations.
To me, the gimmick reeked of cartoonish 1980s WWF, looking like a prime candidate for the waste heap of failed WWE characters.
That was a year ago, and while the flamboyant character has grown on me, it’s still not high on my list of favorites.
But after watching an ESPN special last week, the man behind the gimmick certainly is.
E:60’s “WWE: Behind the Curtain,” reported by Jeremy Schaap and produced by Ben Houser, was a great piece of journalism that took viewers behind the scenes and into the personal lives of three aspiring WWE talents chasing their dreams at the WWE Performance Center in Florida.
The plights of all three performers featured in the piece — Adam Rose, Corey Graves (Matt Polinsky) and Xavier Woods (Austin Watson) — share a common thread. The road to becoming a WWE superstar is full of bumps, twists and turns, and only a select few make it to the promised land.
Because WWE is the only true juggernaut in the wrestling industry, it’s easier to land a spot on an NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball roster than it is to make it to the bigs in the wrestling world.
The E:60 documentary was entertaining and enlightening, but it’s the South African-born Ray Leppan — the man behind Rose’s gimmick — whose story and journey from homelessness to a spot on sports entertainment’s biggest stage is most compelling.
For nearly four years, Leppan had been a fixture at WWE’s developmental facility, which morphed from the former FCW to state-of-the-art NXT while he was there.
Leppan had good size and a good look, was a better-than-average worker in the ring and developed an interesting character in South African mercenary Leo Kruger.
But because of a purported lack of fan interest, along with his advanced age for WWE development (he’s now 35), Leppan found himself on the brink of being released from his NXT contract and seeing his dream of making the WWE’s main roster shattered.
Leppan went through an assortment of character tweaks that never really clicked as the “larger-than-life” image that WWE demanded from those seeking to make it to the next stage.
Time was running out for Leppan, and he knew it. With a family to support and with wrestling all he had ever done or ever known, the pressure on him was building.
Leppan was then issued a directive: come up with 10 different characters and select one for presentation. And he only had two weeks to do it.
“It wasn’t just Adam Rose,” said Leppan. “I came back with 10 different gimmicks. I was given a two-week window to basically completely revamp my image. It was a very short time considering I had been working on Leo Kruger for four years.”
And during those four years, said Leppan, he went through different variations of Leo Kruger to keep the character fresh.
While WWE didn’t directly give him an ultimatum, Leppan could see the writing on the wall.
“I had the definite sense that if it didn’t work, they probably wouldn’t be speaking to me again.”
The day before a promo class where Leppan was scheduled to present his new character to his coaches and peers at the Performance Center, he went to Dusty Rhodes, one of the business’s greatest promo men, for advice.
“I laid out all 10 characters in front of him and asked him which one I should do,” said Leppan.
Rhodes’ response was straight to the point.
“Which one is the most different from anything you’ve ever done?” the teacher asked the student.
The answer was simple. Leppan’s “Adam Rose” character was as far from Leo Kruger as one gimmick could possibly get.
“Do that one,” Rhodes said emphatically.
Leppan reasoned that by creating an entirely different persona, he could demonstrate a far greater range and show those overseeing the process that he was versatile and adaptable, a pair of great qualities in the wrestling business.
The plan worked to perfection.
“That first promo we did got a standing ovation,” said Leppan. “I didn’t get a standing ovation for what Adam Rose was, but I got a standing ovation just because people saw such a range.”
The new character was a “party time, all the time” 1980s British pop star.
While many thought the gimmick was inspired by British comedian Russell Brand, Leppan was looking in a different direction.
“Strangely enough, initially it was more Austin Powers and Elton John,” he said. “After it was done, people said it was more Russell Brand-ish.”
“When we initially launched it, the idea was that it was going to be a fun character and something that people could enjoy,” he said. “Wrestling-wise, we took a lot from Adrian Street and Rico (Constantino) and borrowed from some other things. Ever since, it’s gone through some turns and evolutions.”
The next — and most important — step was selling the new character to a live audience. Leppan passed with flying colors as the crowd chanted “We are Rosebuds!”
A couple of months later, Adam Rose was called up to WWE’s main roster.
At 35 years old, and despite two decades in the business, Leppan is relatively late in the game by WWE standards.
But his status in the wrestling business is superseded by who he is outside the ring. And that’s a caring and doting father.
Leppan and his wife, Cassandra, have a 4-year-old son, Maverick, who suffers from a rare abdominal birth defect.
“Other than the doctors, I was the only person to actually see the defect (when Maverick was born). I could see the sack with his liver and intestines hanging outside his body. His mama kissed him on the cheek, and they took him directly after that to get surgery.”
Another surgery followed three days later. Several months later he was battling to breathe on his own.
“There was a period of time where we almost lost him three times,” said Leppan.
The youngster has undergone multiple surgeries throughout his young life and will require more in the future. He has already outlived his prognosis.
It’s a painful experience for a parent, but then again, little has come easy for Leppan.
He ran away from his home in South Africa at the age of 14, got into fights and into trouble, and struggled as a homeless teenager. He now admits the two years he spent on the streets was the result of bad decisions on his part.
“I chose the lifestyle I wanted to live when I was there. I had loving parents. I just didn’t choose to be part of the family. I chose to go out on my own and do my own thing. I had a very difficult two years.”
In hindsight, he said, it was just another part of the journey.
“It was a very difficult two years which, oddly enough as I look back now, I do not regret those two years. I think it helped me have a very good perspective on what life was.”
His introduction to the wrestling world was rather happenstance.
“My mother had come into contact with a wrestler in South Africa,” he said, “and used it as a lure to try and get me back home.”
The ploy worked, and Leppan left Durban and returned to his home in Johannesburg where he attended his first wrestling class. He made his debut in 1995 at the age of 16, and spent the next 15 years wrestling in South Africa before trying his hand in the United States.
His training in South Africa, he notes, was rather primitive.
“The training was like, ‘There’s a ring, take a bump, OK you know what you’re doing.’ That was pretty much it. The matches were like, ‘You beat the crap out of me and I’ll beat the crap out of you, and someone wins.’ That was it. It was a completely different experience.”
Leppan appeared under such names as Dameon Duke and Presley Jackson, and teamed with fellow South African and future WWE performer Justin Gabriel (Paul Lloyd Jr.) as “Pure Juice.” It was Lloyd’s father, promoter Paul Lloyd Sr., who first booked Leppan on his shows.
“When I was coming off the streets and coming into professional wrestling for the first time, I stayed with Justin for a long time. It was his dad who actually brought me in. There was a period of time we were roommates for probably three years.”
After toiling for years on the South African mat scene, Leppan knew his chances of ever making a name in the business were slim.
“I will be honest. When I was in South Africa, there were many times I had given up. It was such a big leap from South Africa to America.”
Leppan paid to take part in a WWE tryout in Florida with 49 other hopefuls.
“I was 29 years old, and it was like the last chance I had. I figured I might as well put my money down and give it a go and see what happens.”
WWE apparently liked what they saw, and Leppan was offered a deal at the company’s FCW developmental facility. His first match was in February 2010.
“I’m not sure what it was, but they liked something about me at the time. I think, if anything, they liked the fact that I was about 240 pounds and just a big South African boy. That, more than anything, was what they were attracted to.”
It’s been a year since Leppan made his official WWE debut as Adam Rose, the self-proclaimed conductor of The Exotic Express, a lively entourage of colorfully costumed party-goers dubbed The Rosebuds that until recently included a hopping Rosebud member known as The Bunny (played by Rose’s old friend Gabriel).
Veering slightly from his high-octane, party-animal persona, Leppan recently made a subtle heel turn that is much closer to his old Leo Kruger character.
Where that leads Leppan is not sure. He only knows that it was a long road to WWE, and he wants to take advantage of his time there.
Son Maverick is holding his own, and every day is a victory for Leppan and his family. Dad remains optimistic.
“Maverick is a perfectly healthy little boy. There’s eating issues and speech issues right now. He’s had an amazing surgeon since Day 1,” said Leppan.
Maverick has to be fed through a tube in his stomach, and he requires constant attention. But Leppan has never given up hope.
“They told us he would never cry when he was born. We wouldn’t be able to hear that typical baby cry because his lungs would be so underdeveloped. But when he was born, he came out screaming. So that was a good sign.
“He’s got a clean bill of health. He just needs to learn how to eat. He’s about two years behind when it comes to speech or anything to do with his mouth. He goes to a school now where he has a speech therapist who’s trying to help him catch up.”
Leppan also is thankful for the guiding forces that helped him navigate the many challenges he has faced in the wrestling business.
“There have been so many people involved. If you go way back, from FCW to NXT days, I don’t think Norman Smiley gets enough credit at all for being one of the hardest workers in the business and a man who has influenced so many different careers. Terry Taylor is another. And I’ll go so far to say — although a lot of people don’t want me to say it — Bill DeMott. He had a lot to do with me, especially when it came down to crunch time, he was there.”
DeMott, who also had a prominent part in the recent E:60 piece, resigned as head WWE trainer earlier this year after an internal memo was leaked that accused him of creating an unprofessional and unsafe work environment in NXT in 2013.
Leppan is not yet sure how E:60’s portrayal will affect his career.
Most would surely agree, though, that the glimpse of the man behind the character — a caring father and family man — will definitely change how the audience views Ray Leppan.
“I have no idea what the reaction will be or how people will react to it. I don’t know. It’s business as usual until otherwise,” said Leppan.
He does jokingly mention, however, son Maverick’s reaction to the opening of the E:60 piece.
“Mav actually said, ‘I don’t want to see this,’ and walked away,” laughs Leppan. “I don’t know if he was embarrassed by it … seems like he’d be too young to be embarrassed. I’m not sure. We’re going to try it again on him to see if he’s OK with it.”
Or, suggests Leppan, “Maybe it was just the camera catching him waking up in the morning. You never know.”
One thing’s for sure.
I’ll never boo Adam Rose again.