It’s been said that the best characters in professional wrestling are those based off of the performer’s real-life personality with the “volume turned up.” So does that mean that WWE Superstar and Fairfax native Alex Riley, once known as “The Varsity Villain,” stole lunch money and stuffed nerds in lockers during his time at Robinson Secondary School?
“There were a couple people I would have loved to stuff in lockers,” he said with a laugh Friday. “There was a guy picking on my brother one time and I think you saw a little bit of ‘The Varsity Villain’ there come out.”
While he may not have been as much of a bully as he portrayed on television, Riley has definitely thrown his weight around in WWE as he has cemented his place as one of the company’s fastest-rising stars.
The 30-year-old Riley (real name: Kevin Kiley, Jr.) was born and raised in Fairfax. The son of former New York Jet and ESPN sportscaster Kevin Kiley, Sr., and Lauren Kiley, a former Miss Virginia, Riley followed in his father’s footsteps, starring as a quarterback for Robinson and earning a scholarship to continue his football career at Boston College, where he made the switch to linebacker.
Though Riley had his life from ages 14-22 “mapped out” as a football player, he was always fascinated by the spectacle of professional wrestling. One of his father's closest friends was his former college teammate at the University of Wyoming, Greg Gagne, a member of the influential Gagne wrestling family. That, combined with his love of wrestling from a young age, propelled Riley toward a career in sports entertainment.
A naturally-gifted athlete, Riley excelled at any challenge placed in front of him, but he admitted that getting his start with WWE was one of the hardest things he's done thus far. His football career prepared him for the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with stepping into the squared circle, but there were other aspects that he had to adjust to.
"There are a lot of similarities between football and wrestling," Riley said. "The obvious ones are the contact, the amount of discipline that it takes to get through it. They're both very grueling on your body."
"I always tell people that when you're a football player, you're really a number under a jersey," he continued. "As a WWE Superstar, you're a total personality. From the moment you walk through the curtain, they see everything. You're not covered at all. You're out there in trunks, they can see your face at all times. I think there's nine or 10 cameras out there that can catch the way you're feeling, what you say, the way you look, how you move at any moment once your start performing. It's very difficult to learn how you've always gotta be in character."
It may have been a difficult learning process, but Riley, who took a job selling medical equipment as a stopgap, impressed WWE so much that he received a message from them asking him to join their developmental territory in Tampa, Fla., Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), before the plane he was on landed back in Virginia after his tryout. He then packed up his Jeep Cherokee and drove 18 hours to Tampa to start his journey.
After spending about three years in FCW honing his craft, Riley earned a spot on the company's main roster in 2010. Riley was a participant on the second season of WWE NXT, a pseudo-reality show where eight "rookies" mentored by eight "pros" battled it out for a chance to become WWE's "Next Breakout Star." Riley was paired with Mike "The Miz" Mizanin and while he ultimately finished in third place on NXT, he became the biggest star from that season.
Riley continued his partnership with The Miz, who, like Riley, was on a meteoric rise to fame in 2010, winning the WWE's United States Championship as well as the coveted "Money In The Bank" briefcase, which guaranteed him a future championship match. The Miz indeed became WWE Champion in November 2010 by cashing in the aforementioned briefcase and Riley was his right-hand man as they did battle with luminaries like John Cena and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, even accompanying The Miz to the ring at the main event of Wrestlemania 27, the company's biggest event.
"I could not have written a better start to my career," Riley said. "I started on NXT and it was a lot of fun having The Miz help me out because he was such an established performer already, so to go into that show with him was a gift. And then to be a part of his run as WWE Champion was incredible. The situation was incredible. Being able to be in the ring with guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena, Roddy Piper and to help headline Wrestlemania with Miz, Rock and John Cena, I couldn't have asked for any more."
While Riley owed a lot to The Miz for his development, the on-screen relationship between the two hit a rough patch last spring after the latter lost the WWE Championship. The Miz, who had signed Riley to a storyline "personal services contract," fired him in the middle of the ring. Riley snapped and attacked his former mentor, signaling the start of his singles career. The biggest moment of Riley's career came shortly after when he defeated The Miz at the Capitol Punishment pay-per-view at Verizon Center last June.
"The place went crazy when I came out," Riley said of his pay-per-view singles debut last summer. "Washington D.C. has always been great to me."
Riley will return to his hometown when WWE Raw broadcasts live from Verizon Center Monday evening. He doesn't know what's in store for him Monday, but expects to make an appearance in front of the D.C. crowd.
"A-Ry's" journey from sports to sports entertainment has been an arduous one, but he never forgot his roots and looks forward to returning to them Monday.
"I love being in D.C.," Riley said. "I'm gonna stay at my parents' house the night before the show. I'm gonna sleep in my old bed. I'm gonna get a good meal, get up and go to the gym and just be so excited for the show. It's just fun being home."
Adam Vingan is co-founder and editor of Kings Of Leonsis, a Caps-centric blog, and is the Capitals Editor for SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_KOL and e-mail your story ideas to adamvingan (at) gmail.com.