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WWE performer ‘Big E’ had to learn how to entertain crowds

Combining athletic spectacles with scripted storylines, World Wrestling Entertainment calls itself “sports entertainment.”

Tampa native Ettore Ewen, who performs in the WWE as “Big E,” had the sports part down pat as soon as he debuted in 2012.

After all, he won a state wrestling title as a junior at Tampa Preparatory School and during his senior year at Wharton High School in 2004 he was named Hillsborough County’s “Iron Man of the Year” for playing well on offense and defense as a football player.

But growing comfortable as an entertainer proved difficult for Ewen, who describes himself as an introvert, so for his first two years with the WWE, Ewen was cast as a silent bodyguard for more colorful stars.

Now, fans in attendance will see a much different Ewen when the WWE tapes an episode of its USA network show “SmackDown” at Amalie Arena at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It will be broadcast on television at 8 p.m. Thursday.

Ewen has grown into the role of entertainer, developing into one of the WWE’s more outlandish personalities and a star of the show.

“Getting comfortable with your surroundings helps a lot,” said Ewen, 29, who lives in Land O’Lakes. “There are no more nerves. I am not second guessing myself. This is the least inhibited I have been on camera.”

As part of a three-man group of wrestlers called The New Day — along with Kofi Kingston, portrayed by Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah of Tampa, and Xavier Woods, real name Austin Watson — Ewen is known for absurdity. He gyrates like a stripper mid-match, delivering over-the-top speeches in a preacher’s cadence that have included a eulogy for a broken trombone, and wears a unicorn horn on his head to “bring magic back to the WWE.”

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Professional wrestling personas often can be summed up pretty simply.

Hulk Hogan was the all American. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was WWE’s Muhammad Ali. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was anti-authority.

Ewen’s Big E character and The New Day trio are more complicated.

“The foundation was three individuals who believed in the power of positivity. Now it has expanded to some sort of traveling musical group that gyrates a lot,” he said with a laugh. “It has taken many weird turns. We just enjoy having fun together.”

Professional wrestling has always featured comedy acts. Over the years, there have been corny superheroes, boy bands lacking in musical talent, even a grappler who fell in love with a mop. They break up the drama and brutality of the more serious acts.

What sets Ewen apart from the comic relief, though, is that he easily transitions from one to the other, doing a schtick for the crowd one moment, then shifting to a talented and powerful wrestler willing to go dirty for victory. The New Day has twice been awarded tag team championships.

“They are good in-ring workers, for sure,” said wrestling historian Jason Powell, editor of prowrestling.net. “And they are certainly one of the WWE’s more entertaining acts and one of the most unique it has ever seen. Other acts have seen variations over the years. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything like The New Day.”

Ewen said his current wrestling persona is just his real one “with the volume turned up a bit.”

In fact, he said, this is the first time he has been his authentic goofy self in public.

“There is not a chance anyone in Tampa I went to school with would say they could have seen me doing what I am doing now,” said Ewen, born and raised in Carrollwood and New Tampa.

“I was quiet as a kid. I was definitely an introvert through middle and high school. It took me a while to get out of my bubble.”

But WWE saw potential in the athleticism he displayed as a defensive lineman for University of Iowa and signed him to a developmental contract in 2009.

Ewen debuted with the WWE in December 2012 as a bodyguard for Dolph Ziggler, real name Nick Nemeth, a weasel of a bad guy who needed “Big E” to illegally step into his matches.

The Big E character, a muscle-bound 5-foot-11 and 290 pounds, started out as a “brooding powerhouse” with little depth.

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Still, said historian Powell, keen observers could tell Ewen had more to offer.

“He would flash his quirky sense of humor with subtle glances or body language,” Powell said. “It just took some time to find his niche.”

Ewen created the opportunity.

By 2014, he realized he might languish as a background player for the rest of his career if he didn’t make a change. His current New Day partners, who then performed as individuals, felt the same way about themselves.

“We were in lulls,” Ewen said. “We were stale. So we got together behind the scenes and came up with ideas for what we could do as a team. We’d pitch our ideas backstage until we were finally able to come out together.”

The New Day debuted as a unit in late 2014, originally as inspirational speakers who preached how the power of positivity could enable them to overcome their struggles.

For Ewen, the change was easy: His father, also named Ettore Ewen, is a career preacher.

“I used to go to church for about six hours on Sunday,” he said. “That was what I spent my youth around.”

Still, Ewen was not clear on the long-term plan for The New Day. They were having fun, getting television time and grew confident this would entertain the fans.

“We believed people would see the chemistry between us. The rest would take care of itself.”

And it has, historian Powell said, as the trio has been allowed the creative freedom to weave their zany sense of humor into their characters.

In the process, Ewen has risen from a “mid-card act” to one seeing the cusp of main-event status.

“Only time will tell,” Powell said. “He has good power and the WWE looks for that. But he also has a good thing going and if I am the WWE, I don’t want to mess too much with that yet. Don’t break up The New Day.”

Not to worry, Ewen said. He has no desire to leave the trio.

“I think I can accomplish all of my goals with The New Day. We just want to continue giving people something different. What that is yet, I can’t say, but hopefully we continue to change for the better.”

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