TAMPA — Ettore Ewen was barely 1 year old when Hulk Hogan scooped the massive Andre The Giant off his feet and body-slammed him to the mat.
But Ewen, known as “Big E Langston” to fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, has seen the moment played over so many times he feels he was there, in the crowd of more than 93,000 at the 1987 Wrestlemania III in Michigan’s Pontiac Silverdome.
“It was amazing,” said Ewen, 28, a 2004 graduate of Tampa’s Wharton High School.
A “Wrestlemania moment,” those in pro wrestling call it — a scene from the industry’s biggest annual show replayed so often it becomes part of pop culture.
“I had this Hulkamania thing going but Andre the Giant was the key for me,” said Hogan, a patron of Ewen’s who also attended high school in Hillsborough and is now one of Clearwater’s most famous citizens. “I knew if I picked him up and slammed him and beat him for the 1-2-3 we were ready for a monster wave.”
Big E Langston will have a chance to create his own moment Sunday during the 30th annual Wrestlemania at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. It will be shown live on pay-per-view and the WWE Network.
Hogan said he has faith that Ewen can grow into a superstar for the WWE, a face in its branding efforts for years to come.
Ewen is set to take part in the first “Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal” — a match idea that Hogan says he came up with to honor his late friend.
Twenty-nine other WWE superstars will join Ewen in the ring, each hoping to toss opponents over the top rope and onto the floor to eliminate them from the match. The last man standing is the winner.
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Ewen, a Florida power-lifting champion, has no control over whether or not he wins the match. A team of writers decides that as they would on any scripted television show.
Still, there is a sense of competition in the ring. The outcome of the match may be predetermined, but its flow and choreography is often decided on the fly by participants — part of the artistry of their craft.
Win or lose, any wrestler can be the one who leaves a lasting impression on the crowd.
To ensure it’s him, the 5-foot-11, 290-pound Ewen plans to take a page out of the legendary Hogan’s playbook and perform a feat of strength similar to slamming Andre the Giant.
There will be plenty of giants in the ring to choose from — two seven footers and a handful of wrestlers tipping more than 350 pounds on the scale. It’s child’s play for a man who can bench more than 500 pounds, dead lift close to 800 pounds and squat over 700 pounds.
“I want to create an iconic moment, such as body slamming a big guy like Big Show,” Ewen said.
WWE’s Big Show — real name Paul Wight — is a 7-foot-tall grappler who weighs close to 450 pounds.
Hogan agrees: “He needs to find a way to dump Big Show on his head.”
Born and raised in Carrollwood and New Tampa, Ewen first excelled on the wrestling mats at Tampa Preparatory School, winning a state championship at 215 pounds in Class A competition in 2002 during his junior year.
But competitive wrestling was not his first love. Football was.
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During his senior year, he quit wrestling and transferred to Wharton High School to play football. He was named the Hillsborough County High School “Iron Man of the Year” for starring on both offense and defense.
He attended the University of Iowa, where he played football as a defensive lineman. A rash of injuries limited him to one season as an active player.
But Ewen caught the eye of WWE scouts, who look to college sports for future stars.
When he was first approached, Ewen said he had his doubts about success in entertainment.
He was a fan, he said. He and his father, Ettore Sr., would watch pro wrestling every week, and he loved hearing the man’s stories about Tampa’s time as a wresting mecca in the 1960s and ’70s.
Ewen knew he had the physical ability.
What he doubted was his personality.
Professional wrestlers rely as much on colorful personas as speed and strength.
“I was an introvert,” Ewen said.
The WWE believed it could draw him out of his shell.
He was signed to a developmental contract in 2009 and sent to the WWE’s former training center on Dale Mabry Highway in South Tampa. It has since been replaced by the WWE Performance Center in Orlando.
While learning professional wrestling, Ewen took up the sport of power lifting.
At the fifth annual United States Open Championships 2010 at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, he broke all four state power lifting records in the 275-pound weight class and the national record in dead lifting.
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Rather than trying to make Ewen something he’s not, WWE worked to capitalize on his laid back attitude and power.
The character Big E Langston is a silent enforcer, speaking softly and carrying a big stick. He plays to the crowd, but through menacing stares and muscle flexing rather than ego-driven soliloquies.
He debuted for the WWE in December 2012 as the body guard for Dolph Ziggler, real name Nick Nemeth — a weasel of a bad-guy wrestler who needed Langston to illegally interfere in his matches for him to win.
Ewen first took the ring as an official participant in a WWE match in April 2013, as Ziggler’s tag-team partner during Wrestlemania 29.
“It was different than anything else I ever did.”
In college, he played at Michigan Stadium in front of 100,000 people, but as part of a large team and hidden under a helmet.
During Wrestlemania 29, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, he performed in front of 80,676 fans as the center attraction.
“All eyes were on me.”
This Sunday, with another year of experience under his belt, he plans to do more than survive the spotlight. He aims to steal it.
And if he is chosen by the script writers to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, Hogan — who has a waterfront restaurant in Tampa — expects to see the celebration kept local.
“If Big E Wins, I’m going to drag him over to Hogan’s Beach and we’ll party like rock stars.”