SINGAPORE — One week ago, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) saw a wrestler being introduced as coming "from Singapore" for the very first time.
It is one of many firsts for Dante Chen in a whirlwind three months, when he went from being the first Singaporean wrestler to earn a contract with the globally-popular franchise in July, to becoming the first Singaporean to perform in WWE, debuting at the weekly NXT show on 21 September.
For many aspiring professional wrestlers around the world, being able to fight in a WWE show would undoubtedly be a career high point, but Dante – whose real name is Sean Tan – is already eyeing more impressive milestones.
"When I saw all the support from online social media after my debut, it was very heartwarming. But at the same time, I don't want this to be the pinnacle of what I have achieved in the WWE," the confident 25-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in an online interview on Monday (27 September).
"I wasn't thinking too much about celebrating after my debut, in fact I was already thinking about the next things I would have to do to make the next step (of my WWE career).
"I get it that it's very exciting for me and for Singapore for this moment to happen, but I have to continue to do things that will be able to keep eyes on not just me, but on NXT."
Career taking off at the right time with NXT 2.0 revamp
In a way, Dante's fledgling career comes at an ideal time, as it coincides with the recent rebranding of NXT. Regarded as the third brand of weekly WWE shows after Raw and Smackdown, NXT – helmed by Hall of Fame wrestler "Triple H" Paul Levesque – blossomed in the last decade as the "proving ground" for up-and-coming wrestlers, and was widely praised for its high quality of wrestling and captivating storylines.
On 14 September, WWE announced a revamp of NXT, dubbing it "NXT 2.0", with plans to focus more on its developmental roots to unearth younger talents that could someday make the leap to Raw or Smackdown, perhaps even headline WWE's famous pay-per-view events such as WrestleMania.
Recent NXT episodes have seen several wrestlers making their WWE debuts, and Dante was one of them, entering the NXT arena at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, wearing red hooded gear midway through the 21 September show.
Even more impressively, the 1.83m-tall wrestler took a little over a minute before hitting his finishing move from an inside cradle position to score a victory over his American opponent Trey Baxter.
Dante revealed that he got his NXT call-up on that very same morning, just hours before the 8pm live taping.
"I didn't even know that I was scheduled to compete, or even who my opponent will be, until the very day itself. I was asked to be at the arena at 11am, and a couple of hours later, I was told that I would be making my debut facing Trey. There were only a couple more hours to prepare by then," he recalled.
"I've known Trey as we're all under the same umbrella of the WWE Performance Center, so we met and had a quick huddle to work out what we wanted to do in the match. Then it was like 'good luck and see you later'."
Steep learning curve at Performance Center
It has undoubtedly been a steep learning curve for Dante ever since he signed a contract to train at the Orlando-based WWE Performance Center in July, together with two other wrestlers from China, Feicheng Wang and Jie Yin.
He was the only Singaporean to earn the contract after WWE held a tryout in Shanghai in July 2019 to scout for potential wrestling talents from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Two other Singapore wrestlers took part in the tryout: women's wrestler Alexis Lee and Andruew Tang, co-founder of Singapore Pro Wrestling (SPW).
SPW was where Dante began his wrestling career in 2012, fighting under the moniker Trexxus. He admitted that despite his experience, he has had to re-learn many aspects of wrestling upon joining the Performance Center.
"I've been competing in Singapore for many years, and I found myself plateauing in terms of improvement. So I came into the Performance Center with an open mind to learn as many things as possible," Dante said.
"Sometimes, I even had to un-learn what I've been taught in the past, and re-learn the basics again, just to get things right.
"My daily routine consists of ring trainings and gym sessions. On Sundays, we have what we call 'style sessions' whereby we watch footage and analyse what we did right or did wrong. On top of all these, we have training matches a couple of times a month. It's a lot of things to learn, but it was really eye-opening for me."
Memorable journey to WWE
It has certainly been a memorable journey for Dante, since he was first inspired to go into wrestling after spending his teenage years playing WWE video games. His biggest idol then was another Hall of Famer, Shawn Michaels, who coincidentally is now a writer and producer at NXT.
"I don't exactly see him or Triple H every day, so whatever inputs that they might want to give me, it's usually passed down to my coaches and then to me," he said.
"But I'm comfortable living and training in Orlando with all the coaches. When I made my debut and entered the ring, I was surprised that I didn't feel as nervous as I thought I would. It has so far been a great experience."
Catch Dante Chen on WWE NXT weekly on StarHub.
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