PHOENIX - For some elite athletes, a career in professional wrestling became Plan B after their dreams of playing pro football fell through.
But for former Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Dean Muhtadi -- now known as WWE superstar Mojo Rawley -- pro wrestling has always been the dream.
"Believe it or not, being in WWE was the first thing I ever wanted to do, well before I even started with my football career," Rawley said. "I almost look at football as a means to this end. It’s kind of cool to see life coming full circle now that I’m here."
Spend five minutes with Rawley and you'll know that the man you see on WWE television is a reflection of who he really is: energetic, passionate and larger than life.
To paraphrase his motto: Mojo doesn't get hyped; he stays hyped. That's why it wasn't surprising to learn that his childhood hero was the guy he calls "the original hype man," the late Ultimate Warrior.
"I emulate him a little in my entrance to this day, just coming out all hyped up, running around, flipping out all over the place," Rawley said. "He was always the guy I pretended to be when I was a kid, and still is."
Rawley grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and went on to star on the University of Maryland football team. But his path to playing at the Division I level came through his academic prowess.
After high school, Rawley attended Christopher Newport University in Virginia on a full academic scholarship and played for its Division III football team before transferring to Maryland. He went on to earn his Bachelor's degree ahead of schedule, and he secured his MBA at age 21.
"It was just something my parents beat into me as a kid: You can’t go anywhere without having your grades up to par," Rawley said. "It’s kind of just helped me out all along the way."
Following his collegiate career, Rawley was signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2009, but he was released after the preseason. Thinking his NFL career was over before it started, Rawley, who previously worked at Morgan Stanley, accepted a job with Merrill Lynch.
Then, the Cardinals came calling.
"I was supposed to start (at Merrill Lynch) on a Monday, and I got a call from Arizona on a Friday or Saturday. I was sitting there at dinner and I just got the call and flipped out," he said. "I called Merrill Lynch and told them that everything’s on hold."
Rawley joined the Cardinals before the 2010 season, playing alongside offensive lineman-turned-fellow WWE star Baron Corbin. Former Cardinals strength and conditioning coach John Lott gave Rawley the nickname of "Sheik" in reference to another former WWE champion, The Iron Sheik, for the sheer intensity Rawley showed in the weight room.
"I’m pretty sure no one on the team actually knew my real name," he said. "It was Sheik. That was who I was."
In Arizona, Rawley's training partner was another man known for his larger-than-life personality: former Cardinals Pro Bowl defensive end Darnell Dockett.
"That was a great relationship for me," Rawley said. "Darnell’s a great guy, a great friend, and really looked out for me as like an older-brother type when I was there, so I’ll be forever grateful for that."
Rawley's NFL future appeared bright until a serious calf injury derailed his momentum. He was once again on the verge of joining the Merrill Lynch team, until a window to his dream job opened thanks in part to another close friend: NFL All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"You take your training protocols and regimen and you just throw them out the window, because they are not applicable here"
"It’s just a friendship that we’ve maintained through the years, especially before anyone had achieved any level of success," Rawley said. "We all kind of grew up together, trained with each other, kind of coached each other along and helped each other out whenever we could. It’s paid dividends for all of us, every single one of us."
And as fate would have it, the father of the Gronkowski boys had roomed at Syracuse University with former WWE star Mike "I.R.S." Rotunda, who offered to help get Rawley a foot in the door.
"They knew how much of a fan I was, and made the phone calls," said Rawley, who got his sit-down interview with WWE during a live event in D.C.
"That was it. The rest was history... I left the NFL to come here, and I couldn’t be happier about it."
Rawley joined WWE in 2012 and methodically worked his way through WWE's developmental territory, FCW (later rebranded as NXT) in Florida. He and fellow WWE star Zack Ryder enjoyed a successful tag-team run as the aptly-named Hype Bros. Rawley was called up to WWE's main roster in 2016 and is now featured on its weekly show, SmackDown Live.
But for Rawley, the pro wrestling lifestyle has been far more physically and mentally demanding than football. When WWE superstars aren't working themselves to near exhaustion via weight and cardio training, they're in a plane or automobile en route to the next live event.
And unlike the NFL, WWE has no offseason.
"You take your training protocols and regimen and you just throw them out the window, because they are not applicable here," he said. "Football, it’s little bursts. A play is 3-5 seconds and that’s it. A wrestling match is a lot longer than that. You don’t know how long they’re going to be sometimes. You’ve got to train more for conditioning, endurance and stamina as opposed to necessarily maximum power.
"We’re on the road five days a week, traveling, flights, long drives every day. It’s really the travel that will beat you up. It’s not like football where you can hang on to those nagging injuries or postpone surgery for a month or two until the offseason, and you have this long break to come back brand-new. We don’t get that luxury here. It’s about maintaining and just finding ways to be able to show up every day in one piece and get the job done."
But through the rigors of the pro wrestling life, Rob Gronkowski has been there to cheer on his best friend, even in front of sparse FCW crowds several years ago. Gronk's loyalty to his buddy paid off for both men at Wrestlemania 33 last year, when Gronk helped Rawley secure the victory in the annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
"He’s always a fan, loves coming to see me work and always kind of wanted to partake a little bit," Rawley said. "This was my first Wrestlemania since I’ve been up here. To have a win in the battle royal, that was huge. And to take that monumental achievement and then add my best friend into the mix, it just makes it 10 times better.
"It was unreal. We were going nuts afterwards. We were losing our minds. It was a good night, to say the least."
Rumors that Gronk is contemplating retirement from the NFL have spurred speculation that WWE might be interested in signing him to a part- or full-time contract. It's a possibility that he and Rawley have discussed several times.
"In my opinion and a lot of others, he’s the greatest tight end to ever play the game. You take all those assets and just raw abilities that you have and you bring that here, it’s kind of a recipe for success one way or another," Rawley said.
"He has a lot on his plate right now. Whether an appearance here in the WWE again comes at Wrestlemania, or whether it comes to a Wrestlemania five years from now, I’m sure at some point you’re going to see him in a ring again."
At just 31 years old, Rawley is younger than the average WWE superstar. But pro wrestling careers are often shorter than pro football careers due to the tolls that injuries and travel can take on bodies, meaning Rawley will, at some point, likely need to fall back on his education and experience in marketing and finance.
But for now, the financial world can wait. Rawley is too busy staying hyped, winning matches and living his dream to think about life after WWE.
"I try not to. I’m focused on this," he said. "This is the first thing I ever wanted to do, and now I’m here and I have the opportunity of a lifetime, and I want to make sure I don’t let it slip.
"There’s always kind of things in your back pocket, and I’m sure my background in financing will help me out in the future. But for now, all eyes on this."