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WWE's Baron Corbin on Playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Smackdown Beating Raw, and Dealing With Fan Criticism

WWE superstar Baron Corbin stands tall over Dean Ambrose during a recent match.
WWE superstar Baron Corbin stands tall over Dean Ambrose during a recent match. Courtesy of WWE
WWE superstar Baron Corbin is a fighter He was an amateur wrestler in high school, a Jiu-Jitsu and three-time Golden Gloves boxing champ in his 20s, and has experience in mixed martial arts to boot.

And back in 2010, Corbin (who’s real name is Thomas Pestock) got into a few fights as a backup offensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals while battling for a spot on the team’s main roster.

These days, he’s still kicking ass and taking names in the WWE as a part of its Smackdown Live television show. Corbin’s nickname is “The Lone Wolf,” a badass biker type who lays out opponents with power moves and knockout punches.

Last weekend, Corbin participated in the biggest fight of his pro wrestling career here in Phoenix when he battled five other superstars inside the Elimination Chamber cage during the main event of the WWE pay-per-view of the same name at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Sunday, February 12.

And even though Corbin came up short in the match, he’s still one of the fastest-rising competitors in the WWE and it’s “next big thing” according to Rolling Stone.

New Times got a chance to speak with Corbin recently via telephone prior to his visit to Phoenix and we chatted about his time with the Arizona Cardinals, whom he hopes to face at WrestleMania 33 in April, and how he feels about criticism from wrestling fans.

You have a history here in the Valley from playing with the Arizona Cardinals, right?
Yeah, I definitely do. I lived out there for a couple years when I played for Arizona and I still got family out there. My uncle and his family, his little boys are out there. We lived in the same neighborhood, which was a nice little bonus. So I got good ties to Arizona.

Was your fellow WWE superstar Mojo Rawley with the Cardinals at the same time?
Yeah, but he was just there for off-season training and then he got hurt, so he wasn't there very long.

What were your experience like living here?
Oh, I loved it. I got to be a part of Arizona for two and a half years I was there and played with some great players, like, I'm still good friends with [Larry] Fitzgerald, I played with all three quarterbacks from [Kurt] Warner to [Derek] Anderson to [Kevin] Kolb and I made good friends with Levi [Brown]. And Adrian Wilson was there and he was an amazing player. It was a great experience from top to bottom. I loved my line coach out there, Russ Grimm, and I was on the practice squad for two years and I got a lot of good opportunities and was a backup to Alan Faneca, so that was a really neat experience. It was pretty cool.

Looking back, are you almost glad you were released by the Cardinals since you’re now kicking ass in the WWE?
You know, when my time came up in Arizona, I was ready to move into something else. I had a couple other offers from other teams, but I was just ready to move on. I had fun in Arizona but I wanted to leave football on a positive note. I'm glad that I am where I am and I wouldn't change anything that I've done in my career with athletics.

Do you think it's funny that you wound up in the same situation in a sense? Instead of being cheered on by tens of thousands of Valley residents at University of Phoenix Stadium you’ll be cheered by tens of thousands of people at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Yeah, it's pretty wild. I went to WrestleMania when it was in Arizona while I was playing for the Cardinals. So now, it's a cool experience to always come back to Arizona and I still get guys that will say, “I remember when you were with the Cardinals because you got in fights in training camp. And it was in the newspaper that you were literally fighting for your NFL shot and getting in fistfights up at NFL training camp.” So I kind of built a little reputation out there, and there's a lot of people who remember that who are die-hard Cardinals fans that love football.

So you were throwing punches back then to fight your way to the top, and you’re still doing that today.
Exactly. [laughs]

Plus, you were a Golden Gloves boxing champion, too.
Yup. I won that three times. So it's definitely beneficial to wrestling to be able to throw punches like that.

So you had a huge match on Smackdown Live recently, including getting the pin on AJ.
Yeah, I talked about it on Talking Smack. It was a really good opportunity, and I went out there with three former WWE Champions and I walked away the winner, so you can't beat that.

Right now on Reddit’s wrestling page there are many fans digging this animated GIF of you punching AJ Styles in mid-air.

Did you plan that spot in advance?
No, I just react to what's in the moment, and he was flying through the air, I said, man, it's a good time to punch you in the face. So I did, and it worked out pretty well.

So was it called on the fly in the ring?
You know, we just go out there and go to work. It's what we do. We're professionals and we're out there to compete with each other and we just deal with what we have and react. To become very successful you have to be able react to anything. Like [Mike] Tyson always said, you need to have a plan going into a fight and once you get punched in the face, everything changes, and so I just go out there and do what I do to the best of my ability and being a pro helps that and I consider myself one of the best there is, so I proved that night in and night out.

You even got a shout-out from ESPN, who called it a “breakout week” for you.
You know, I don't read a lot of media or look at it a lot because I like to grind and do my thing and a lot of people live a life just wanting to be negative so I avoid all that. And to hear things, like I didn't even know I was in Rolling Stone until later, so it's cool to hear when someone like ESPN gives you a shout-out like that.

Or, like you mentioned, when Rolling Stone declared that you're the WWE's next big star, so fans had better get used to you.
Yeah, that's the attitude I have. People don't have a choice. So when someone else can see that it's a pretty cool feeling.

A few weeks ago, you were on commentary and seemed to have some trouble doing it. Was that the case?
No, I mean, It's a new experience, so it takes a minute to adjust. The commentators don't appreciate how good they are at their job. It's very difficult especially when we were out there. There's seven of us sitting there, between Miz and JBL and Maryse is out there, I mean, everybody's out there, and if everybody's just starts yelling or shouting at each other, then no one at home can understand what's going on or hear. So I told [WWE announcer Michael] Cole that I have a whole newfound respect for commentators because I never realized how truly difficult it is. And, you know, I'm not a man of much words, I prefer action, so Miz started running his mouth and I did what I do best, I punch people in the face.

What did it feel like to eliminate Braun Strowman from the this year's Royal Rumble?
It felt good. He's on Raw and Raw's our competition. I'm just very proud to be on Smackdown Live and Smackdown Live is the #1 show. And Braun Strowman is their monster and I tried to take his head off and it worked out for me.

click to enlarge
Baron Corbin clotheslines Dolph Ziggler and AJ Styles on an episode of Smackdown Live.
Courtesy of WWE
Would you love to go against Braun Strowman at WrestleMania 33 in April?
You know, I want to keep taking Smackdown to the next level, so if they want to put me in there with a Raw guy, I've got no problem with that. And add him to the victories of Smackdown. We had a Smackdown victory at the Royal Rumble and at Survivor Series, Smackdown walked away the winner. And so I wouldn't mind keeping that going.

Behind the scenes or in the locker room, is there a lot of pride for your show or brand where y'all want to beat Raw in the ratings or have the better show?
Yeah, there's definitely a lot of pride and competitive spirit. I think that's what the coolest thing about Smackdown is; it's a group of guys who love going to war with each other to create the best show possible and to really make people understand that the true passion is on Smackdown. That's what people want to see, they want to see people with passion for what they're doing. And I think Smackdown continues to surprise people and continues to grow. We're selling out [arenas], we're selling out Smackdown, our viewership keeps going up. So I think the proof is there.

Do you pay attention to the ratings at all or care if Smackdown beats Raw?
I most definitely do. I look at our ratings, I look at how our attendance is, I look at all those things, because those are the things, at the end of the day, that show who's doing the better show. Raw's had a long time at being #1 and Smackdown's going to take it over.

There have been a couple weeks where Smackdown has beaten Raw in the ratings.
Yeah, and we just want to continue to do that. We want to make it the norm. We want to make it the expectation, like it's our expectation to go out there and beat Raw.

Wrestling fans are a fickle bunch. A lot of them were a bit resistant to you at first but have started to warm up recently. Do you pay attention to fan reactions?
No, because I don't really care. And that's why I'm good at what I do, that's why I'm good at my job, that's why I'm successful. I've never really cared what people think of how I'm doing or what I'm doing. If they have a problem with it, they can either change their mind or they can tell me how they feel, but it's just falling on deaf ears. And that's what's funny right now, too, is all these people who hated me and then I go out there and I think we steal the show at TLC [with Kalisto] and now people are like, "Oh wait, Baron Corbin's good." I don't want them to change their opinion because someone else did. All those people who are negative can stay that way. It doesn't fill my pockets more with their respect. Their respect doesn't pay my bills. So I'm just going to continue to go out there and do what I do every single night.

WWE Smackdown Live airs every Tuesday at 9 p.m. Arizona time on the USA Network.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.

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