Former US rugby captain turns to WWE

Two years ago, while he was still captain of the USA national team, rugby star Todd Clever was approached by World Wrestling Entertainment to see if he would like to try his hand in the ring.

He declined at the time. But in February this year, WWE hit-up Clever again. Having not long retired from test rugby, he thought: “Why not?”

The former Eagles back-row, 35, explains: “I was contacted by the WWE and asked if I had any interest and wanted to come out (to try out). I was playing at the time so all of my focus was being an athlete for rugby.

“Once I retired, I guess they caught wind or something happened I got calls and another invite.

“That’s my whole thing. You don’t want to have any regrets in life, from missing out on experiences. That’s why I’m always saying yes to going on social rugby tours now, even if it costs me money now. I still have a blast doing it.

“So when this happened, I didn’t want to miss out on anything, so I said yeah, and I went out there for a week. I absolutely loved my time there in Orlando, Florida. It was brilliant. Their high performance center was top-notch and I really felt at home.”

Keeping quiet

After spending a week at this cathedral of wrestling, the native Californian has headed back out West. However, while no contract has been signed, talks are ongoing between Clever and WWE and the ex-flanker is optimistic.

Before the Clever news became official, earlier in the year social media was abuzz with word of talent scouts looking to rugby for the next superstar.

While current and ex-players excitedly chattered about who could cut it in wrestling and what finishers each test star could use, Clever kept quiet.

“When those things came out, it was funny because I was tagged on social media from a dozen different people saying, ‘Yo, there’s a talent agency looking for …’ whatever else,” he recalls with a smile.

“I kept it under my breath, but things were already in motion. I had my flights booked over there and everything else. I was laughing it off.

“I think WWE is all about hitting new markets and the entertainment side. So crossover athletes are nothing new for them. They’ve had guys from the NBA or NFL and obviously with the growth and rise of rugby — in the States, sure, but overseas as well — they want to tap into the market.

“And obviously rugby players are amazing athletes. So I think there’s a mutual benefit for both sides.”

Clever, born in San Jose, California, has been a familiar face on the world scene for some time.

He is best known for his 15-year stint with the Eagles, although he was embroiled in controversy when he missed out on World Cup 2015, with the staff at the time claiming it was due to “conduct violations.”

Clever, who returned to the fold in 2016, simply says that he is not the type to just say “Yes, sir,” and that he was, and always will be, one to look out for teammates and call-out poor leadership.

A World Cup should be the pinnacle of players’ careers, but the way they were managed in 2015 disappointed Clever.

He has also played all over the world, not just in the U.S. and in the global invitational, social tournaments he now loves. He has played Super Rugby with the Lions of South Africa, in Japan’s Top League, and with England’s Newcastle Falcons.

He laughs in agreement when it is put to him that he may have a drifter’s spirit.

Getting stuck in

Back to his week in Orlando, though, what was he doing with WWE?

“It was pretty much an intro. I had a tour of the facility, a meeting with some of the guys and they asked me: ‘Do you just wanna watch; how do you want to do this?’ I was keen to get stuck in. I flew across the country so I wanted to work out.

“I did some strength and conditioning sessions with one of the smaller groups of athletes and later that day I jumped in the ring. So I was in the ring for a few days and, doing some tumbling, some rolling, some wrestling. It was good.

“For warm-ups there’s a big stretch, but you’re doing cartwheels and somersaults and while I was doing it I thought: ‘I wasn’t really expecting this.’ I don’t think I’ve done a somersault since I was five years old!

“It was interesting — they definitely weed out the athleticism in you. So I just got in amongst it and I surprisingly did a lot better than I thought I would.”

Comparing wrestling training to the rigors and occasional monotony of rugby training, he continues: “It’s different in the sense it’s an individual sport and it’s entertainment, obviously.

“With rugby, it’s all for the team, for bettering the person inside or outside of you, as a whole. There it’s set up for yourself. There’s a spotlight on the individual’s showmanship, rather than the team outcome.”

Clever still very much loves rugby.

Just last week, he received an unexpected route back into the game by signing a contract with the new Austin Elite professional side in Texas. The team is part of the brand new Major League Rugby season, which got under way last weekend.

He is also helping out with academies, helping to nail down a pathway for American youths to progress towards this new elite league and ultimately the Eagles test team.

Clever’s contract, however, includes a clause and he has another meeting with the WWE in May. If the offer to step into the ring made financial sense, he would take it.

The native Californian, who is on the USA Rugby board, is also helping out with preparations for the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco in July.

He will be dropping in on the San Francisco Giants baseball franchise from time to time as they prepare to host the sevens event at AT&T Park. Clever is also excited about the Rugby Night being hosted there on May 14, as the Giants take on the Cincinnati Reds.

With Clever so well-known in rugby circles and with him now the first rugby player to be considered for a spot in the ring, it’s pertinent to ask him something else. Does he see himself as a “face” (good guy) or a “heal” (bad guy) in wrestling?

With a chuckle he says: “Well through my rugby career I think I’ve had a bit of both sides of it. The important thing for me is being true to myself and what I’m all about!”