For the first time since WrestleMania 37 in 2021, Bray Wyatt will return to action, on Saturday at Royal Rumble. He’ll fight in a Mountain Dew Pitch Black match, which could be incredible — or a bust.
The specifics of the match remain unknown, with one notable exception. LA Knight, who is Wyatt’s opponent, knows exactly what he is getting into in the Pitch Black match.
For Knight, this is a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself.
Knight – whose name is Shaun Ricker – is just a month away from celebrating 20 years in professional wrestling. Brimming with charisma, he is an extraordinary performer who has starred almost everywhere in the industry outside of WWE. His match against Wyatt is a chance to showcase his skills to the world, an opportunity he intends to seize.
“I crave the recognition that I’m one of the best at doing this,” Ricker says. “I’m one of the best to do this job. Knowing that only a tiny fraction of this audience saw it drove me crazy. I want the big stage. I want this opportunity.”
Now 40, Ricker has a phenomenal resume. That includes a brief stint in WWE (under the name Slate Randall) that ended a decade ago, a damaging run that gave Ricker a bad reputation. He and Bill DeMott, who was NXT’s head coach, shared two very different philosophies about teaching pro wrestling. Although time proved Ricker right—DeMott was later fired by WWE—the stain on his reputation remained.
“When I came back [to WWE in 2021], it was residual heat from my first time,” admits Ricker. “There was a bit of a head-butt between me and the former head coach at the time. There is a new head coach [Matt Bloom] in place, but there was still the question of whether I could be a team player.
“I’ve never seen myself as trouble, but I’m a very proud guy, so I speak up. It’s kept me very authentic to myself, but it’s also made my path take a lot longer. I’ve always knew I had something to offer. And to be honest, I have no backup. Persisting and getting better were the only choices I had. There’s still no choice for me but to go ahead and get this to function.”
In the absence of WWE, Ricker honed his craft elsewhere. He excelled in the NWA and Impact, even becoming the latter’s World Champion in 2017. And he was able to travel the world—India, Japan, Canada, Mexico—to chase his dreams.
“Maybe I wasn’t all for this ride back then,” says Ricker. “But I’m damn ready now.”
The focus of the Wyatt – LA Knight program has been Wyatt. He is one of wrestling’s most distinct stars, and there is a lot of intrigue surrounding his first match in nearly two full years. But there are two parts to this program. Knight has introduced himself to the WWE fan base at large with a compelling, authentic performance – one that simply wasn’t going to happen if he played a comic-based fashion designer role in Max Dupri, an idea that was quickly shelved after it hit TV last year.
“LA Knight is the culmination of all my life’s work,” says Ricker. “You believe the character when he speaks. The reason you believe it is because I believe it. I believe every damn word I say. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t see it.
“This has been my greatest joy and greatest source of frustration. I love it so much. And I see how people treat it – some make a parody out of it. For me, I tell stories. If I don’t tell you a story you can biting, there’s no point in it. I want this to resonate with people. I want to hit a guy once and let people know it hurts, not kick a guy 10 times in the head and see that he has that’s fine. I’ll throw in some comedy, but I want everything to make sense.”
Ricker works furiously, with purpose and passion. He had the privilege of sharing the ring with The Undertaker on Monday Raw and held himself in the presence of a legend. He is rising to the moment in WWE, which he plans to do in the most notable match of his career Rumble.
“This is a big moment to shine,” says Ricker. “But at the same time, it’s no different than any other program I’ve ever done – just like when I was in Impact or the NWA. The difference is that the smaller companies aren’t visible at the same level as WWE. It drove me crazy. It drove me crazy .
“But that never changed what I did. I’ve always worked as if people were watching. Every single show must ever be better than the last.”
Oozing with a confidence that borders on cockiness, Ricker doesn’t have an ounce of doubt in his soul that he doesn’t belong on WWE’s main stage. The Pitch Black match against Wyatt could be his breakout moment and he is ready to seize this opportunity.
“I don’t need fame,” Ricker says. “That’s not what drives me. But I need to be recognized for who I am.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Justin Barrasso.