Former UWA linebackers ascend to WWE Tag Team Champions

Jey Uso (left) and Jimmy Uso played are the currenty WWE Tag Team Champions and each played linebacker at the University of West Alabama.

Jey Uso (left) and Jimmy Uso played are the currenty WWE Tag Team Champions and each played linebacker at the University of West Alabama.

Wrestlemania XXX, the largest single event in the history of WWE, is less than a week away and the New Orleans-based spectacle will feature a pair of former University of West Alabama linebackers.

Jonathan and Joshua Fatu, better known by their ring names Jimmy and Jey Uso, will perform on the Sunday’s Super Dome card as part of a tag team championship match that will also include Los Matadores, the team of Ryback and Curtis Axel, as well as the collective of The Real Americans, Jack Swagger and Cesaro.

“Wrestlemania is a big thing. It’s the grandest stage of them all. It’s like our Super Bowl. For those of us who can be a part of that, it’s a real big thing. It’s a big accolade. It’s a big accomplishment to put under our belt,” Jimmy Uso said of what will be a major milestone for he and his twin brother. “We’re excited. In New Orleans, there’s going to be fireworks, pyro, everything. We’re excited to go in there as the reigning tag team champions. It is awesome for me to say that this year.”

The brothers work for the largest professional wrestling organization in the world and ascended to the top of the industry’s tag team ranks March 3 when they captured the WWE Tag Team Titles on Monday Night Raw in Chicago.

And while that moment would have been special for anyone in their position, it was the culmination of years of effort and heartbreak for the Pensacola, Fla. Natives.

The sons of former WWE superstar Rikishi, the brothers are the latest branches off a Samoan family professional wrestling tree that has included names such as The Rock, Yokozuna, The Tonga Kid and Umaga.

Yet, while the bloodlines run deep in the Usos, professional wrestling as a career was far from a foregone conclusion as they readied to begin their collegiate lives.

Jimmy Uso connects with his signature top rope splash on WWE Superstar Seth Rollins at the company's Money in the Bank pay-per-view last year.

Jimmy Uso connects with his signature top rope splash on WWE Superstar Seth Rollins at the company’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view last year.

The brothers played football at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla. and had their sights set on a future that included an ACC playing career.

“I was 185 (pounds) in high school, 5-11, 185. My senior year, me and my brother played football with Roman Reigns,” Jimmy said, referencing the WWE ring name of Joe Anoa’i, his cousin and teammate at Escambia. “At the time, Roman Reigns was 225 and like 6-1, which looks a lot better on paper than a 5-11, 185-pound linebacker. All three of us were supposed to get recruited together to DI Georgia Tech, but they didn’t take me and my brother because of our size. My coach was trying to get them to take all three of us together as a package. He would say, ‘I’m telling you, these kids haven’t even hit their growth spurt yet.’”

That growth spurt would take Jimmy to 6-2, 251 pounds and Jey to 6-1, 228 pounds. But the physical development did not come quickly enough for Georgia Tech, re-routing the football careers for the brothers.

“Georgia Tech didn’t go our way and our head coach at the time at our high school in Pensacola graduated from West Alabama. He took us down there to the school for a week. We got to hang out with the head coach because they played together in the same graduating class. That’s how me and my brother found out about West Alabama. I didn’t even know where Livingston, Ala. actually was until our head coach took us down there for a week and we got to hang out at UWA,” Jimmy said. “There weren’t any schools actually paying attention to us or looking at us. It was hard at the time.”

Jimmy Uso played football at UWA in 2003.

Jimmy Uso played football at UWA in 2003.

Jimmy would go on to play the 2003 season for UWA while Jey played from 2003 through 2005.

“It was interesting. We hadn’t been out of the state of Florida growing up. When we went to Alabama, they had a huge bull ranch there, which I thought was crazy. They had a bull riding team,” Jimmy recalled. “It was a big change moving from Florida, let alone this was the first time we had been away from home. I was 17. It was a big difference.”

With professional wrestling still in the background, the brothers focused on football and physical education as they looked to beat their own paths.

“We wanted to do something with the body because we played sports and we were into working out,” Jimmy said. “We were sports fans. We played basketball, baseball, football, everything. We tried swimming. I always knew I could do (wrestling). I always wanted to try something else because I always knew this would be here, that wrestling would here. We just knew that we wanted to do something physical. We wanted to do something physical and we wanted to entertain somehow. Wrestling just fell into place for me.”

For Jimmy and Jey, the real world kicked in shortly after college. The brothers found themselves working and still far removed from the professional wrestling lives so many of their relatives.

“I was at home after I came back from college. College didn’t work out for me. I ended up coming back home. I ended up just working four or five years. It got to a point where I was just doing 9 to 5,” Jimmy said. “My late uncle, Umaga, is the one that actually got me and my brother into wrestling. It wasn’t my dad. People think that my dad brought us into (the WWE), but my dad actually had nothing to do with us getting into wrestling because he wanted us to find our way.”

For the Usos, it was their late uncle Eddie Fatu, known in WWE circles as Umaga, who opened the door to a life as professional wrestlers.

“My uncle Umaga came and told us, ‘You guys are twins. You guys are athletes. You shouldn’t be sitting behind a desk, working 9 to 5. You should be doing something else.’ He gave us that opportunity. He gave us the chance. He moved us down to Houston. We lived with him for like two years,” Jimmy said before noting that Houston provided the brothers the opportunity to train with a WWE Hall of Famer. “We got in touch with Booker T. Booker T had a ring. He had a school in Houston. He put us in his ring and actually showed us the techniques and the proper way to start wrestling and then we were hooked. We were addicts after that.”

Jimmy Uso, who played football at the University of West Alabama under his real name Jonathan Fatu, is one half of the current WWE Tag Team Champions and married WWE Diva Naomi (Trinity McCray) earlier this year.

Jimmy Uso, who played football at the University of West Alabama under his real name Jonathan Fatu, is one half of the current WWE Tag Team Champions and married WWE Diva Naomi (Trinity McCray) earlier this year.

The brothers made their professional wrestling debut in June 2007 for the World Xtreme Wrestling promotion, performing under their real names. After signing with WWE, the brothers began wrestling under the Uso ring name, a moniker that pays homage to their Samoan heritage.

They made their debut on national television on the May 24, 2010 episode of Monday Night Raw.

In the nearly four years since, they have toiled in the tag team division, spending time as both heels (the professional wrestling term for antagonist characters) and faces (the term for protagonist characters).

And life in the WWE has even led them to other opportunities. Jimmy began dating WWE Diva Naomi – the former Trinity McCray) and subsequently married her earlier this year. The couple appears together frequently on the E! reality television series Total Divas.

“It’s really different for me. It was really different. For the first time WWE allowed cameras to actually come behind the scenes to see what we actually do and for the fans, the WWE Universe to see the other side of the cameras, the other side of the lights, glamor and what we do in the ring,” Jimmy said. “Me, personally, it’s way different. It’s cool at the same time. It’s funny when people come up to me and they’re automatically like, ‘Hey Jon. Hey what’s up man? How’re you doing?’ As opposed to the guy who watches wrestling who is like, ‘Uso, can I have your autograph?’ They approach you way different. There are those who just watch Total Divas and have no clue about wrestling and they call me on a first name basis, which is weird. It’s cool to that people know you from two shows and how different they approach you, which is funny to me.”

But for all the moments the Usos have had together from their high school football days to their time at UWA to the years that spent working their way up the professional wrestling tag team ladder, likely no moment can ever touch what they felt March 3 in Chicago.

“During the match it was a different group,” Jimmy said of the crowd in attendance that night. “It was a heel crowd. They love the heels. We were out there and we were like, ‘OK, we’ve got to turn them. We’ve got to get them.’ There’s all that nervousness and emotion.”

By the end of their match with the New Age Outlaws, a veteran tag team and the reigning champions entering the show. But by the end of the match, the Usos had won over one of the more raucous crowds in recent professional wrestling history. And they did it while capturing the top team prize in their industry.

“That moment right there, it’s a real epic moment for me and my brother because my uncle isn’t here anymore. We grew up with him. He didn’t treat me like a nephew. If it wasn’t my dad I could talk to, he was the one. We had that kind of relationship,” Jimmy said. “When we finally won the titles – if you watch that footage back, it’s me and my brother holding each other. It’s funny because we didn’t grab the titles. As soon as there was the 1-2-3, it wasn’t even the titles. It was just me and him. The ref was like, ‘Grab the titles. Here’s the titles. Grab them.’ But we were just so far into telling each other, ‘We did it. This is for our uncle. This is for Umaga.’ We had that moment between us. Having that, it’s something that just me and my brother will only ever know about how it really felt and all the hard work that it took to get here.”

The Usos’ next big milestone is set for Sunday in New Orleans at Wrestlemania XXX. They are also likely to appear on the card April 14 in Birmingham when Monday Night Raw visits the BJCC Arena.

All photos courtesy WWE. Jey Uso was unavailable for an interview at the time of this story.