Few have had a better or brighter year in WWE than Carmelo Hayes, who went from being signed in February to winning the NXT North American Championship less than eight months later.
It was only back in June that independent wrestling standout Christian Casanova made his NXT TV debut under his new name of Carmelo Hayes (which he admits was inspired by NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony) and had an eye-opening performance against Kushida for the NXT Cruiserweight Championship. At the end of August, he won the 2021 NXT Breakout Tournament.
By virtue of that victory, he earned himself a shot at any championship of his choosing in NXT and, as we later learned, at any time of his choosing. He capitalized on the perfect opportunity last week by beating Isiah “Swerve” Scott following his hard-fought match with Santos Escobar to secure the title.
As if it wasn’t already apparent, big things are in store for Hayes on NXT and beyond. Fresh off his title win, he spoke with Daily DDT about what the moment meant to him, his journey to WWE, potential challengers to his championship, and more.
Carmelo Hayes discusses winning the NXT North American Championship and his relationship with Shawn Michaels
It’s been a week since Hayes cashed in his guaranteed title shot and became champion, but that moment isn’t going to fully sink in for him until Tuesday’s NXT on USA Network when he celebrates his victory.
To say the least, it’s been a whirlwind of a year for the new champ. It’s just been one awesome moment after another and he doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“It’s been crazy, man,” Hayes said. “I’ve been taking it one opportunity at a time. I don’t really get caught up in all of it. I’m trying to live in the moment with these things because I realize they are such big moments in my career.”
He made it quite clear when he came out on top of the Breakout Tournament that he hadn’t made up his mind quite yet as far as which piece of gold he wanted to gun for. The NXT Championship, the NXT North American Championship, the NXT Tag Team Championship, and the NXT Cruiserweight Championship were all options and he put each and every one of those champions on notice in the weeks that followed.
Knowing sky is the limit for him, he also had a very valid reason for choosing to contend for the North American title as opposed to the NXT title.
“It really was just seeing all my options, weighing out all my options as far as where to go,” Hayes said. “A lot of people were like, ‘Why wouldn’t you just go straight for the NXT Championship?’ The truth is I know that I’ll attain that one day when the time is right, but I need to get my feet wet first. I’ve never been champion in WWE, so I’m totally content after seeing the opportunity and starting where I need to in the middle and working my way up to the big one.”
As if winning the North American title wasn’t incredible enough, Hayes had a picture taken of himself and one of NXT’s head trainers Shawn Michaels, someone Hayes idolized growing up. He tweeted it out soon after and received heaps of praise for it.
He’s no stranger to winning titles and is well aware that he has a responsibility now as champion and that everybody will be coming for him. The photo with The Heartbreak Kid, however, was indicative of something much bigger to him.
“I thought the picture with Shawn was awesome because I looked at it as a cool moment for me,” he said. “Everybody was a fan of Shawn growing up and just to see us side-by-side, and we’ve had a lot of conversations and you kind of forget he’s Shawn Michaels sometimes because you see him all the time, was amazing for me because it was something that was like, ‘That could be my future.’ People want to make comparisons by saying they see some of him in me, but seeing us side by side, who knows that picture is going to mean 10 years from now.”
Hayes emphasized that Michaels has been an important influence on him backstage as well as Triple H before taking time off. They see him for the star he is and presented him with the opportunities that he went on to knock out of the park, leading him to where he is today.
“Even when Hunter was here, Hunter was great to me, too,” Hayes said. “I think it just came down to my confidence and the way I carried myself and speaking up for myself [regarding] what I wanted out of NXT and what I brought to the table, so there were conversations like that. I feel like that built his confidence in me that I had so much confidence in myself.”
Carmelo Hayes details his journey to WWE and getting signed at the perfect time
Anyone who followed Hayes’ work on the independent scene as Christian Casanova knew it was more a matter of when than if he’d make it big time. However, Hayes admits he wasn’t ready for such a spotlight until he was actually signed by WWE earlier this year.
“People say, ‘You should have been signed this time or that time.’ You know what? If I was signed, I wouldn’t have been prepared mentally, emotionally, physically. There’s so much more that comes with being ready to be here. A lot had to happen for me to be prepared to come here. Even a year ago today, I remember my mindset was, ‘Just work your ass off and get signed.’ There really was no opportunity yet.”
He went on to have talks with the company in late 2020, and although his signing was a done deal, he would’ve started after WrestleMania 37 had he not pushed to be brought in sooner.
“It was around December I had an interview with Canyon Ceman, a phone interview, and from there on they mentioned they’d probably bring me in after WrestleMania,” Hayes explained. “I said to him, ‘Hey, if you can get me in sooner, can you please get me in as soon as possible?’ He told me, ‘We have a class of 20 people coming in, so we don’t know if we can get you in this round.’ They hustled and got me in with that February class. Everything happened really quick. I feel like everything does happen for a reason and timing is everything because it could have been a bad time a year ago. It might not have been who I am today or who I was in February.”
Since Hayes’ debut match was against Kushida for the NXT Cruiserweight Championship, which was an amazing opportunity in itself, most fans figured he’d settle into a role in the Cruiserweight division on 205 Live after. That never happened, and instead, he remained a regular on the black-and-gold brand through the summer.
That’s because of a crucial conversation he had with his WWE Hall of Famer trainer about not wanting to be just another guy in the Cruiserweight division. Rather, he wanted to make an immediate impact, and he knew that wasn’t going to happen on 205 Live.
“During that conversation I had with Shawn Michaels, I told him 100 percent, straight up, honestly: ‘I don’t want to be a 205 Live guy,'” Hayes said. “That’s nothing against the guys on 205 Live, I’ll put that out there right now. I just didn’t want to get categorized as that. I saw the direction and I wanted to be on live TV. I want to be wrestling the best guys on the roster. I don’t know if it was going to happen or not. I would’ve been okay if I was.
“I’ll go on there, prove myself and get here eventually, but I didn’t have to go that route and I’m grateful that I didn’t because I got to prove myself in big opportunities,” he continued. “It came as a surprise to me as well and a lot of people I’m sure because I’m not the biggest guy and I could’ve been on 205 Live and hung with those guys, but I got the opportunities I got and I had to prove myself to get that.”
What fans may not know that Hayes’ future is almost looked a lot different. It was entirely dependent on a decision he made to either fulfill a lifelong dream of signing with WWE or making a splash elsewhere first.
He heavily hinted at the other option being AEW considering it’s the next biggest wrestling company out there today. Hayes nearly landed in the Jacksonville-based promotion but went with his gut and signed with NXT. Obviously, it’s worked out wonderfully for him so far.
“I didn’t think I’d get here this round,” Hayes said. “I thought I’d have to go somewhere else and then from there get here because everybody knows WWE is kind of like the land from far, far away. It’s that tip of the iceberg in that way. You don’t just take one step and pop up in there. You look at the guys that are in NXT now. They’ve come from other companies, years from experience on TV here or there.
“I thought that would be my route, so I was totally okay [doing that],” he added. “But then I had a change of heart and thought, ‘You know what? I’m going top two and it’s either WWE or somewhere else. Those are my two that I’m going for. That’s all it’s going to be and I’m going to get there somehow, some way.’ I had both opportunities right around the same time and I chose WWE and to come here.”
Carmelo Hayes shares what he’s learned in NXT so far and possible opponents
Despite only bein in the NXT system for under a year, Hayes has already learned a lot from his fellow Superstars and trainers behind the scenes. Above all else, the most important piece of information he’s absorbed so far is that it’s more about the storytelling inside the squared circle than it is the moves being performed.
“I just learned that the moves don’t matter,” he said. “The in-ring stuff is not nearly as important as the facials and the little things and that’s something I learned straight from Hunter, the storytelling your face can do that 10 moves can’t do. One facial expression can tell more of a story that you can with 10 high spots, super indie, double kick-outs and that whole thing. Every day I’m learning. I’m not the same person I was even two weeks ago. All these coaches here are amazing. I needed this.”
He added that he’s constantly working on his promo game as well, which has been evident based on his recent mic work on NXT TV. He’s also more mature and professional than he was at the start of his career several years ago, having grown tremendously as a performer and as a person in that time.
As far as who he’s eager to work with as NXT North American champion, he’s got guys such as Santos Escobar, Bron Breakker and Johnny Gargano on his mind. Tommaso Ciampa is another opponent that intrigues him seeing as how he was there when Hayes began wrestling training.
No matter who steps up to challenge him, he’s ready to present them with the same opportunity he was afforded to kick off his NXT run.
“First, I’d say Santos Escobar, just because I feel like he deserves that,” he said. “Not to take away anything from what he and Swerve did because I thought they had an amazing match and I kind of came in and stole the thunder from them. If anyone deserves it, it’s Santos, but I’d love to get in there with Johnny Gargano. I’d love to get in there with the newer crop like Bron Breakker, I’d love to work with him. There’s a lot of guys. Anyone who is new to get an opportunity, that’s what I think this title can be.”
Catch Carmelo Hayes every Tuesday night on WWE NXT on USA Network at 8/7c.