Storylines evolve quickly in professional wrestling. Characters come and go. When Ish Lihinag-Tam checked back into WWE for the first time in four years, just a few weeks before starting grad school, the new faces on the TV got him wondering: How did all these new guys make it to the big time? He googled and found WWE let you apply on its website. His biggest regret in life — if you could call it that — was not finding that webpage sooner. The next two years of journalism school would only delay things.
“I love acting, I love sports, I love being involved in a team environment and being athletic. WWE is, like, the dream job,” Ish told me recently. Journalism had always felt like the pragmatic route. Tussling and posturing under the lights? An “abstract” dream. “I started thinking to myself more and more: Why can’t it be? Why can’t it be my job?”
Don’t get him wrong: He likes journalism. He wouldn’t have interned at two California news stations hundreds of miles apart if he didn’t. But I asked him late one afternoon in the Berkeley J-School student lounge whether he was happy nearly two years into a rigorous program for a career he views as a backup. He’s leaning against the chair beside him, long legs stretched under the table. The hand that gestures as vigorously as he speaks came to a rest. “I’m grateful is the way I would phrase it.” Berkeley’s one of the best J-Schools in the country, he notes. Besides, “how many professional wrestlers have a master’s degree?”
Eleven-year-old Ish had a Friday night ritual. Come home from school, eat dinner, watch The Simpsons at 8 p.m., play video games, and tune back in at 10 for South Park, which his mom didn’t know he watched. One night, he finished his video game a bit early. Here was a chance to see what filled the gap between adult cartoons. “And boom: Professional wrestling is on TV.” The acrobatics, the physicality, the sheer drama had him hooked.
He watched SmackDown religiously. His friend La Juan would come over and they’d wrestle, hitting lamps, knocking things over. The One and Only Hyowon — kid Ish’s persona based on his unique real first name — would take on the likes of The Undertaker and John Cena. His fandom was equalled only by his determination to go to college. But once he got to UC Davis, wrestling got lost amid two majors, three minors, and rugby.
Several weeks after starting grad school, Ish found out his cousin had tracked down and told WWE’s VP of talent development about him. “When she told me that,” he said, “everything completely changed.” He did a 180 on how he slept, ate, and worked out. He transformed from “pretty fat” to ripped, with muscles clearly defined beneath his Red Robin work shirt. The training paid off. During his second semester — February 2018 — Ish flew out to Orlando for a three-day tryout at the WWE Performance Center.
Day one was the promo session: Talk to the camera and the audience. Show your wrestling personality. Ish is a video journalist, but he’s even more comfortable in front of the camera than behind it. One of his minors at Davis was theatre and dance. Ish impressed, doing better than most of the tryout’s forty other athletes and semi-pros. The rest of the tryout was physical: entering the ring, rolling, bumping — where you learn how to fall. “It hurts to run against the ropes,” he said. Ish didn’t make the cut — only one or two had — but he was far from crushed. His own storyline was evolving as quickly as a SmackDown character’s.
“If you told eleven-year-old Ish that he was going to be trying out for the WWE in his future … I’d have laughed in your face and told you you were a liar,” he said. “If you were to have told me that shit back at the beginning of 2017, I would’ve laughed in your face and called you a liar.”
As soon as he secured his master’s in May, he moved down to Southern California for what will be at least a year of training at Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy, a WWE-approved school. From there, maybe the independent professional wrestling scene, where he’d gain experience and exposure and, importantly, have control over his character. But last year’s WWE tryout, he assured me, would not be his last.