Sless Taylor navigates VFW halls, rec centers and high school gymnasiums with an eye on WWE glory

Wrestling is all about the details.

Standing ringside in the hours before an early February New Ohio Wrestling (NOW) event at a middle school in Groveport, amateur wrestler Sless Taylor stressed this point, saying it's the minutiae that bring a sense of drama and realism to a match. It's the way a wrestler helicopters his arms in a bid to regain his balance after absorbing a blow, or the exaggerated, pained grimace that sells the anguish after an opponent rakes his hands across your eyes.

“It's like theater. You want the people in the nosebleed seats to be able to see you. If I get hit — boom! — go big, because I've got to show it to those guys,” Taylor said, gesturing to empty bleachers that will later be filled with fans.

Taylor's eye for detail even extends to his opponent's wardrobe selections. Later that evening, in the half hour before he entered the ring, Taylor questioned fellow wrestler James Avery about what he'd be wearing during their six-man tag-team match: simple trunks or a one-piece body suit? The decision could complicate a planned move in which Taylor would plant his foot on Avery's back and use it as a launching pad for a backflip. In trunks, a sweaty or oiled back increases the odds of slippage, making the move more precarious.

“I'm going with the full-body suit,” Avery said, patting his gut and laughing, his answer exponentially increasing the odds the kick-flip would succeed. “I'm feeling kinda chubby today.”

The locker-room setting is a familiar one for Taylor, who, for the better part of three-and-a-half-years, has been flinging himself from ropes hastily erected in VFW halls, churches, warehouses, rec centers and high school gymnasiums, all in pursuit of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) glory.

Taylor, 24, has reason to be optimistic about his chances, having already experienced brushes with the professional league. He auditioned for the WWE during the 2015 Arnold Sports Festival, meeting Hulk Hogan — “When he came [backstage before the audition] he was shaking our hands [and saying], ‘Take in your youth, brother,'” Taylor said — and eating breakfast alongside “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Then in March 2016, Taylor worked during a taping of WWE's “Monday Night Raw” in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he caught the eye of league execs. (“Raw” visits the Schottenstein Center for a live show and taping on Monday, April 17.)

“On Monday, you're there with them and you do whatever they need you to do. I was a security guard,” Taylor said. “Then on Tuesday they let you get in the ring and play around a little. … This was right before the WWE announced the cruiserweight tournament (The Cruiserweight Classic), and one of the producers was like, ‘We really like you. I want to get your information.'”

Additionally, Taylor trains at the American States Wrestling Alliance (ASWA), a small, spartan Mansfield facility that has recently attracted the attention of the WWE, graduating a pair of newcomers into the professional ranks: Dallas Harper and Jacob Southwick, who currently wrestles under the name Sawyer Fulton in the NXT, a WWE developmental league.

After signing with the WWE, prospects are relocated to the NXT training center in Orlando, Florida — a 26,000-square-foot facility equipped with seven wrestling rings, an intensive strength and conditioning program and a Performance Center focused on in-ring training and character development. At a given time, roughly 80 wrestlers train at the facility, working under the stewardship of head coach Matt “A-Train” Bloom and a rotating cast of past and present talent.

ASWA owner and head trainer Jimmie Lee, a 28-year veteran of the wrestling scene, has been training Taylor since early 2013, and he believes the young man is equipped with the skillset needed to make the leap.

“He's a great technical wrestler, as fans would call it, and he can go down to the mat and wrestle with the best of them,” said Lee, who learned the craft from old-guard tacticians Charlie Fulton and Kid Collins. “But the attribute that will overshadow a lot of people is that he's very nimble, and he can spring without even thinking about it and jump, flip or spin. That's going to be his bullet in the chamber: His ability to do all those gymnastic-type flips and somersaults. I think it'll awe people.”

It's a trait Taylor flashed a handful of times during his 10 minutes in the 18-foot-by-18-foot, steel frame ring erected inside Groveport Central — easily the most intimidating middle school gymnasium I've ever set foot in, with testosterone-scented slogans like “AVERAGE will NOT be tolerated” and “[Groveport Madison] Cruisers do NOT tap out” painted on the walls — executing a fast-twitch kick-flip off Avery's back and ending the match with a 450-degree flip from the middle rope onto his opponent.

The flip is the high-flying culmination of the hastily sketched-out match, which the six competitors brainstormed in the half hour before hitting the ring. See, upon entering the locker room earlier that afternoon, participants were greeted by a series of outlines taped to the wall, each sheet presenting a loose storyline for the evening's matches. Given broad details — “[Sherman] Tank will act as the muscle when needed”; “Sless pins Jimmy [Shane] with something flashy” — the wrestlers are forced to fill in the blanks, which they do in a frenzied locker room display of fake kicks, elbows, raked eyeballs, crotch shots and taunting that plays like an extended, fast-forwarded “Three Stooges” sketch.

Earlier in the evening, shortly before the show kicked off at 7 p.m., NOW CEO and founder Donnie Hoover gathered the wrestlers in a darkened backstage hallway to lay some of the ground rules, most importantly, “no profanity.” “Don't do anything that would prevent us from coming back,” he said.

The newborn league, which has hosted four events since its August 2015 debut, was conceived as a family-friendly affair — a trait that extends from its creation (Hoover launched NOW at the urging of his wife, Terrie, and she assists him in running events) to the execution of shows, where wrestlers chat up young fans and pose for photos both before and after matches.

This G-rated environment is a far cry from the wrestling world Hoover once prowled as Shank Dorsey, a bruising heel (the wrestling world is populated by heels and faces, or villains and heroes) who worked the amateur scene in the late '90s and early 2000s, usually while covered in his own blood courtesy of self-inflicted cuts delivered by a well-concealed razor blade.

“I've been hit with trash cans, barbed-wire-wrapped bats, light tubes, a computer keyboard — that hurt more than anything because the keys were popping off, and it was just those prongs digging into my head. I got hit with a plastic Wiffle ball bat, and it was wrapped in double-sided tape and it had thumbtacks all over it. This was against Ian Rotten in IWA Mid-South, and he hit me right in the head, and it looked like a steel plate. All the thumbtacks just stuck [in my head], and on the video it's really shiny. We're both bleeding and I have this big, shiny spot on top of my head,” said Hoover, who retired in 2002 to pursue a family life after enduring “six or seven” concussions and spending multiple days in the hospital with a brain bleed. “I've been hit with pretty much everything. I've been hit with a kitchen sink.”

In part due to these injuries, Hoover wants wrestlers at NOW events to be cognizant of safety. “I'd rather the guys focus on telling good stories [in the ring] than on beating the snot out of one another,” he said.

Taylor, for his part, has only been bloodied up in the ring once, when he caught an errant elbow during a 2014 match at a bar in Buffalo, New York, breaking his nose and igniting a momentary panic. “I'm supposed to be the pretty boy, and then you break my nose?” he said, recalling an early ring introduction for “Sweet Dream” Sless Taylor: “Every man's envy. Every woman's sweet dream.”

The catchphrase still makes the wrestler laugh, largely because it feels so far removed from who he was as a youngster growing up in Willard, a small town that rests a 40-minute drive north from the Mansfield ASWA facility where he now trains.

“Growing up, I was a nerd. I had glasses and really bad acne and I couldn't really talk to girls,” said Taylor, born Tyler Slessman, who stands “5-foot-10, on a good day,” as he puts it, and packs 175 pounds onto his chiseled-from-granite frame. (Taylor books himself at 210 pounds — a fact few would question, owing to his musculature — saying, “That's a thing about the business: We play around with [stats].”)

As a wrestler, Taylor exists as a bit of a blank slate. He's comfortable playing the face or the heel, depending on what is needed on a given night, and his genetic makeup has blessed him with a racial ambiguity that allows him to embody a range of characters and ethnicities. One promoter even asked Taylor to portray a Muslim character for a show, which he did, albeit with some reluctance.

“When I was modeling and acting, my agent would send my resume out, and whatever [the client] said they were looking for, that's what I was,” said Taylor, whose filmography includes an uncredited role as “sexy fireman” in the 2012 Victoria Justice movie “Fun Size.” “They'd say I'm Hispanic. They'd say I'm Middle-Eastern. They'd say I'm African American. Samoan. They'd say all these different things just because it looked like I could be that role.”

In reality, Taylor was born in Mansfield to a black father and a white mother, though he grew up with his mom's parents in Willard.

“That's a nice way of saying my parents weren't always there,” he said. “They would fight and hit each other and get drunk all the time. It would be my mom, completely drunk, driving us to our grandparents' house 40 minutes away. It wasn't a good situation.”

As a student at New Haven Elementary School, Taylor developed a reputation as a troublemaker, owing in part to his difficult home life. “It was just so [toxic], and I think I acted out a bit because of that,” said the wrestler, who has resumed a relationship with his mother but has kept his father at arm's length.

When Taylor graduated to junior high at Willard Middle School, he stopped acting out, instead directing his angst inward.

“I stopped being this bad kid and was getting good grades and playing sports, but then I had a lot of insecurities, and I think it was because of my mom and dad, and being afraid to let people know about that situation,” Taylor said. “It built into, ‘Well, I'm afraid to tell people about this part of me,' and all through junior high and high school I battled that depression.”

Even in childhood, wrestling acted as a form of escape. Taylor idolized the Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Triple H, and at age 10 it wasn't unusual for him to fashion couch cushions into a makeshift ring to choke-slam friends or do elbow drops off of an imaginary top rope. When an elementary school coach invited Taylor to try out for the wrestling team in fifth grade, he was initially put off by the lack of a WWE-style ring. “I went in and was like, ‘How am I supposed to jump off stuff when there are no ropes?'” Taylor said, and laughed. “We couldn't kick or punch. I was like, ‘I don't know what you guys are doing, but this is not wrestling.'”

Eventually Taylor relented, and by the time he reached seventh grade he was winning regional wrestling tournaments and advancing to the districts in statewide competition. In eighth grade, he reached the state finals, wrestling at 120 pounds. After graduating from Willard High School in 2012, Taylor started coursework toward an exercise science degree, eventually leaving school and getting certified as a personal trainer, which has remained his career for the better part of five years. He also tried his hand working as a fitness model, but he loathed undergoing tedious training for six months only to be docked in completion for not hitting one pose just right. So in early 2013 he reached out to Jimmie Lee at ASWA, eager to reconnect with the “real” wrestling of his youth.

“He was athletic, and you could tell he had a passion for wrestling,” said Lee, who accepted Taylor into the program following a tryout, training him two or three times a week. “Nothing happens at the snap of a finger, but he has the patience and work ethic to hone his skill and get that attention. There would be times when other students couldn't make it, and he'd be in the ring for over an hour just going over one move repeatedly, working on getting it down to perfection.”

Other times, Taylor will do nothing at all. Simply entering the facility, which is tucked alongside a strip club and is barely bigger than the weathered ring housed within, to meditate on wrestling and life, and the work it'll take for the two to merge.

“Now it's just waiting to find out where Sless can get in and make an impact,” Taylor said. “Some of the guys here are just average guys who want to do this on the weekend. And that's cool. But that's not what I want to do. I want to make it somewhere. I want to be able to say, ‘I'm a wrestler.'”