Chris Hero can leave as big of a mark on WWE as former independent scene peer Daniel Bryan, if William Regal’s instincts are on point.
Regal, who is WWE’s head talent scout and acts as the on-screen general manager on NXT, has been reunited with Hero at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando after the 37-year-old’s recent re-signing with WWE’s developmental brand.
Hero, real name Chris Spradlin and known as “Kassius Ohno” in NXT, first signed with WWE in 2011, where he wrestled in Florida Championship Wrestling before becoming one of the pioneers of NXT. While some superstars held onto the names they used outside the boundaries of the WWE, the man who became one of the most famous independent wrestlers in the world as “Chris Hero” adopted the Ohno persona before he was released in 2013.
“It’s a big thing, Chris is an incredibly talented man,” Regal told ESPN regarding Hero’s return. “I’ve known him for a long time. He’s one of those guys that changes things. He’s changes perceptions, and he changes styles.”
Regal was speaking to ESPN backstage at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool immediately after 19-year-old Tyler Bate was crowned the inaugural WWE United Kingdom champion.
Bate told ESPN ahead of the tournament that Hero was the best wrestler he had faced in his fledgling career, and that he regularly picked Hero’s brain for advice when they worked on independent shows together.
“This generation look up to him, so to have him back is great,” continued Regal, who was also driving force behind identifying the talent for the 16-man UK Championship tournament together along with Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
“Now he’s gone away and basically reinvented his style. When you get somebody as good as him and taking notice of him, it’s no different than Bryan. Daniel Bryan influenced a generation, and now Chris is doing it. It’s great to have him back, and I’m happy for him.”
Hero, whose body type has always fluctuated throughout his career, was seen as a locker room leader in NXT before his release. He’s continued to carve out a tremendous reputation for himself since leaving the WWE in 2013, but there have been concerns over his current weight and body type.
Many closed the door on Hero, who crossed paths with several generations of independent stars who found success in WWE including Bryan, CM Punk, Cesaro, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, among others, having another chance in the WWE. But he shocked the wrestling world with his return and confrontation of current NXT champion Shinsuke Nakamura during a recent NXT taping.
It wasn’t a surprise for Hero, or for Regal, who wrestled Hero in one of the last few matches of his in-ring career in March 2013. Hero previously maintained he left on good terms and did not close the door on a return to WWE — and with many of his friends still employed by the company, the environment could not be much better for his return.
The real question that lies ahead is just how much Hero can accomplish now that he’s back.
“It’s entirely up to him,” said Regal, when asked how far he thinks Hero can go in WWE. “He’s just got to stay healthy, that’s the No. 1 thing, the hardest thing. It’s the great thing that people have no idea about, because of the way we are now, that injuries stop you doing what you do.”
NXT is a very different place than the one Hero left behind, though the roster is currently chock full of other familiar faces from Hero’s independent wrestling past. Whether there are expectations of a main roster run, or a long-term role at the WWE Performance Center, Regal’s vision for Hero’s future is one that’s still full of potential.
“Chris needs to take care of his health and make sure he’s doing all of his therapy in his knees and whatever else,” said Regal. “If he does that, and he looks after himself, he can go all the way. He’s got the height, he’s incredibly talented, he carries himself well, and talks well. I hope it works out.”
By Nicolas Atkin / ESPN / 17 January 2017