For the first time since WrestleMania 37 in 2021, Bray Wyatt will return to action, on Saturday at the Royal Rumble. He will wrestle in a Mountain Dew Pitch Black match, which could be incredible—or a bust.
The specifics of the match remain unknown, with one noticeable exception. LA Knight, who is Wyatt’s opponent, knows exactly what he is stepping into in the Pitch Black match.
For Knight, this stands as a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself.
Knight—whose name is Shaun Ricker—is only a month away from celebrating 20 years in pro wrestling. Full of charisma, he is an extraordinary performer who has starred nearly everywhere in the industry outside of WWE. His match against Wyatt is a chance to showcase his skill to the world, an opportunity he intends to seize.
“I am craving the recognition that I am one of the best that does this,” says Ricker. “I am one of the best people at doing this job. Knowing that only a small fraction of this audience was seeing that drove me insane. I want the big stage. I want this opportunity.”
Now 40, Ricker possesses a phenomenal résumé. It includes a brief stint in WWE (under the name Slate Randall) that ended a decade ago, a harmful run that left Ricker with a bad reputation. He and Bill DeMott, who was NXT’s head trainer, shared two vastly different philosophies on teaching the art of pro wrestling. Even if time did prove that Ricker was right—DeMott was later fired by WWE—the stain on his reputation remained.
“When I came back [to WWE in 2021], there was residual heat from my first time around,” admits Ricker. “There was a little bit of headbutting between me and the former head coach back then. It’s a new head coach [Matt Bloom] in place, but there was still the question of whether I could be a team player.
“I never saw myself as trouble, but I am a very proud guy, so I do speak up. That’s kept me very authentic to myself, but it’s also made my path take a lot longer. I always knew I had something to offer. And to be quite honest, I don’t have a backup. Persevering and being better were the only choices I had. There is still no choice for me but to keep going and make this work.”
In the absence of WWE, Ricker honed his craft elsewhere. He stood out in the NWA and Impact, even becoming the latter’s world champion in 2017. And he was able to travel the world—India, Japan, Canada, Mexico—chasing down his dreams.
“Maybe I wasn’t quite for this ride back then,” says Ricker. “But I am damn-sure ready now.”
The focus in the Wyatt–LA Knight program has been Wyatt. He is one of wrestling’s most distinct stars, and there is plenty of intrigue surrounding his first match in nearly two full years. But there are two parts to this program. Knight has introduced himself to WWE’s fan base at large with a convincing, authentic performance—one that simply was not going to happen if he was playing a comedic-based fashion designer role in Max Dupri, an idea that was quickly scrapped after it hit television last year.
“LA Knight is the culmination of all my life’s work,” says Ricker. “You believe in the character when he speaks. The reason you believe in it is because I believe in it. I believe every damn word I’m saying. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t see it.
“This has been my biggest joy and biggest source of frustration. I love it so much. And I see the way people treat it—some people make a parody out of it. For me, I’m telling stories. If I’m not telling you a story you can bite on, there is no point to it. I want this to resonate with people. I want to punch a guy once and let people know it hurts, not kick a guy 10 times in the head and see that he’s fine. I’ll pepper in some comedy, but I want it all to make sense.”
Ricker works angry, with purpose and passion. He had the privilege of sharing the ring with The Undertaker on Monday’s Raw and held his own in the presence of a legend. He is rising to the moment in WWE, which he plans to do in the most noteworthy match of his career at the Rumble.
“This is a big moment to shine,” says Ricker. “But at the same time, it’s no different than any program I’m ever doing—just like when I was in Impact or NWA. The difference is that the smaller companies aren’t visible on the same level as WWE. That drove me insane. It drove me nuts.
“But it never changed what I was doing. I’ve always worked like people were watching. Every single program ever needs to be better than the last.”
Oozing a confidence that borders on cockiness, Ricker does not have a single ounce of doubt in his soul that he does not belong on WWE’s main stage. The Pitch Black match against Wyatt could be his breakout moment, and he is ready to grab hold of that opportunity.
“I don’t need fame,” says Ricker. “That isn’t what drives me. But I do need to be recognized for who I am.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.