Last night on Monday Night Raw, the wrestling troubadour and former Drifter Elias challenged Roman Reigns as the first competitor in The Big Dog’s Intercontinental Championship Open Challenge. While Reigns ultimately defeated Elias to retain his title, Elias still managed a near 12-minute match against Roman and at times looked strong against the former 3x WWE World Champion. And surprisingly to some, the former NXT star received small pockets of chants in support from the crowd in Knoxville, Tennessee. But the story of Elias and his guitar is as fabled as many dust bowl folksingers, and his ascension to the main roster is ultimately his ballad of redemption, after a stop and start career within WWE’s developmental and NXT tenure.
Jeffrey Sciullo began his pro wrestling career in 2008 with Pennsylvania’s International Wrestling Cartel (IWC), where he was a regular for five years, performing mostly as Logan Shulo, winning the IWC World Heavyweight title and reigning for 280 days. While he did occasion matches with other local promotions, he wrestled almost exclusively for IWC before being signed by the WWE to a developmental contract in early 2014.
He debuted in NXT in April of 2014 under the name Elias Samson and spent the bulk of his first year in the WWE as an enhancement to emerging stars on the NXT brand, most notably in feuds with Baron Corbin and Tye Dillinger. He was also frequently randomly paired with other developmental wrestlers, such as Buddy Murphy, Troy McClain, Hugo Knox, Steve Cutler and even Solomon Crowe (Sami Callihan), usually as fodder to rising NXT tag teams like The Revival, The Ascension or The Lucha Dragons. His second year wasn’t much different – more random tag team pairings and losing feuds to Bull Dempsey, Apollo Crews and other stars, it seemed like Samson was becoming the perennial jobber to other wrestlers that NXT was pushing, never the push himself.
In August of 2015, Elias was finally given a new gimmick beyond the generic faceless character of his enhancement days, when he debuted as “The Drifter”, a heel folksinger more akin to Woody Guthrie than The Honky Tonk Man. But despite his gimmick change, Elias continued to lose to more established NXT stars, like Andrade “Cien” Almas, Oney Lorcan, Roderick Strong and Johnny Gargano. To make matters worse, he was received with absolute disdain from the Full Sail University crowd, who normally ate up such cheesy gimmicks with indie wrestling enthusiasm. Samson routinely received “X-Pac heat” from the crowd, with loud and long chants of “Drift Away!” every time he walked through the curtains.
In February of this year, Elias lost yet another feud, this time to a returning Kassius Ohno (formerly Chris Hero) in a Loser Leaves Town match. Many began to wonder if Elias’ continued failure in NXT and subsequent removal was signs he was about to be future endeavored. But in a surprising move, he was called up to the main roster in April and began to appear backstage in segments on Monday Night Raw, strumming his songs in the back alleys of arenas and on the way to the ring. The internet community was aghast why someone who had been such an absolute disaster in NXT would be called up ahead of so many of the talent he had mercilessly been fodder to in NXT, such as Gargano, Strong, Ohno or Hideo Itami.
But that’s where the story takes a strange twist. Shortly after his call-up, he lost his last name, going simply by Elias now, and his comedic interruptions backstage, led to more confident attempts at singing his songs in the ring in front of the live audience, and in weeks, he became not only a viable character on the main roster, but fans on social media began to clamour for the Squared Circle Troubadour to have more screen time. In his first batch of matches on Raw, Samson scored big wins over the likes of Dean Ambrose and Finn Balor, defeated former NXT rivals Kalisto and Apollo Crews (including one at No Mercy this past September), and had the crowd chanting along to his constant question “Who wants to walk with Elias?”
His musical partnerships have also begun to become fun segments, not just on Raw episodes, but at Live Events, where he’s formed unlikely “jam bands” with the likes of Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson (the trio’s rendition of Oasis‘ ‘Wonderwall’ in the UK went viral) and last night’s blues jam with Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel.
While Elias is still a ways away before he’s mentioned in any sort of World Championship scene in the WWE, his lengthy match against Roman Reigns showed that he can definitely compete with the Big Dogs in the WWE and has a solid shot at entering the mid-card and competing for titles such as the Intercontinental Championship, joining the likes of other guitar slinging IC champs of the past like The Honky Tonk Man and Jeff Jarrett, and becoming an unlikely star on the main roster following a near disastrous run in NXT.