All wrestlers have to start somewhere on the path to making their dreams a reality, whether it be a wrestling school, church basement, bingo hall, etc. From there, those wrestlers work their way up to the pinnacle of their dreams. For many, that’s a career in WWE. But sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. In LWOPW’s newest feature, “Before They Were Famous,” we take a look at the pre-WWE careers of some of the company’s top current stars, following along on their road to superstardom. In this edition, we look at the long journey of newly crowned WWE United States Champion Apollo Crews, who was an indie phenom known as Uhaa Nation.
Born in Sacramento, California, it was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia that Sesugh Uhaa fell in love with professional wrestling. “I was really young, and my dad was watching it with me,” he told Springfield, Illinois’ State Journal-Register in 2016. “I remember it was the Ultimate Warrior and Undertaker in the ring. For me, these guys seemed larger than life, and they just kind of reached out to me in my house. And ever since that day, I’ve been addicted to it.” As a youth, he attended military high school and was an active athlete in multiple sports, including football, gymnastics, soccer, and of course, amateur wrestling. During his intense weight training sessions, one of his coaches nicknamed him “Uhaa Nation” (as in he was strong as a one-man nation), a name that would come back into play years later in the squared circle. Upon finishing college in 2009, he enrolled in Atlanta’s World Wrestling Alliance 4 (WWA4) Wrestling School, where he was trained by former WWE and WCW Superstar Curtis Hughes. In August of 2009, he would make his in-ring debut, taking his former high school coaches nickname for him – Uhaa Nation – as his ring name.
He would continue to work the Georgia indie scene with Great Championship Wrestling (GCW), NWA Anarchy, and Peachstate Wrestling Alliance (PWA), as well as working into the Eastern and Midwest with Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW), Beyond Wrestling, IWA Mid-South and Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), and Florida with Full Impact Pro (FIP).
In September 2011, Uhaa Nation signed with Dragon Gate USA and their Japanese associate, Dragon Gate, as well as EVOLVE Wrestling. He made his Japanese debut at an independent show produced by Dragon Gate’s Blood WARRIORS faction, where he was introduced as the newest member. He then joined Dragon Gate on the Dragon Gate Fantastic tour in December, where he joined forces with the Blood WARRIORS’ Naoki Tanizaki & Yasushi Kanda in victory. In the early spring of 2012, when Akira Tozawa assumed leadership from CIMA and renamed the group to Mad Blankey, Crews remained in the group. But during his first match with the rebooted stable, he suffered a serious knee injury and would miss the remainder of 2012.
Just under a year later, he returned to the ring in February of 2013 with FIP, and returning to Japan that March. That August, dissension in his stable would rise again, with Akira Tozawa ousted as leader. Uhaa Nation followed Tozawa and formed a new alliance alongside Shingo Takagi. Within a month, they were joined by Ricochet, Masato Yoshino, and Shachihoko Boy, and the stable Monster Express was born. But Uhaa Nation wasn’t content with just returning to the US indies and Japan – during his comeback year, he also began working in the burgeoning United Kingdom indie scene, wrestling with Revolution Pro (RevPro), IPW, Southside Wrestling Entertainment (SWE), and Preston City Wrestling (PCW). He also worked in Germany with Westside Xtreme Wrestling (wXw), competing in the 2015 wXw 16 Carat Gold tournament.
For years, Uhaa Nation was making a name for himself internationally, in both the US and UK indie scenes, as well in Japan with Dragon Gate. But oddly enough, he never saw the championship gold that many of his peers found – he only won one title in the US indies (FIP Heritage Championship in 2011, which he held an astounding 650 days), one title in Japan (DG Open The Twin Gate (Tag Team) Championships with BXB HULK in Mad Blankey, 2013), and one title in the UK (PCW Heavyweight Championship in 2014). But there was no denying his raw talent, a gifted athleticism alongside some astonishing power.
In October of 2014, Uhaa Nation took part in a WWE Tryout and was signed in December. He debuted at the WWE Performance Center in April of 2015. Within a month of reporting, he made his NXT television debut on May 6 as one of William Regal‘s new signings to the brand, introducing Uhaa Nation to the NXT Universe. By August, he was renamed Apollo Crews, making his NXT in-ring debut at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn against Tye Dillinger. In a rapid ascension to the main roster at the time, he made his debut on Monday Night Raw on April 4, 2016 against Tyler Breeze, almost exactly one year from stepping into the WWE Performance Center in Orlando.
But despite his rapid rise in the ground levels of the WWE Universe to the flagship show, since then Apollo Crews has been lost in the shuffle. Brief storylines, such as working with Titus O’Neil in Titus Worldwide, and inconsistent appearances, kept Apollo Crews from most fans’ minds for the majority of his WWE tenure. A run in the 2019 King of the Ring gave hope, but nothing came from it, but he was gaining momentum in April of this year when he won his qualifying match to enter the Money In the Bank Ladder Match at this year’s pay-per-view.
But dreams were dashed once again when he was injured in a match against Andrade, Angel Garza, and Austin Theory before the PPV and had to be removed. He returned May 12 and got revenge on Garza and Andrade thanks to a tag team partner in Kevin Owens, setting up his United States title match on Monday night. Let’s hope this victory is the start of a new opportunity for Apollo Crews to show the WWE Universe why Uhaa Nation was such a big prospect out of the Gate.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.