After frustrating the Wrestlemania audience waiting to see The Undertaker, what does he do for an encore?
One of the storylines going in the Wrestlemania last April in the Superdome was that WWE Superstar John Cena wanted a match with the beloved, retired Undertaker, and because that match wasn’t made, the only way he could be at Wrestlemania was in the audience as part of the crowd. He sat in the second or third row at ringside, even during the dark matches before the official start of the show. At one point during the show, Cena jumped from his ringside seat, hopped the barricade, and ran backstage, making everybody think that he got word that The Undertaker was there. When he came to the ring accompanied by his theme music, the crowd was ready for a clash of legends. When the entry way went dark, the crowd popped again at the prospect of seeing The Undertaker.
Instead, Elias walked out, the bearded, bandana-wrapped wrestler whose look and demeanor merges ‘90s alternative hard rock with a hint of ‘80s glam. He told the audience, “I am Elias, and I want you to turn off your cell phones and shut your mouths.” The cheers for his catch phrase were strong, but when he began to play “The House of the Rising Sun” on his guitar, the cheers started to turn to boos. When he walked down the ramp and entered the ring, the boos got stronger. When he sang a song that included the couplet, “John Cena sucks / just like all of you,” the boos won. That line was also the last straw for Cena, who jumped Elias and crushed him in under a minute.
Elias will likely be on the show when the WWE returns to New Orleans Monday for Monday Night Raw at The Smoothie King Center. He has become a staple on Raw, singing a song from the middle of the ring, making crowds love him and hate him. Frequently, his song chronicles the failings of the city he’s in, and he has yet to find one he likes. “But I keep on searching,” he says. “I’m always hopeful for the next town.”
Many professional wrestlers before him who have used music as part of their character, but unlike most of them, Elias can actually play. Born Jeffrey Logan Sciullo, he learned to play to guitar and took it seriously. “When I was a young teenager, I was heavily influenced by blues guitar,” he says. His father bought him his first guitar, and “it was an instant connection,” Elias says. “I could understand music. I could play it, I could feel it, and sure enough, I could write it.” There was a brief period when he played with a friend, but he never actually formed a band.
His guitar became part of his persona while in NXT—the WWE development promotion—at the suggestion retired wrestler and instructor Dusty Rhodes. Elias and Rhodes were talking casually one day about their lives and interests, and when Elias mentioned his guitar, Rhodes suggested he work with that. The next time they saw each other, Elias had his guitar with him and played while they talked, going back and forth between the story he was telling and his guitar.
“He said, There it is man,” Elias recalls, and his guitar has been an essential part of his professional life since. Now, he can slam Raw’s host city, but he can also play the hits if the crowd or moment calls for them. When someone in one audience called out a request for “Free Bird,” Elias obliged. At a number of shows in England earlier this year, he led a sing-along of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” during his spot, and he has covered Drake's "Hotline Bling" in Toronto and Toto's "Africa" in Capetown, eventually turning each song into another litany of insults.
Elias is as well-realized a character as exists in the WWE. He began at NXT as Elias Samson, The Drifter, and as he says, he drifted from town to town until he found his place in the WWE. That helps fill in the hole in many wrestlers’ characters: Why does he fight? The years of drifting have curdled his vision so that disappointment manifests itself as anger. He sings, “I’m waiting for a town that’s not such a disgrace / but I see so many lost people / I want to punch them in the face” in “The Ballad of Every Town I’ve Ever Been To …” on his debut EP, Walk with Elias.
“I have music flowing through my brain all hours of the day,” he says. “Sometimes even when I’m sleeping I’ll have lyrics come to me. I thought it was natural to put this music out into the world. I didn’t want to give too much—I only put out four songs—but I’ve recorded many more, and there’s many more to come.”
Is that how creativity really works for Sciullo? How the EP came about? It’s not clear since Elias did the interview largely in character, and Elias is success-oriented. Naturally, he only remembers the love at Wrestlemania, and it was what he hears every night, he says. “It was absolutely loud because it was sold out, 77,000 people. But damn near every arena I go to now is exploding whenever I say something, whenever I show up, whenever I play music. Wrestlemania was a jumping off point. It has only grown since then.”
Perhaps because his brief in-ring concerts ignite the crowd so effectively, they define his tenure in the WWE more than any matches or feuds. He did have a brief program with the massive Braun Strowman that culminated in the Symphony for Destruction match earlier this year. In it, the two could use all the instruments set up onstage as weapons against each other. Strowman easily got the best of the match, and it ended when he buried Elias under a grand piano.
Elias wrestles in conventional matches on house shows, recently in Shanghai in a tag team match with John Cena, Bobby Lashley, and Finn Balor. On Raw though, it’s more common for him to sing his song and deal with whatever mayhem surrounds him. Two weeks ago in Toronto, WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus came out and slapped him for slagging Toronto and her, and last week Alexa Bliss hijacked the segment to join him in ripping her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
“I’m as real and true to myself in the moment as I can be,” he says. “I’m saying everything that is true about life, about our world, about the WWE, about myself. When I start to talk about the city or the opponent, people can react however they feel in their heart to react. All I’m doing is speaking the truth.”