Sabatino Piscitelli (f/k/a Tino Sabbatelli) on moving from the NFL to WWE, being released twice by NXT, rumors that he leaked AEW spoilers, his relationship with Mandy Rose

By Jason Powell, Editor (@prowrestlingnet)

Insight With Chris Van Vliet with guest Sabatino Piscitelli (f/k/a Tino Sabbatelli)
Host: Chris Van Vliet
Podcast available via
Video available at Chris Van Vliet’s YouTube Page

On the transition from NFL to WWE: “That is where there was the struggle. I was playing in front of 80,000 people, I had banners and my jersey was the number two seller in 2009 for Tampa Bay. I went from 80,000 to setting up rings in the PC for around 100 people. [Chris mentions the salary change from NFL athlete to PC recruit] I am glad that you mentioned that because I had to adjust myself in a humbling way. I was all in, I told Triple H that I was all in, I knew I had to start at the bottom. So I went to the PC and I did whatever they asked me to. I didn’t know how to wrestle, so I learned how to wrestle. Then I had to set up rings and be in locker rooms with cockroaches, and I am used to being escorted to my car. But I’m like OK, just stay the course. But for me, I bought in and dedicated my life to it. I get going and I don’t know what to expect. I develop this character that is me but just turned way up to a person that you wish you could be. So I started getting booed out of arenas, so I’m like this is good.”

“Fast forward a bit and Triple H approaches me. He said ‘Listen Tino, you look like a million bucks, talk like a million bucks, and carry yourself like a million bucks. But I really want your wrestling to be a million bucks. When you are a package like Tino, if you can’t wrestle then it will expose you and you can’t be the star that you really are.’ I took that personally and I really honed in, and that craft is hard! It’s not something you can just teach overnight, there are so many aspects. It really wasn’t easy, if you are an explosive athlete, it is the opposite in the ring. You are moving fast, but you have to act like you are not moving fast. So I said to Triple H ‘OK I’m up for the challenge.’ He says ‘I’m going to team you up with Riddick Moss, he is good at what you need to work on and you are good at what Riddick Moss needs to work on.’ I’m like perfect, let’s team us up. It was another alpha presence, so we were butting heads at first, but for me I was grateful. He taught me so much about tagging, psychologym and how the pace of a match goes. I knew we didn’t really want to do it at first, but as my career came, it really, really helped.”

“Fast forward three years and I came to this realization. I was 35 and I gave everything that I had to WWE, so I wanted to sit down with Triple H and ask what was the plan. So I sat down with Triple H for 45 minutes in Atlanta, and I will never forget it. He said ‘Listen Tino, I see you as a huge star. We just want the timing to be right with you because of the background and what you have accomplished. With your background we want to make sure that all the stars align and the timing is right.’ So I bought into this. He then said ‘This is what we are going to do. We are going to break you up on TV with Riddick Moss, here we go.’ That happens and I am in three main events.”

“I was against Aleister Black for the belt, Velveteen Dream, and somebody else. I was catching my pace and was feeling comfortable. So I had the match with Aleister Black for the belt and Terry Taylor was there. At that time, he pulls me aside and said it was the best match he had seen me work. Then I said, ‘I am going to tell Triple H personally about it.’ This was a Friday night and I was excited. I had the Saturday off and I get a phone call at about 11am. It’s from Terry and he says ‘Tino, you want to work the main event tonight against Velveteen?’ I’m like absolutely, perfect. So I get in my car and I drive over to Tampa somewhere. Long story short, he goes to dropkick me and gets me right in my pec. His foot tore my pec, freak accident, if he did it 1,000 more times he wouldn’t have done it again. I’m about to get my singles debut and I tore my pec.”

“So I have the surgery and as I am out, I tell WWE I have an elbow problem, so let me get this sorted and I will be back at 100 percent. I go and get the surgery and it is supposed to be a 30-minute surgery. They get eight pieces of bone fragment out, but the last one the tweezers snap and vanish. I was on the table for five and a half hours while they were digging around. They finally get it out, I wake up and they tell me what happened. They say it’s fine, but I am like no something is wrong, I can’t feel my hand. Fast forward again two months later and my hand has no feeling and strength. I had to have a third surgery again in December, and they tell me it will be three months or three years, we can’t say.

“WWE stood behind me and paid for everything while I was on the shelf for two years. But I wanted to fight through and wanted to come back, because I felt like I was that next star. I remember Scott Hall pulled me aside one day and he said, ‘Kid, you have a candid ability for people to hate you.’ Those were like the moments where I still wanted to chase this dream. Another was Dusty Rhodes, he said, ‘Son, you’ve got the it.’ Those conversations kept me going through the hard times. I started this journey, let’s finish it.

“Triple H says that they want me back, so I started working my butt off and get through the physicals and get in shape. All of a sudden I get cleared in February 2020, but two weeks later, COVID hits. Vince McMahon says ‘Anyone who hasn’t been on TV is gone.’ So I get a phone call from Canyon Ceman. He’s like ‘I’m sorry we have to let you go.’ I’m like ‘Let me go? You just paid me for two years, I just got back.’ He’s like ‘It’s not my call, trust me.’ So they had me for five years and this is how they let me go? I was struggling. That being said, Canyon did text me every week saying they were going to get me back, but I didn’t believe it.”

On the one match he had in AEW: “So then AEW comes into play, AEW calls me. Billy Gunn calls me and says, ‘Sabby, show up to Jacksonville.’ They don’t tell me anything, I show up and I see my name on the board. I’m like wow, I have a match? I mean, okay, I will do it. So I had this match on AEW Dark, it was a tag team match, but they didn’t tell me anything. They didn’t offer me anything, it was a vague trip. But that same week coach [Matt] Bloom texted me and said congratulations. I shot him a text back saying ‘Thank you but I didn’t sign anything.’ The next day Triple H reaches out to me. It’s funny, Canyon and coach Bloom was trying to set up the meeting with Triple H for two months, but because he is so busy, it would get pushed to the back burner.

“I was getting so offended, but I know they were pushing for it, but it was funny that he reached out when I appear on AEW. So he reaches out and we meet and he says, ‘You know what? You’re the only person we are going to offer to bring back.’ I was honored and privileged, but I asked for one thing, an opportunity. Everybody was saying ‘Wait until Vince sees this.’ And ‘Wait until you get that push.’ But it never happened because of the surgeries and just bad timing. But here we go, they sign me and they bring me back. Triple H goes ‘Tino, come back to the PC, get the ring rust knocked off.’

“So I come back to the PC late 2020 and I am in every main event of the house shows in the PC to rehearse. They had me against [Tommaso] Ciampa, [Timothy] Thatcher, every skillset. I kept getting put off like ‘Oh next week…’ I started getting a bit upset because I came back for the opportunity. Then I hear ‘You are not right for NXT. We are going to put you on Raw or Smackdown. You don’t fit on this brand.’ I just want the opportunity. Again, this is the first time in my career I felt confident in the ring. I can call matches on the fly and wrestle anyone. Triple H told me I looked and talked like a million bucks, now I think I can wrestle anybody.”

“All of a sudden we have a match, Jamie Noble and John Laurinaitis came, so did [Bruce] Prichard. They wanted to see promos and matches of their best talent. So I cut a promo and I am in the main event and I crush it. Jamie Noble pulls me aside and says ‘That promo, you can’t teach it. That confidence, you can’t teach it. Best promo of the day.’ I ask about the match and he says ‘I loved it, I am going to tell Vince.’ I’m like great we have someone on the inside, let’s go! I heard for years that I am a Vince guy, okay, well put me in front of Vince. Two weeks later I get a phone call from Canyon and I get released again.

“I’m like, hold on, I thought the phone call was that I would be going to Raw or to Smackdown. For three months they were saying I was going right up. Me and Canyon had a great relationship, and I could tell that he couldn’t tell me the reason. He was like ‘I am sorry, this is devastating to me.’ Then he hangs up on me. I’m like hold on, I didn’t have to come back, it was a man to man handshake, and now I am gone? I didn’t get an answer, that was what hurt me the most. I was in the main event for the right hand men for Vince McMahon, where is the disconnect? I lost the respect because I didn’t get a call or text from Triple H, I don’t respect that. He and numerous other people told me I had main event star level talent. But I don’t get a shot, nothing?”

On why the second release happened: “Oh, I know why it happened, but they are not allowed to publicly say. NXT is all different now, and Vince is in a fad all of a sudden. I think it’s a business plan but he wants young. I couldn’t wrap my head around that for two reasons. First, they all think that I am in my twenties, but is anyone built like me? If I am out of shape then fine but really? I had a conversation with John Laurinaitis, and at the end I wanted to ask him if I knew who I was. The conversation was so generic, like he was talking to a script. He told me personally that I couldn’t fathom. He couldn’t say age, but it was age. I think Vince saw the name Tino, been on NXT for six years, and not a star? Then get him out.”

On a possible WWE return: “The sad thing is, what I heard about the age thing is I say no. Personally I think if Vince saw me face to face then I hope so. But if I saw Vince face to face, I don’t know what I would say. This is just my opinion of being in the business for five or six years, I want to say this right. Personally I think that the character of Tino was a huge dropped opportunity for WWE. For me, it’s like how do I walk away from it all now? I fell in love and respect the business, I want to become great at the business. But they amped me up and never gave me a shot? If they gave me a shot and then I failed, then okay, thank you. But I never got that or anything, and that’s what still beats me up.”

Would he return to AEW? “So here’s the thing. I don’t know what happened or where it went wrong, this is the truth, that bridge was burned, and I don’t know how. Tony Khan knows me from football, and when WWE offered me that contract, I actually texted Billy Gunn about it. They [AEW] hadn’t offered me anything, Triple H was the one who offered me something. I sent a nice text to Billy Gunn to thank me for the opportunity and I thought it was all good. But when I got released again, someone reached out to AEW and said to Tony Khan ‘Tino is a free agent and he’s going to be a star.’ Tony said to him, and I am paraphrasing, but Tony is upset I went back to WWE. Then three months ago, Andrade approaches me and said that he wanted me to be in a group with him. Me and Andrade have always had a good relationship. But he texted me personally and we shot a vignette together. He wanted to bring a group like Evolution to AEW. We shot the video and spent the whole day in Miami. He texted me back and said ‘Tony Khan likes the idea but no Tino.’ I’m like what do you mean? I would love to sit and talk to Tony, he might have been upset that I had one match and then went back to WWE.”

On the rumors he was leaking AEW spoilers: “Oh man, I had to laugh. If anybody knows me, I don’t know where to begin with this. I am an internet dummy, I don’t know what a dirt sheet is, I am not on Twitter and I don’t use Instagram. So when someone tagged me and said ‘You hear what Chris Jericho said about you.’ What was it, NXT reject? At first I ignored it but people started to bring it up more and more, so I started to look into it. I’m like what is this dude talking about? For me to go on the internet and speak on something that I know nothing about? No disrespect, I don’t care about that much. When Impact called, Terry Taylor asked me, I’m like I don’t know what a dirt sheet is. God honest truth, I don’t know what I would even say. Maybe that is why Tony Khan doesn’t like me that much.”

On his time in WWE: “I was extremely grateful for the opportunity because I was going through a transitional phase in my life. I played six years in the NFL and was very grateful, but I was very bitter. I was just cut like that, I had started my last game on TV and had eight tackles, but never played again, which was a mental struggle. But WWE came along and Canyon Ceman offered me the opportunity. I’m like, really? Okay. I was a casual fan, not a die hard, but he offered me this opportunity. They flew me out to Orlando for a try-out and they offered me the opportunity, which I thought about for about thee months. I was extremely honored to be a professional athlete in a whole different industry. So I took it, moved to Orlando, and I humbled myself, because you are starting right at the bottom. The tough thing about that is that you suck. You are not good at something when you start something new.”

On what he is doing now: “That’s a great question. I have been chasing it for 20 years. I left home at 18 and went to Oregon State University. Then I was privileged to be drafted in the second round for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the end of that six-year journey, I get approached by the WWE and have to live in Orlando for five years. Long story short, I left home and for 20 years I was chasing the dream. Finally, I have moved back to my dream home in South Florida, and I am just living day by day. I have some businesses and live under my means. This part of my life is just to enjoy life for a little bit. I just wanted to take a bit of time for myself.”

On how he met Mandy Rose: “It was when she was doing the show Tough Enough. The first time I met Mandy, they were filming Tough Enough and they built a warehouse next to the PC. I saw them walking around and I’m like that girl is beautiful. I watched her go through the show and she got signed. Her personality and down to earth persona just drew me to her. She was such a genuine person, and at the time she was engaged and we were just friends. But they broke up and we just escalated from there.”


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