“Bro, I’m shaking.”
That’s what WWE Superstar Damian Priest says Bad Bunny confessed to him backstage as they waited to appear on screen at WWE’s Royal Rumble event in January. It wasn’t the sentiment you’d expect from a world-famous Latin music star who had performed during the Super Bowl halftime show a year earlier, but it made sense. It’s not every day you get to live out your childhood dream.
Bunny had watched wrestling religiously since he was a kid in Puerto Rico, and now he was set to make his debut as an on-screen character at one of WWE’s biggest shows of the year. Priest could relate. The leather-clad big man would also begin his run on WWE’s main roster that night in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“We were both a little rocky beforehand in the back,” Priest says. “I think laughing about how nervous we were kind of eased our nerves.”
Priest has become Bunny’s closest friend in WWE both on and off screen. Now, he’ll be watching closely as “El Conejo Malo” readies for another WWE milestone, fighting The Miz at Wrestlemania, which this year airs live from Tampa April 10 and 11 on NBC’s Peacock streaming service.
WWE trainer and on-screen authority figure Adam Pearce, along with WWE superstar Drew Gulak were tasked with training Bunny for his match. And they admit they had some initial skepticism.
“I think it was intimidating for him, like it would be for any new prospect walking into the WWE Performance Center,” Pearce says of Bunny’s first day at WWE’s Orlando training facility. “I saw him looking around and marveling at the pictures and ring, like ‘Man, this is real.’” It got even more real when Bunny took his first “bump,” which is wrestling parlance for a fall onto the mat or ground. “I read somewhere that a backward fall onto a mat feels like a 30 mile-per-hour car crash. That first one, [Bunny’s] eyes got wide and his soul leaped out of his chest,” says Pearce.
Pearce says Bunny began his training after the holidays, and usually hits the ring a couple times a week — except for the few weeks that he missed in March. But he had a valid excuse for his absence, one that Pearce had never heard in his quarter century in wrestling: Bunny was nominated for a Grammy (which he won) and would be performing at the ceremony.
Bunny’s transition to wrestling hasn’t been seamless. But Pearce has been impressed with Bunny’s persistence and how seriously he takes the craft. “When you take your first steps in any journey, you’re going to goof up. And that happened,” Pearce says. “I wanted to look him in the eye and see how he was going to react to that kind of thing. He’s competitive with himself. But he never quits. He always says, ‘Let’s do it again.’ He’s all in. You can’t teach that.” (Bunny, through his representative, declined to take part in this story.)
Pearce, along with Gulak, prepared Bunny for his now-viral jump off the top rope at the Royal Rumble. He says Bunny must have practiced the move a hundred times. While Pearce acknowledges that Bunny’s left foot slipped upon take-off due to a sweaty top rope, as sometimes happens, he was proud to see Bunny still hit his targets outside the ring.
“I gave him a hug [afterward],” Pearce says. “He was smiling from ear to ear. He has told me personally this was a dream for him. And that was step one in making his dream a reality.”
Not as excited for Bunny was The Miz — at least not publicly. The MTV Real World star-turned-two-time-WWE Champ was one of two wrestlers on the receiving end of Bunny’s splash, along with his right-hand-man John Morrison. The Miz wrecked Bunny’s DJ’s turntables earlier that night, after Bunny turned down his offer to collaborate on music, which set up their storyline.
“It wasn’t fun. I wasn’t like ‘Yay, Bad Bunny jumped on me,’” says The Miz, partially staying in character. “[WWE] made a T-shirt out of it. And by the way, that T-shirt is one of the best-selling WWE T-shirts in the last couple years. I’ve been trying to get a T-shirt that sells really well for years. And the one I’m on is Bad Bunny jumping on me? Fantastic…”
As nice of a bonus as T-shirt sales are, nothing tops the mainstream media coverage and massive social media following that Bunny has brought to the table. It’s why a niche form of entertainment like WWE is so enamored with incorporating celebrities.
But no celeb has carried the WWE flag like Bunny has. This is a Billboard chart-topping artist who has a song named after Booker T — which he performed at the Rumble — and music videos featuring the aforementioned former WWE Champ and fellow wrestling legends Ric Flair and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
And then there was Saturday Night Live. Bunny was the musical guest five days after winning the WWE 24/7 Championship, and showed off his new title during his “Te Deseo Lo Mejor” performance — just because. “Everybody [in the locker room] thought that was so cool,” Priest says. “He didn’t have to do that. He knew it would put eyes on our product.”
There were conflicting reports about whether or not Bunny was well-received in the WWE locker room, as the screen time he takes up is screen time taken from other wrestlers. Priest insists that Bunny is well-liked in the back, and has shown nothing but respect and admiration for his peers.
In fact, being the wrestling fanboy that he is, sometimes Bunny has to temper that admiration. “I see it all the time,” Priest says, laughing. “He’ll see somebody and be mesmerized. I know he was excited to talk to Randy Orton at the last Raw. But he’s mostly quiet and doesn’t want to intrude.”
The Miz, ever the heel, wasn’t as willing to call Bunny a beloved figure in the locker room. He preferred to lean into the idea that his Wrestlemania opponent is resented for holding other wrestlers back.
“Superstars work their entire life to get a Wrestlemania match,” Miz says, again partially in character. “This guy comes in a couple months ago and is now going against one of the most decorated superstars ever at Wrestlemania? I’m not just doing this for me. I’m doing this for every superstar who isn’t on the Wrestlemania card — the ones whose spot he took. He thinks he’s going to waltz in and embarrass me, but that’s not going to happen. You step into my ring, you are going to get hurt.”
The Miz isn’t the only one talking a big game. After months of training Bunny, Pearce proudly feels his most famous student “is going to surprise the WWE Universe” and says fans “haven’t seen anything yet.” But what happens after the ref counts to three, and a victorious Miz or Bunny gets his arm raised by the referee? Will Bad Bunny continue to live out his lucha libre dreams — or does he go back to his day job as one of the world’s biggest pop stars?
“I don’t know,” Pearce says. “I don’t think this guy has a pause button. If he’s interested in continuing in sports entertainment, I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t want to have him.”