For Carmelo Hayes, Halloween was an important holiday growing up in Massachusetts. One of his fondest memories is from fourth grade, when he dressed as Rey Mysterio to go trick-or-treating, foreshadowing his own career as a wrestling superstar.
Mysterio’s current fit includes a championship belt, an accessory Hayes hopes to add Tuesday night when he faces Ilja Dragunov for the NXT championship at Halloween Havoc, live from Orlando’s WWE Performance Center and on USA Network.
Hayes, who grew up in Massachusetts, says though the holiday hits different as an adult, it still holds a special place for him.
“I love the build to Halloween,” said Hayes, who said he still likes candy corn, a trick-or-treat favorite. “I like Halloween movies. I just took my girlfriend to Salem, Massachusetts, and we did the haunted witch houses and a trolley ride to learn the history of the Salem Witch Trials. It’s cool to tap into those memories.”
Tuesday night, though, it will be all business as Hayes tries to take the title from Dragunov. This will be the third marquee match between the two — Dragunov ended Hayes’ long reign as NXT champion last month in a hard-hitting match described as one of the most violent and best WWE matches this year.
When two wrestlers have a long series like this, it’s natural to think of the competitors having chemistry in the ring, but Hayes said with Dragunov, what you see is what you get.
“I think the chemistry is really just the fact that he fights me and I fight him back,” Hayes said. “We’re two completely different people with styles that couldn’t be more opposite, but when we get in the ring, he brings it to you and I’ve learned to kind of start to bring it back. And I guess that’s what people have been enjoying the most about our matches.”
Tuesday may have a bit more psychology to it. Part of the storyline of the match is that Hayes has friction with longtime associate Trick Williams. Any breakup could lead to Hayes losing his fan-favorite status with fans. But as Hayes thinks back over his journey, he’s barely had to telegraph a “babyface turn” or “heel turn” in NXT — the crowds have made the decision for him.
“When I first came in, I was more of a babyface, when I won the Breakout tournament,” Hayes said. “Then we introduced Trick and it’s a little bit more of a heel. Everything with Bron (Breakker, whom Hayes beat for the NXT title), people love the chase and resonated with me on that. They were ready for change and they got their change. Now, we’re kind of just in the middle here. We’ll see what happens when I get that NXT championship back.”
Hayes’ future within WWE has shone brightly for more than a year, with predictions of stardom on the Raw or Smackdown rosters a constant. He got a taste of it in June and July, when he appeared on both “main-roster” shows, including a high-profile loss to Finn Balor. In the months since, he has shared NXT rings with the likes of John Cena and the Undertaker. Hayes said he’s learning a lot.
“When you’re in NXT, you’re kind of in your little comfort zone, your little bubble. But then how do you go to town in each city and figure out how (fans) are different and how to work around that? I found that really, really fascinating. Because if you think about it, they don’t know who I am, to an extent. How do I get them to care about seven or eight minutes, which is a challenge in itself? I have such equity in NXT, with similar crowds every week, and they’ve seen me since I was brand-new, so they’ve followed my journey. But now you’re trying to introduce yourself to a new city, a lot of them are casual fans who don’t know you. That’s the biggest task, I think.
“But knowing that this is my future, I thought, ‘OK, I can hang up here with these guys.'”
NXT airs on USA Network every Tuesday at 8 p.m.