David the Goliath-The WWF wrestler with Kenyan roots
Posted by Administrator on March 25, 2011
David Otunga has gotten everything he has gone after in life: Harvard law degree, WWE career, Jennifer Hudson. But public perceptions have not proved so easy for the 250-pound pro wrestler to take down.
He’s the proud local son of a white mother and a Kenyan father, graduated from Harvard Law School, worked at the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP, but he had greater ambitions.
So now David Otunga body-slams his opponents in the WWE.
Otunga is a 6-foot, 250-pound Mack Truck of a man. He’s on the fifth floor of the Gleacher Center, with its floor-to-ceiling panoramic views of the Chicago River snaking through the city Otunga calls home. The Gleacher Center is run by the University of Chicago, a school he was once accepted to but turned down.
“I’m a little upset people don’t seem to know I’m from Chicago,” the 30-year-old says.
The path the Elgin-born Otunga took to become a wrestler is the most circuitous and baffling route possible: the WWE by way of VH1 reality show, by way of Harvard Law School. He is back in town as part of the “Monday Night Raw” show that will film at the Allstate Arena on Monday. That he’s engaged to Jennifer Hudson and father to their child, David Jr., might be the most normal thing about Otunga, a man fighting a perception that he’s just riding the coattails of his more-famous fiancee.
And yet, that’s exactly what he’s asked to play up every week on national television. Otunga is a “heel” — a bad guy, in wrestling parlance. His on-screen character is an arrogant, fame-seeking Hollywood A-lister (that’s his nickname: A-List), and the WWE isn’t shy about showing red carpet footage of Otunga and Hudson hand in hand.
“I created this character of all the stereotypes of being a reality star, and my fiancee being more famous than I am,” he says. “They assume this guy is living off her. If that’s what people don’t like, that’s who I’m going to be.”
But in his next breath: “That’s totally not me. It’s the one thing that bothers me in real life. It drives me crazy.”
Posing for a photographer at the Gleacher Center, Otunga tilts his head differently after every shutter click. Photo shoots seem instinctual to him. He could have aspired to be an actor or athlete; he just turned out to be both. As a child, he filled notebooks with his autograph, a carbon copy each time: a large “D” resembling the number 12 smashed together, the “O” balanced atop the “D’s” follow-through. Something told him that perfecting his autograph would one day come in handy.
He instead pursued an academic course, eventually graduating from Harvard Law School and passing the bar exam in Chicago. He was 26, working at Sidley Austin LLP in the Loop, the same law firm where Barack and Michelle Obama met. He was young, rich, successful, muscle-bound and living in a posh Old Town apartment.
But he wasn’t happy with his career. The grind of 80-hour workweeks took its toll, and every day was another five boxes of document reviews. What was missing was what first attracted him to law: the theatrics and competition of the courtroom, the one-on-one battle of wits and strategy. Two combatants entered; one emerged victorious. Otunga eyed several older colleagues and wondered if he was destined for the same desk-bound fate.
He changed course.
To outsiders, it would seem foolhardy for Otunga to throw away a successful law career for fame’s spotlight. But Otunga thought that if ever there was an appropriate time to go all-in with a high-risk career change, better at age 26 than 36.
“If at the end of the day I fail, at least I tried, and I can always come back to Chicago and work at another firm,” he says.
Remember, Otunga did pass the bar exam. And if entertainment doesn’t work out, he has that degree from Harvard as a fallback.
“Anything David wants to do, he’s the only person I’ve ever known who could do it,” said Otunga’s sister Lisi. “He wanted to go to Harvard. He wanted to work at Sidley. He wanted to be in the WWE. Things just come easy for him.”
BACKTRACK TO 1987, when Otunga — youngest of three children to Moses and Billie Otunga — was ripping T-shirts off his chest with a thunderous growl, like his idol Hulk Hogan. Back when the WWE was the World Wrestling Federation, and the Allstate Arena was the Rosemont Horizon, his parents brought him there to watch wrestling shows and to see his hero in living color.
Hogan’s entrance music would hit and the crowd exploded — I am a real American! Fight for the rights of every man! — and young David stood there, still as a statue, absorbing everything.
“I’m going to be WWF champion,” he announced one day.
Otunga knew he wanted to entertain audiences. He was awestruck at how Hogan worked the crowd like a conductor, cueing them to cheer or jeer as he pleased. Otunga liked the immediate feedback for a job well done.
With academics, studying was never a chore, because both parents were educators for School District U-46 in Elgin. He graduated from Larkin High School in 1998 with straight A’s (except for one lousy B-plus in calculus) and attended the University of Illinois, where he received a degree in psychology. He was 22 and wanted more.
Otunga relocated to New York, working as a lab manager at a cognitive neuroscience center at Columbia University and auditioning for acting roles in his free time.
Then an unexpected call came: His father, Moses, died of a heart attack at age 61. There had never been a death in the family, and Otunga was shattered.
Three weeks later, still reeling, he received another surprise call: He was accepted into Harvard Law School.
“From the lowest I’ve ever been to the highest,” Otunga says.
His father’s death made Otunga realize that there was no day beyond today, he says. If an opportunity presented itself, seize it now. He made sure to call his mother every night to say, “I love you.”
While at Sidley Austin, he received another surprise phone call. A VH1 casting director wanted to fly Otunga in for an audition. But Otunga had never sent anything in, certainly not for a reality show.
For a few days, it was a mystery who had. He remembers watching “I Love New York” on VH1 with his family, a show in which male eligibles vied for a brash, voluptuous woman nicknamed “New York.” It turned out his 13-year-old niece, Kylee, had sent in an application under Otunga’s name. It was a breakthrough for Kylee, who is autistic and was painfully shy even around family members, to take that step.
At first Otunga hesitated, but he got an email from Kylee.
“She wrote, ‘Please, you have to do this show! I would be so popular in school.’ And we couldn’t believe she was talking to us. It just broke my heart,” he says. Producers also lured him with promises of post-show exposure. Otunga said yes.
He took four weeks of personal time to film “I Love New York 2,” not telling his law firm colleagues specifics. His code name on the show was “Punk,” somewhat incongruous, given his unpunklike status as a handsome lawyer (originally he was named “Mr. Harvard”). “Punk” made it to the second-to-last episode, eliminated from the final three while “Tailor Made” and “Buddha” advanced.
When Otunga returned to Chicago, he had no choice but to tell his bosses. He called his exit interview “one of the hardest and craziest conversations ever.”
“I told them I loved my time here, but I needed to follow my dreams. Then I told them about the show … and they weren’t too happy.”
THE DAY THE WWE called Otunga to hire him, he was sitting in a hotel with Hudson, fist-pumping, then screaming after he hung up. A producer for a celebrity wrestling reality show had put Otunga in touch with the WWE, and the company liked his potential.
“What immediately jumped out at me was David’s charisma,” said John Laurinaitis, the WWE’s executive vice president of talent relations. “He dressed well, he spoke well, he had that ‘it’ factor. He was a student of the game.”
Ask Otunga if he remembers his debut match, and he’ll say, “Feb. 23, 2010, Bradley Center in Milwaukee,” before you finish the question. It aired on “WWE NXT,” a program showcasing rookie talents. He won his first match in 60 seconds.
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