It’s a good bet that Kenny King’s worlds rarely collide. Or better put, that those inhabiting his two particular worlds would ever purposefully find themselves in each other’s company. His first world — professional wrestling — is his main place of residence. Tomorrow night, in fact, he will wrestle New Japan Pro Wrestling legend Jushin “Thunder” Liger at Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view.
In fairness, his wrestling career was borne out of his second career — reality TV. That is, he got his start on MTV’s Tough Enough 2 (WWE’s version of The Apprentice) in 2002. But 15 years went by before he returned to a much different reality show, with a much different demo than his work in the squared circle — The Bachelorette (and its spin-off Bachelor in Paradise). All of which means he commands the attention of hardcore wrestling fans like myself, and hardcore Bachelor fans like my wife. If it weren’t for King’s appearance on The Bachelorette, under his real name, Kenny Layne, my wife would know little about wrestling outside of Hulk Hogan and The Rock. But when King appeared on the reality dating series, she sprang into action. “Do you know this wrestler?” she asked me.
“I get that a lot,” King tells me. “Plenty of people tell me I’m the reason their Bachelorette-loving significant other agreed to go a wrestling show.”
King’s own path into the wrestling began in college. “I was enrolled at UNLV at the time. My interest was football. I’d transferred from the University of South Florida and was planning to play for the Rebels. But I happened to pick up a copy of The Rebel Yell [the student newspaper, now called The Scarlet & Grey Free Press], and there was a full-page ad for Tough Enough. I’d watched the first season, and honestly, the level of athleticism wasn’t on par with what I was bringing to the table in the early 2000s. I was in tremendous shape, and I thought that would set me apart.”
So King did what all would-be reality show participants did at the turn of the 21st century: He sent MTV an audition tape. “It worked out fine, because I got cast and performed very well,” he says. “There were two winners that season — Jackie Gayda and Linda Miles. I’d assumed going in there would be a male winner and a female winner, but that wasn’t how it went down. There were two female winners and two male runners-up.”
For King, show-stealing performances on a top-rated program then slotted in MTV’s prime “10 spot” were all well and good, but no guarantee of future success. “The notoriety from the show was worthwhile, but even if you won, the reward was ending up on the WWE roster before you were well-trained enough to make a major mark. Most of the people who got their shot on television via Tough Enough lasted two or three years, tops, then they were gone.” (Outside, of course, of The Real World-spawned Mike “the Miz” Mizanin.)
King had no intention of being such a flash in the pan: He took his Tough Enough training and embarked on an extended wrestling apprenticeship in regional wrestling federations like Ultimate Pro Wrestling in California. “I started out in wrestling with high-level athleticism, but I needed to learn the craft,” he says. “Early on, you can get by with athletic moves and a lot of enthusiasm, but the key to a long, sustainable working career is storytelling. So that’s what I began to develop, one match at a time. I trained under guys like Nick Bockwinkel, the former AWA world champion, and paid my dues.”
King then had a short stint as a lower midcarder in Total Nonstop Action in 2005, followed by some more time in the indies before a successful five-year run in Ring of Honor. “Since 2008, I’ve worked pretty much continuously in the sport,” he says. “In terms of scheduling, you don’t want to be overworked or worn down, but you also never want extended periods when you’re not earning money.”
He also made a brief return to reality TV in 2011, appearing in an episode of the Jerry Springer-hosted dating show Baggage, in which contestants defend embarrassing “baggage” while trying to win over a prospective date. “That episode isn’t something I even want to think about,” he says. “Occasionally it must appear on the Game Show Network, because I’ll see links to it showing up in my mentions. People think they’ve found some real rare clip, but honestly, it was poorly done and unmemorable.”
Wrestling would have kept King busy regardless of his reality TV fortunes, but in 2017, he was asked to appear on The Bachelorette. “It was pretty simple, really: They called me,” he says. “I had a friend who was working out in L.A., and they might have put my name out there. Either way, it was unexpected, and at first, I thought it was a practical joke. So I said, ‘You know I’m black, right?’ as a way of breaking the ice. They laughed, and we went from there.”
It was on The Bachelorette that King came to the attention of my wife and many other people who couldn’t care less about pro wrestling. He was a nice guy, my wife told me, and extremely likable, but on that show and then again on Bachelor in Paradise in 2018, he left the production to spend time with his daughter. “It’d be hard to understand if you weren’t a single dad raising your kid, but if you’re on this show with a bunch of other dudes and you’re not feeling that genuine romantic connection the experience is supposed to be about, why waste time you could spend with your family? And with Bachelor in Paradise, why would I miss my daughter’s recital for a couple more days in Mexico? It doesn’t make sense,” he says.
Even negotiations with the WWE came up against the hard reality of King’s family life. Like many wrestling superstars working in promotions and territories outside of the WWE — Cody Rhodes and Austin Aries come immediately to mind as two people who have taken total control of their own bookings — King values flexibility in his schedule. “I talked to the WWE and it wasn’t a bad conversation by any means, but the fact is I’m booked up for now and a challenging travel schedule that doesn’t give me a lot of time for my daughter isn’t ideal.”
Not surprisingly, King’s reality TV success has been incorporated into his wrestling character. (The wrestling industry is never one to ignore outside successes as a means of getting a performer over in the ring.) Ring of Honor announcers mention it constantly when he’s performing, reminding viewers that he’s a multi-platform star, and King himself incorporates it in the increasingly flashy, tough-talking promos he’s been cutting. “Change was necessary,” he said recently. “Last year I came off The Bachelorette wide-eyed and happy to go back to wrestling and just be the best wrestler I could be. I had won the television championship [get it?], and I was a new man on a roll, new suits, new watches…”
So is King moving his own character in a Miz-like direction, a flamboyant, flashy villain whose two worlds, real-life wrestling and televised dating fantasy, collide in an effort to build heat with the crowd? Will he stoop to underhanded tactics to defeat the venerable 53-year-old Liger, a respected figure in the sport? And will he continue to appear on Bachelor-style shows on ABC?
“Grabbing an opponent’s trunks can mean as much as a top-rope moonsault if you explain to the crowd why it matters,” King tells me. “Incorporating these little moments into my character, showing you a bit of frustration on my part as I do anything to get the win — that’s storytelling. In terms of how my character and my brand are evolving, you’ll have to watch and see. Will I be perceived as a villain? A hero? The guy you love to hate? The guy you hate to love? The guy you can’t stop watching? I’ve done a lot of different stuff in my career to date. I’ve done things other wrestlers haven’t done, no matter how good they are at wrestling or performing. There are many paths I could take. Like I said [in the promo above], I’ve got options.”
“So did the Bachelorette,” remarks my wife, oblivious to this dramatic turn in King’s wrestling career. “And he opted to leave the show before she picked him.”