My Friend Dante Chen and His Hard-Fought Journey From Woodlands to WrestleMania
Top image: WWE

I first met 16-year-old Dante Chen during a Singapore Pro Wrestling (SPW) training session in 2012. 

Little did I know that this soft-spoken and polite young man would go on to make history as a high-octane, world-famous pro wrestler. Nine years after I knew him, Dante became the first Singaporean WWE wrestler, making his debut on WWE’s developmental brand, NXT.

In February 2024, Dante became the first Singaporean to wrestle on WWE SmackDown, one of WWE’s two flagship programmes. He went on to register a win on April 5 during WrestleMania Weekend.

Some Singaporeans, being Singaporean netizens, weren’t too impressed by Dante’s achievements.

The comments section of a video posted about Dante’s WrestleMania Weekend win. Image: Facebook screengrab

As someone involved in the local wrestling scene, I take issue with their dismissals. Yes, pro wrestling gets a lot of flak for being ‘fake’ but look at it this way: it’s live-action theatre where stunts are performed with no harnesses or safety nets. And at least it’s upfront about it. Throwing shade at pro wrestling for being scripted is like walking out of Rush Hour because Jackie Chan isn’t a real police officer.

The results of wrestling matches might be predetermined, but many unexpected occurrences can happen throughout live wrestling events.

Speaking from personal experience, the role of pro wrestlers is to roll with the punches (metaphorically and literally) when unexpected things happen. Our job is to take audiences on emotional rollercoasters with classic stories of good versus evil.

Singapore’s pro wrestling scene may be tiny, but everyone harbours dreams of stardom with WWE, the biggest pro wrestling company in the world. And Dante did it.

Dante staring down his opponent, Bron Breakker, on his SmackDown debut. Image: WWE

Sean Tan From Woodlands

The ‘WWE Superstar’ title fits Dante. I’ve known him for over a decade, and I’ve never heard him make a nasty comment about anyone. An alumnus of Assumption English School and ITE College West, Dante graduated from Republic Polytechnic shortly before being signed by WWE. He likes Star Wars and Yu-Gi-Oh. Whenever I want to get a laugh out of Dante, I sing Tenacious D lyrics to him.

Dante and I were trainees in the founding batch of SPW, and our training facility was located in a spartan warehouse in Tai Seng. Our trainers were a Russian-born wrestling promoter named Vadim Koryagin and a local multidisciplinary athlete named Andruew Tang. Their dream was to start Southeast Asia’s first pro wrestling company, infused with Singapore-themed characters and relatable storylines.

Our first few live events were held in our training centre in front of a small crowd. Today, SPW shows are held in 600-seater sports halls, and former SPW trainee Dante is signed to the biggest wrestling entertainment company in the world.

Sean at 14. Image courtesy of Sean Tan

Before he was signed to WWE and christened ‘Dante Chen’, we knew him as Sean Tan. He wasn’t very muscular back then—not skinny, but not jacked. But this would drastically change as he began to invest countless hours in achieving a wrestler-esque physique.

“My introduction to wrestling was through video games, specifically WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. I don’t recall being very interested in sports, but the larger-than-life characters captured my attention,” shares Sean.

Sean back in secondary school. Image courtesy of Sean Tan

At 14, Sean realised that it was possible to become like the fantastical characters that he loved so much in video games, sparking his uphill pursuit of becoming a WWE Superstar.

“I remember sitting and observing an SPW training session back when I was 16 because my parents weren’t ready to sign a safety waiver to let me participate,” he recounts.

“When an SPW coach asked for a volunteer to demonstrate a move, I raised my hand, hoping to step into the ring. He laughed it off and turned me down because I was not yet allowed to participate.”

Flanked by SPW wrestlers MK and The Arsenal Affi, Sean (aka Trexxus back then) made his Hong Kong Pro Wrestling Federation debut in 2014. Image: Hong Kong Pro Wrestling Federation

Sean’s parents finally relented to signing that safety waiver. From there, he poured his heart and soul into training and became one of SPW’s best performers.

Sean had never been much of a competitive sportsman before he joined SPW. But his love for wrestling helped him master the basics quickly after he stepped into the squared circle.

He coined the nom de guerre ‘Trexxus’ for himself—derived from the names of WWE performer Johnny Nitro and a WWE faction called The Nexus.

SPW live events were a family affair for Sean. Not only would his siblings and parents be ringside, but his friends would also cheer for him tirelessly. I fondly remember Sean’s late father, Patrick, who would go the extra mile to congratulate and encourage all of us performers after each show.

Besides Johnny Nitro and the Nexus, Sean looks up to Shawn Michaels, his all-time WWE favourite. Sean shares that he is enamoured that Shawn, a WWE Hall Of Famer, now works with him in NXT, but the younger has yet to tell the elder how much he influenced him to enter the business.

It’s all about closing the loop for Sean. As someone who got into wrestling thanks to video games, one of his goals is to make his in-game debut as a playable character in WWE 2K24.

Sean wrestling as ‘Trexxus’ in SPW around 2016. Image: Singapore Pro Wrestling

Dante Chen From WWE NXT

Sean vividly recalls when he was invited for WWE tryouts in Shanghai in 2019. He made a strong enough impression to find himself on a plane bound for Florida, which is where WWE’s Performance Centre is located.

He remembers the excitement and anxiety he felt when he first stepped into the WWE Performance Centre. Because of the high level of talent that he was surrounded by, Sean knew that he had to work hard to stand out.

“I recall observing training sessions in my first few days because I had to wait for clearance after a mandatory health check-up. I was just containing my excitement of hopping into the ring and joining in. It’s really poetic because it was just like my first day observing an SPW training session in Singapore.”

Does Dante still feel flustered when he meets his heroes? He reveals that he conducts himself professionally and tries to approach them as a colleague rather than as a fan.

“I might occasionally mention some of their work that I’ve enjoyed, but I rarely am starstruck these days. Although it took a lot for me to muster the courage to say hello to Shawn Michaels on my first day at the WWE Performance Centre.”

Dante has been wrestling in WWE for three years now. The audience reacts raucously to this 1.8-metre-tall gladiator’s devastating manoeuvres, such as his double palm strike that he used to secure his recent win at NXT Level Up.

“My favourite move to perform would probably be my Pump Kick that I deliver as I bounce off the ropes. There’s an odd satisfaction whenever I see my boot hit the target: my opponent’s head.”

What audiences don’t see, of course, are the innumerable hours of training that have enabled Dante to perform this manoeuvre safely without seriously injuring his opponent.

Sean and I goofing off for a promotional video in 2019 with fellow wrestler Alexis Lee. Image: Gymmboxx

Peeling Back the Curtain

“My immediate goal at the moment is to secure a victory on Raw, NXT or SmackDown,” Dante offers.

“My long-term goal is definitely to enter the Hall of Fame. One step leads to another. There are Premium Live Events to wrestle in and championships to win. Whatever happens, I’m excited for the unpredictable path ahead.”

Dante shares that as the first Singaporean and Southeast-Asian-born WWE Superstar, he hopes to see more Southeast Asians and Singaporeans achieve their dreams—he wants to inspire other wrestlers to work their way up to the top flight.

Behind the WWE curtain, Dante frequently seeks the feedback of his seniors and is deeply grateful for the encouragement he receives from coaches and veterans.

When asked if there is anyone he would love to compete against, Dante remarks that his dream opponent is his coach and retired WWE wrestler, Terry Taylor. Most days, Dante attends WWE training sessions under these decorated veterans, who teach him how to be a safe and engaging performer.

“I have also learnt how to care for my fellow locker room members. Whatever happens in the ring is unpredictable. Whenever injuries or accidents happen, I get worried. We’re all here to compete in the ring, so I never want to be taken away from the action.”

Years into his WWE career, it still feels surreal for Dante—the ardent wrestling aficionado—to be part of the global spectacle that was this year’s WrestleMania Weekend. After all, it did involve the likes of world-renowned names, including The Rock, John Cena and The Undertaker.

“I had a lot of fun! After picking up a win against Drake Morreaux at NXT Level Up, I went to enjoy WrestleMania Weekend with friends that I made in the professional wrestling community before I joined WWE. Remembering and appreciating the people who’ve supported me before my time in WWE is very important to me, and I was really happy to have been able to see some of them again and even spend time with them.”

He shares that he couldn’t help but beam with pride while watching his fellow WWE Superstars perform.

“Over the past years of being in WWE, I’ve made friends with most of the Superstars who competed in WrestleMania XL and especially those in NXT Stand & Deliver. Seeing them compete on a big stage not only makes me proud of them but also inspires me and gives me hope that one day I will also have my opportunity.”

Old friends Dante, Hong Kong pro wrestling pioneer Ho Ho Lun and wrestling fan Jason Quek at a meet-up in Philadelphia during WrestleMania Weekend. Image courtesy of Jason Quek

Far From Home

How does Dante explain Singapore to colleagues who have never been there?

“I usually describe Singapore as convenient—how it’s difficult to get lost in Singapore and how it’s easy to look for whatever you need and want.”

Whenever Dante gets time off his busy schedule to return to Singapore, he dedicates quality time to his family and old friends. He shares his wealth of knowledge with SPW competitors.

“Most believe that I miss the food back home. That’s true! But what I miss most is the people, my friends and especially my family.”

Dante (far left) after a party along the Singapore River with some of SPW’s founding members. Image courtesy of author

Carl Hella, the general manager of SPW, remembers Dante as a humble individual who always shined with bright potential.

“He’s level-headed and picks things up very fast,” says Carl.

“He’s very athletic and disciplined. He spends a lot of time in the gym and at wrestling training, and tirelessly comes back for more. Most of all, he listens to advice and knows how to come up with something original; that’s why he’s progressed so far in wrestling.”

Like his father, Dante encourages, inspires and generously shares his wisdom with young performers.

Dante striking his signature pose at NXT Level Up on 5th April 2024. Image: WWE

“The world could always have more positivity than it did the day before,” is one of Sean’s mottos. In an industry where Asians play stereotypes (like an Indian nationalist or a mumbling Japanese eccentric) Sean has had the fortune of amassing a sizeable following by simply being himself.

“I really have fun whenever I’m in front of the WWE Universe, and I feel like it really shows whenever I watch footage of myself. I think it’s because I am unapologetically myself, and that’s perhaps how I gained the support of the WWE Universe.”

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