Tanner Saraceno takes pride in being a fighter in every facet of his life.
That’s why the latest contestant to go on the WWE Tough Enough reality show isn’t deterred. The 24-year-old MMA athlete out of Boiling Springs, S.C. is down, but not for the count.
“It’s definitely frustrating with the hard work I put in,” he said.
“I was 185 pounds, and I was at my fighting weight. When I started I realized I’m probably too small for cameras, so I started working immediately by putting some size on me. I wanted to be able to perform with bigger guys as well. I put in a lot of work. I put in about 17 pounds the nine weeks I was here to better work with bigger guys and look better on camera.
“I watched tons of video and matches of how the guys perform and the small things they do that I would maybe be able to make my own. I watched video after video of promos. I feel like I put in a lot of work, and I don’t feel like I was rewarded for it yet. So it’s definitely something I’m going to have to keep working, which I had to do my whole life. I don’t usually get things the first time around. I’m stubborn enough where I eventually get there.”
Saraceno tried to stay relaxed and composed through the whole process. Although his clashes with fan favorite ZZ didn’t do him any favors.
“Freaking out doesn’t help you in that type of situation,” he said.
“I tried to stay calm and hoped the WWE Universe saw that I was going to be able to entertain them and put everything on the line for the sake of their happiness and entertainment. I guess I wasn’t able to portray that through a camera.
“…I think my lack of facial expressions was the big thing that held me back. I also have a sarcastic kind of humor at times. I grew up with tough love and older brothers bullying you. So any reaction you give them, they just run with it. If they don’t get a reaction, they leave it alone. I think years of that secluded me a little bit. I think taking a few acting classes would help to work my face a little bit better. It’s the one thing I’m missing.”
Saraceno began amateur wrestling in eighth grade and continued competing through college. He was at the division 1 level before he blew out his knee. He also had shoulder surgery in the past. He excelled for two years at Limestone College, earning a scholarship and serving as team captain. Shortly after his wrestling days came to an end Saraceno pursued MMA. Within two or three months he had his first fight and won by knockout.
“I had a good streak going before I broke my ankle during a fight,” he said.
“The fight was stopped because my coaches realized my ankle was broken. I was stubborn so I kept fighting. They noticed my ankle was dangling in the air, and I wasn’t using it. They had the fight stopped. I had a surgery. They put six screws and a tightrope through it. I think they said I should be out for a year before I should fight again. Six months later I had a fight for a middleweight championship for the USSFC organization and ended up winning via TKO. Then I found out about Tough Enough.”
Saraceno recalls his early days as a WWE fan, mainly between five and nine.
“I remember attending an MSG event and Mankind was there performing and jumped on a bunch of tacks or got thrown through them,” he said.
“I don’t know what event it was because I was very young. I just remember my friend’s mother was a sports reporter, and she got us skybox tickets.”
Saraceno was clearly one of the favorites to win Tough Enough early on because of his athletic ability. A reason he was so good at climbing ropes could be because his day job involves climbing trees as a tree trimmer. He also says his MMA training helped set him apart from the rest of the pack physically.
“I was a few steps ahead of everyone here when it came to that,” he said.
“There was nothing they gave me I couldn’t do. So my MMA background fit in there. I could definitely see some crossover between the two worlds. That being said they are two different sports. These people in WWE, these superstars are freak athletes. Between what they do to their bodies, how they look and what they are doing day after day.
“It is definitely something to respect what they put their bodies through. I can assure you it’s not the f-word (fake). Having been in there and taking some bumps, we haven’t done nearly as much of what goes on in a full match. If you wake up sore, I can assure you it’s real. And we haven’t even done nearly what it takes to be at the superstar level yet. So I have a ton of respect for the superstars and their dedication to look the way they do and perform the way they do.”
Saraceno is grateful for the Tough Enough experience and the knowledge handed down from his legendary trainers.
“A lot of my problems for me were showing my personality, so Lita took some extra time out,” he said.
“I reached out to her to find out how I could show my personality more. She definitely took some extra time and had regular talks with me off-camera to help connect with me and help me understand what I need to be doing. She helped me out a lot. Billy [Gunn] put in a lot of work with me as well. I have nothing but respect for the coaches. Even for Booker T. with him saying negative things toward me and telling me what I’m not doing right. I take that as him trying to make me better. Coaches can’t always say you are doing good. They have to point out what you’re doing bad.”
During the show the contestant bonded with Josh Bredl, known better as the Yeti. Saraceno thinks the former football player should get one of the $250,000 contracts.
“I definitely made a strong connection with Josh,” he said.
“A lot of people were comparing us a lot because we looked similar. Whenever me and him went out in public people thought we were brothers. I’m actually a little bit older than him by I think three weeks. I always call him my little brother, and people always got a kick out of that. We actually convinced quite a few people that he was my little brother.”
The performer will take friendships and many memories with him on his way back home. Among them was going on the Raw stage live before 18,000 fans and millions watching at home. He says it’s an experience you can’t replicate. Besides finishing the Chris Jericho autobiography given to him, Saraceno is looking to continue his training. The journey is not over.
“I’m not going to lose what got me here,” he said.
“I’ll definitely be using my MMA with my wrestling. There is a gym nearby where I live that I can do my wrestling. I am going to try to find an acting class here and there. I am going to find a way to get my personality through a camera. I do have a great personality. It’s just being able to showcase that through a lens.”
- Watch the finals of WWE Tough Enough 8/7CT Tuesday, Aug. 25 on USA Network.
- Follow me on Twitter @smFISHMAN.
Photos Courtesy: WWE