KISSIMMEE, Florida  - A.J. Francis already looks the part of a professional wrestler. But success isn't guaranteed by appearance.

  • Francis played for six NFL teams
  • He began training in Kissimmee due to the 3D Academy's reputation 
  • Team 3D Academy is owned by WWE Hall of Famers The Dudley Boyz

"I’m trying to prove that I deserve to be here," the 28-year-old Francis said. "I’m trying to prove that anything you want in this world you can have if you dedicate yourself. I’m trying to prove that I should be in the pantheon of professional wrestlers.”

Every day, from noon past sunset, he and a handful of other students at the Team 3D Academy in Kissimmee run the ropes, take bumps and condition, all in hopes of one day reaching the top of the wrestling world, where everyone will know their names. Especially Francis.

“A.J. Francis is somebody that’s willing to match up with anybody," he said. "If you’re bigger than me, I’m faster than you. If you’re faster than me, I’m bigger than you.  I’m gonna be able to use my advantages and your weaknesses in every single match. And I’m gonna talk my trash the whole time, and the people are going to hate me so much, that eventually, they’re gonna love me.”

Many students share his charisma, and many share his lifelong passion for sports-entertainment. But most don't have his background.

“I’m very impressed with him, because I truthfully haven’t been impressed with the athletes that have come from the NFL that come into this sport," 3D Academy head athletic trainer Dan Carr said. "They’re great athletes themselves, but this is a different cat, right here, pro wrestling.”

After five years in the NFL across six teams, including the Tampa Bay Bucs and Miami Dolphins, Francis decided to pursue pro wrestling in order to fulfill a childhood dream.

“I’ve always dreamed about main-eventing WrestleMania. I don’t want to be on the card, I don’t want to be one of the guys on the pre-show, I want to be on the last match. I don’t care if I win or lose, but I want to be on the last match of WrestleMania. And that’s been a goal of mine since I was a kid,” he said.

The conditioning, Francis says, is another animal from the league. The days are long, and your body hurts. But still, that doesn't mean he doesn't strive to push through it.

“When I see people do drills here, I want to be the best person here at every drill that we do," Francis, who has been training for just under a month, said. "And I know that’s irrational, there’s people here that have been wrestling here three, four, five years, but my goal every time that we come in here and do headlock takeover, or we do hip tosses, or we do body slams, my goal is that I want to be the best person here.”

And as Carr notes, coming in with the intentions of being the best and working with your fellow students is one of the crucial pieces any prospect needs.

“Attitude," he said. "Attitude is literally everything. First thing we teach in here is not a wrestling move, not an exercise. It’s respect.”

Francis feels the 3D Academy, owned by WWE Hall of Famers Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley, may be his best shot at preparing for the big time. And after playing in front of thousands of people on the gridiron, he thinks he'll be ready to step in the squared-circle on the highest stage.

“If I played games in football, where I played a great game and we got blown out. What I did didn’t matter at all," he said. "But in the ring, all the pressure is on you. And if you’re willing to accept that pressure which I am, you can have an opportunity to be great. And that’s what my goal is, to be great.”