St. Louis-born Sidney “Iking” Bateman didn’t have an easy growing up. He never knew his father and his mother died when he was 3. He and his seven siblings were raised by a grandmother who worked hard to house and feed them. Hearing gunshots in his neighborhood was common, as was gun violence and death at home – several of his relatives were in gangs – and in his community.
But in a vacant lot in Walnut Park, while doing backflips with friends, he found an escape. What started as a competition between friends to see who could land the best backflip, would eventually send Bateman around the world as a circus performer and later as a WWE Superstar under the ring name Reggie.
“I went the wrong way,” Reggie recalls. “I liked gangs, violence, drugs, because that was what I saw for my uncles, my brothers and boys around.”
Reggie found an escape from that path and an outlet for his natural athleticism and showmanship when he was 11. With the help of Diane Ranken, a mentor he met through an after-school program for at-risk youth, he was introduced to the arts of acrobatics and circus.
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His circus arts career eventually led to work — and stardom — with World Wrestling Entertainment. And on January 29, Reggie returns to St. Louis as part of the WWE’s 35th Annual Royal Rumble at the Dome at America’s Center. As the Post-Dispatch reported last year, the Royal Rumble is one of the biggest WWE events of the year and will draw some 40,000 pro wrestling fans from across the country to St. Louis.
The event is a fan favorite for its headliner, the Royal Rumble, two matches of 30 men and 30 women in which wrestlers enter the ring every two minutes. The Rumble marks Reggie’s first WWE show in his hometown, where he experienced so many highs and lows.
Reggie’s long and winding road from north St. Louis to the circus scene and wrestling stardom began when Ranken recognized his passion for backflips. She took him to a Circus Flora performance, although Reggie remembers she wasn’t interested at first. That changed when Ranken took him to the City Museum and introduced him to Circus Harmony, Jessica Hentoff’s social circus, who would become another lifelong mentor to Reggie.
“You have to have something to believe in, but in the end you have to have someone who believes in you,” Reggie said. “And for the longest time I didn’t have those people to believe in me until I got to the circus.”
While he loved training in acrobatics at Circus Harmony, he was unable to stick with it consistently through high school and high school, where he got dragged into the same gang activities that happened at home. He joined a gang at age 16, but during his freshman year in high school, a close friend was shot and killed by a rival gang member – and the heartbreak was a breaking point for Reggie. He returned to Circus Harmony, where he had found community, focus and identity in the past, and did not look back.
“It became who I was,” he said. “It became what I was known for around St. Louis, no longer connected to anything gang related. I wasn’t seen as the younger brother of two gang members; I was seen as the guy who flips the circus. “
After graduating from the now-closed Beaumont High School in 2010, Reggie auditioned for the National Circus School in Montreal. Only 32 of the 150 candidates were accepted that year, including Reggie. The three-year program, sort of a feeder for prestigious companies like Cirque du Soleil and Seven Fingers, allowed Reggie to expand and refine his performance skills — and it also gave him the separation he needed from St. Louis to thrive on a path that is all its own.
Reggie then spent three years at Seven Fingers, a company he now describes as “family,” before receiving a call from Cirque du Soleil. At the time, he was in his mid-twenties and had been engaged in his circus career for 14 years, but it was still the calling of his life.
“I immediately dived into the circus and it took me all over the world,” he said. “It changed my life. It took me to 10 different countries and eventually led me to become a WWE superstar, which is unbelievable.”
In April 2019, while touring the country with Cirque du Soleil, Reggie and his colleagues got the chance to do an exchange program with WWE. Although he loved circus performances, the chance to visit the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida was too good to miss for Reggie, who grew up watching WWE TV shows with his late uncle. He had never seen pro wrestling live – his family had no money for tickets to live shows – but he never forgot how he felt watching wrestling.
“We would see ‘Monday Night Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’ on TV, and that was just something I shared with my uncle,” he recalls. “We were the only two in our household who watched wrestling. And he was very popular in the neighborhood; he was one of the senior drug dealers and one of the famous guys around.
“And you know, growing up as a wrestling fan wasn’t easy. You were bullied for being a wrestling fan, but I thought it was cool because one of the coolest guys in our neighborhood was watching wrestling with me, and that was my uncle. And then I stopped wrestling when he was shot and killed – every time I looked at it I thought of him. I just stopped doing it.”
Suddenly, and for the second time in his young life, the opportunity to turn a childhood escape into a career was within reach for Reggie. This time he showed no hesitation. While training at the WWE Performance Center with fellow Cirque du Soleil performers, he caught the attention of top wrestling coaches, including legendary wrestler Scotty 2 Hotty.
His athleticism and talent for acrobatics, as well as his stage presence, made him well-suited to professional wrestling, and in turn, he got the same thrill from performing in front of a live audience – connecting with people through his art and skills.
“I was surprised to see how everything I acquired in the circus could translate so easily into wrestling,” said Reggie. “The footwork, the body control, all those things [were] second nature. So I didn’t have to learn those things; it was just learning psychology, learning the art of wrestling.”
By January 2020, Reggie had left Cirque du Soleil and signed to WWE. While the industry, like most, would be forever changed by the coronavirus pandemic just a few months later, Reggie has no regrets — in fact, he’s thankful he joined WWE before the pandemic hit the US, and he’s proud on the work he has done there over the past two years. He has had two successful runs as 24/7 Champion, a newer championship title in WWE, with his first run lasting 112 days.
When Reggie returns to St. Louis at the end of this month as part of the Royal Rumble at the Dome, he will share his success with family and friends, including the students at Circus Harmony. He plans to stop by the City Museum and hopefully have a “24/7 spot” with the circus students, and show St. Louis to his fellow WWE stars.
“To come back now to one of the biggest pay-per-views of the year and to be part of the Royal Rumble is… I can’t figure it out,” said Reggie. “Those are stories you hear about in movies and on TV. It’s crazy and surreal to say this is real life, but I’m living it.”
As for what St. Louis fans can expect on Saturday’s show, whether they’re live at the Dome or watching at home on NBC’s Peacock, Reggie says the magic of the Rumble is in its many surprises.
“What we do is all about surprises, anticipation,” Reggie said. “I think the Royal Rumble always has the biggest surprises and the biggest anticipation of who’s next — it’s like NBA draft night.”
When Reggie enters the ring on Saturday night, the circle is complete. From perfecting back flips on a wasteland in St. Louis to jumping the highest rope in front of 40,000 fans, Reggie’s story proves that even the most distant dreams are within reach.
“Now I come back as a positive influence, a role model to so many people in my community as a WWE superstar,” he said. “You have people who haven’t watched wrestling since they were younger, and they tune in now because someone they grew up with is on the show. I’ve done a lot of circus shows in St. Louis, but this one is special, because this is one of the first dreams I ever gave myself. It’s going to be a great show.”