The greatest showman’s final act: Why Maryland wrestler Jaron Smith turned down a WWE contract to return for an eighth year

When Jaron Smith takes the mat, it’s a can’t-miss moment.

While musician Timmy Trumpet’s viral song “Narco” reverberates throughout the XFINITY Center Pavilion, the Columbia, Maryland, native steps onto the mat. The crowd rises to its feet and claps its hands to the beat. 

He’s the closing act; the Maryland faithful came to see him. 

“He’s got the fro [afro], he’s got the tats [tattoos] and he’s got great skin. He’s jacked, he looks like he’s cut from marble, right?” Maryland wrestling head coach Alex Clemsen said. 

“He’s got a presence about him and I think he knows that too.”

Smith had the unusual possibility of returning for an eighth year with the Terps as a result of injuries, the COVID-19 pandemic and graduate school. But as late as January 2022, going back to school was not on Smith’s mind. He was focused on the current season, not the next. 

But when Clemsen half-jokingly proposed the idea at the start of last year’s conference play, Smith began to seriously consider it. 

Then came an unexpected twist that complicated Jaron’s decision.

The graduate student received a direct message on Instagram from the World Wrestling Entertainment Incorporated’s (WWE) recruiting page. After originally expressing skepticism about whether it was a real account, he spotted the verification checkmark and decided to respond. 

The WWE extended him a tryout invite at the Dallas Cowboys practice facility in Frisco, Texas. Exclusively for current and recently graduated college athletes, about 60 other athletes ranging from NFL Draft-eligible football players to track and field stars participated in the three-day event held from March 30 to April 1. Despite being surrounded by talented individuals, Smith felt he had a distinct advantage as the only wrestler there.

“You’re in the ring, doing cartwheels, somersaults and practicing taking hits,” he said of the training. “Wrestlers have a little bit more body awareness than some other sports because that’s not their skill set, so I thought I had an opportunity to shine a little bit.”

The tryout featured on-camera acting with scripts, group promotions, in-ring technical sessions, performance evaluations and sit-down interviews. 

Clemsen was confident the WWE would love Smith. 

“I told our staff, he’s gonna kill it. They’re gonna love him,” he said. 

Sure enough, Clemsen was right. Smith’s success led to an invite to the extended trial at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida during the summer. The group of about 60 was cut to around 15. 

“He’s got all the ‘it’ factors,” the fourth-year head coach said. “He’s going to be a star in the WWE. I tell people, I think he could be the next Rock [Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson].” 

While Clemsen was thrilled for Smith, he also knew there was a legitimate chance he would lose his wrestler to the WWE.

 “In the back of my head I was like, we’re gonna lose the guy before we even had him [back for an eighth year],” he said.

Once again, Smith impressed at the tryout. He called it a great experience, from chatting with WWE superstar Triple H and sitting in the crowd at NXT shows (NXT serves as a training ground for future WWE performers) to executing drills and performing on camera.

“They were pleased with me inside the ring,” he said. “We’re in the talent sessions and the creative sessions and all of a sudden they ended up offering me [a contract].” 

The first person he called was Clemsen. He wanted to talk with his head coach before making a decision. 

Clemsen made his pitch for Smith to stay at Maryland. He explained how this was an opportunity to turn the time lost on the wrestling mat due to the pandemic into something positive–utilizing his final year of eligibility. 

“You’re never going to get this opportunity again…You can come back to school and get another degree, but you can’t wrestle,” he said. “If you tell the WWE to hold, they may not like it and you may burn a temporary bridge, but you’re going to go back 20 pounds bigger, a better understanding of who you are and you’re probably going to have more accolades.”

Besides, the WWE is an established, successful organization with a bright future, Clemsen added. 

“They’re not going anywhere. They’ve been around for over 50 years and they’re gonna be around for 50 more.”

Maryland’s head coach also told Smith to talk the decision over with his parents. He had a hunch that they would feel similarly to Clemsen. 

Finally, Clemsen reminded him of the opportunities that the Maryland wrestling program had given him.

“Would you even have the opportunity with the WWE if we hadn’t trained you so well, we hadn’t got you healthy, if we hadn’t built you up?” he said. “You wouldn’t have been a national qualifier. You wouldn’t have been a household name in Division I wrestling.”

Clemsen admitted to guilting Smith but for good reason. He recognized Smith’s All-American potential on the mat but also saw the intangibles that an eighth-year wrestler brought to a young, inexperienced team in Maryland. He was committed to bringing Smith back to College Park. 

“I wasn’t going to leave a card in my hand,” he said. “I was going to play every ace I had.”

“He’s going to be a star in the WWE. I tell people, I think he could be the next Rock [Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson].”

Following their short conversation at the start of the conference season, Smith was leaning toward returning for an eighth year. Now he had to rethink that decision. 

After weighing both options, he came to a verdict: he was staying in College Park. 

He made it clear to the WWE that his interest level had not dipped. He had unfinished business on both the individual and team levels of college wrestling.

“I am at heart a competitor,” he said. “I really wanted to try to do something I hadn’t done at Maryland, which was help my team become nationally ranked, help us get Big Ten wins and on an individual level, All-American and national champion goals.”

The decision to stay home is paying dividends for Smith and his team. He is ranked among the top 30 heavyweights in Division I, per InterMat Wrestling. With their win over No. 16 Pittsburgh in mid-November, the Terps defeated a ranked opponent for the first time in nine years and earned their first top-25 ranking since 2013. In February, Maryland took down its first Big Ten opponent in over seven years, with Smith’s win clinching the victory.  

After sticking with the team through two coaching staffs and over 50 consecutive conference losses, Clemsen is thrilled that the 25-year-old remained at Maryland for one more season. 

“He’s been through it all,” Clemsen said. “He’s been through the previous regimes’ downturn and the ugly end and saw the crappy days where we were scratching, clawing and fighting just to be relevant. Now he’s seen where the work is paying off and we’re having some success and being recognized for it.”

On the mat, Maryland’s head coach was impressed with the ease by which Smith transitioned from 197 pounds to heavyweight. He said not only is the jump in weight the biggest between any two consecutive weight classes but conceptually it is also the most difficult jump to make. 

“I think it’s a testament to how bright he is,” Clemsen said.

Off the mat, the grad student has been just as valuable. As someone who has experienced most of Maryland’s worst years in program history, he ensures his teammates appreciate the success they are currently having. 

“For him to be able to tell that story arc and speak to it is priceless for these young kids,” Clemsen said.

Smith has helped freshman phenom Braxton Brown on the mental side of the sport. When Brown’s feeling fatigued, his teammate is there with words of encouragement. Brown also credits Smith’s mentorship of Jaxon Smith for the 197-pounder’s success at the World Championships last summer. 

“I don’t know if that would have been possible if it wasn’t for Jaron’s help,” Brown said. “Iron sharpens iron and with another piece of iron in the room, it just makes the room and atmosphere better.” 

“I am at heart a competitor,” he said. “I really wanted to try to do something I hadn’t done at Maryland, which was help my team become nationally ranked, help us get Big Ten wins and on an individual level, All-American and national champion goals.”

Whether it’s working on Wall Street (he’s an applied economics major) or for WWE, Clemsen said the dedication and toughness Smith developed at Maryland will lead to success in whichever industry he chooses.  

“He’s somebody you want to have as part of your organization, whether it’s a Fortune 500 company, a local startup, or WWE,” he said. “He’s somebody that can handle setbacks and adversity and really flourish in them.”

But for now, Smith is focused on finishing school and finding success on the mat, such as in his season-opening bout.

In the waning seconds of period one, Smith rolls over fellow heavyweight Shane Noonan. His effort earns him four near fall points, secures the tech fall victory and seals the win over Bloomsburg. 

The crowd comes to its feet, applauding the graduate student for his near-perfect bout. Smith returned to the program for moments like this. 

After all, what else would you expect from Maryland wrestling’s greatest showman?  

He’s certainly worth the price of admission.