When you look at AR Fox, "big" is not the first thing that comes to mind. For a profession filled with big bodies and even bigger personalities, Fox's soft-spoken demeanor and slight frame made his journey in wrestling an uphill battle from the start.
Fox, known as TJ back home, grew up in the small town of Ansonia, Connecticut, with big dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. Wrestling was all he ever thought about.
While his peers latched on to core sports during their youth, like basketball and football, Fox preferred doing backflips off his back porch, scaling walls and doing handstands up and down the hallways of his high school. Instead of watching traditional TV shows, Fox studied Bruce Lee VHS tapes with his father, hoping to one day be able to move with the grace and precision of the man he saw on the screen. He eventually put whatever he learned from those tapes, and flipping around the house, and channeled that all into a backyard wrestling career.
In 2007, Fox's hobby became his full-time job.
Despite working out consistently since the age of 12 or 13, Fox was rail-thin for a wrestler at 6-feet and 185 pounds. Fox channeled the adrenaline junkie that manifested in his childhood to make up for his lack of size. That's where the Fox name came from -- he needed to "outfox" his opponents to gain an advantage.
Fox experienced some success early on in his career, wrestling for various independent promotions around the country, but despite his name accumulating some buzz, he couldn't shed the "independent wrestler" label. Fox didn't appear on TV. He rarely cut promos. He didn't wrestle in front of thousands of fans every night. More often than not, he'd perform in cramped multipurpose buildings in front of hundreds of fans, and sometimes even fewer.
There's no shame in making a living that way, but Fox's aspirations were bigger than what the independent wrestling scene could offer.
Fox, who watches "pretty much nothing but wrestling," latched on to one program in particular. It shouldn't come as a surprise, given the infatuation he's had for most of his life, that Fox found himself wishing he could compete in the larger-than-life, over-the-top world of Lucha Underground.
The show's collection of world-class athletes and diversity in both ethnicity and size made Lucha Underground an ideal fit for Fox. Anthony Jensen, an executive producer at Lucha Underground, had reached out to Fox in the early stages of the show, but Fox was under contract with another organization at the time.
"I watched [Lucha Underground], but not faithfully. I guess it's because I was upset I wasn't there," Fox told ESPN.com. "I was disappointed I wasn't there, so I didn't really want to watch it."
Fox's excruciatingly long wait would come to an end when Lucha Underground was looking for a wrestler to portray the role of a soldier as part of Killshot's backstory for Season 3. Killshot, a Lucha Underground original, is a former Army sniper who had to kill his way out of a POW camp (yes, this is a legitimate storyline on Lucha Underground). Killshot unknowingly left one of his comrades for dead, and that soldier was Dante Fox.
From Day 1, when he stepped into the "Temple" to film his vignettes, Fox felt like he went straight from Ansonia to Hollywood.
"I have not done anything like that, ever. It made me feel like a movie star," Fox said. "I've been traveling around foreign countries, but that was a whole other ballgame. It was like Hollywood, when I'm used to straight-up indie wrestling."
The entire process was new to Fox. He studied acting clips that he found on Google and YouTube in preparation for his role. He also started practicing his facials in the mirror the night before filming to look more natural. His first shoot was a surreal experience. He entered the "Temple" expecting to see other wrestlers there to film as well, but instead he found about eight crew members and the director ready to do a full-day shoot just for him. Fox was taken aback by it all -- the cameras, the catering, the makeup and even the clapperboard, which he made sure to snap a picture of to send to his mother.
"It's like, 'This is all for me just to shoot this three-minute thing?'" Fox said. "It was a huge deal to me."
Fox took a while to get used to the star power he was working around on a daily basis. He was a huge fan of John Morrison and many of the Mexican wrestlers on the show. But still, to this day, the fan inside Fox comes out whenever he's near his childhood hero Rey Mysterio.
"I'm getting coffee right next to Rey Mysterio. How did this happen?" Fox asked. "How am I here? Is this real life? Is this really happening?"
Killshot, who wrestled Fox several times before Lucha Underground as Shane Strickland, helped the newcomer transition from the independents to TV. The two have worked together extensively at Lucha Underground, with their feud spanning the entire 40-plus-episode season -- and it has felt even longer than that, given their deep backstories. Fox and Killshot look like mirror images with their lanky-yet-shredded frames and pogo-stick athleticism. Fox couldn't have asked for a better opponent to start out with.
"He's one of my top five opponents I've ever been in the ring with," Fox said. "Knowing that I was gonna get put in a program with him, I was like, 'Yes, oh, man. I could really show everybody what I could do.' It's not just physically -- the wrestling and the athletics -- mainly for me it's the creativity. He's one of the better guys I've ever been in the ring with."
Being on the independents for his entire career until this point, Fox had never experienced a stage as big as Ultima Lucha -- Lucha Underground's season-ending blowout that's like their WrestleMania.
This year's Ultima Lucha Tres is the biggest one yet: four parts, with the lineup kicking off on Wednesday. The first part will be headlined by the final match between Fox and Killshot in a "Hell of War" match. Fox couldn't sleep the night before filming the episode, even with the aid of sleeping pills. He was amazed when he pulled up to the venue the next day and fans were already waiting in the parking lot. He couldn't believe the dedication of the "believers" throughout the show.
"Sometimes in indie shows, you'll be match number 12. There's not the same amount of fans as there was in the beginning when you go out for match number 12. I'm used to stuff like that on the indies," Fox said. "[At Ultima Lucha], I just remember the place being packed. A while later, as the match is ending, the place is still completely packed. They sat there and watched this whole time. All that just adds to the huge stage to me. It's the biggest show I've ever done."
Fox didn't want to give away too much about the match, but at Ultima Lucha Tres you can expect him to make the most of the biggest opportunity of his career. Even if he had to pay a hefty price for it.
"We do some things that have never been done before on such a grand stage," Fox said. "[We] definitely risked injury and almost our lives with some of the moves. It's a death-defying match. To think that's what the body goes through and then heals itself. It's wild man. It's really, really wild."