For almost any professional wrestler, finding your way under the WWE umbrella by any means possible is the foremost goal and the driving force that pushes each competitor to throw everything they have at this pursuit.
Kassius Ohno got that chance in 2012. After a prolific independent career as Chris Hero Ohno, real name Chris Spradlin, he signed his first WWE contract in February of that year and then reported to the company's developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling.
He was there as FCW transitioned into NXT, and Ohno would participate in some of the matches that would ultimately lay the groundwork for its explosion, like an in-ring classic with William Regal. But nearly two years after signing with the WWE, and as the brand really started to take off, Ohno and the WWE parted ways.
At 33 years old, Ohno had a lot left in the tank. He returned to the independent wrestling scene and the character of Chris Hero -- and the world he was walking back into was far brighter than the one he had left behind in 2011.
"I was just so excited to get out and start traveling again," said Ohno, during a recent interview with ESPN.com. "In my time in NXT, the first time, the independent and international wrestling scene just kind of started to explode, and there were just more shows, bigger shows."
Over the next three years, Ohno -- who now had both his lengthy independent career and a touch of WWE seasoning on his résumé -- went on an absolute tear. He main evented shows all over the world, for most of the biggest companies not named WWE.
Just outside the bright lights of WWE, Ohno was the headlining talent almost every night. Whether the shows were littered with other big-name independent stars or he was miles ahead of the rest of that night's talent roster, every match was a showcase for the wrestler standing on the opposite side of the ring from him.
That kind of pressure forms diamonds.
"It was really cool to see my personal evolution from the different people I was [facing]," Ohno said. "I've got a target on my head. I'm at these shows, and I'm taking on their best talent, night in, night out. Sometimes, that's Friday in Los Angeles and Saturday in Chicago and then Sunday in Toronto, so it's a lot of travel, a lot of high expectations, and I just got into such a good groove. I was bringing out the best in my opponents. They were bringing out the best in me."
Even as he continued on an upward trajectory, the way Ohno left the WWE sat in the back of his mind, occasionally causing an itch that never fully went away. As his wave of popularity crested in late 2016, Ohno got the call and decided that returning to NXT was too good of an opportunity to let slip by.
"I had, arguably, the best year of my almost 19-year career last year," Ohno said. "To cap that off by coming back and taking care of some unfinished business here, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I feel like both myself and NXT progressed in those three years, but in different ways."
He wasn't watching NXT every week but kept his ear to the ground and made note of the big moves they were making. With Ohno's confidence and skills sharpened against the incredible variety of talent he had faced on the indie circuit, the timing couldn't have been better, both as an in-ring talent and as an emerging brand.
"I didn't attain the level of success that I anticipated my first time around, and I felt like I was better equipped this go-around to just come in and tear stuff up and also to fill a gap," Ohno said. "There's so much talent here, [but] there was an exodus. You had Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, then you had Samoa Joe and Finn Balor. We just lost The Revival Tye Dillinger, Shinsuke [Nakamura].
"To be able to step in and immediately start producing right away, whether it's these travel shows or going on the tour to England or just in television matches, it's really cool to represent this new era of NXT."
The gulf between the FCW that Ohno joined and the current state of NXT is almost immeasurable. Even with the exit of so many top-level talents during the past year, the coffers have been refreshed with superstars from all over the world. And the best part? Ohno has a history with a lot of them.
"You have guys like Eric Young and Bobby Roode ... our paths had crossed a handful of times, but not to the extent that they have now," Ohno recalled. "You also have guys like Roderick Strong who I've known since maybe 2003, 2004. And there's Killian Dain and Alexander Wolfe. I know those guys from overseas. There's Hideo Itami.
"Then you've got a guy like Aleister Black, who, the first time I met him, had zero tattoos," Ohno said. "It's like my career has been put into a blender, and when you pour it out, it's just a little bit of everything here."
Ohno and Black faced off in a recent NXT main event that showed off just how much each man has to offer. During the course of the past three years, Ohno and Black have faced off in multiple European countries, all over the United States and even briefly became a tag team (and even faced off with current NXT superstars Drew McIntyre and Johnny Gargano for the EVOLVE tag team titles).
For them to take everything they've done with and against each other and do it on a completely different scale in WWE speaks volumes about what they have to offer. Even though there's a five-year age gap, and Ohno has previous experience in NXT, they're both on level ground with everyone not named Roode.
"It's a level playing field here in NXT, and he and I, we have the same goals. We're going after the same thing, so we have to put that friendship, that mentorship behind and go out there and show them what we're all about," Ohno said. "It's a pleasure for me to be able to do that on this level, on this stage, with someone that I know that well."
Even as they beat on each other in the middle of the ring, each knew that everything they dished out and everything they received would prove valuable as each tries to climb the NXT ladder.
"I just want, every time I'm out there, to have the best match on the show," Ohno said. "Every time I'm in the ring with an opponent, I want to get the absolute best out of that opponent and, in turn, [he'll] get the best out of me, because what's a victory if you beat someone that's a scrub?"
With all of the success he had outside the WWE, Ohno wouldn't have come to the WWE without an end goal in mind -- and like everyone else on the roster, it's as simple as it gets.
He wants to be the man.
"My goal is the NXT championship. I want to be the guy that is the representative of this brand, and I want to take it to places it hasn't been before," Ohno said. "It started off the way it started off, and it's gotten to the point it is now, but why can't it get even bigger?
"Why can't NXT be a brand that is on par with Raw and SmackDown? It's exciting for myself and the other guys and girls to take it forward and to push it in that direction. That's my goal in wrestling -- I always want to leave it better than I found it."