Hidden Gem Damian Priest Has Reinvented Himself in NXT

The Week in Wrestling: An interview with NXT‘s Damian Priest, previewing the Royal Rumble and more.
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WWE's Damian Priest (Luis Martinez) makes his entrance on NXT

Damian Priest: ’I’ve Worked Very Hard to Become Something Special’

Damian Priest is ready for the most significant opportunity in his NXT career.

Wednesday night’s live NXT show is headlined by a Fatal 4-Way match between Keith Lee, Dominik Dijakovic, Cameron Grimes and Priest, with the winner receiving a shot at Roderick Strong’s North American Championship.

The match means more than a shot at a title. Priest is being handed an opportunity to showcase his abilities on the USA Network as NXT aims to prove it is better than the alternative AEW Dynamite airing at the same time.

If you are unfamiliar with Priest’s work in wrestling, you’re not alone. Though he has wrestled since 2004, and, at 37, is the oldest performer in the 4-way, he is by far the least recognizable. Keith Lee tore up the indie scene and headlined for EVOLVE, while Dijakovic helped secure his status with outstanding performances at the highly-touted PWG indie shows. Cameron Grimes was another PWG all-star, as well as a mainstay of CWF Mid-Atlantic, one of the most significant regions in the indie scene. While Priest had a run in Ring of Honor as Punishment Martinez, even briefly wearing the Television title, he rarely cut promos and it was even more rare that he had prolonged stretches to show off his ability in the ring.

Although Priest (real name Luis Martinez) was not well known before his current run in NXT, that is now working to his benefit.

“I am one of the least known people here, but when I do what I’m capable of and show out, it works to my advantage,” said Priest. “That’s the first impression people have of me, and I’m going to make that last.

“This is a chance to be in the ring with two guys who headlined TakeOver: War Games [in Lee and Dijakovic]. Keith Lee was the last guy in the Survivor Series with Roman Reigns, and he got a shout-out from Roman. These are guys that are on another level, and this is an opportunity for me to show out and show people that I’m on the same level. If you didn’t know before, you will now.”

Priest has come a long way from the kid born in New York City and raised in Puerto Rico who didn’t learn English until age 11, though his wrestling career took longer to take off than you would expect for someone of his size (6'6") and athletic ability. 

“I’ve worked very hard to become something special,” said Priest, who carries an aura and mystique few others in wrestling possess. “Early on in my career, I was frustrated when I didn’t have the right to be frustrated. What I needed was to work harder. And I changed my life, shed 100 pounds, and developed a positive work ethic.

“The times when I was overlooked, I’ve used that to fuel me. WWE turned me down twice in the last five years. I thought I’d never have the chance to work here. Then, a year later, my contract was up with Ring of Honor, and I got a phone call from WWE. Since starting in late 2018, the Performance Center has me in the best shape of my life, I feel like a rookie all over again, and I’m excited for everything to come.”

One of the keys to Priest’s success is Matt Bloom, who is NXT’s head trainer.

“Every single coach has played a part, and Matt Bloom has helped with my demeanor and presence,” said Priest. “He wants me to give off a feeling just by the way I look at him. He’s adamant about my cadence and delivery and mannerisms. All of the coaches have taken everything I am and morphed it into the best wrestler possible, and a lot of my presence is thanks to Bloom. He gets me thinking.

“I’ve become Damian Priest, not pretending to be a character. I did that for years, but now it’s a real feeling. It’s all coming from a real place, and it is never pretending to be something I am not.”

In the scripted world of professional wrestling, Priest is working to organically build his connection to the crowd. The 4-way NXT match represents his chance to highlight the multiple elements of his persona that have him headed toward stardom.

“We have so many tools available in our production that we can use to our advantage, and I purposely do that to stand out,” said Priest. “People are intrigued when they see me on TV, even before I throw a punch or a kick. I’m here to showcase my persona. I’m an artist and a showman at the same time, and in-ring, I can deliver, as well.”

When the cameras go live tonight on USA, Priest will be ready for his opportunity.

“I’m going to put on whatever performance is needed so that the name Damian Priest lives forever,” said Priest. “That is my only goal. The plan is to put on a hell of a performance, win, then go on and win my first championship in NXT. I’m creating a story that will only end in one way—my name living forever.”

Early Betting Lines for the Royal Rumble

If you are looking to avoid any potential Royal Rumble spoilers, then this section is not for you.

But if you are still reading…

… then you may have noticed that the oddsmakers have spoken and listed Roman Reigns and Shayna Baszler as the most likely performers to win the men’s and women’s Royal Rumble.

Someone on the odds side knows something, as Cain Velasquez is currently listed as the second favorite in the men’s Rumble (interestingly, Ronda Rousey has the second-best odds to win among the women). Velasquez’s tenure with WWE has been, in a word, underwhelming. After first appearing in WWE on the Fox premiere of SmackDown, he made his in-ring debut at Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia this past October where he unceremoniously tapped out to Brock Lesnar in 130 seconds.

Velasquez dazzled in his appearances over the summer with AAA, but he has only had that one singles match in his pro wrestling career. The spotlight will be bright for his next match, especially if Velasquez eliminates Lesnar from the Rumble and goes on to challenge him at WrestleMania 36.

As for Reigns and Baszler, there is, as always, more at play. Will overwhelming fan support for Daniel Bryan force WWE to include Bryan in a likely Reigns-Bray Wyatt match at WrestleMania? Wouldn’t that match be better with Bryan? Isn’t that the best use of Bryan at ’Mania? Or is better to follow the old tried-and-true method, and have Reigns reclaim the title he never lost in a singles match against an evil villain?

Personally, I think Shayna Baszler is beyond talented and can close out WrestleMania in a singles match against Becky Lynch. But where does Ronda Rousey fit into that equation? Could Lynch wrestle both in a triple threat, a year after Rousey wrestled Lynch and Charlotte Flair in the same spot?

The biggest question isn’t who is going to win the Royal Rumble, it is who will close out WrestleMania on April 5 in Tampa.

Gambling odds aside, there is no doubt that WWE’s top two premiere stars are Lynch and Reigns. They are on the cover of WWE 2K20 for that very reason, they represent WWE’s present and future, and one of the two is going to close out the biggest show of the year this April at WrestleMania 36.

The (Online) Week in Wrestling

  • Welcome back, Big Show.
  • Last week’s SmackDown was full of surprises, with returns from Sheamus, The Usos and John Morrison, who is back just in time for the Royal Rumble.
  • Chris Jericho has donated his ring-worn t-shirt from Wrestle Kingdom 14 for a fundraiser where all of the money raised will go to the County Fire Authority and the NSW Rural Fire Service, who are battling the bushfires blazing across Australia that are claiming the lives of people, wrecking homes, and killing hundreds of millions of animals
  • New Japan Pro Wrestling’s post-Wrestle Kingdom plans are coming together quickly, with KENTA challenging Tetsuya Naito for both his IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles on February 9 in Osaka, while Jon Moxley will return to Japan to defend his IWGP United States title against Minoru Suzuki. 
  • Cheeseburger wrote a wonderful tribute to Jushin Thunder Liger, who retired this past weekend at Wrestle Kingdom 14. 
  • Tonight is one of those nights in wrestling where you are grateful for the DVR, as the Rhodes Brothers battle the Lucha Bros. in a highly anticipated tag match, while Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish continue to make their stake as best tag team in the world against NXT UK tag champs Mark Coffey and Wolfgang. 
  • On the subject of Coffey and Wolfgang, the NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool II takes place this Sunday.
  • PCO brought his Ring of Honor title to the Canadiens-Jets game on Monday. 
  • Kevin Nash posted about his incredible physical recovery. 

Johnny Gargano is living his dream by connecting with people outside of the ring. 

First CM Punk returned, and now WWE Ice Creams are actually happening? 

Jimmy Hart Happy to Celebrate His 76th Birthday

The “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart expressed his gratitude to all those who reached out last week with birthday wishes, though he did note that his wrong age has circulated throughout the Internet.

“I don’t know why everyone wants to add a year or take one away from me,” said Hart, who was incorrectly listed as 77 years old last week in this column. “I am 76, and I am grateful for every single one of those years.”

Hart is a legend in the wrestling business. He is best known for his work as a manager in the World Wrestling Federation, but he also had some underrated years in World Championship Wrestling. Hart also wrote the music for some of the most iconic songs in wrestling, including Shawn Michaels’s “Sexy Boy” and Bret Hart’s theme.

Residing in Florida, proud to be a father and grandfather, Hart reported that life is good.

“I feel great,” said Hart. “Every morning I get up and listen to my Sirius Radio, and I start every week by watching Raw each Monday. It’s so much for me to listen to Jerry Lawler do commentary.

“We both went to the same high school, and Jerry is the guy who gave me my big break and got me into this crazy world of professional wrestling. I was in music at the time, and it seems like everybody in music wanted to be in wrestling and everybody in wrestling wanted to be involved in music. I can’t say it enough, I love ‘The King.’”

Hart managed a litany of legends, including the Hart Foundation in their unforgettable battles against the British Bulldogs, as well as The Honky Tonk Man, The Fabulous Rougeaus, Dino Bravo, The Mountie, the Nasty Boys, Earthquake and Typhoon, Money Inc., the Mega Maniacs and more. He laughed when asked if he is the greatest living manager.

“I don’t know if I’m the greatest, but I am grateful to work with WWE for all these years,” said Hart. “That gives life to me. Hulk and I just got back from Saudi Arabia a couple months ago after Team Hogan beat Ric Flair’s team. We did a few appearances on SmackDown and Raw, which was a thrill, and I want to say thank you to the WWE universe for responding so well to us. Hulk just had a major back surgery, but he’s recuperating extremely well. Hulk’s going into the Hall of Fame with the NWO, and it’s going to be a great year.”

Hart’s association with the NWO is understated but important, which is often the role of a manager in pro wrestling. He wrote The Wolfpac’s theme song for NWO icons Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and Hart is happy to have contributed a small piece to their extraordinary success.

“I was thrilled to be part of that,” said Hart. “Nash and Hall were so special together, and writing that song for them was my contribution to the NWO.”

Hart is also proudly waving the WWE banner with some promotional work for WrestleMania 36, which takes place in his home state this April 5 in Tampa.

“What a great week for wrestling fans with the Hall of Fame, SmackDown, NXT, Raw and WrestleMania,” said Hart. “That’s a dream come true if you’re a wrestling fan.”

Even at 76, Hart remains a part of the wrestling scene. He is part of countless significant matches on the WWE Network, and decades old videos of his work in wrestling occasionally pop up on social media. He even has a new line of socks now available through WWE.

“Official Jimmy Hart socks—how exciting is that?” marveled Hart. “So many people remember so much about our careers. It’s hard to kill the past, you know what I’m saying? I’ve always believed the past is part of the future.”

Hart is in both wrestling’s past and WWE’s future, as he will be part of this year’s WrestleMania, and will continue managing Hogan along the way.

“Hulk and I have been together for over 40 years, when we first became friends in Memphis, Tennessee,” said Hart. “Ever since, I’ve been living the dream. So every time WWE calls, I shine up the ol’ megaphone, grab the special jacket with the hearts, and help however I can.”

Tweet of the Week

Rest in peace, Jon.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.