Wrestling news: WWE's Damian Priest captures NXT North American title - Sports Illustrated

Late Bloomer Damian Priest Reaches New Heights in ‘TakeOver XXX’ Ladder Match

The Week in Wrestling: Damian Priest has a first ladder match to remember, Brodie Lee on AEW welcoming fans back and more.
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Damian Priest on The Undertaker: ‘He came back to the Performance Center again and I got to work out in the ring with him, and I learned so much’

Damian Priest became WWE’s North American Champion on Saturday at NXT TakeOver XXX, winning a spectacular ladder match that also included Johnny Gargano, Cameron Grimes, Bronson Reed and Velveteen Dream.

“This was my first-ever ladder match, so I made sure I did my homework,” said Priest. “A big part of that was reaching out to people who have been in ladder matches, and I spoke with Edge for an hour about it. For me, the main thing I took out of our conversation was that the match was not going to play out the way I thought it would. And he was right, because that’s exactly what happened. Very little happened the way I thought it would, but I was able to adapt. And he told me to stay in the moment, and that stuck with me, too.”

The finish of the match was memorable, with Priest and Gargano each jockeying for the belt before Priest won the tug of war. Priest added some additional excitement to Takeover XXX by celebrating his victory in a hot tub, jumping in while still in full wrestling gear.

“Jumping in, even in all my gear, I’ve never felt better in my entire life,” said Priest. “That wasn’t fake, that wasn’t acting, that was real. I could have changed, but I didn’t care. It felt like a ray of energy exploding inside me full of enjoyment and accomplishment.”

No stranger to wrestling, Priest first broke into the business in 2007. For the majority of his career, his work went unnoticed. Despite consistent appearances for Ring of Honor from 2015–18 as Punishment Martinez, he was never a featured part of the show until right before his departure from the company. But Priest (37-year-old Luis Martinez) has a history as a late bloomer.

Born in New York City and raised in Puerto Rico, he did not learn to read, write, or speak English until he was 11. His wrestling career also started slowly, and he did not earn legitimate opportunities until he enhanced his look, dropped 100 pounds, and began to redefine what a big man could be by learning a hybrid of multiple styles, allowing him to work with a variety of opponents. But he caught the eye of WWE, specifically Paul “Triple H” Levesque and NXT head trainer Matt Bloom, who took a genuine interest in the often overlooked 6' 7" monster.

“It’s humbling,” said Priest. “They see something in me that other companies didn’t, but that also has to do with my maturity. I’ve changed the way I live my life. The manner I carry myself and treat others, they notice these things. I still go to the PC and try to help whoever I can, and I’m not just here for a paycheck and a shot at being a star. Yes, I do want those things, but I want more. I love this business, and I can’t go a day without it being a part of my life.”

Priest’s background in wrestling shares some similarities with that of The Undertaker, who was consistently overlooked until he entered WWE. There is only one Undertaker, and it will be impossible to mirror his career, but Priest has taken considerable inspiration from the wrestling icon.

In June, Priest posted on Twitter two photos of himself with The Undertaker that were taken 21 years apart. He added that Taker returned again to the Performance Center, and he was able to receive one-on-one time in the ring with the legend.

“This isn’t on the Network or part of his documentary, but he came back to the Performance Center again and I got to work out in the ring with him, and I learned so much,” said Priest. “Ring positioning, look, awareness, being overly aware of your surroundings, he makes it all look easy. It might sound simple, but he has this gift of making sure everything he does means something. I really gained a lot from him.”

Starting Wednesday night on NXT, Priest begins the task of bringing meaning and importance to his title reign. Fortunately for him, he has a plethora of hungry opponents to work with on the NXT roster, as well as unfinished business with the extraordinarily talented Finn Balor, who defeated Priest at TakeOver: In Your House in June.

“The first step was creating something that can live on, like the ladder match, and now I need to continuously build off that,” said Priest. “The best talent in the world is here, and I am looking forward to making history and solidifying myself as one of the greats.”

Brodie Lee excited for AEW to bring fans into Daily’s Place

All Elite Wrestling airs this Thursday, with Dynamite taking place in front of a live crowd.

The venue will remain Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, but this week’s show will be different because it begins AEW’s return to hosting live, ticketed events, with attendance capped at 10% of the building’s capacity.

AEW will need the venue to be strict with enforcing people to wear masks and observe social distancing. AEW has shown the ability to adapt and thrive amid the pandemic, and if it can mic up the crowd properly, even with only a few hundred people, it should enhance the atmosphere.

“It’s very refreshing,” said Brodie Lee, who defeated Cody Rhodes in an extremely one-sided match on last week’s Dynamite to become the new TNT Champion. “It’s the first step back toward the incredible atmosphere that I know AEW can bring, one that I’ve yet to experience. My first night in the company was during the pandemic era with no fans. Just to have that noise from the fans, I’m so excited to hear it.”

Lee is also eager to reintroduce live audiences to the Dark Order. His debut as “The Exalted One”, and the recent momentum for the faction, have primarily taken place without a crowd.

“Dark Order has re-established itself at the top of the card, so I think this is going to be a re-debut of what the Dark Order is supposed to be,” said Lee. “When I debuted, I didn’t have all my guys. For the past month or so, we’ve been together as a unit, and that’s made a difference with our work on BTE and Dynamite. I think fans are really going to enjoy our work when they come back.”

Ron Funches adding kindness to comedy with ‘Nice One!’

When asked which pro wrestler he most closely identifies with, comedian Ron Funches stated, without hesitation, that it is Sami Zayn.

“Sami is a great performer, he’s underrated, and he focuses on doing his own thing, which reminds me a lot of myself,” said Funches, who is a dedicated wrestling fan. “I remember seeing him at an independent wrestling show before he got signed, one where he was in the main event. After the show, he came out, shook hands with people, and then helped break down the chairs and helped put everything away. There was no ego, and that was something that stuck with me.”

Funches is also humble about his success, which includes a Comedy Central special from 2019 that included a guest appearance from “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. His newest project is as the host of Nice One!, a comedy game show built around competitive kindness.

“I hope it’s a refreshing pace from everything that’s going on in the world,” said Funches. “This show, it’s just me being me. I’ve always been a big proponent of the variety, talking head shows where you’d meet new comedians. There was this hole for introducing people to new comedians, and it’s very positive and has my style of comedy. I’ve always wanted to host, and I fell in love with doing it. I hope I get to keep doing it for many years.”

Funches noted that there will be wrestling connections on the show, with the potential of some wrestlers appearing if there is a second season.

“There will be jokes about wrestling and some topics about wrestling,” said Funches. “I pitched several times to get wrestlers on the show. I wanted The New Day on the show, I wanted Orange Cassidy and a couple other people from AEW. Hopefully that will happen in season two, but people that know me know I love wrestling and I’ll try to bring wrestling up on anything I do.”

Comedy is an extremely difficult field, but it is a craft Funches has perfected over time. He brings a welcoming, dynamic style to his work as a comedian, and he is eager to introduce viewers to some of the best minds in comedy.

“There is a genuineness to it,” said Funches. “People will get a refreshing feel from our show, one that is also sweet and sharp. That’s something I’ve been trying to prove in my comedy for the past 14 years, and I think it has a history with Carol Burnett, that you can be a kind person and still be hilarious. It’s so much fun to see comedians disarmed with genuine compliments, and it was beautiful to watch and different to see. I hope people get a lot from it.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • With new attire and a change in entrance music, Keith Lee got off to a rocky start during his Raw debut. I was a big fan of Lee’s work on the indies, and it was phenomenal to see the way he emerged as a star in NXT. He did it by being himself, which is the opportunity he needs to be given in order to succeed on the main roster. As a start, hopefully Lee returns to his more traditional gear in his match this Sunday at Payback against Randy Orton. 
  • Despite a few people trying to ruin the atmosphere, the ThunderDome has brought energy to Raw and SmackDown. Over the next month, WWE has an opportunity to refine the viewing experience by enhancing the crowd noise, adjusting the way the cameras are positioned, and improving the interaction between virtual fans and wrestlers. It is still very much a work in progress, but it has added life to the programming. 
  • On the subject of title matches, count me among those who enjoyed the creative finish to Drew McIntyre defeating Randy Orton in the WWE Championship match at SummerSlam. Instead of being treated to a Claymore Kick or an RKO, the match ended when McIntyre used a backslide on Orton for the win—which is the same manner Kerry Von Erich defeated Ric Flair for the NWA title in May 1984. 
  • After gutting his way through the TakeOver XXX match following a shoulder injury, Karrion Kross makes his first appearance as NXT Champion Wednesday night on USA Network. 
  • Cameron Grimes had a breakout moment in the TakeOver ladder match for the North American title, where he continually put his body on the line and created some amazing moments. Grimes is a star-in-the-making for NXT, and it is especially fitting that he would deliver so phenomenally in a ladder match given that he has been practicing taking bumps with the Hardys, two ladder match (and wrestling) legends, since the age of four. 
  • Velveteen Dream was part of that TakeOver XXX ladder match, and he was on the receiving end of a hellacious bump that took him outside the ring and out of the match. WWE and Dream (real name Patrick Clark) have complicated the accusations that he has sent sexual messages to minors by not being transparent with the company’s investigation. 
  • Renee Young wrote a beautiful walk-off to her WWE career with “A Letter to My WWE Family”. 
  • Deonna Purrazzo and Jordynne Grace wrestled a fantastic 30-minute Ironman Match on Tuesday night’s Impact, with Purrazzo extending her reign as Knockouts Champion. 
  • Congratulations to the Young Bucks, whose autobiography is already the top seller at Barnes & Noble. 

Conrad Thompson previews this week’s edition of “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard”

A new episode of “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” is set for this Friday, as Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson explore SummerSlam 1990.

SummerSlam ’90 took place at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and the card was loaded with stars. The show opened with The Rockers falling to Power and Glory, with Shawn Michaels unable to work the match due to a legitimate knee injury, which was explained on-screen by having Hercules hit him in the knee with his chain. “The Texas Tornado” Kerry Von Erich defeated “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig in a short but memorable match for the Intercontinental Championship, the Hart Foundation got an assist from the Legion of Doom as they defeated Demolition in a two-out-of-three falls match for the tag titles and Dusty Rhodes was devastated to learn that Sapphire had aligned herself with “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase.

The two biggest matches on the card were Hulk Hogan against Earthquake, which was a massive feud for the company, and the world title match of the Ultimate Warrior defending against longtime foe “Ravishing” Rick Rude in a steel cage.

“I want to revisit that incredible main event,” said Thompson. “If you take away the multi-man match at the Survivor Series, I think this is the only singles pay-per-view main event match that Rick Rude had in the WWF. Even when he was in WCW in title matches, it feels like it was always in the middle of the card. This is one of his most important pay-per-view matches of his career–the world title in a singles match against the newly crowned king of the company, in a cage, at one of the tentpole events. And it’s also the Ultimate Warrior’s first big test since beating Hogan at WrestleMania VI. With hindsight, we know that he’d lose the title only two pay per views later, so I really want to hear Bruce talk about how Vince McMahon felt about the Warrior as champion.”

Thompson plans on exploring the possibility of Rude as world champion, particularly if it was ever legitimately discussed.

“We’re to dig knee-deep into Rude, and I want to know about his payday, the relationship he has with Warrior, and why he chose to leave the company so soon after SummerSlam,” said Prichard. “Bruce has said before about how Rude came into this program against Warrior in great shape and with a new haircut, and he carries Warrior to a great match. Then nothing happens in his WWF career and he leaves shortly after.

“Why not have Rude eventually win the belt and build to Hogan-Rude at WrestleMania VII? I really want to hear Bruce discuss that. In the past, Bruce has said, ‘Well, it was a babyface territory.’ But Warrior drops the belt months later to Sgt. Slaughter. And I know Bruce will say, ‘Well, we weren’t building to Hogan-Rude.’ OK, then why the f--- not? Rude had proven he was a top guy, it feels like he’s checking all the boxes, so what was it that didn’t make this work? Was it Vince or Hogan? Rude was a classic heel. Wouldn’t he have sold bigger and better for Hulk at WrestleMania than we saw with Sgt. Slaughter?”

This is one of the most well-known SummerSlam pay-per-views of all time, and it is especially unique because neither Hogan or Savage were in the main event.

“The whole Earthquake story with Hulk Hogan was incredible, too,” said Thompson. “There is a lot to unpack, and it feels like Randy Savage is lost in the shuffle. We’ll talk about how Dusty Rhodes was viewed in his WWF run. There is a lot of meat on the bone, and some great tag teams to discuss. It’s the peak of my fandom as a kid, and I’m as excited to talk about this as any show we’ve ever done.”

Tweet of the Week

Mick Foley has such a love and joy for wrestling, so it is no surprise that he transforms a subject as violent as his 1995 “King of the Death Match” against Terry Funk into incredibly beautiful prose.

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