Damian Priest is one of the newest members of the Raw roster, and he is set to receive a major opportunity in his opening program.
Priest has been partnered with musical star Bad Bunny in a program against The Miz and John Morrison, which appears destined for a showdown this April at WrestleMania.
The 38-year-old Priest is Luis Martinez. Formerly known as Punishment Martinez, he got his start in 2004, but the majority of his career was spent in obscurity. That changed when the 6' 7" Priest shed 100 pounds from his frame and began receiving opportunities in Ring of Honor, then signed with WWE in the fall of 2018. Before making his Royal Rumble debut last week, Priest starred in NXT, including a title run with the North American championship.
Priest spoke with Sports Illustrated about his Royal Rumble call-up, the chance to work with Bad Bunny, his friendship with Keith Lee and his upcoming goals for Monday nights.
Sports Illustrated: Pro wrestling is an industry that is constantly subject to change. When did you know, with certainty, that you were going to be part of the Royal Rumble match?
Damian Priest: Leading up to it, I’d heard, “Be ready just in case.” There was never a specific guarantee, which I understood because nothing is guaranteed in this business—things can change in an instant. I stayed ready, and I was so excited when I found out for sure. It was official by that Thursday.
Ever since I was a kid, the Royal Rumble has been my favorite pay-per-view. It’s extremely cool that’s where I got to have my debut, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely nervous beforehand.
SI: What has it meant to have people like Paul Levesque, Shawn Michaels and Matt Bloom in your corner?
DP: I am super grateful. They are stars, but they’ve also been instrumental in helping me reach this level. I couldn’t have written this any other way. My past, all the time it took to get here, I wouldn’t change anything. Ultimately, that’s what led me to where I am. I firmly believe this was the best way for me, from all those years in the indies, trying to figure it out, to now being stamped a WWE guy. It took time to get here. When I started with WWE, I felt like a rookie again. I needed to put the work in. All that wasn’t for nothing. I am very grateful, and I won’t take anything for granted. There is still a lot more for me to accomplish.
SI: Malcolm Bivens recently tweeted about you, playfully celebrating your NXT departure. What will you miss most about working with your peers in NXT?
DP: I think a lot of people will be happy I’m not shooting fake arrows at them anymore. [Laughs.] There is a lot I’m going to miss, but I said this to a lot of the boys and girls last week, it’s not like I’m going far away. I’m off on Wednesdays; I can still work out with people on Thursdays. So it’s not like people won’t ever see me again. My friendships aren’t going to change. There are plenty of coaches and performers I am in constant touch with, too, and that’s not going to change, either.
SI: On the subject of NXT stars—pound for pound, is Io Shirai the most talented wrestler in the world?
DP: Calling someone the most talented is hard, but Io doesn’t make it hard at all. It is incredible how talented she is. She’s one of my favorite people out of anyone I’ve ever come in contact with, period, let alone in this business. She is awesome in every way, shape and form. Her work ethic and her positivity are inspirational, and she’s extremely humble and nice. She also knows when it’s time to get serious and how to get fierce, and she’s still getting better, which is ridiculous.
SI: You are an overnight success that took 17 years to materialize, yet here we are. A call-up to Raw is an opportunity you have long dreamed about; what excites you the most about this chance?
DP: This is the dream. It’s been my dream since I was a child, and what excites me the most is I’m starting all over again. I’m a beginner on Raw. I had that feeling when I first started in this business, and again when I started in NXT. And the icing on the cake is this roster here, which is the absolute best in the world. Edge, Drew McIntyre, Randy Orton, Keith Lee, The Fiend [Bray Wyatt]. Those are the people I get to work with on Raw.
SI: Your first program is with The Miz and John Morrison. The Miz is one of WWE’s longest tenured stars, and Morrison is one of the most versatile, athletic and well-rounded talents in the entire industry. And you’re getting to work with Bad Bunny, a massive star in music.
DP: The past week, it’s been like a haze. I’ve been asking myself, Did that really just happen? This whole thing has been so awesome. I’m starting with The Miz, who is a true WWE superstar, one that is also well known outside of wrestling. I’m happy to get to mix it up with him, and like you said, Morrison is amazing. I hate how easy he makes everything look. He has such a flow to his work, and I really enjoy being in the ring with him. Those are two great talents.
And I get to work with Bad Bunny. Some people love that Bad Bunny is in WWE; some people hate it. Our fans don’t always accept outsiders, but when it comes to Bad Bunny, he’s one of us. This isn’t some star just coming to WWE for a paycheck—he loves this, and it is very authentic. He wants to learn, and he’s enjoying this and making the most of every second.
SI: Throughout its history, WrestleMania has often included celebrities. Are you open to a tag match with Bad Bunny for your WrestleMania debut?
DP: If it means I’m making my WrestleMania debut, then I’m all for it. And if there is a possibility for me to do anything with a mega, worldwide star like Bad Bunny, and wrestle two very well-known wrestling personalities, then, of course. Why wouldn’t I? I don’t know what’s to come for WrestleMania, but that would be amazing.
SI: Looking at that Raw roster, there is so much potential. If we see Aleister Black back on Raw, you two could have a tremendous program. There are also possibilities with A.J. Styles, Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt, Keith Lee and Drew McIntyre. I know you don’t always get to make this call, but have you thought about who you want to work with on Raw?
DP: I’ve tried to make a list, and I started with the guys up top, like Drew, Randy, Edge and Bray, because that’s where I want to be. Then I kept adding names, and I kept adding names. I realized that I was including most of the roster, so I just stopped. This roster is stacked, and I want to work with everyone. Selfishly, I want to work with the top attractions, and anybody who says otherwise in this business is lying. The top stars in the world are here, and that’s what I want to be.
SI: Fans of your work in NXT know that you have a close friendship with Keith Lee. Have you two discussed the idea of teaming together now that you’re both on Raw?
DP: We developed such a cool bond in NXT. It started with respect, the way we treat people, and the way we treat this business. Keith is a student of the game and wants as much knowledge as possible, and he’s never O.K. with just being here. He’s not here for a decent performance, he’s here to excel, and we have that in common.
Keith is my best friend, so teaming together, that’s absolutely something I want to do. I know how seriously he takes his work. We’ve had many nights together where we were very upset because our work in the ring wasn’t as perfect as we wanted. We both have so much passion for what we do. Teaming with him, that’s another part of my dream now that I’m here on Raw.
SI: We have witnessed many call-ups to Raw who start hot but then flame out. You have a chance to create something special on the main roster. Why should people believe in Damian Priest?
DP: It’s one thing to get here; it’s another to stay. I’m not complacent. I’ll never stop. I’m always going to strive to achieve more. If you think you’ve seen something cool from me, remember that you’re eventually going to see something even better. I’m never, ever satisfied, and I always want more. That’s where my whole “Live Forever” mantra comes from. It’s the way I live my life. I want my name to stand the test of time, and I have to accomplish so much in order for my name to live forever. Now I get the chance to get started on Raw, and I can’t wait to show people something they’ve never seen before.