Damian Priest tells us he’s feeling good after winning the NXT North American title over the weekend at TakeOver, at least as good as anyone can feel after being smashed into a bunch of ladders.
Priest, whose been circling the North American Championship for months, wrestled in a ladder match to crown a new champion on Saturday against some of the top competitors in NXT.
As you’ll recall, the NA title was vacated by Keith Lee after he defeated Adam Cole for the NXT Championship at the Great American Bash. The belt was then put up for a grabs in a tournament which ended with a ladder match involving Bronson Reed, Johnny Gargano, Cameron Grimes and Velveteen Dream.
After coming out on top, Damian was shown partying in a jacuzzi outside of Full Sail which he says kicked off a celebration that’s put a hurt on him almost as badly as the ladder match did.
Speaking with Pro Wrestling Sheet … Priest talks about his high spots in the match, how Shawn Michaels reacted to his HBK-inspired entrance gear, getting ladder match advice from Edge, what Triple H told him that inspired a change of character on TV and a lot more.
PRO WRESTLING SHEET: How is your body feeling after such an intense match like the ladder match you were just a part of?
PRIEST: I’m pretty sore. I think it’s a combination at this point from the match and celebrating. But considering, I feel pretty good. Just normal soreness.
PWS: Good, because that spot where you ran up the ladder and flipped onto everyone standing outside the ring looked crazy. I know you’ve done that over the top rope before, but when you add that extra little bit from the ladder it has to hurt that much more when you land.
PRIEST: So, I’ll tell you this … when the ladder landed that way and I got this crazy vision in my head and started running, right before I took that first step … I regretted it.
I was like, “What a horrible idea!” But I had to commit, you know, cause I can’t just stop. Then they’ll just beat me up. So I had to commit to it.
But that’s me usually with most high-risk maneuvers. In the moment, I’m usually like, “Abort! Abort!”
PWS: Well you’re such a tall guy, it amazes me that you can somehow make your legs flip over like that!
PRIEST: Yeah, me too (laughing) Full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of heights!
And I’ll tell you what, standing on top of the ladder wasn’t fun either. Looking down, I was like, “Ooooh, I don’t like this.”
PWS: I know you had that hot tub session on the show after winning, but is there anything you did personally when the cameras were off to celebrate your big achievement?
PRIEST: That was all real, man. I was celebrating. There was no me pretending for cameras. I was thoroughly enjoying the moment. Hunter came up to me smiling, laughing. He couldn’t believe that I just jumped in the water with my clothes on. Then he wanted to do the picture and I was like, “take it while I’m in here!” Then he thought about it and was like, “stay right there!”
It was really cool because it was individual to me.
You ain’t taking a picture like this with nobody else. Ever.
PWS: Yeah, you didn’t have the NXT logo behind you like all the other pointing pictures. Instead, you got to be in a hot tub surrounded by pretty women. Which is way cooler.
PRIEST: WAY COOLER! Exactly. So I got that over everybody.
PWS: How does it feel to hold gold for the first time in NXT?
PRIEST: I’m still on cloud 9, man. It’s so cool. It’s what I’ve been working for, you know? For months, obviously, I’ve been tiptoeing around the North American Championship. I’ve been bragging about wanting to be the champion. I’ve been bragging about wanting to do something that’ll stand the test of time and live forever.
To finally achieve it, it was all the feels combined. I was ecstatic, happy, emotional, everything. Everything encompassed in one. That’s why I said all that was real.
And when the cameras went off, I didn’t get out of the hot tub. When I finally got out because they were kicking me out, I just went to another place to continue celebrating. It didn’t stop.
That’s just who I am. What you see now is not a character. I’m not pretending. I’m not doing somebody a favor by doing a job the way I’m asked to portray a certain persona. I’m not doing that anymore. Hunter and Shawn gave me their full support too. “Hey, go out there and be yourself!” And I finally figured out how to do that. So now I’m really just being me. All the time. 24/7. And I love it because I don’t have to stop and go.
PWS: When did that conversation happen? Because I’ve noticed the presentation of Damian Priest on TV as of late has seemed to shift in a way that allows your true personality to come out more and I had been wondering what inspired the change. Did this conversation happen around the time of the Finn Balor match? That’s when I personally started to notice it.
PRIEST: It was basically in the lead in to that match.
It’s a cool story. I was talking or doing something and Triple H heard me. Then he pulled me aside and we were just talking. Then he started telling me about advice that Undertaker gave him about when you learn how to be yourself, you’ll make a lot of money in this business. That’s what Undertaker told him. Then he tapped me on the chest and basically said, “now I’m telling you that.”
I didn’t realize it until he said that, that although they had been for months telling me “hey, you can just be you now,” I was still pretending to be a version of me. Or I was pretending to be who people thought I was, instead of really being me, and I think that day it hit me.
I was like, “Oh … I’m still pretending.”
It was even the way I was speaking in promos, where I felt like I had to have a certain voice and I had to sound a certain way. Instead of just talking like I’m speaking to you right now. And Shawn would be on me about that too. He was like, “Hey, you’re a pretty cool guy. Just be you.” I think finally leading into that match, I think that’s when it finally all came together and I haven’t looked back since. Obviously working with Finn Balor makes it really easy to go out and put on a great match too.
PWS: You payed homage to HBK with your gear at TakeOver this weekend, what was his reaction to seeing you in it?
PRIEST: He died laughing when he saw it. I wondered if he would even get it, because he’s worn so much stuff. But immediately he knew. He was like, “Ohh, there it is!” and started laughing. So I was really happy.
Of course with certain things or certain people I’ll reach out and ask, but with that one I kinda wanted to surprise him … but at the same time I was hoping he was ok with it. Because you never know.
PWS: Totally. If you had walked in and he’s like, “Hey, why are you stealing my thing?” You’d have felt so defeated right before your big match!
PRIEST: Right. But no, everyone has been super cool any time I do something like that. I remember my first TakeOver when I kinda paid homage to The Outsiders. The pants were kinda Kevin Nash. The vest was kinda Scott Hall. They were at the taping the week before TakeOver and I remember telling Scott the idea and showing him pictures of the gear to make sure it’s cool. And he’s excited saying he loves when people bring him up. He’s like “You’re keeping people thinking about me. That’s cool.” I was like that’s fine by me, because it means something to me.
Then he was like, “show Kev.”
I remember thinking, like, “naw, we don’t have to.” Just cause I didn’t know! I already knew Scott somewhat. I had never really had interactions with Kevin. So, I don’t know. But he was also super cool about it. He saw it and was like, “Oh, that’s awesome, man! That’s really cool.” Then they were thanking me! That’s when I realized it was definitely cool.
PWS: Did you watch the HBK/Razor ladder match, or any other famous ladder matches, to prepare for the one you had over the weekend?
PRIEST: I watched almost every ladder match ever in the last two weeks. Just because I had never been in a ladder match.
PWS: That was your first-ever ladder match?!
PRIEST: I was the only one in that match who had never been in a ladder match. I’ve never climbed a ladder in a ring.
So, for me, I was asking a million questions to anybody that would listen and then watching every match to see why things work, why they didn’t. And then after all those hours of footage, I learned nothing. I was just like, “Oh my god. This is gonna suck!” Because everything looks so painful!
PWS: Prepare for pain.
PRIEST: Basically. But obviously I got to get advice from a lot of people. I spoke to Edge for like an hour the day before the match and just picked his brain. Getting little nuances like what should I be ready for and just little things that reassured me about expecting the unexpected. Just making sure you’re very aware of your surroundings. Ladders are not gonna work out the way you want them to. They’re not gonna position the way you want them to. They’re gonna move when you try to do something off of them. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. But I was ready because of the questions that I asked. So they definitely helped and I was very appreciative of everyone who gave me input and gave me advice going in.
PWS: Are you a big Twisted Sister fan? I saw you got some love from Dee Snider this weekend after quoting those lyrics.
PRIEST: He and Twisted Sister used to hangout with my parents.
PRIEST: Yeah! My father was friends with Eddie Ojeda, who was the guitarist. They had a mutual friend and that’s how my father met them. And I guess when I was a small kid they would come over to my parent’s apartment in New York, here and there, it wasn’t like they were best friends, but they hung out a few times.
He’d see them play in Staten Island at some club they used to play a lot of gigs at. So that was really cool when he shouted me out on Twitter. I thought that was neat.
I know Hunter’s talked to him about me actually, and my parents, which is kinda neat too.
PWS: Well now I want to see Twisted Sister or Dee Snider perform your entrance or something at TakeOver.
PRIEST: At this point, I need a live music entrance by somebody.
PWS: You and Keith Lee faced-off a lot in NXT, what did you think of his debut on Raw?
PRIEST: I was happy. Obviously everybody knows our history in the ring together, but through competition you form relationships and through rivalries you end up getting a deeper respect for each other.
Because of the battles that we’ve had, we ended up becoming really good friends and I was stoked for him. Him being “limitless,” I know that’s like his thing, but it’s so true. Sky’s the limit there for him. I think he’s gonna do extremely well there. Just as he did in NXT. That’s the reason why everywhere he goes he excels the way he does. He’s gonna be fine there. I’m excited to see where they go from here with him.
PWS: Lastly, what did you and the other people in the locker room think of Pat McAfee’s NXT debut at TakeOver?
PRIEST: What everybody else thought. We were all surprised. I knew he had training. I know he’s an athlete. You know he’s a jerk, so he’s got a personality. I do get along with him though (laughs). I actually like the guy.
But you still don’t know what to expect. That’s a lot of pressure. I know the pressure that I have and I always fear of not being able to perform to the highest ability that I can perform to. What he did, he surpassed expectations. From not just fans, but from us. Everybody in the back was like, that was actually good for anybody. Not just somebody’s first match. Not just an outsider. That was good for anybody’s match. And we saw two of those this weekend, which was kinda cool with Dominik Mysterio as well. That one I kinda expected though. There was no way he was not going to be good.
But Pat, that was impressive. And kudos to him for actually putting in the effort to be good. That’s something that needs to be said about that. He could’ve just came in and taken whatever he was going to get paid, done a match and left. But he went out there and he put in work. You could tell he really prepared for this. There’s no amount of training that can substitute for a performance. So that was extremely impressive.
Watch Damian Priest tomorrow night on NXT at 8pm ET on USA Network.
*INTERVIEW SLIGHTLY EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY*