Damian Priest was a regular at WWE’s Madison Square Garden shows while growing up, but performing there himself has escaped him until now. The Bronx native, 39, will be part of the company’s holiday show at the Garden on Dec. 26, making a lifelong dream come true. The United States champion, who was invited to be a guest on Miz TV that day, took time to talk about it all during some Q&A with The Post’s Joseph Staszewski.
(Edit for clarity and length)
Q: As someone who is a New York City kid, what does this opportunity mean to get this first appearance at the Garden?
A: Growing up, the WWE, I was a fanatic. The only place I got to see them in person was at Madison Square Garden. In the mid-’90s, my father would take me to every single event that they had there. I was there for The Curtain Call, I was there for Survivor Series for The Rock’s debut. I saw so many cool things happen there. And when I started my journey, I was like that’s it for me. I had to wrestle at Madison Square Garden. That’s up there with WrestleMania, with winning championships. The Garden has to happen.
I remember when I got my first opportunity to work at the Hammerstein Ballroom. That was huge because I used to bartend at the Hammerstein Ballroom. When I got to perform there it was really cool. This is times a hundred with that feeling. I’m being honest, emotionally this is crazy, this is huge for me. I’m excited, thrilled, nervous about it.
Q: You probably had a couple other missed opportunities. You signed with NXT right before Ring of Honor was coming there. WWE did a SuperShow there a few months ago. Did it feel like you were just missing that Garden opportunity?
A: It was kind of like, ‘Man, is it bad luck or what?’ Even when they had NXT stars perform at the Garden for the holiday shows, I was here, I worked for the company and I wasn’t invited to that. And I was like, ‘Man, one day I’ll be there.’ Now I’m on the main roster. It was a SmackDown show but they had some Raw superstars come and I wasn’t invited. I’m like, ‘Man, what do I have to do?’ With this year that I’ve had, it’s culminating in the day after Christmas. I got to perform at the Garden.
Q: You mentioned some moments you were at the Garden for. Is there one that really sticks with you?
A: When The Curtain Call happened, we didn’t understand what was happening. Like I didn’t. It was like, ‘Why are these guys hugging (laughs) and going up and posing?’ We knew it was cool, but we didn’t know why until after. So in the moment, it wasn’t as cool as you would think.
I remember Survivor Series and The Rock was cool, but I didn’t know who he was so it wasn’t that big of a deal at the time. But The Undertaker coming down like Batman. Everyone noticed at the same time and pointed up: ‘There he is!’ That was his first time being all in black. That moment, I just remember the chill that I got because when it comes to superheroes my favorite has always been Batman and Undertaker was my idol. So basically they combined together and that was one of coolest sights I’ve even seen.
Q: Just take me through your New York journey.
A: I was born in New York. My parents split, so my mom took me to Puerto Rico. She had gotten sick and couldn’t take care of me, so went back with my dad in New York when I was about 10 years old. From there on I was in New York, middle school, junior high school, high school I was in New York.
Q: What part of The Bronx?
A: I was off Castle Hill. That’s our arena where we had martial arts schools in the East Tremont area. I moved for high school to Rockland County. That’s where I went to high school. Besides that I was always in The Bronx and in the city. I was going to Yankees games all the time. We were fans of the Knicks.
Q: What has it been like getting to work with someone like Dolph Ziggler, who you have a U.S. championship match with Monday? He is someone who has been with the company for a long time and you are someone generally new to the main roster.
A: I love it, especially when I get these top-tier-caliber type performers. With Ziggler, that was the first time this week we’ve ever had a one-on-one match. He’s great. Being in there I could see like … in my head I was like, ‘He’s really good at this.’ I welcome someone of his caliber any day. Even while we’re exchanging blows, I’m learning.
Q: Where did the idea to add the show of anger or rage or hulking up right before the end of a match come from and what do you think that’s added to your presentation?
A: It just adds layers, you know. Most of the year, you saw me smiling all the time, always happy-go-lucky guy. But it almost felt like something was missing. I know there is a saying I’ve heard — ‘We all have a little bad in us.’ And I believe that. I think we do. It’s just we consciously chose to sway one way or the other. Now I’m letting situations dictate how I’m going to react to let that other side out of me that I think most fans that know me know I have it. That’s the way I used to be before, a little darker, a little bit more serious.
Q: You, Riddle and Rhea Ripley have this really cool friendship going back and forth on social media. Is that something that developed when you were in NXT and how close are you guys outside of the ring?
A: Riddle and I have been friends before we started in the WWE. Adding Rhea to like our little posse was definitely started in NXT. We are just three like-minded people having fun goofing around then getting serious and doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, loving being successful, love this business. We have a lot of common interests. Especially Rhea and I. We dress the same at times (laughs).
Q: You lent her some pants when her gear was stolen.
A: Yeah. The funniest part of it is was … it was kind of one of those things like, we’ll see if they fit. She comes back and I’m like, ‘I hate you’ because they looked better on her than they did on me. (Laughs). She was like, ‘I altered them a little bit.’ I was like, ‘At least tell people that part that you had to alter them.’ I wasn’t always this way, but now I chose to surround myself with really good positive people. That’s Rhea Ripley and Riddle to a tee.
Q: What was that like seeing a coworker and friend go through that where she gets her stuff stolen and she’s probably scrambling and you’re able to help her out a little bit?
A: It’s happened to a lot of us. I remember when I was in the indies my car got broken into and somebody just stole my gear, my bag. Back then I had nothing. So they stole that, they stole everything. I had nothing now. I struggled. I had another pair made, you buy another pair of boots. I know the frustration.
She had a lot of stuff there. She had a lot of her stuff that she makes by hand herself. She was smiling and she kept her spirits up but being her friend I knew inside she was hurting more for the sentimental stuff, the gear that she had for a special moment and that sucks. I felt really bad. I was glad I was able to help her and it wasn’t just me. It was the locker room. Everyone was kind of like cheering her up and getting her mind off of that and making her laugh.
Q: In a recent interview, Scarlett Bordeaux said WWE had pitched the idea of her being your manager at some point. Was that something that was broached to you and how do you think that pairing may have worked out?
A: In the initial incarnation of Damian Priest there were plenty of ideas for stuff and there were a lot of names being thrown around, but none of them where taken seriously because it ultimately came down to, ‘What does Damian Priest need?’ For me I was like, especially at that point, I was like, ‘Damian Priest is all about wanting his name to live forever at any cost.’ If you put him with somebody, he’s kind of sharing that. It’s not about sharing. It’s about him and him only. After I talked to Shawn [Michaels] and Hunter [Triple H] about it, they were like, ‘Yep, no problem.’ It was just an idea. They were just trying to see what fit and nobody really fit. I didn’t feel comfortable with anybody. They didn’t feel comfortable putting me with anybody because it just didn’t makes sense. It obviously worked out for the best because I got to do my own thing and she got to be with her best friend (Karrion Kross).
Q: You spent three years in Ring of Honor. What kind of emotions were going through you knowing that Dec. 11 could be the last Final Battle in this incarnation of Ring of Honor?
A: The company itself, mixed feelings, but ultimately it comes down to the people. That hurt. I’m still friends with a lot of these guys. While I do believe they’re all going to be OK because they’re all incredible, they’re all talented, it’s impossible for them to not be OK. It’s that fear in the moment, that feeling that it breaks my heart for them, for the boys, the girls, the production team. There’s a lot of good people there. Ring of Honor as a whole, it could come back. There’s a lot of options there because it’s owned by Sinclair (Broadcasting).
Q: You talked about the year that you’ve had. To have this character that kind of pulls in so many different pieces of who you are whether it’s music, your martial arts background and have the success you had, does it mean more for it to be such a reflection of yourself?
A: I see people, especially when they are starting out, that they’re trying to portray something and you can see through it. It’s not authentic. I think that’s why Damian Priest had worked. I think if you look at Damian Priest when I first debuted in NXT, it almost came off like I was trying. It was like I was trying to figure out who I am instead of just being who I am. And now, you’re right. Even with tweaks that you’ll see in my presentation, it’s still me. It’s still stuff that derived from me. It’s still people I feel comfortable with. I couldn’t have asked for better way to have my first run here.
Q: Since its Christmas time, do you have a favorite or most memorable Christmas gift?
A: One of my favorites was when I had the Nintendo 64. They waited for Christmas to finally get me one. That was one of the cool ones. The first (game) I had gotten was “WCW/nWo Revenge” before I had “No Mercy” and “WrestleMania 2000.” I remember just being, ‘Yes, finally,” because I loved those games.