Vivir para siempre!

The Bronx in the 1980s was considered a dangerous place to be; Robbery, drug offenses, and gang violence seemed synonymous with the New York borough. In the middle of it all, Luis Martínez saw the light of day on September 26, 1982. A child of Puerto Rican parents without great prospects, to put it bluntly, a bumpy path was not far off, which could lead in a criminal direction – and for Latinos heavy stones were put in the way anyway and almost insurmountable walls were built of prejudice. The parents separate, Luis moves to Puerto Rico with his mother. It is a childhood full of privation, one that knows the lack and teaches the art of enjoying the little things that are so everyday for many. Martínez will later say that he was not made for success – and for many years it seemed as if he should be proved right. As a resident of the small Caribbean island, the boy had little left except a beautiful landscape and an early contact with wrestling. Because of course you know the names of the famous Puerto Ricans and so it was not surprising that Luiz Carlos Colón, father of the later superstar Carlito, admired, who made it from the island to the mainland and to what was then WWF. Did the dream come about back then to step into the ring yourself? Probably yes. But the way there seemed almost insurmountable. Luis goes back to his father in New York at some point. While he describes his mother as a typical mother, with maternal love and warmth, his father is strict and rough. It is estimated that fathers are just like that, treat their sons a little differently, want to make them tough, masculine and thus express their love. The son seems a bit ambivalent when he talks about it, in an interview the look becomes strangely sad, he doesn’t blame his father in any way, seems grateful and yet there is something, a little pain.

Luis Martínez quits school and has no plan for his life. The only thing he can seem to be able to do is fight, after all he has been training Goju-Ryu since his return to New York and has been fighting quite successfully in several martial arts fights, becoming champion twice, but remains an unknown to most. He doesn’t make it into the big rings and money has to be earned somehow. What you find out – and that is very little despite a lot of research – is that the Latino works in bars and clubs as bouncers, some sources also refer to them as rowdy for small bands, some as bartenders or girls for everything. In any case, the clubs must have had pretty good doors, the young man knows martial arts, looks up to Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) and the Undertaker and must have learned to be tough, against himself and others. On the streets of New York he earned his later ring name Punishment with violence, fights, relentlessness and numerous broken bones. He seems to have taken the path that one would have assumed in the childhood of the Latino.

But that’s probably only half the story. He is chubby, not at peace with himself, but oozes with seemingly false self-confidence and does not allow himself to be told, does not take advice, no matter how well it is meant. He knows what he’s doing, he says, and thinks that’s right. He will think differently about it later, but with age you become wise. It is estimated that Luis simply built a wall around himself in order to survive; I am me and you can see me – not even a handful of best friends know what it looks like in him. Besides he fights, Wikipedia states his ring debut with 2004. Bands that perform in the clubs bring him on stage, let him sing along to individual songs, he’s a long-haired little rampage pig, sometimes made up, tough, bawling into the microphone and roaring. From the original hip hop fan to the metalhead. He once said that music saved his life.

(c) WWE

When you hear him talking about this time in interviews, he stops, swallows now and then, his gaze becomes sad, sometimes wanders into the distance, he takes a deep breath. And there is something else that the now 39-year-old shows: remorse.

In 2010, a big man in his late 20s stands in front of the WWE and once again ignores all the tips. He wants to get into the ring, wants to follow in the footsteps of Scott Hall, Carlito and so many others – exactly as he is. But he does the wrong thing, overestimates himself and the path leads to the sidelines. After that, he continued to gain weight, reaching his maximum weight in 2013. In a now very well-known photo you can see a young, sweaty man with a naked torso, fat, rather misshapen, the darkly made-up eyes look terribly empty, longing, screaming for help and attention – and something like recognition, love and encouragement. When Luis looks at this picture, he changes. Then there is not the proud wrestler of 2021 who excites the masses, but a defenseless, injured, sad soul. “I shouldn’t be here with who I was. I don’t deserve this type of life.”, he says about himself in a WWE report. But that’s not all. At some point, Luis gives a deeper insight into this time and reveals a sad past. The constant dream of becoming a wrestler is undefeated, for it he suffers, for it he almost gives up his job, which brings him at least a little bit of money. But the money never seems to be enough. He can hardly pay rent, if at all, doesn’t know what to live on despite his job, sleeps on the street, is homeless at times and doesn’t know where he’ll get his next meal from. Although he is the bouncer and manager of various strip clubs, discos and bars, the money is never enough. Luis does not appear like the demanding young man, but the modest Latino who scratches every penny together and still cannot live from the work of his hands. As a bouncer, he often has to show a hard edge, literally fights his way through life and defends himself and people close to him with violence if need be – and one can only speculate that this is absolutely necessary on the street in New York. Somewhere inside he is waiting for the chance and the breakthrough, for the help or the one person who will make him a star and make his dream come true. In short interview sequences he seems incredibly lonely, a bundle of people full of hopes and longings lying on the roadside, freezing in the rain – and which everyone walks past, some with a derogatory comment, some an evil spirit with short sentences that give him hope, to then see him fall. Since Luis doesn’t say much about himself, you can only speculate, but what you know is tragic enough.

It is all the more astonishing and admirable that Martínez gets up and takes a big step at some point. For the first time in his life, he goes to a gym, as he says himself, and works out. One of his best friends and colleagues, Matt Riddle, will later say about him that Luis gave up everything and sacrificed herself, giving up love, friendships and relationships in order to achieve his dream – and that their friendship was sometimes severely strained. But the Boricua has a dream and finally wants to realize it. It almost seems like one last rebellion. He keeps staying with friends for days or weeks, but his place in the WWE remains a dream. In return, he is going through an incredible transformation.

He loses weight and converts fat into muscle mass, obsessively trains martial arts and his performance. He trains and performs at the Monster Factory, which also produced Sheamus and Riddle, often together with the latter. Old film footage shows a man who should have taken these steps a good ten years earlier. He fights and wins, takes punches and titles. In 2014 it ends up in the WWE Performance Center for the first time (other sources indicate 2018, both are probably correct), they want him, but they simply don’t have a role and a contract for him. Year after year he is rejected, year after year he fights doggedly on for his dream, in the meantime stands on the boards for the Ring of Honor promotion and fights in Japan. The call comes in 2018 – and Punishment Martinez with black make-up eyes, at times a beard reminiscent of Jeff Hardy and a misshapen body becomes Damian Priest, a rock star in the ring. In October 2018, a little boy’s dream will come true.

What sounds like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly or from ugly duckling to beautiful swan is considerably more. Reward for effort, hardship, hard work, consolation for innumerable tears, healing for a small, wounded soul. In some photos you can see stretch marks, a last reminder of such difficult years and an old shell. Now you can say: How can she write that? Nobody likes to be approached about flaws. But that is exactly the point. These stretch marks on the side of the body and arms are not blemishes, not eyesores. They are something to be proud of, because they show what was and what Luis overcame with hard work on his own, what he has detached and freed himself from – and how the photo of old Luis is crumpled up in his hands even the stretch marks have largely disappeared. A great change, a great personal success that is worth so much!

Priest takes the matter seriously, knows that he only has this one chance – and for that he would give up everything. At NXT, he works his way up, wins, loses, improves, earns a lot of praise from the old hands Triple H and Shawn Michaels, who see a lot of potential in him. Another dream comes true at Halloween Havoc 2020 when his old friend Charlie Corletta (musician, fronter at The Silencer until June) rocks the entrance on the electric guitar. Priest is all rock star, celebrates, it’s an unbelievable moment that makes every metal heart beat faster, so it doesn’t matter that Priest loses the title that evening.

2021 will be the year of the Archer of Infamy. At the Royal Rumble, Damian Priest is the only NXT participant in the men’s race and can eliminate five wrestlers, including Kane, before he goes over the top rope himself. At his entrance he’s just the NXT guy for me (I don’t follow NXT) and pretty uninteresting. The boy gets his five minutes of fame. But the boy turns out to be a man with clear qualities. I see very quickly that there is an one-of-a-kind in the ring – and indeed, the WWE gives him a great storyline with rapper Bad Bunny versus Miz and Morrisson. As a tag team they win at Wrestlemania. Wait what? Exactly. The newcomer and the non-performer win the title at the major event. Behind the scenes, Priest needs a moment to himself: “I did fucking Wrestlemania,” he says into the camera through tears and can’t believe it. A success, he has burned his name in forever and who could not be happy with this charismatic performer? And it’s not over yet.

Damian Priest landed on the Monday show RAW and knocks away whoever gets in his way. He is well received by the fans, they love him, the women adore him, the men think he is cool. He’s the rocker, the big heart and, according to all rumors, the best friend you can have. But there is something else: the man has charisma, a grandiose charisma and with his smile he seems to win everyone for himself. The cool buddy next door, the rocked out companion for a metal concert, the broad shoulder, the one who lends Rhea Ripley his pants when her luggage is stolen. A living Good Samaritan.

The Latino wants his name to last forever, so he claims the hashtag #liveForever for himself on social media and on parts of his ring gear. A seemingly insatiable longing for recognition, for praise, for breaking out of the unknown and insignificant. At the Summer Slam 2021 he wins the US Champion title against Sheamus. Was the WWE Universe happier for another performer this weekend? This is followed by matches against Jeff Hardy, the legend from North Carolina, against whom he would have loved to fight alongside others. What follows are a handful of encounters between the two.

Honestly, no one has a chance against fan favorite Jeff Hardy, not even Damian Priest, no matter how many new and old fans he has. But then there are two encounters between the two, which leave not only the WWE universe, but the whole wrestling world in amazement and awe. Priest wins – and he holds out his hand to Hardy, helps him up, and thanks him for the match with a deep bow. A little later on at Extreme Rules there is a similar scene. It is the 39th birthday of Priest and Jeff Hardy imitates the unmistakable Archer gesture of the opponent, who is visibly delighted. The respect that both show each other, the joy of the matches, something like that has been missed for a long time in the WWE and even less often seen at all. These are scenes for the ages.

The successful year 2021 will be crowned with an appearance in Puerto Rico. Luis Martinez returns home and walks to the ring in a coat that depicts the flag. The match is irrelevant, his speech afterwards hits the Boricua in the heart.

And yet Damian Priest is still a long way from achieving his goal. He trains, celebrates, works on himself, is there for his friends and colleagues – and this shy boy appears again and again in interviews, who smiles warmly and has this longing in mind. He listens attentively to his counterpart, answers politely, takes his time. The draft will come into effect on October 25, 2021, which could be called the new season in the WWE. Priest stays with Raw, gets a new entrance music. himself says that he embodies both sides. The WWE has recognized what it has in him and it is to be hoped that he will not be burned off, but that he will be allowed to unfold. Damian Priest is a real talent after a long time, who unites everyone and inspires the WWE universe, someone who represents something and shows respect. That has been missed a lot in the last few years. If there are no injuries and he doesn’t mess with Vince McMahon, there will be more titles, the WWE Champion Belt and, last but not least, the Universal Champion. It has to go faster, he doesn’t have twenty years left, even if he might still stand in the ring at 60 like the icon Sting, the great triumph must come first. And it will.

If Priest ever retires, it is to be hoped that the entire locker room will stand in line and shout “Thank you, Damian” to loud applause. He’s already a hot contender for the WWE Hall of Fame – and maybe one day Metallica plays, just as he says he would like it, when he makes his way to the ring at Wrestlemania to get the Universal title.

The gigantic ascent, the long, hardships, arduous path out of nowhere, following his dreams into immortality was worth it – and if the world out there is looking for a role model, then look at this Boricua, whose name will live forever: Luis “Damian Priest” Martinez.

Forever trusting who you are
Life is yours, you live it your way
All these words, you don’t just say
And nothing else matters

modified: Metallica, Nothing Else Matters, Vertigo Records 1992.

Images: photos – (c) WWE // paintings – (c) Kyra Cade