World Wrestling Entertainment Cruiserweight Champion Drew Gulak will be back in his home as he defends his title Sunday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Gulak got his start in the locally-based Combat Zone Wrestling organization that ran several shows in Delaware, along with its main bases of South Jersey and Philadelphia.
Gulak faces former-friend Tony Nese for the Cruiserweight Championship he won at WWE Stomping Grounds in the event billed as WWE Extreme Rules.
WDEL's Sean Greene and WSTW's Brian Soscia (a former professional wrestler) spoke with Gulak about building up his career, and why coming back to the Delaware Valley holds special meaning.
SEAN | What got you started in professional wrestling?
DREW | When I was 14, my brother was like 11, we started going to watch Combat Zone Wrestling in Sewell, New Jersey. That was my first experience getting to watch an independent wrestling show, that is similar to what WWE fans on the WWE Network will get to experience Saturday with EVOLVE. Being so close to the action, you're immersed in an indoor soccer arena, you're next to the ring, people are flying through tables, jumping over the ropes, doing all this intense wrestling I'd never seen before. People were so passionate, and I think it was that passionate audience that drove me in and made me think if they could do it, guys like the Briscoe Brothers (from Laurel High School), Ruckus, and the Amazing Red, they were all groundbreaking performers at their time. If these guys who are so passionate about it can do it, maybe I can do it. A couple of years later I got invited to their training school after helping them put the ring up and set up the event and break down, they invited me in with my brother, and that's what got everything started.
SEAN | What was the biggest surprise to you when you started training as to what you actually saw as a fan?
DREW | A lot of people say they're surprised how much it actually hurts when they get in the ring. I don't know if I was surprised because I had been so close for a length of time, but it was such a welcoming challenge to me. I absolutely love what I do, and I'm fortunate I'm still healthy and get to do it at the level I get to do it. As I got into training, the opportunities that presented themselves that was more surprising, how far I could take my career. It's lead me to become the WWE Cruiserweight Champion.
SEAN | When you're the victim of a bodyslam or you jump off and crash into the mat, can you describe the sensation the first time you do it.
DREW | The thing I was told when I was learning how to fall and protect ourselves inside the ring, but still compete, the harder you hit the mat, the more it will hit back. You're supposed to hit the mat with a high velocity. Crashing down, you're basically throwing your full body weight onto a hard surface. There might be a little suspension from the ring ropes, if you're lucky, not all rings have that. If you don't get your hips up, or tuck your chin, you're going to ding your hips or your head, and that's not a good sensation at all. You can get seriously hurt anytime you fall in the ring. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, unless you're trying to go through the proper training channels.
SEAN | What were the differences in the small gyms, and how did it fuel your love of the sport?
DREW | When you're under the microscope and very close to them, you get a very personal, immediate reaction. It's great because it can really help you develop as a performer, and it's also more fun as an audience member to be that close. Taking the skills that I've learned, and applying them to a larger arena like the Wells Fargo Center or an international stadium, if you're able to connect with an audience on an intimate level, you can really learn how to command a larger arena setting.
BRIAN | What's the largest crowd you've ever performed in front of?
DREW | At this point, I'd say last year at the Greatest Royal Rumble at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
BRIAN | What about the smallest?
DREW | I've performed in front of one person. The bumps still hurt all the same.
SEAN | You mentioned going to Saudi Arabia, can you talk about that trip and what it was like to compete halfway across the world for a new audience for the organization
DREW | It was surreal. It was a long trip to get there, and you're outside in the desert all of a sudden. You're whisked into this snazzy hotel in Jetta, which is a beautiful city on the Red Sea. The next thing you know you're in the stadium. It was one of those trips that was two days, but felt like a week because of how much you were moving around. The audience was cool, they have a lot of wrestling fans in Saudi Arabia, and that was awesome to see them get excited to see so many superstars they grew up watching that they rarely get a chance to see. It's supposed to be the start of a 10-year relationship with the WWE and helping their culture evolve, which is an incredible thing to witness from a sociological perspective, I never thought I'd be having these experiences, but the WWE is a really neat company, but the things I've gotten to do are mindblowing, and I'm very grateful for them.
SEAN | What is the typical day for you like when you have a bell at 7:30, before you step up to the curtain?
DREW | It's all about routine. You really have to have a healthy routine. You get up early, hopefully if I have a roommate I didn't turn the temperature too low that I froze them out of the room. You eat, you go to the gym, you get changed, and you go to the event. The TV days are long, people don't realize that, there's a lot to do, but it's super exciting. You go back to the hotel, and the next morning you're on the plane.
SEAN | Do you get a chance to enjoy the cities you visit, and does one stand out besides when you come home to Philly?
DREW | There's no place like home. I know it's cliche to say it, but wherever I go, I have to compare it to Philly. Recently I was in San Antonio on the Riverfront, they're scooter-crazy. It looks like a bunch of ghosts were just driving and they all disappeared, and they snapped them and the scooters all fell down. America is a really awesome country to live in, and I've gotten to see so much more of it now. People take it for granted, all you need to do is go outside the country and you can see how great we have it.
SEAN | What are the last things you think about before you break the curtain and walk into the ring?
DREW | Lately, I've been thinking about a lot of the people who aren't around anymore who helped me get to where I am. You're in a tight bubble with a lot of people, some people are just not going to be around. I have a lot of great memories of guys like Larry Sweeney who I knew growing up in the wrestling business and was super talented and taken from us too quickly. There's a photographer, Lyle C. Williams, if you ever saw photos of an independant wrestling show in magazines which were big before the internet took off, that's how a lot of guys got popularity in Combat Zone Wrestling, it was his pictures. There's a memorial show for him on Friday, so it will be nice to see some friends and pay respect to his family.
SEAN | When you won the Cruiserweight Championship, what was that experience?
DREW | It was a surreal moment. That's a title with a lot of legacy. What it means to be a cruiserweight wrestler, I feel like it's been overlooked in recent years, for whatever reason. When the Cruiserweight Classic was happening in 2016, that was a big break for those of us who are journeyman wrestling. You never expect to a shot at the big corporation, you were told to be 6'4", or have a certain look on your face. There were only a couple of guys back in the day like Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Sean Waltman, those were the guys, and there were few of them. They were the guys I looked to them, because I saw myself in them. To me, if you're labelled a cruiserweight in that division, that's the kind of attitude you represent. For me going forward, I'm thinking about who is going to wind up being a professional wrestler and is watching me now. That's something I take very seriuosly and I hold high amount of respect.
You can hear more from Sean Greene and Brian Soscia's interview with WWE Cruiserweight Champion Drew Gulak on the WDEL Podcast Page.