A Rare Interview With One of Wrestling's Rising Stars

The rumored NXT signing talks about life inside and outside the squared circle in a rare interview

jake atlas universal
Courtesy of Jake Atlas

Of all the rising stars on the independent pro wrestling scene, few are more universally beloved than California-based Jake Atlas. Regularly cited as a favorite in discussions among other athletes, Atlas has the unique ability to make every fight feel explosively dramatic.

Atlas has made appearances in countless indie wrestling federations since his career began in 2014, and many have wondered when exactly a bigger company would snatch him and position him as its bigger star. Considering his exceptional skill set, it seemed patently criminal to almost everyone that he hadn't been signed already. Did his outspoken advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community have something to do with it?

In October, unconfirmed rumors began circulating that Atlas had finally been signed to WWE, specifically on the NXT brand—which, if true, would make him one of the company's few openly gay performers. His potential success within the world's biggest wrestling company could open up possibilities for countless wrestlers in the future.

We caught up with Atlas for a frank conversation about his views on progressivism and diversity in wrestling. Atlas offered us several honest opinions about controversies within the world of wrestling and what his achievements could mean in the future. 

ONE37pm: How did you first get into pro wrestling? What are some of your first memories of wrestling?

Jake Atlas: Wrestling's been in my life ever since I was born. My parents were huge lucha libre fans in Mexico when they were kids. It was kind of a pastime in my family that was passed on to us. So the first time I ever saw any wrestling was when I was four or five—we'd go to AAA shows or CMLL shows in Guadalajara. When I was seven, my older brother found WWF and was a huge fan, and I remember him watching an episode of SmackDown, right before Wrestlemania XVII, the huge Rock and Austin feud. To me it was just so different from lucha libre. He eventually grew out of it when he found it was a work, but I just kept going. I had my moments where I would drift away, but it was always a part of my life.

When did you start training? What was that like for you?

Atlas: I started training in January of 2014. I went to a school in Inland Empire. I was there for two months learning the super basic stuff, how to bump and run the ropes. I realized very quickly that that was not for me. I needed a more structured environment: I need a coach, a trainer, someone that I could trust, a mentor.

I found the Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy in July, and that was my real starting point. That was too easy! People always expect me to talk about how hard it was—and I don't mean this to be cocky—but I was already an athlete. I did gymnastics growing up, I was a cheerleader. So a lot of the stuff was just similar to that. A lot of tumbling, a lot of cardio. I just naturally picked it up. It kind of was a blessing and a curse: a blessing because I knew I made the right decision but a curse because at first I didn't really struggle.

I fast-tracked a lot of the classes and got through the program very quickly. But about six months in, I had an injury, I hurt my neck. I could not do anything physical at all. I was essentially bedridden for six months.

Once that was up, it was a year after I first started training, and that was when I realized this is hard. I had to learn how to be an athlete again. I had to learn how to run again, to do sit-ups. It wasn't just wrestling—it was all of it.

Everything happens for a reason, and I feel like the universe was like, “OK, that was too easy for you? Let's put you back.” So from that point forward, wrestling training was hard. It was harder mentally for me because it came to me so easy at first, and then I had to struggle. I was so disappointed in myself. But I'm glad I went through that. It changed my perspective.

Were you openly gay during your training?

Atlas: Oh, no no no. I was openly gay in my personal life, but that was X'ed out in training. My personal life involves a lot of people who do not know about wrestling, who don't care about wrestling. My friends are not wrestling fans. At the time there was no relation whatsoever. I signed up to do this, and I decided that no one was going to know who I am. I was going to be a straight male pursuing wrestling. I was not open about that at all. I was just Kenny. I would deepen my voice, I would wear certain things to look manlier. I put in effort to look more masculine—I'm a fairly masculine person in general, but I felt like I had to go even harder so no one would know I was gay. I just knew that I had something to hide, so I went even further to try and hide it.

What was the motivation for wanting to hide that part of your life?

Atlas: The main thing for me was that I always had a specific goal in mind. I knew where I wanted to end up in wrestling, I had certain goals for myself that I just couldn't see happening if I was open about my sexuality. It had never been done before, I had never seen it before, I had no idea that it was even possible—it wasn't something that was promoted at the time. And still to this day isn't really promoted! I thought if I came out, I would be categorized, stereotyped, labeled—and more than anything, limited.

Were you treated differently after you came out?

Atlas: No! I was very lucky that it was so accepted.

But unless you're in our shoes—unless you're an LGBTQ person—you can never really know or understand the fear. I remember coming out and some people saying, “Oh, that's not a big deal.” But you don't really know what I come home to that may trigger the fear.

But it was a relief more than anything. I first came out to Brody King. And he's a scary guy! But he's also the kindest person, the most accepting person. So that validation gave me so much courage. So then I came out to the entire Santino Bros. school and that was a huge relief.

Once I did that, I waited about six more months to be more public about it. I wanted it to mean something. I didn't want to just throw it away. I wanted it to be special. So when I won an award in Southern California, I decided that was the perfect time to do it. The reception was really cool. There was a little bit of negativity on sites like Reddit, some comments here and there. But I just had so much strength that I was like, I did what I did. I know what I'm getting myself into. I know that the further I want to go into this, the more heat I'm going to get. So I'm just going to focus on the positivity.

Among other wrestlers, you’re often cited as a favorite. And yet, at least from the outside, it looks like you haven’t always been afforded the same kind of opportunities that certain stars with less skill are. Do you think your sexuality is a factor here?

Atlas: I think that I get a lot of praise for my talents. I think a lot of it comes from the LGBTQ community, because I’m not just someone in wrestling, I’m someone who is good in wrestling. So I think what happens is sometimes it's hard for non-LGBTQ wrestling fans to see that a wrestler that is good is also gay. Sometimes it's not a negative thing, it's just like, “Whoa, that is possible!” They're learning.

And I'm very proud to say that there are a lot of fans that are not LGBTQ at all—and they're like, “You're dope! And it's even more dope that you're representing your community.”

But the eventual goal is to be on a bigger platform, and I know that in doing so there's going to be a lot of people that discredit my talent because of my sexuality. And that sucks. I knew what I was signing up for, but from the minute I started any of this, even before I came out, I didn't care about anything but being great.

There are more of us [LGBTQ wrestlers] now than ever before. Anyone can be the first gay this or the first gay that, but our community needs to see success as well. People need to see that we can be champions, win the Super Bowl, go to the NBA Finals. We are not happy to just be here anymore. We are grateful, but we shouldn't just be grateful for opportunities. And if that means I'm going to have to work harder, that's fine!

Has it been a conscious decision of yours to tone down some parts of your sexuality for the sake of respectability? Do you feel pressure to be less overt about your sexuality?

Atlas: I don't think that's really a decision that you make. Like a perfect example: Sonny Kiss and I talk a lot — he's one of my good friends. We were talking about how in our community, like with any community, there's sub-communities. And each one of us LGBTQ pro wrestlers, in our own ways, represents some sort of sub-community. And that's important!

Some wrestling fans would rather see Effy than Jake Atlas. And that's fine! Some would rather see Anthony Bowens than Jamie Senegal, and that's fine! And I'm just happy that we are all so different. We're not making conscious decisions about these things, we are the way we are because that's who we are.

With that in mind, do you see Jake Atlas as different from your everyday persona?

Atlas: 100% different. I made a tweet that kind of went wrestling-viral. And I was talking to my trainer about this, and he asked me to elaborate. He pointed out that I wear rainbows, I say I'm openly gay. He wasn't challenging me, I understand why he was asking.

The thing is: I'm a gay man. I do things in my life that a gay man does. But I'm not a gay wrestler, and I don't want to be. I am a wrestler. My talent should speak before my sexuality. Jake Atlas doesn't go to the ring with a male valet. Yes, he wears Pride colors. Yes, he's an activist and an advocate. But being gay is not on our skin, so the best way to represent is to show it. And I can still be a wrestler and do that.

I think Kenny is way softer. I'm way more sensitive. I think that Kenny is less confident, a little more relaxed, a little more introverted. Jake is everything that Kenny aspires and wishes to be. Fame, glory, confidence, security. I've used this character to achieve that. Kenny is more open talking about my relationship status or my dating life, but when I'm Jake I don't really talk about my personal life.

A big conversation in wrestling is how companies should be handling harassment of performers. What's been your experience with that? Do you have any thoughts on how to fight harassment?

Atlas: I have to be completely honest and admit that I probably have not experienced the same amount of backlash or harassment that people like Effy or Sonny Kiss or Jamie Senegal have. I say that because they've been doing it a lot longer and because they've been out a lot longer. So I'm not the most educated around this.

I've only had one experience of harassment. This was at PWG. It was in a match with Jungle Boy. We were setting up for a move on the top rope. I was not facing the crowd, and I couldn't really hear what was going on. Jungle Boy heard someone scream “faggot” at me—and he broke character to flip this guy off. The entire audience in that section started chanting, “Fuck that guy!”—and the guy apparently just shut up the rest of the show. I didn't know about it until after, when Jungle Boy told me.

What I would do is—it's simple! Just remove these people! It's like a parasite. If you still have that backwards mentality in 2019, you're impacting the performance in front of you. You're not even going to enjoy yourself, the people around you are not going to enjoy themselves. In my opinion, these people can not be welcomed back to these shows. And if promoters are worried about profit or revenue being impacted because of that — well, you should have some morals and ethics.

I've also met so many fans since coming out that identify as LGBTQ, and they say they now feel safe coming to a show. And if you keep people like that, that's a whole other market that wants to attend these shows.

Another huge topic this year was how few companies are booking LGBTQ performers—except for in June. How did you feel when the controversy around that erupted this past Summer?

Atlas: That was a huge topic that I just completely stayed away from. Only because I totally get it! I'm going to be very transparent with you. I completely agreed and totally saw where people like Effy were coming from, but I felt I wasn't the person to really speak because I've been very, very honored to have worked at some of the top companies in the world that normally would not book LGBTQ wrestlers. But I've learned that it's not really about that. They probably just didn't know there were talented LGBTQ athletes at all. I can't fault that company or that promoter for that. Something else is the issue—exposure, maybe?

It was a hard thing for me to process that month because I felt so bad being quiet about it. But I was also trying to understand it all, and how I could help. I couldn't put into words what needed to be done.

There just needs to me exposure for people of all different backgrounds: LGBTQ, POC and people with disabilities too. I was just lucky and blessed to have certain kinds of exposure from the beginning of my career, and a lot of people that are LGBTQ simply don't have that.

This may be the unpopular opinion, but I also think it would be an insult to book someone just based off their sexuality. I wouldn't want a gay performer to get booked because they're gay and then they don't have a great showing. Because it's like, that had nothing to do with the fact that they're gay, that's normal, that happens. So if you're not going to book LGBTQ talent, make sure it's not just because they're gay. And there were certain promotions that people called out that month, and I was like, “Well, I've worked there.” And to me it felt like, maybe they just hadn't seen other peoples' footage.

But it's a double-edged sword. I refuse to believe that there's only, like, five gay wrestlers. There's more, the talent pool is there. You just have to go out and look for it. You just have to go out and seek it as a promoter. So if a promoter books me and says, “Maybe that's not enough. I should find someone else, too”—that's great! Do that! Don't just settle with, “I've got Jake Atlas, so that's fine.” No way, I'm not your clearance. 

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