"I've always been terrified of being normal. The idea of just being a normal 9-5 guy; no disrespect to anyone but that's not the path that I wanted to take."
British wrestling veteran Nathan Cruz has seen and done it all in the grappling business over the past two decades. The 'Second II None' star holds the honour of being the first ever PROGRESS Wrestling world champion, as well as holding the tag team titles for the beloved indy promotion.
A mainstay of the British wrestling scene ever since getting his start as part of Brian Dixon's All Star travelling wrestling family, over the course of more than 1,850 squared circle clashes, former New Generation Wrestling undisputed champion Cruz has solidified his reputation for both professionalism and executional excellence in the ring - and is now passing on his skills, expertise and knowledge as the head coach for Evo Wrestling Academy.
On the debut episode of Wrestling Life with Ben Veal - out now via Spotify, YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and more - Cruz talks candidly about getting the chance to wrestle for WWE against future-WrestleMania-headliners The Usos, missing out on his dream of getting signed by NXT UK, building friendships that have stood the test of time, struggling mentally during lockdown, his love of classic 1990s toys, and more.
"Wrestling is physical theatre"
Cruz's in-ring career has been defined by believability and realism between the ropes, yet his body of work is influenced by an acute understanding of professional wrestling as a very unique form of entertainment.
"When I go to the movies, I want to see Thor fly through the air; I don't want to see Chris Hemsworth on strings," states the grappler on the #WrestlingLifePod. "That's how I view my [wrestling] matches. Wrestling is a movie come to life, and if you suspend your disbelief then you can invest your emotions into it. I say this to anyone that isn't a wrestling fan: watch it like you'd watch a movie and just use your imagination. It is physical theatre as much as it is a sport, that's how I've always seen it."
Much of the nuance of Cruz's style comes from his time spent working the holiday park circuit, performing to audiences that did not necessarily appreciate or understand the art form of professional wrestling.
"I look at the matches that Steven Walters [now AEW's Cash Wheeler] and I used to have ten years ago and I would happily still put those on now. Wrestling can be fun, and we want it to be fun, but we always worked hard and wanted to learn and grow as performers. So many people have this misconception of holiday camps being easy; you have to convince a room full of people who might not necessarily be wrestling fans to invest their emotions for the next hour or two. Some of the best advice that I ever got was from William Regal during a WWE tryout. He said to me: Don't work for wrestling fans. Work for the dads, for the mums, for the girlfriends that get dragged to the shows that don't want to be there. If you can convince them, and make them feel something, you're growing our audience. That really resonated with me."
"We just have this unspoken chemistry"
It's been said by many veterans of the sport that if you can hang up your boots at the end of your run in the wrestling industry with a handful of friends to your name, then you can count yourself very lucky. It's clear from speaking with Cruz that he has bucked that trend and amassed a large number of lifelong friends during his time as a professional wrestler, citing Matt Myers, Cash Wheeler, Rampage Brown, John Skyler and Robbie X as some of his closest peers within the business. For Cruz, these friendships would prove doubly important after his mental wellbeing was tested to the limit following his dream of becoming a WWE superstar and joining the NXT UK talent roster being dashed in 2016.
"2017 was brutal: just trying to get through that year with that on my mind," recalls Cruz. "I slumped into a real bad depression where I was abusing alcohol and Tramadol. I couldn't sleep. I'd just stay downstairs and abuse these substances until I passed out. It's awful to say but it was the only way I could deal with the disappointment. But I had a big cage match with Matt Myers for NGW at the end of 2017; we sold out that show and we had the whole crowd gripped for that emotional story. We both grew up together watching this, dreaming this, so we just have this unspoken chemistry together. It was an incredible match."
"The biggest punchline of my life"
The COVID-19 pandemic was a particularly tough time for professional wrestling - a business that is intertwined with, and wholly reliant on, the energy and enthusiasm that only a live audience can bring. For Cruz, the lockdown months would prove particularly challenging; the months of enforced inactivity and time away from the squared circle would prove to be the perfect breeding ground for regret over missed opportunities.
"When the pandemic hit, there was a short cooling off period for me where I welcomed the break, and then, damn, everything hit me. Failing that medical for WWE. Not getting signed to NXT UK. The biggest punchline of my life was that I'd always wanted to do this, I believed in myself since the age of ten years old. I fought through everything when people would tell me no. And then something out of my control [high blood pressure] changed everything. That was it. All I could focus on was that the only thing I'd ever wanted, I had fallen short of it."
"I'd always catered my style to WWE. I'm a sports entertainer, because that's what I grew up watching and enjoying. I put all of my energy, and sacrificed so much, for that moment, and then it was just gone. Having to deal with that after [during the pandemic] was the worst thing."
"This carried on all the way until 2022 when Cash offered me an escape to the US and I spent time with both him and Dax Harwood, who gave me some really life-changing advice. He said: if you get to the end of your time wrestling, and you can look back at the career that you've had and you can at least say that you believed in yourself and you were good enough to get offered a WWE contract, then how many people from Hull, England who are 5 foot 10 inches tall can say that?" And then on top of it you get to go home and take care of this woman who took care of you and stood by you through all of this. It ain't bad, is it?
No one can ever change the fact that I was the first ever PROGRESS champion. I got to be part of the WOS return on ITV. I've wrestled in eight different countries. I sold out Hull city hall with my best friend. I've made incredible friends and cherished memories along the way. I have a really good life now; I'm so grateful."
Episode 001 of Wrestling Life with Ben Veal is out now: real talk from real talent.
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