Interview With . . . Dak Draper

Interview with Dak Draper

Inside The Ropes’ Liam Alexander-Stewart sat down with one of Ring of Honor’s fastest rising stars ‘Mile High Magnum’ Dak Draper to discuss a range of topics from his career thus far including learning under Chris Hero in WWE NXT, his heartwarming experience with Brodie Lee and his thoughts on being touted a future Ring of Honor World Champion by former ROH World Champion Matt Taven.

I want to start by discussing your career thus far, you signed with the WWE in 2012 and were a part of the performance center and NXT until 2014, what was the process like behind signing with the WWE and transitioning from a sports background into professional wrestling?

“So I had wanted to be a pro wrestler since I was like five years old. It was just one of those things that I didn’t know how to get into. But then also my love of pro wrestling, coupled with my mother’s intense hate for pro wrestling, culminated in me becoming an amateur wrestler. Where she was like, if you want to watch it, you’re gonna watch Monday Night Raw, you’re gonna have to go to kids wrestling practice, you’re gonna have to learn how to do this. And I just remember my first day. It was at the United States Air Force Academy, which is a big college in the US, big university. And they have a great sports programme and a great athletic facility. And they had all kinds of different camps going on. They like hockey camp, boxing camp, football camp, stuff like that and wrestling camp. So I got there. My mom’s were very, like, you gotta, if they say to be early for something and they say, hey, show up 15 minutes early, so you can get your wrestling shoes on. I was there like an hour and 15 minutes early, just off. I’m a little kid. And so I asked, I asked a custodian I’m like, Hey, where’s the wrestling room, and he takes me the wrestling room and they’re all these mats there but this room would walk by had rings in it. So like, obviously a little like six year old me is like Well, I’m right. And this guy who manages the building is wrong. And so I went back to the boxing room because I’m like, this is where the rings are. The whole first day was like them throwing me back in this other little dumb little kid who was hell bent on getting in a ring and and that developed into me growing a love of great love for amateur wrestling.

I did it all through high school, ended up doing it in college as well. And then full circle at the national tournament. My senior year I was approached by Jerry Brisco. And you might remember Jerry Brisco WWE Hall of Famer, and he offered me a tryout andwhere they flew me to Tampa and I did a tryout for WWE. And that was the first time where I realised that wrestling could actually be my job. Because I wrestled in college I wrestled that up in Nebraska and so there’s no good independent wrestling up there. Or at least at the time, there wasn’t good independent wrestling like I knew of. So in my mind, if you’re gonna become a pro wrestler, you go to the WCW power plant, I guess or whatever the WWE that would be, which would have been OVW, but I didn’t even know that. Well, I guess it wouldn’t have been OVW then because OVW was already Who cares? It’s already their partnership, but you get it. I didn’t know how to get into wrestling. So I was going to become an MMA fighter. I already had one MMA fight. I’m 1 and 0 in MMA. I hung the gloves up and there is nothing else for me to accomplish with my 1 and 0 amateur MMA win. And I was like, I was ready to get started like this like MMA camp like I was ready to get going as my line of work to be mixed martial arts.

And as soon as I found out there was a possibility that I could go after wrestling, it was just everything was all in. That’s what I wanted to do. Because like, that’s, what got me into, uh, that’s what got me into amateur wrestling. And then I was a fan the whole time. Like, I wasn’t a fan to the point where I wasn’t a smart fan, but I watched RAW every week. And so I followed the product a lot. And when you’re a college wrestler, and you still watch WWE, you get a lot of, you get a lot of growth from your, from some of your teammates. Luckily, I became such a good wrestler, that nobody could really say anything to me about it. But my name in NXT, Travis Tyler, I had a coach whose name was Travis, who was the coach who gave me the most crap about it. So my first ever wrestling name was I had to choose his first name is almost like a little Lynyrd Skynyrd type homage.

But then, after a couple years in developmental was released from my contract, and I moved back to Colorado, which is where I was from, probably not the best decision. I probably should have moved somewhere that had closer cities to each other. So I just had more opportunities to wrestle. Like on the East Coast, you have so many cities so close together, it’s great for young wrestlers, because you’re constantly able to view all kinds of opportunities to wrestle. Where I was out west, you had four shows a month in your area, and then you’re driving eight plus hours for all your other shows. And it’s just when you’re still not as experienced, you’re not getting flown places and it’s just you’re not always getting your, your transportation covered it, it becomes a lot more of a pain in the ass. But it was a good thing because it definitely made me realise how much that I loved pro wrestling, and how much I really wanted to do this. Because coming in through the WWE system, I was getting paid before I’d ever stepped foot in a ring. I got paid from WWE before I’d ever been inside of a ring. So you know deep down that you’re not doing it for the money, but it was good to just really know without a doubt that it’s like okay, I’m making almost no money at this. And this is just a labour of love. And I’m doing all these like long drives and like putting in all this work just to get better. like not even sometimes even not even to get exposure just to get better so I can get myself out of here and I tell young wrestlers this I say that like I’m not a young wrestler, but I tell wrestle other wrestlers this all the time that are like, anytime they use their location as an excuse, like, Oh, well, you know, my area to, you know, the best thing to do the best solution for that, move. And every time I’ve moved, I’ve grown so much as a wrestler and so much as a person.

So I went from the independents in Colorado to the National Wrestling League, the NWA, it was a really cool concept I had a great time there. I’m forever thankful to the NWL and the guy that put it all together. But it was based out of Kansas City and this guy wanted to start a promotion that had like city rivalries. So we had like the Kansas, I was part of that group. And your rivals were the St. Louis wrestlers. It was just funny because there was so many people in the office that weren’t wrestling people like I remember my first wife, they should have known. It’s in Kansas City. I’m in Denver. That’s an eight hour drive. I’ve been making that drive all the time. And when they flew me from Denver to Kansas City, like it was the most normal thing in the world that didn’t even like to make it like, oh, if you want to drive, I should have known like, oh, wow, they’re not a lot of wrestling people involved in this. I got there, like people in the office like, oh, there’s a wrestler here today. Like typically you go to any promotion outside of like, you know, like a Ring of Honor or WWE to any promotion that like you haven’t really heard of before that has an office, you can assume that it’s almost all wrestlers working there. So it was like, Oh, this is like, they’re building the company first and then a wrestling promotion to run companies running a wrestling promotion. And it was very interesting with that, because it was just kind of like, I felt like there were times as a wrestler that I was like, almost a voice of reason to some business people like work in wrestling. I’m exaggerating that a lot too, because like that probably happened one time but still. I wasn’t, you know, I was a dumb wrestler that shouldn’t be running a company. And so it was just like, Oh, it’s just one of those things where it was a very good experience. Kansas City is an awesome city. It’s an awesome area. We kind of took over like the Missouri, Kansas, that kind of area and it was really fun but then you find yourself after about a year and half, I kind of find myself thinking like, well, there’s nowhere else to go upward in this company. And the company went out of business like a few weeks later. And so that was like a kick in the butt for me where I was like, Okay, I spent a year and a half in Kansas City, I have to move to the east coast.

I’ve been to Colorado and kind of going out west a little bit, I was down in Florida, I was in the Midwest, time to go to the east coast. And I didn’t move to the east coast trying to get a job at ring of honour or anything, I just wanted to get better at wrestling, and to improve my career that way to get better contacts. And I decided to move to Baltimore, because the location it’s close to, you’re close to the northeast and New England are not too far away. You’re also close to the south and the Carolinas. And so I thought geographically, it’d be a great place for me to go to like, have a lot of opportunities to get on a lot of good shows. And I started training at the Ring of Honor dojo, just because I like to train I always like to get better. And that’s how I got involved with Ring of Honor and wrestled a few dark matches, and then got invited to be in the top prospect tournament, and the rest is history.”

You mentioned long travels across the coast, do you have any interesting tales from your time on the road was there any one particular travel partner you had that just used to get you into the strangest scenarios?

“I used to travel with Tanaka. The best way to describe my training with Pat Tanaka, top notch pro wrestling training. He’s always been a great guy to me like Pat’s a great friend to me. The times that we would have are so crazy. And I have so many stories, the best way, the best gauge for it is one time Pat Tanaka drove the wrong way up an on ramp onto the highway. And I just told my fiancé that story for the first time two weeks ago, and I’ve known her for five years. Because there have been so many other crazy happened, but I was with Pat that’s like a team thing. Oh yeah, Pat drove up the on ramp the wrong way. That’s like, Oh, yeah, the sun rose today. It’s where you’re like, you’re thinking like I’m an adult. And I’m like, patient in this situation right now. It is because you love pro wrestling. And that’s what makes it one of the greatest things in the world.”

Back in 2018, you took on Eli Isom during a dark match six-man tag at ROH Survival of the Fittest, since then you have faced off with Isom in singles competition a couple of times and are set to take him on one more time, since your first match against Isom in 2018 what do you feel has changed for yourself and for Isom both in-ring and mentally as competitors in Ring of Honor?

“I think the biggest change is that I have an even greater grasp of how hard it is to climb in the wrestling business. Once you get to a certain point, you realise how much more you need to grind to work hard. Because at that point I had moved to Baltimore from Kansas City and pretty much kind of wagered everything on wrestling working out. Not pretty much, I had wagered everything on wrestling working out. If I had a booking fall through it’s like I had to find another way to make that money come up. Like I was on a shoestring budget. And it’s once you get to somewhere like Ring of Honor, you realise that like everybody has stories like that, like, that’s kind of the norm for the first successful people. And so it makes me chuckle now, when I see people post about how hard they work and stuff like that, it’s like, well, yeah, that’s what everybody is doing. You’re just yelling emotions. And so I think I see the biggest difference, and I think this always evolves, it’s just, you realise, you see, maybe you see two levels, and you realise when you look closer, though, they’re actually like six levels in there. But you, you weren’t even close enough to it to realise that there were six levels, you only saw two levels. And I think the biggest difference in difference now that I realised that like, you can see, I can see these levels better and know the work that it takes. And I think all my approach is so much more targeted. And the big thing for me is that I’ve eliminated a lot of distractions from my life, I have really gotten my diet nailed down, my workouts are nailed down. I feel like my Instagram is pretty much has pictures of me at wrestling training, my dog and there’s me at the gym, because that’s all pictures of me eating because that’s all I do. And it’s I feel like it’s at that point, I didn’t even though I thought I knew, but I had no ideahow laser focused I would have to be to be successful at this level. And I’d say a big difference between both that Eli and I share from then to now is we’re both physically larger, like we just were, especially Eli. We hadn’t touched in a ring in almost three years. And the first time that we wrestled, like, the first thing I thought was like, Oh my god, he is bigger,Eli is stronger, like he’s aged in dog years. I wrestled a boy in Columbus, And then the first time we locked up at UNBC, I was locking up with a man and like, mentally that could be a little surprising. Like you don’t plan for that, it was our first match or match that went to a time limit draw. I fully intended to just push Eli around, I was just coming off of a title match with Jonathan Gresham at the anniversary pay per view. While I didn’t come out on top, I do feel like I gained a lot of goodwill with that match. I thought I still hadn’t lost that much momentum, even though I didn’t come out on top of that match. And man, I thought that I was gonna be able to push Eli around and the changes that Eli made himself like physically and mentally too where he’s not like, he doesn’t have the mentality of a kid that’s going to be easily pushed down by somebody that’s got a couple more years experience on him anymore. Like those were two things that stood out for me Eli went from being a boy back and we’re in Columbus. He’s a grown man now.”

We have seen you step into the ring with someone like Gresham, you know, arguably one of the greatest technical wrestlers in Ring of Honour history, and when you look at the likes of, you know, Bryan Danielson and Chris Hero that have been there, that’s a big statement. During your time at the performance centre, you’ve shared the ring with Hero and we saw recently that, obviously, he was backstage, at Best in the World working on sort of that producer role. I was wondering if you had a chance to speak to Hero and maybe learn a little bit from him or if you’ve reached out for a bit of guidance?

“Chris is the angel on my shoulder like so. After the movie The Wrestler came out, that’s when I was in college, and I was talking to these guys at my college, they were into wrestling. They weren’t on the wrestling team, but they were wrestling fans. And I was like, would it be cool if they were like companies like that? And they’re like, yeah, like, Ring of Honor. And that’s a real thing. And I was like, What? So like, look up stuff on YouTube. And I thought the Kings of Wrestling were so cool. Especially back then the stuff that you were finding on YouTube, it wasn’t like you were finding full matches on YouTube. But like, you’re finding a bunch of highlights. I’m seeing these like Kings of Wrestling highlights and like, Oh my god, these guys are awesome. And so when I got to the Performance Center, I really gravitated towards Hero. And I think Hero saw that I wasn’t just like an amateur guy. He saw that I was a wrestling fan. I was really good at pro wrestling, that I wasn’t just like an amateur wrestler who didn’t have any other options after college for a paycheck. And he really helped me out a lot. He got in trouble a few times for helping me out after training for like, giving me some extra tips and stuff. And he would get in trouble for like, oh, you’re trying to be a coach or what? And give me a little bit to help me out. And then my whole career. It’s like, I feel like we always kind of have like a text dialogue where he’ll send me matches and stuff to watch that maybe I can take something from or see an example of something that I can implement for myself or like, I’ll send him my matches, and he’ll tell me what they’ll run through with a fine tooth comb. And man, that is so humbling when you think that you have a great match. Then you send it to Chris Hero. And then like, he’s like, Alright, I’m just gonna pause it here real quick. And it just gets pausedFor him that like for him to go over something. You’re like, Oh,wow. Like the levels thing. You’re like, Oh, I still have so far to go.

We had a match, where actually it was the first time that I ever felt comfortable in a wrestling ring. So coming from amateur wrestling, and you’re just you’re new and you don’t really you’re not really confident in what you’re doing. And you’re in this environment where it’s like, a bunch of athletes are thrust into a building with like some of the best wrestlers in the world. And so if you’re someone who someone like me, I like to do a good job at things. And so when you feel like you’re doing a bad job all the time, you just have like, your confidence just goes lower, and lower and lower. And then also an amateur wrestling, you have to stay so tight all the time. And then a pro wrestling, if you stay tight for a whole pro wrestling match, you’re gonna gas out first to like the first two minutes. And so you really want to like loosen up. And I remember, Chris and I were fighting, I was, uh, we were fighting on the floor somewhere And I remember I was throwing a punch at him. And for the first time ever in a match up to that point. I wasn’t worried that like, I wasn’t worried about like doing a bad job. I was just in the moment for the first time. And like, I always thought that was like such a cool thing.”

To jump back to the very introduction to this podcast, I mentioned that Matt Taven knows for a fact undeniably that Dak Draper is a future Ring of Honor world champion. What does it mean for you as a performer and as a competitor to hear the likes of Taven and Joe Koff, have this faith in you when you know wrestling fluctuates in business to know that these guys clearly see something in you, ranging from corporate to the very locker room you’re in? How does that feel? Does that give you the confidence to go out there and do what you do so well?

“It definitely gives me confidence, like, more than gives me confidence. I feel like at this point, just with the journey that I’ve had, and with how I feel like there have been so many times where my career could have ended and I’ve kind of clawed my way back. I don’t think there’s anything that can really affect my confidence at this point. Like my confidence is my confidence deep down in my soul, I think it is as high as it can be like, I know that I’m going to be a giant star in wrestling. I know this. I’m just glad. To me, it makes me so happy. It makes me feel so good. Because it makes me know that I’m on the right path now. Because pro wrestling is a business where you have constant tests, but you never have a study guide. You never really know what the right way is. And so little things like that. Those are like little hints where it’s like, you’re doing the right thing. You’re headed the right direction. And it’s just, it’s reassuring to me and it just, it gives me more than confidence. It just gives me more momentum behind my back that like okay, this is the direction that I’m headed like full force this way. So for me, it was just like, I expected it and I’m glad because I always expect things like that for myself. And there are times where I see people ask questions about Ring of Honor where my name isn’t brought up and that pisses me off. It’s one of those, I think you kind of have to have that edge and that chip on your shoulder. And for me, it just, it just hits home for me even more like, I have them in my corner, I’m doing the right thing. They say I’m doing the right thing, I have two sides of the company, I have a locker room leader like, like what like one of the locker room leaders at Ring of Honor. And then I also have the leader of the company, and it just, it feels really good. And it just feels good to know that I’m headed in the right direction.”

I want to ask you a little bit about the Ring of Honor Women’s Championship tournament because for those who don’t know, last month in July you got engaged to Quinn McKay. congratulations and bit of advice when it comes to wedding planning, just say yes, smile and nod. I’ve learned the hard way that if you just go with it, it’s easier. But obviously, Quinn has become the focal point of this Women’s Championship tournament. Looking on at the whole tournament from the locker room, sort of how impressed Have you been with the work that they’ve done with the work that Maria has done with integrating this? And with regards to Quinn? How far do you think she can go in this and how enjoyable is that for you is not not only just a fiancee but someone who shares a locker room to see the fan support for Quinn that’s continued to grow over the last year.

“So with our women’s tournament, it is because of our COVID procedures and stuff, I haven’t been able to see like a lot of how it’s done backstage or anything, just because still with the Athletic Commission and stuff, we’re keeping things pretty separate. But we’ve seen a lot of new faces. And what I can tell from it is we’ve seen all these new faces, it’s like vastly different personalities. Like it seems like you’re knocking on in the first match, and then have someone similar in the second match, everyone seems very different from each other. And when it comes to Quinn, I hope these other girls are putting in their work too, because she is meticulous. Like she’s on the same schedule that I’m on. And it is like everything, everything that we do is about getting better at wrestling, it feels like except for taking care of our dog, it’s like what we do is like targeted for getting better at wrestling. So even though she has a she even though she lacks an experience, she is going to bring such athleticism and such strength and what she actually experienced too. I feel like she makes up for like where she is, she’s got wrestling on all day, she goes to training all the time. And she’s really trying to close that gap. And she’s really trying to make her weaknesses her strengths. And she’s one of the most driven people I know. And I would not want to get in her way. And then also she’s very lucky to be engaged to Dak Draper.

In all seriousness, with a women’s tournament, though, it’s great, it’s really great to see, it’s awesome to see that just the emphasis being placed on the division and really being built up. Because if you’re in a small division also, I feel like with our women’s division, the biggest problem with it before was that it was small, there were so few competitors. And that gets boring to be in a division where it’s just like only if you’re kind of wrestling the same people all the time, and if you are wrestling someone new they’re only there for like one show. And I think it’s really exciting to see that they’re starting to get some of the same continuity that like the men’s division has gotten for what 19 years. And so I’m really excited for them and then to watch her to watch her wrestle is so funny because I cannot watch it is anything other than like, as I can’t watch it as like, you know, a trained wrestler, as someone who knows, because I’m always so excited watching it because it’s like little mannerisms or like things I see all the time. So like she does this all the time. Like she’ll do this at the store if he’s happy about it. It makes me laugh so much. And I feel like if I watched one of her matches back next to her, she probably thinks I’m laughing at her but it’s like, I’m just having such I’m watching. And it’s really cool. And I think a lot of that is because I’ve seen the journey that she’s gone through and how when we first met she was training to be a wrestler, what she wanted or she didn’t want to do. She didn’t want to do interviews. She didn’t want to be in the broadcasting side of it. She got the opportunity to do the broadcasting before she was ready as a wrestler, and she was so good at it, that it kind of like, it kind of pulled the opportunity to wrestle soon away. And I’m so happy for her because I think she was worried that that was just never gonna happen. And that’s something that she’s wanted to do since she was a little girl. And I can see as she gets to wrestle more, and just as she’s, as there’s more attention placed on the women’s division, and just, you can see that there’s a, there are more opportunities there. I can see how she’s relaxed more with knowing that she’s going to have opportunities to wrestle, that she’s not going to be holding the microphone forever, even though she’s so good at holding… Oh my god. ridiculously good. So she’ll surprise people with how quickly she progresses in wrestling.”

Someone at Best in the World we saw crop up in the women’s division was Chelsea Green, who’s also since then appeared in impact and NWA kind of showing that you know that the cliche forbidden door has truly been knocked down. For Dak Draper’s, if I say to you, anytime, anyplace in Ring of Honor, who is that one guy or those couple of guys that you’d really like to see come over and to get your teeth into and maybe learn from or have a match against? Is there anyone that immediately jumps out to you?

“Guys that immediately jumped out to me from other companies would be a bonus. I think Otis and I could have a very good, creative and good match. We both have an amateur wrestling background. Also someone that I really wish that I would have gotten that I really wish I would have gotten a chance to have a singles match with when I was competent would have been Brodie. So when I was in NXT and I was very very new. My my actually my first match there was my second match. There was a tag team match. It was a Trent and I vs. The Wyatt family. Brody and his partner Eric, we’re in Rhode Island, and I was so nervous. And he was like, he was like, just remember, if you forget everything, if you if you forget everything, if you do everything else bad, you can still be tall, because your shoulders back, it’d be tall and like, Okay, and so I get out there, and he’s looking at me and he’s pulling his shoulders back. And he’s in the ring, and I’m in the ring. He’s doing that big, the eyes that he shoulders back, and I’m looking so I’m pulling my shoulders back and it gets even taller. And he’s pulling his shoulders back more. And so I’m kind of coming and now I’m on my tiptoes and he’s coming closer. I’m on my tiptoes, I’m pulling my shoulders back and he whacked my head off. So hard. I just remember like, it was one of those things where the next thing I knew I was just like, my back was in the corner, I just stumbled back to the corner. And we’re just going from there. It was one of those things that were like all my nerves were like they were gone a lot more that it was a it was I was so glad to get to like to learn from him. I was so new, but I really wish that I could have wrestled him when I considered myself to be competent. And at the time I was just less than a year in wrestling. I wasn’t competent. And I really wish in a perfect world in a vacuum. I wish I could have had a singles match with Brodie.”

Thank you to Dak for his time and Ring of Honor for facilitating our conversation. You can watch Ring of Honor online via Honor Club or HonorClub VIP.

You can support Ring of Honor via their Honor Club membership programme for as little as $9.99 per month.

If you use any quotes from this interview please provide a link back and h/t to Liam Alexander-Stewart of Inside the Ropes.