NXT stars Grizzled Young Veterans have opened up about their journey from NXT UK to the States, and the giant hurdle that almost halted the switch in the form of a pandemic.
Following their NXT clash with Tommaso Ciampa and Timothy Thatcher, Zack Gibson and James Drake sat down with Inside The Ropes‘ Kenny McIntosh to reflect upon their monumental rise to the main event of the black and gold brand.
Gibson recalled how their current status “feels like a lot of hard work paying off” with both men wrestling for 15 years.
“It feels like a lot of hard work paying off, basically. Both of us being wrestling for 15 years. That’s more than half of JD’s life, it’s half of my life. This is why we did it. We did it to get out here, to get to a company like NXT, within the WWE, and to just show everyone what we’ve been striving to do for all this time. To be in those spots, like the main event, in matches that have been so well received, basically, it’s everything that we set out to do and more. And we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re not going to stop here. That’s still just a taste of what’s to come from us.”
Gibson went on to say that, while they might have had a subconscious idea that their performances in NXT UK might have been a very helpful stepping stone, that the significance of their NXT UK TakeOver clashes was not lost on them for their standalone significance.
“Yeah, I think it was in the back of your head. And just naturally, I think, in any walk of life, or in any sport, you’ve got to put your best foot forward. So not necessarily doing it just for these things, but just because in Blackpool, for example, that in itself was a special event, even if it never went any further, we were all more than aware of how special that actual event in itself was going to be. You could feel it in the audience, you could feel it in the crowd that people had high expectations and a lot of anticipation for something special.”
The 30-year-old emphatically added, “Even if all doors were closed, you still would have got the best performance from us” before suggesting that everyone has to up their game in order to deliver on the NXT events which now famously have an almost unreachable standard.
“It goes to speak for how important and how special the TakeOver events are. I think you could go into the WWE back catalogue and just scroll through it with your eyes closed and pick any give and TakeOver on any given day, and you’ll hold up against any event anywhere in the world.”
As for their eventual move, James Drake noted that the advantage of Grizzled Young Veterans was “having their heads screwed on” and buying homes, so they at least had a base to return to – adding that the situation was surreal.
“It was frustrating at times but, at the same time, we didn’t get lost in the fact that we were just stuck at home. It was always thinking ahead and like, ‘Well, at some point in the future, we’re going to be flying out.’ We’re super thankful for WWE’s HR management department because they’d always reach out to see how we’re doing. And it was only just those little things to say, like, “How are you doing?” At that moment in time when you can see the product is still ticking over, still move in and people are getting opportunities and we’re sat at home, just having that quick back and forth is the light at at the end of the tunnel actually. That was saving grace. We knew it was going to happen at some point. We were always studying on the product itself and how it’s changing because obviously it’s drastically changed over the past year and a half.”
Drake added that the frustration of being unable to wrestle did provide him with some form of rare respite, which his body needed, but also lit a fire under both men.
“Touch wood, I’ve never been injured, so I’ve never had to have downtime. It was the first time my body went, ‘Oh, thank God. Thank you.’ So in a weird way, it was great for my body because my body definitely needed it at some point, especially with the style of wrestling we do. And then secondly, we were always thinking ahead and watching the product, and how are we coming back and what do we want to change when we come back? And it still happens now. We don’t go, ‘OK, this is us, this is our act, this is GYV for ten years’ because that’s when, you know, as a viewer yourself, that’s when you get bored.”
Gibson joked that his biggest worry was becoming an almost-ran.
“I was getting worried, though. I told all my friends and family that I was moving to the States to go and be a big superstar wrestler and then we got stopped by the pandemic. I started being worried that I was going to be that guy in the pub when I’m an old man telling everyone that I was this close to making it but it was out of my hands. Out of my hands. It wasn’t my fault. I was going to be on WWF television.”
The intensity of Grizzled Young Veterans is clear for all to see when both men are in the ring, and Gibson and Drake say that’s no coincidence. When asked if the pandemic gave them an added desire to make every minute count, both men gave simultaneous affirmation before Gibson noted long lay-offs providing opportunities in wrestling.
“If you look throughout the history of wrestling, any time a wrestler’s left to his own devices and left with his thoughts where he’s not allowed that creative outlet of actually wrestling, what tends to happen is they actually come back better. You’ll hear a lot of guys say it. Like, you can use someone like a Shawn Michaels for example. Everyone thought Shawn Michaels was incredible. He was top of the bill. He was main-eventing WrestleManias and then he had a severe back injury and he was gone for years. But then it can be argued that, when he came back from the injury, that was the best Shawn Michaels.”
Gibson noted that time away “lights that fire underneath you” not to take anything for granted, nor to wait, or to rest on your laurels.
“The pandemic is proof to everyone that maybe we’re not as in control as we all thought. Maybe things can still get taken away from us so while we have anything, we might as well make the most of it. I think that’s a big thing that shines through.”
The Liverpool-born star expressed his gratitude for the coaches at the Performance Center in helping them, noting how much easier it is to have that assistance immediately on-hand when you’re based in the States.
“I think it’s also a testament to the coaches at the PC and the guys that are backstage at WWE. In NXT UK, we did have some of the coaches coming over and they’re always as helpful as they can possibly be to get involved as much as they can possibly be. But that would be for a week in a month. Whereas now we have access to these coaches at the touch of a button every single day at the PC. And it’s contagious. Their influence is contagious and they get us all fired up. They point us in the right direction. I do believe this is the best work we’ve ever done and I also believe that what’s coming next is going to be better.”
It isn’t all easy, though, as Drake noted the personal sacrifices made.
“We’ve moved out in this pandemic, we’ve not been able to see friends and family since November last year, and obviously, it’s great. ‘Congratulations, you’re on NXT TV.’ For me personally, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, what’s worse – not getting here or getting here and then getting so relaxed and lazy that you just fall through the cracks?’ Like, if I’m leaving my family, if I’m leaving my friends and, you know, essentially I’m uprooting my life to another country for a reason, any reason, it has to be worth it. That has to be something that I put forward because as Zack said, the coaches are so passionate and they will always help but it’s really up to us how we take our information in and apply it.”
Confident in their own abilities, though, Grizzled Young Veterans are a tag team who know their worth – and they’re hell-bent on proving it, with Zack Gibson concluding philosophically.
“You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it a good wrestler.”
You can watch Grizzled Young Veterans in action on WWE NXT every Tuesday night live on the USA Network in the USA, or via BT Sport in the UK.