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WWE’s Damian Priest finally getting elusive Madison Square Garden moment

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WWE’s Damian Priest finally getting elusive Madison Square Garden moment

Damian Priest was a regular at WWE’s Madison Square Garden shows while growing up, but performing there himself has escaped him until now. The Bronx native, 39, will be part of the company’s holiday show at the Garden on Dec. 26, making a lifelong dream come true. The United States champion, who was invited to be a guest on Miz TV that day, took time to talk about it all during some Q&A with The Post’s Joseph Staszewski.

(Edit for clarity and length)

Q: As someone who is a New York City kid, what does this opportunity mean to get this first appearance at the Garden?

A: Growing up, the WWE, I was a fanatic. The only place I got to see them in person was at Madison Square Garden. In the mid-’90s, my father would take me to every single event that they had there. I was there for The Curtain Call, I was there for Survivor Series for The Rock’s debut. I saw so many cool things happen there. And when I started my journey, I was like that’s it for me. I had to wrestle at Madison Square Garden. That’s up there with WrestleMania, with winning championships. The Garden has to happen.       

I remember when I got my first opportunity to work at the Hammerstein Ballroom. That was huge because I used to bartend at the Hammerstein Ballroom. When I got to perform there it was really cool. This is times a hundred with that feeling. I’m being honest, emotionally this is crazy, this is huge for me. I’m excited, thrilled, nervous about it.

Q: You probably had a couple other missed opportunities. You signed with NXT right before Ring of Honor was coming there. WWE did a SuperShow there a few months ago. Did it feel like you were just missing that Garden opportunity?  

A: It was kind of like, ‘Man, is it bad luck or what?’ Even when they had NXT stars perform at the Garden for the holiday shows, I was here, I worked for the company and I wasn’t invited to that. And I was like, ‘Man, one day I’ll be there.’ Now I’m on the main roster. It was a SmackDown show but they had some Raw superstars come and I wasn’t invited. I’m like, ‘Man, what do I have to do?’ With this year that I’ve had, it’s culminating in the day after Christmas. I got to perform at the Garden.

Q: You mentioned some moments you were at the Garden for. Is there one that really sticks with you?

A: When The Curtain Call happened, we didn’t understand what was happening. Like I didn’t. It was like, ‘Why are these guys hugging (laughs) and going up and posing?’ We knew it was cool, but we didn’t know why until after. So in the moment, it wasn’t as cool as you would think.

I remember Survivor Series and The Rock was cool, but I didn’t know who he was so it wasn’t that big of a deal at the time. But The Undertaker coming down like Batman. Everyone noticed at the same time and pointed up: ‘There he is!’ That was his first time being all in black. That moment, I just remember the chill that I got because when it comes to superheroes my favorite has always been Batman and Undertaker was my idol. So basically they combined together and that was one of coolest sights I’ve even seen.

Q: Just take me through your New York journey.

A: I was born in New York. My parents split, so my mom took me to Puerto Rico. She had gotten sick and couldn’t take care of me, so went back with my dad in New York when I was about 10 years old. From there on I was in New York, middle school, junior high school, high school I was in New York.

Q: What part of The Bronx?

A: I was off Castle Hill. That’s our arena where we had martial arts schools in the East Tremont area. I moved for high school to Rockland County. That’s where I went to high school. Besides that I was always in The Bronx and in the city. I was going to Yankees games all the time. We were fans of the Knicks.  

Q: What has it been like getting to work with someone like Dolph Ziggler, who you have a U.S. championship match with Monday? He is someone who has been with the company for a long time and you are someone generally new to the main roster.

A: I love it, especially when I get these top-tier-caliber type performers. With Ziggler, that was the first time this week we’ve ever had a one-on-one match. He’s great. Being in there I could see like … in my head I was like, ‘He’s really good at this.’ I welcome someone of his caliber any day. Even while we’re exchanging blows, I’m learning.

Q: Where did the idea to add the show of anger or rage or hulking up right before the end of a match come from and what do you think that’s added to your presentation?

A: It just adds layers, you know. Most of the year, you saw me smiling all the time, always happy-go-lucky guy. But it almost felt like something was missing. I know there is a saying I’ve heard — ‘We all have a little bad in us.’ And I believe that. I think we do. It’s just we consciously chose to sway one way or the other. Now I’m letting situations dictate how I’m going to react to let that other side out of me that I think most fans that know me know I have it. That’s the way I used to be before, a little darker, a little bit more serious.

Q: You, Riddle and Rhea Ripley have this really cool friendship going back and forth on social media. Is that something that developed when you were in NXT and how close are you guys outside of the ring?

A: Riddle and I have been friends before we started in the WWE. Adding Rhea to like our little posse was definitely started in NXT. We are just three like-minded people having fun goofing around then getting serious and doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, loving being successful, love this business. We have a lot of common interests. Especially Rhea and I. We dress the same at times (laughs).

Q: You lent her some pants when her gear was stolen.

A: Yeah. The funniest part of it is was … it was kind of one of those things like, we’ll see if they fit. She comes back and I’m like, ‘I hate you’ because they looked better on her than they did on me. (Laughs). She was like, ‘I altered them a little bit.’ I was like, ‘At least tell people that part that you had to alter them.’ I wasn’t always this way, but now I chose to surround myself with really good positive people. That’s Rhea Ripley and Riddle to a tee.

Q: What was that like seeing a coworker and friend go through that where she gets her stuff stolen and she’s probably scrambling and you’re able to help her out a little bit?

A: It’s happened to a lot of us. I remember when I was in the indies my car got broken into and somebody just stole my gear, my bag. Back then I had nothing. So they stole that, they stole everything. I had nothing now. I struggled. I had another pair made, you buy another pair of boots. I know the frustration.

She had a lot of stuff there. She had a lot of her stuff that she makes by hand herself. She was smiling and she kept her spirits up but being her friend I knew inside she was hurting more for the sentimental stuff, the gear that she had for a special moment and that sucks. I felt really bad. I was glad I was able to help her and it wasn’t just me. It was the locker room. Everyone was kind of like cheering her up and getting her mind off of that and making her laugh.

Damian Priest kicks Bobby Lashley
WWE

Q: In a recent interview, Scarlett Bordeaux said WWE had pitched the idea of her being your manager at some point. Was that something that was broached to you and how do you think that pairing may have worked out?

A: In the initial incarnation of Damian Priest there were plenty of ideas for stuff and there were a lot of names being thrown around, but none of them where taken seriously because it ultimately came down to, ‘What does Damian Priest need?’ For me I was like, especially at that point, I was like, ‘Damian Priest is all about wanting his name to live forever at any cost.’ If you put him with somebody, he’s kind of sharing that. It’s not about sharing. It’s about him and him only. After I talked to Shawn [Michaels] and Hunter [Triple H] about it, they were like, ‘Yep, no problem.’ It was just an idea. They were just trying to see what fit and nobody really fit. I didn’t feel comfortable with anybody. They didn’t feel comfortable putting me with anybody because it just didn’t makes sense. It obviously worked out for the best because I got to do my own thing and she got to be with her best friend (Karrion Kross).

Q: You spent three years in Ring of Honor. What kind of emotions were going through you knowing that Dec. 11 could be the last Final Battle in this incarnation of Ring of Honor?

A: The company itself, mixed feelings, but ultimately it comes down to the people. That hurt. I’m still friends with a lot of these guys. While I do believe they’re all going to be OK because they’re all incredible, they’re all talented, it’s impossible for them to not be OK. It’s that fear in the moment, that feeling that it breaks my heart for them, for the boys, the girls, the production team. There’s a lot of good people there. Ring of Honor as a whole, it could come back. There’s a lot of options there because it’s owned by Sinclair (Broadcasting).

Q: You talked about the year that you’ve had. To have this character that kind of pulls in so many different pieces of who you are whether it’s music, your martial arts background and have the success you had, does it mean more for it to be such a reflection of yourself?  

A: I see people, especially when they are starting out, that they’re trying to portray something and you can see through it. It’s not authentic. I think that’s why Damian Priest had worked. I think if you look at Damian Priest when I first debuted in NXT, it almost came off like I was trying. It was like I was trying to figure out who I am instead of just being who I am. And now, you’re right. Even with tweaks that you’ll see in my presentation, it’s still me. It’s still stuff that derived from me. It’s still people I feel comfortable with. I couldn’t have asked for better way to have my first run here.

Q: Since its Christmas time, do you have a favorite or most memorable Christmas gift?

A: One of my favorites was when I had the Nintendo 64. They waited for Christmas to finally get me one. That was one of the cool ones. The first (game) I had gotten was “WCW/nWo Revenge” before I had “No Mercy” and “WrestleMania 2000.” I remember just being, ‘Yes, finally,” because I loved those games.  

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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