The NXT Interview: Justin Gabriel
Hailing from Cape Town, South Africa, Justin Gabriel possesses a unique style and a stunning array of aerial maneuvers. With wrestling in his blood however, there's also considerable substance behind Gabriel's flashy appearance - something that William Regal and his NXT Rookie Skip Sheffield learned all too well on the most recent episode of WWE NXT.
To learn more about Gabriel's wrestler father, his relationship with WWE Pro Matt Hardy and the differences between wrestling in South Africa and in the USA, WWE.com's Aubrey Sitterson caught up with the ambitious young NXT Rookie.
SITTERSON: Congratulations on you and Matt Hardy's win Tuesday night. You're now officially the first NXT Rookie to pin a WWE Pro. How are you feeling?
GABRIEL: Pretty great, especially since it was over William Regal. I grew up a huge fan of his, and to be able to pin him in WWE was absolutely amazing.
SITTERSON: Are there other Superstars that you grew up watching?
GABRIEL: I'm a fan of a lot of the European guys, like Finlay and Regal obviously, mainly because of the fact that I grew up in South Africa and they used to travel there all the time, so I got to watch them compete in person.
SITTERSON: Your father was a wrestler in South Africa, right? Can you tell me a little about him?
GABRIEL: My father was a professional wrestler with an amateur background -- he was known as The Pink Panther. Eventually my father started promoting, and that's how I got into the business, growing up watching him and every show he did.
SITTERSON: Is wrestling in South Africa different from in the United States?
GABRIEL: It's very different. I think the USA is different from anywhere else in the world in fact. You know, South Africa is still a developing country, so we're a bit behind in terms of the characters, but there's still a huge variety of in-ring styles. There are so many big guys out there -- I'm probably one of the smallest ever -- but there are still quite a few high-flyers.
SITTERSON: You were obviously a wrestling fan growing up, but was it just the South African promotions? Did you also follow WWE?
GABRIEL: I was a huge fan. This is all I've ever wanted to do -- it's what I was born to do. I grew up watching my dad, and when I was about 13 or 14 WWE came on television in South Africa for the first time. The match they showed was The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase and Macho Man Randy Savage in the main event of WrestleMania IV, but they somehow only broadcast that one match.
SITTERSON: Well, at least it was a good one.
GABRIEL: Absolutely! It was phenomenal. It's still one of my favorites today in fact. Ever since then I knew that this is what I wanted to do and WWE was the company I wanted to do it with.
SITTERSON: Between that and the connection with your father, I imagine you started training pretty early.
GABRIEL: When I was a teenager I wanted to start training but my dad wouldn't let me because there was a law in South Africa that you could only turn pro when you were 18. So, I started training but was very undercover about it. Then when I was 17 I made my debut under a mask so no one would know it was me. When I was 18 my father passed away and I kind of stopped wrestling for awhile, because my entire world just collapsed -- he was like my mentor and my best friend. After that I packed my bags and I went to Europe for five years just trying to get away from everything and find myself. But my last year in Europe I started wrestling again, and now it's been about four years.
SITTERSON: In addition to that awesome 450 splash, something else that really got people's attention Tuesday night was the outfit you wore to the ring -- it was pretty unique.
GABRIEL: I actually designed it myself -- I just wanted something new and different. The part that hangs down in the front is like what the Zulu Warriors in Africa used to wear, but because it's a different color I don't know if people got that. Then on the back it has a black and white version of the South African flag.
SITTERSON: Your WWE Pro is a Superstar who's also known for his style and high-flying wrestling moves. Are you excited to be working with Matt Hardy?
GABRIEL: I'm super-stoked -- I couldn't have asked for a better coach since I grew up a huge fan of Matt's. Even though his style now is very different from when he debuted, he's still a high-flyer and I consider him one of the best in WWE right now. Before I met him he actually got in contact with me and went on YouTube to see what I could and couldn't do. Since then he's helped me out a lot and we've even been studying some of his old tapes.
SITTERSON: What is it about Hardy that makes him such a good teacher?
GABRIEL: Just the fact that he's been around so long. I think he came into WWE when he and his brother were like 16 years old. They've been around forever, and it's that experience that I just don't have. I'm looking forward to learning from him because he's been around the block a few times and knows exactly what to do when and how.
SITTERSON: I'm sure his experience comes in handy -- this past week was one of your first times behind-the-scenes at a WWE event, right?
GABRIEL: Yeah, I was totally overwhelmed. Growing up in South Africa I only ever watched WWE on television, but a lot of the guys I'm competing against had opportunities as kids to go to live events and pay-per-views. So being at a WWE event for the first time and seeing how everything works was just amazing. And when I walked out in front of the crowd … it was indescribable. I don't even have the words.
SITTERSON: We learned on Tuesday night that the WWE Pros aren't going to be allowed to vote for or against their own NXT Rookies. Since you can't count on Hardy's vote, are you courting or reaching out to other Pros trying to build relationships?
GABRIEL: Not really. I've spoken to some of the WWE Pros and asked for advice, but some of them are more willing to help than others -- it seems like a few of them are caught up in their own world and just worrying about their own Rookies. Some of them aren't even happy with their Rookies and are trying to push them away, so I'm not even going to try anything with them. We have 17 weeks in the season so I'm just going to do my best to impress them down the line. What I'd like to do is light a fire in them since a lot of the WWE Pros are just as competitive as I am. Then maybe they'll want to see me win so they can continue to test themselves against me.
SITTERSON: You may very well have already lit a fire under William Regal by defeating him Tuesday night. Given that he might be one of the deciding votes on whether you're the winner of WWE NXT, do you think it was a good strategy to pin him?
GABRIEL: Well, I've never thought about it that way ... I wasn't going to go out there and lose though. I was out there to win the match and listen to all the advice that my WWE Pro gave me. I'm here to make an impact, and I'm not going to lie down for anybody.
SITTERSON: In addition to Regal, you also clashed with Skip Sheffield in the ring. Are there other NXT Rookies you're looking forward to squaring off against?
GABRIEL: I'd like to get in the ring with all of them but I'm especially looking forward to facing Daniel Bryan, who's doing really well at the moment. He went 15 minutes with World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho, so that says a lot. I'm sure we could really push each other to our limits.
SITTERSON: Bryan's got more experience than any of the other NXT Rookies. Are you concerned about facing a guy with such an extensive background?
GABRIEL: Not at all. I know that he's got 10 years of experience -- more experience than his WWE Pro actually, which is a tad ironic - but my style is totally different from his and I'm going to get in there and do what I've always done because that's what's brought me this far. No matter what, whether I win or lose, I'm sure it will be entertaining. There's a saying back home that goes "Sometimes it's not how you weather the storm, but how you dance in the rain."
SITTERSON: Outside of the NXT Rookies, are there specific Superstars that you're dying to face?
GABRIEL: It's been my life-long dream to get here, so I could go down the roster of both Raw and SmackDown with people I'd want to compete against. But if I could choose just one Superstar, it'd be Shawn Michaels. I grew up as a huge fan of his -- I've followed his career since he started in AWA. I know that with him facing Undertaker at WrestleMania, it could be the last time we see him in the ring, so I don't know if it's ever going to happen, but it would be a dream to face him just once.
SITTERSON: And if you win the first season of WWE NXT, it could come true. Is there anything else you'd like to share with the WWE Universe?
GABRIEL: I just want to say thanks for the support. I've only been on one episode of WWE NXT and already my WWE Universe and Twitter pages are overflowing. I'm overwhelmed with all the good feedback and responses I'm getting. I'm just going to be myself and do what I've always done, and hopefully the fans will continue to get behind me.