Scars and stripes: The brutal journey of WWE NXT’s hardcore ref Drake Wuertz

Scars and stripes: The brutal journey of WWE NXT’s hardcore ref Drake Wuertz

If Drake Wuertz is doing his job, chances are you’ve barely noticed him. The man who refereed Kevin Owens’ NXT debut isn’t meant to be the center of attention. Still, he may look familiar to those fans who have trolled the darker corners of YouTube, even though it’s hard to recognize him without thumbtacks hanging from his body and his face stained bright red.

“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been in the ring with,” Dean Ambrose said of his friend and former rival. “Drake’s a guy who could take great amounts of punishment and dish it out, as well.”

He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been in the ring with.

- Dean Ambrose

Underneath the requisite black-and-white striped shirt, Wuertz  still wears the scars of his days as a hardcore wrestler in the grueling independent deathmatch scene, where a regular night at the office included being thrown into fluorescent light tubes, panes of glass and, sometimes, makeshift nets of barbed wire. Every weekend ended with something being dug out of his flesh, resulting in a new scar and a new, almost unbelievable story behind it.

The funny thing is, if you’ve met Wuertz, you’d never expect the friendly referee to have such a brutal history.

“Drake is very happy-go-lucky, very positive and very smiley,” Ambrose said. “You would never think he could mix it up in such intense duels with the ugly, crazy characters that we were often in the ring with.”

So, how does such a positive person end up competing in some of the most brutal matches ever concocted?

See photos of Drake on the indies | Watch: Drake on his hardcore history

Wuertz grew up in Indiana watching hours of wrestling every Saturday morning, and routinely going to shows at the Market Square Arena. However, as he got older, he stumbled upon a new, more visceral type of grappling.

“I discovered ECW and Japanese hardcore matches,” Wuertz recalled. “I fell in love with the style. I gravitated more towards Sabu and Cactus Jack.”

Drake eventually found the perfect place to both break into the wrestling business and take part in some wild hardcore matches in IWA Mid-South, infamous for its annual “King of the Deathmatches” tournament. He was trained for the squared circle by polar opposites, former NXT Superstar and technical wrestling wizard Chris Hero and Ian Rotten, who helped cultivate the hardcore wrestling scene in North America.

Wuertz, who adopted the ring name Drake Younger, spent plenty of weekends on the road, picking the brains of veterans like Tracy Smothers while traveling to matches. Though he wasn’t involved in the hardcore scene yet, everything he was learning was being stored away for that purpose.

“I was fairly athletic and I could wrestle,” Wuertz explained. “I felt if I could combine that with the deathmatch style, it could set me apart from your typical slice-and-dice guys.”

Drake Wuertz talks about his history with Dean Ambrose

Though they were often rivals in the ring, WWE NXT official Drake Wuertz and Dean Ambrose ended up great friends. Wuertz talks here about the close friendship he has with the former Shield member.

That approach separated him from the pack. Amid all the mad men bashing each other with household appliances, Wuertz was mixing in headlocks and mat wrestling before being hurled through piles of light tubes onto thumbtack-covered ring mats during beatings that most people couldn’t even fathom. With shards of broken glass creating fresh scars on a weekly basis, Drake was finally living his dreams. But what was he feeling?

“It’s hard to put into words what it feels like,” Wuertz said. “When you get slammed into glass and it explodes, it’s weird. At the time, I’d never felt more alive. The crowd’s behind you and you’re telling a story. Although it might not be a very beautiful story, it’s beautiful in wrestling terms.”

Wuertz’s mat proficiency, along with his never-say-die attitude in the most dire situations, earned him the moniker “Psycho Shooter.” With a quickly growing cult fan base, he started traveling further east, finding a new home that filled his need for hardcore brawling —Combat Zone Wrestling.

CZW was born out of the ashes of ECW, providing fans of hardcore wrestling with a brand of weapon-filled brutality that had never been seen before. Wuertz quickly became a fan favorite, taking on grimy villains like Dean Ambrose.

“He was a likeable guy,” Ambrose said. “But when things got dangerous and the intensity picked up, he didn’t get intimidated or back down.”

That attitude served him well in the 2007 edition of the grisly endurance test known as Tournament of Death, a one-day, single-elimination tournament with some of the most unimaginable stipulations ever conceived. Wuertz had already survived two stomach-churning bouts, one involving devilish contraptions known as “light tube log cabins” and another where weed whackers mangled bare flesh.

But the final match of the day left Wuertz with the scar that would last longest. He still recalls it, down to the last detail.

“It was a 200-light-tube deathmatch,” he said. “We started in the ring, surrounded by light tubes. Very early on, I get thrown through them and one of them cuts my chest and nearly took my nipple off. The staff there kind of taped me up and we fought for 20 more minutes.”

With tape holding his chest together, Wuertz and his opponent climbed to the top of a Ryder truck and fought over the championship trophy until he fell off the truck and crashed through a table covered in light tubes. His body a twisted tapestry of broken glass, blood and scar tissue, Wuertz crawled out of the broken glass with the trophy in hand and was declared victorious.

“That’s how I won the Tournament of Death,” he said with a smile. “I still have the trophy.”

WWE NXT official Drake Wuertz talks about his craziest hardcore match

WWE NXT official Drake Wuertz talks about his days as a hardcore wrestler and one particular match that left him with a lasting scar.

The notoriety Wuertz had built up in America caught the eyes of hardcore wrestling promotions in Germany, where he took part in a gruesome-beyond-words brawl inspired by the “Saw” movies, along with a particularly brutal barbed wire match against Dean Ambrose.

“We got tangled up in the wire and the match had to be stopped because we were tangled together so badly,” Ambrose recalled. “I think he may have just rolled over and pinned me. There was so much barbed wire everywhere. We were frozen, and tried not to make sudden movements because we were afraid to get lacerated terribly.”

During this time, he also began to battle in Japan, the inspiration for his foray into hardcore wrestling. Competing in the Land of the Rising Sun was a completely different experience for him.

“Deathmatches are held in high esteem in Japan, they’re on national TV,” Wuertz explained. “Whenever we would go to the different towns, we were looked up to and treated with a great amount of respect. Here in the States, it’s very underground, very taboo, and in the wrestling industry, somewhat looked down upon.”

Just as he did in America, Wuertz made a name for himself in Japan, earning the respect of fans and fellow wrestlers alike. After a particularly visceral bout at the famous Korakuen Hall involving a myriad of light tubes and a bed of nails, his opponent was extremely impressed. Amid the smoky white haze of exploded light tubes, Wuertz’s rival made it a point to thank him for a hard-fought battle in front of the crowd.

However, by 2013, Wuertz began looking beyond life as a hardcore wrestler.

“I had done everything I wanted to do,” he said. “I was still healthy and had most of my body parts. I figured I could step away from that and use the notoriety while focusing on straight wrestling.”

Wuertz also had motivations outside of the ring, including a battle with personal demons.

“I got clean and sober and refocused not only my career, but my life,” he said. “I got married and we had our beautiful daughter, Sophia. I needed to think about them.”

He began to make an impact as a traditional wrestler, his inherent likability making fans worldwide get behind him wherever he went. He impressed immediately in California’s Pro Wrestling Guerrilla — a proving ground for the hottest unsigned talent — against current NXT Superstars like Kevin Owens. He also caught the eye of WWE talent scouts while working as an extra.

“I met Drake and found him to be an absolute pleasure, a joy to be around and a great professional,” William Regal said. “He was somebody I thought belongs in WWE in some form or another.”

The onetime “Psycho Shooter” eventually earned a tryout at the WWE Performance Center, which was an unexpected surprise for him.

“It’s crazy, because throughout my career, I never thought I would even be on WWE’s radar,” he said. “I thought I would go for the tryout, and if nothing else happened, I knew they brought me in and I could check that box off and feel accomplished.”

Wuertz impressed the staff of the Performance Center, so much so that they felt they had to have him in any role.

“When he came in, it was obvious there was something about him that fit the PC,” former WWE Performance Center Head Coach Bill DeMott said in December 2013.

Regal, whose opinion on talent is highly regarded within WWE, knew the perfect job for him.

“Sometimes, you look at certain people and think of long-term things for them,” Regal said. “I watched the way he conducted himself, the way he was leading other people and helping. I thought, ‘This young man’s got a future as a referee.’”

The opportunity was intriguing to Wuertz. He thought long and hard about it, with one thing weighing on his mind.

“We had our second baby on the way,” he said. “It was one of those moments where I sat back and thought, ‘What’s best for me and my family?’”

He also took into account the experiences some of his colleagues had in joining WWE in unexpected roles.

“I saw Sara Amato, she had a great in-ring career, then got into coaching,” Drake said. “Robbie Brookside went from being an active wrestler to a coach. Them doing that showed me that there’s a great life after wrestling.”

When WWE came calling with an offer to don the stripes on Valentine’s Day 2014, Wuertz stepped away from his day job behind the front desk at a Holiday Inn and made the journey to Orlando, Fla., and the WWE Performance Center. While some of his fans may be disappointed that he’s hung up his boots and isn’t mixing it up with his contemporaries like Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in NXT, Wuertz is extremely excited for the future.

“I had a heck of a run as a pro wrestler,” Wuertz said. “I got to see the world on another man’s dime and experience the gifts of this business. I thought to myself, ‘I can fall in love with this business in a whole new way as a referee. I can provide for my family, take care of my body and have a nice, long career working with the absolute best entertainers in the world. What a blessing!’ How awesome is that?”

Since his arrival, Wuertz has become an invaluable resource for the Superstars of NXT.

“He’s already an exceptionally good referee,” Regal said. “He helps a lot of the talent with things the other refs can’t, because he was a wrestler. He’s always helpful and will do anything for anybody.”

“He’s a bigger help than if we would have had him in the ring [as a wrestler],” DeMott said. “He’s a vital part of what we do.”

His friends and supporters are even more excited for him.

I can fall in love with this business in a whole new way as a referee.

-Drake Wuertz

“I instantly knew he’d be great at it,” Ambrose said. “It’s always great to have a ref that knows his way around the ring and understands where you’re going, what you’re doing. And having that experience in the ring, he’s not going to get flustered on live TV.

“I think he’s going to have an incredibly long career with WWE and be an exceptionally well-thought of referee at the end of it,” Regal added.

Ambrose is even hoping Wuertz’s time in NXT isn’t prolonged and he gets the call to the main roster sooner rather than later.

“He’s such positive source of energy,” Ambrose said. “You need great guys like that in the locker room when you’re on the road 300 days a year. He brings so much passion and energy. I’m glad we picked him up.”

Wuertz isn’t looking that far down the road just yet. Instead, he’s focused on keeping a positive, humble outlook (he calls it an “attitude of gratitude”) every day.

“It’s cool to be out there as the third person in the ring,” he said. “What is gratifying to me is when you come back after a match and a talent is like, ‘You really helped me a lot, you made a difference. I couldn’t have done it without you.’ That’s more gratifying than anything I’ve done as a wrestler. I couldn’t ask for a better job.”

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