I had a chance to speak with Jake Atlas, who just won the 2017 Southern California Rookie of the Year award, after last weekend’s Ground Zero show. We discussed his lifelong love for wrestling, breaking his neck, battling depression, coming out publicly as gay, his goals, who he thinks will be the next Rookie of the Year, and much more. Click to check out our interview with the “Superstar” Jake Atlas.
Steve: We’re here with Jake Atlas after Ground Zero Phase 2 in Imperial Beach. First off, congratulations on winning the Rookie of the Year Award.
Jake Atlas: Thank you!
Steve: To start at the beginning, were you always a wrestling fan growing up?
Jake Atlas: Yeah. So, obviously I was a fan of lucha libre. That’s where I kind of started. My family grew up watching wrestling, so it’s in my family. My dad went to Arena Coliseo in Guadalajara and my Mom did too. It’s funny, it was something that they did in their pastime when they were both kids and they didn’t even know each other. It was a part of their lives, my. So, I was introduced to that first when I lived in Mexico for a bit. I went to a lot of shows in Tijuana and I loved the acrobatics of lucha. It’s so different from American style and I didn’t know American style at the time. I got introduced when I was seven, around 2001, by my brother to the WWF. His favorite wrestler was The Rock, so that to me was what got me. I always say this, lucha got me into the acrobatics and WWE, or then WWF got me into the characters. These people are heroes. They’re super heroes. Yeah. So, I mean, I’ve been a fan my entire life.
Steve: So, did you always know that it was something you wanted to do? That you wanted to get into it?
Jake Atlas: Yes. So, around the time that I found TNA, I found out about AJ Styles. This was around circa 2005 or 2006 when TNA was at its prime. AJ Styles and the X Division. I’ve always been an athlete. I grew up doing soccer and after that I did gymnastics, so athletics has always been a part of my life. I always knew I wanted to be something active. It was something I knew I would do. I didn’t know what path I was going to take. I would always read stories from other wrestlers and how they got there, but I knew that somehow it was what I wanted to do.
Steve: So, how did you find Santino Bros.?
Jake Atlas: So, it was a simple online type thing. I found Santino Bros. first a long time ago when I was a kid, I don’t know, maybe 14 or 15. I would always go on their page but I never thought anything of it. It was just something that I knew. Another one that would pop up is EWF. That one would pop up a little bit more because obviously they had girls like Aja Kong, Melina and they had Kazarian who wrestled in TNA and I knew came out of there, so that was a little bit more popular in my head.
My first option when I actually started training, I went to the EF School of Hard Knocks for a little bit. I went there for like two months and Santino’s was always in the back of my mind. The School of Hard Knocks just didn’t work out for distance issues. I live in the San Gabriel Valley closer to LA and the Inland Empire was really far from me. Santino Bros. was super convenient. Yeah. I just showed up one Saturday and met Robby Phoenix, started doing private lessons and that was it.
Steve: Now, I know you started training around the same time as Douglas James and Brody King who are the last two Rookie of the Year’s before you.
Jake Atlas: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Brody started in May of 2015, if I’m not wrong. No 14, May of 2014. I started July of 2014, so two months later. Then Doug started in September. So, we’re like two months away in the same year, which is crazy.
Steve: Then Doug debuted first…
Jake Atlas: Yeah. Like everything just turned around because … So, it was me and Brody, then it was me, Brody and Doug. Then we all became close, like a tight click. We would take lessons together. We wanted more. We would go to the classes, but the drive that the three of us … I think that’s why we connected was we all had a drive to just go to the top. It wasn’t just to be a wrestler, we wanted to be a good wrestler no matter what. We all shared the same goal. Six months later in January of 2015 now, I broke my neck and that’s what put me out for six months. So, they kept going and they did their thing. For whatever reason, Doug picked up a little quicker and Doug ended up debuting first and Brody was delayed even though Brody started first and it all got jumbled up. I think the stories all in and of themselves between the three of us is crazy how it all turned out because I was way later and here we are, you know.
Steve: That was what I was going to ask you about next, breaking your neck. I think I first heard it, I was talking to Brody like at a PWG show or something and he was like, “Yeah, there is this guy Jake Atlas he is really good but he broke his neck.” How do you come back from something like that?
Jake Atlas: You know, it’s something like to this day I have a hard time talking about because I’m scared of judgment in the sense that I don’t want people to treat me differently in the ring. I understand that it’s something that you have to be cautious, but I look at my career long term. I’m 23 years old. It was something that happened, it was something that made me stronger because it was tough.
Jake Atlas: Obviously I was six months in. We were all close to debuting, the three of us. I could have easily been one of the fastest debuts in the history of the school and then that happened. It was really tough especially because when I’m in the emergency room the first thing the doctor is going to say is, you need to stop doing that.
Steve: As any doctor should!
Jake Atlas: Of course and that shattered me. That’s when I discovered that I suffer from depression. That’s what a lot of people don’t know and that is something I had no idea about. Growing up, I had instances of anxiety. I would always have anxiety attacks and there were times where I would lose my breath. I’ve always suffered with something, a disorder because it just runs in my family. It was that, that kind of triggered it for me to realize that my life was over at that point. It sounds super dramatic, but it really was. Like you asked earlier, is this something you wanted to do? It was everything I wanted to do when I was a kid. My Mom was right next to me. When you hear that, you’re done. You’re done.
At the time, I was still cheerleading. I was doing wrestling and cheerleading at the time. He was like, “you’re done with everything, just stop.” He’s like, “you’re done cheerleading, you’re done”, so everything. In that moment I felt like everything was taken. My mom knew that was my dream, so she was crying. I remember, I kid you not, I remember specifically going into the MRI. If you guys haven’t had an MRI, you’re going through this tube and it’s claustrophobic. There’s a loud noise. As strange as it sounds, it’s super peaceful because I was contemplating a way to remove myself from living. I just felt like I didn’t want to do anything else. Being in there, I was picturing my life without wrestling and I didn’t like it. I was tying to figure out a way to take myself out of it, just take myself out completely.
Thankfully, I invested in talking to good surgeons and asking them, am I going to be okay? Thankfully, I didn’t need surgery. It was a non-displacement fracture. It was on the C6 bone in my neck. He just said, “You have to really follow what I am telling you. You can’t do anything physical for six months. You cannot do anything.” It was tough. It was tough. I was in bed for six months doing nothing. I coached gymnastics at the time. I would show up to work in a neck brace. It was so, so, so hard. I can’t stress that enough, but I think that’s why I am who I am now because I had such a chip on my shoulder. I lost those six months. I’m on a fast track. I need to make it. Whatever that means, I need to make it because I lost six months. Yeah. I don’t know? I’m going on a tangent, but that was just such a big part of my life.
Steve: I know you said you started watching WWF like 2001. Did you know at that point that Steve Austin had broken his neck previously and came back?
Jake Atlas: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I would always look into that and I know Kurt had gone through that as well. I knew Austin had to stop because of that. So, that was my thing, I didn’t want … Obviously my goal was to get to the WWE, so that was my main concern. I didn’t want it to be a case where I attended try out, I’d go through my medical records and then I’m done.
Steve: Right, because they eliminate a lot of people on the medicals.
Jake Atlas: Yeah. I’m thankful that … I really believe that it’s not something that I’m concerned about. I think I’m fine.
Steve: So, when you came back did you worry you wouldn’t pick up where you left off?
Jake Atlas: Definitely being conditioned my whole life and then not doing anything for six months really took a toll on me. I have never, ever felt out of shape ever. I’m not bragging or anything. I just always did sports. When I came back those six months I never threw up in a workout I did. It was really tough. I’d beat myself up for it because I can be cocky sometimes, I can be arrogant. I’m like, I’m an athlete, this is easy. It was a struggle going through the drills again, going through everything. I had to get nice and strong to be able to do it, you know? I actually came back, then took a break and actually took up cheerleading again because that builds your air awareness. There are things you can learn from that and I wanted to do that to gain my confidence again. Then I kind of just said, “you gotta go.” I’m thankful I had Brody and Doug who just were still there. You can’t let that get to you. You got to come out stronger, you know?
Steve: Yeah. I know. Like I was saying, even before you debuted they were like, “oh this guy Jake is going to be good.” When you had your first match, who was it against?
Jake Atlas: It was against Robby Phoenix who was my trainer. He was my personal trainer. I only did private lessons at Santino Bros. because I wanted to fast track myself. I was a cocky son of a gun. So, he knows me best. It was all fitting. It all came full circle and they gave me him for my first match and it was great. I can’t think of a better way to debut.
Steve: You started getting bookings outside of Santino Bros. pretty quickly as well. I’m trying to think, was your first match outside Santinos at FCW?
Jake Atlas: No. Actually, my first outside match was for OCCW in Los Alamitos. Then slowly I went to Cen-Cal, then Baja Stars. Through Baja Stars I got to FCW. I felt like I got to FCW pretty quick. I got there within a month or two of debuting and that was pretty impressive for my personal growth.
Steve: What’s been your biggest challenge so far after debuting?
Jake Atlas: Being myself. That’s been my biggest challenge is definitely just being myself. I think there’s so many things, but I’ve learned especially these past few months as I’ve come to terms embracing myself in everything that I am, every aspect of myself. I’ve realized that every issue in between that fell under that same umbrella. It sounds crazy, wrestling is supposed to be the love of your life. Wrestling is my first love. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do. At the same time, it’s also been my biggest enemy. Through wrestling, I discovered my depression. Through wrestling, I’ve gone through suicide attempts. Because of wrestling, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost people and I’ve lost a sense of love and hope. It’s crazy.
I think I’ve learned that because you’re so passionate about, you get yourself in that situation. So, being myself was definitely my biggest challenge. Finding out who I am as a character, as Jake. How much of my real life do I want to convey with this wrestling persona? It was something that I always beat myself down for. It took me forever. I always felt I was bland and the only way I got through was because I was athletic. I’m glad that now I realize that. I’m taking the steps to be able to fix that.
Steve: Yeah. You’re super athletic and you do a lot of flashy stuff in the ring. Usually for someone like you it’s a little bit harder to be a heel because people are going to cheer impressive stuff.
Jake Atlas: Right.
Steve: At the last AWS show you went full on heel, had really cocky attitude. The crowd absolutely turned on you.
Jake Atlas: Right.
Steve: They were chanting rookie at you and everything else. Do you feel that’s your real persona, but just dialed up a notch?
Jake Atlas: Definitely. Yeah. A lot of people obviously don’t see training. Over the last year, I have stepped up and been a trainer at Santino Bros. In assuming that role I am more dominant I guess when we are training. I’ve had to play the role of being in control and I’ve had to be a dick. I’ve had to be an asshole. I’ve realized that it comes natural because I’ve used everything that I thought was my biggest weakness and I’ve used it now to become my biggest strength. It’s almost like all of that is that chip and I’m using that to convey that. I’m using past experiences. I was bullied as a kid, heavily. It was bad. So, I’m like, what did they do to me? I was a bully when I was a kid. I had both roles. How can I translate that here? There’s something here. I definitely feel more comfortable, but I want to be different and that is something that I am still channeling. I want to be different in that I want you to hate me, but I want you to love me all in one. It’s crazy.
Steve: Do you like being a heel or being a face better?
Jake Atlas: I do like being a heel better. Yes.
Steve: I was amazed because I was like, that was a matchup of two popular guys. Then you completely turned the crowd against you.
Jake Atlas: That was a lot of fun. It was a challenge for me because Bateman has such an aura about him and I’m new. I’m glad it turned out the way it did.
Steve: Going back to the Rookie of the Year award, so before it was announced that you were the winner, you had messaged me and said that if you win then you were going to come out publicly as gay.
Jake Atlas: Yes.
Steve: Now some wrestling fans aren’t the most progressive members of society…
Jake Atlas: Yup. I agree.
Steve: Was that like a big worry for you like how this is going to…
Jake Atlas: Yup. Always. Always. From day one. I mean, day one from the day I have been watching wrestling. Being gay, I’ve been a fan of everything. I’ve watched women wrestling. One of my favorite women wrestlers of all time was Trish Stratus. I loved her character and I loved everything that she did. I was always ashamed talking about that as a a kid. That was always in the back of my mind. It was one day I am going to get there. I am going to do it. How are they going to treat me? The minute that I realized that I was gay, that was the first thing that came to mind and obviously, WWE was too. For the longest time, they didn’t have a representation. Honestly, to this day I feel like they still don’t. You know that some wrestlers are, but there’s no outreach in the community from WWE.
Jake Atlas: I think they can have a bigger influence with how they are. I think they’re getting there. I definitely think they’re getting there.
Jake Atlas: It was always important to me, but it was also very scary especially starting out. The very first person I told was actually Brody. Brody King was the first person I ever came out to. It was way early on. He said, whenever you’re ready just know that I have your back and a lot of people will. I know it’s scary. There were always those moments where I wanted to be like, yeah, I am. No. Yeah. No. It just didn’t feel right. I took it step by step. I first came out to Joey my trainer, then I came out to Robby Phoenix, then I came out to the entire school because we started to get students that I started to notice that were gay. That’s something that you notice being gay myself. You notice those things. I started to feel like I have a responsibility here. This is what I’ve always wanted. I’ve always wanted a platform to show that we can do it. Anyone from any background, race or religion. I’ve always been that person and I’ve wanted that platform. I wanted to start somewhere. I thought this was great.
We have the Pride flag, the rainbow flag hung up in our dojo. I was like, we need representation of our people. We don’t have that. I want that. I was so passionate. I came out and everyone was so supportive. That gave me and I wanted to do it … This was like early on this year and I wanted to do it publicly, but I was like, no, there’s a time and a place. Thankfully, I got a really cool opportunity to film something in Florida that I can’t really reveal that’s all one and the same with that. I wanted to tie in me winning. I knew from the minute that I told Robby that this was a goal of mine to win Rookie of the Year, in the back of my mind I said, if I win, I’m going to come out. That could be the moment. I made that promise to myself not too long ago because it was perfect for me.
It’s like, you’re going to watch me be a wrestler because I’m good, not because I am gay, but I can do it. You know what I mean? That’s the message I want to send to everyone who’s struggling with the same thing. For a whole year, I battled I tried to be a tough guy, I tried to be macho, I tried to hold my … You have no idea Steve, I would change the way I would talk. I would change my mannerisms because I didn’t know what was right or wrong. I was done. I was like, I need to help people. There are people who feel the same way I do, so this is a good first step. Hey, I can be fucking good. I won Rookie of the Year. That means I’m on the way to being good. Samoa Joe won it, B-Boy won it, T.J. Perkins won it. Two of those guys are in the WWE, I can be good. Who cares, right, at the end of the day?
Jake Atlas: Everyone says that. Who cares if you’re gay? Who cares if you’re black? Who cares if you’re blue? Whatever it is, just be good. That’s great. You have to understand that there are people out there who still hold themselves back because of those insecurities. I want to be that voice to tell them, hey, who cares? Be you. Be successful.
Steve: I think it’s great because, I think about like you were saying, there really isn’t that representation. There was Darren Young for a little bit. He’s gone now.
Jake Atlas: Yeah. Then he got released.
Steve: Right. There’s like 300 people on their roster, there’s a percentage of the population that is gay that is at least larger than like 3%, so mathematically there should be a few gay wrestlers there.
Jake Atlas: I agree.
Steve: Or like Major League Baseball, nobody’s ever come out openly gay as an active player. There’s been thousands of players over just the last decade. There has to be one.
Jake Atlas: Exactly.
Steve: Like you said, maybe it holds other people back because they don’t have that person coming forward.
Jake Atlas: Right.
Steve: I know with Hudson Envy. She has been open about it. I talked to her about it when we did an interview awhile back. She had people that didn’t want her in the locker room and stuff like that. Hopefully now, even a few years later you’re not going to run into that.
Jake Atlas: Right. I’m hoping that with every voice we get to a … Someone said it best in one of the comments when I did come out on social media is, I hope we can get to point where we don’t have to do that anymore. We don’t have to feel like we have to announce it. Not because it’s a bad thing to announce it, but just because it’s part of society. Anyone can be successful.
Steve: That’s pretty much how I felt. Were you surprised by how much it blew up because it was on like the front page of the wrestling section on Reddit, Dave Meltzer wrote about it. It was all over the place.
Jake Atlas: I was because honestly it was for me. I just felt like I needed it. I wanted to be like, I have this new gimmick now, new persona. It’s more flamboyant. It’s more me. I wanted to be a reference. I didn’t care if it had two likes or 200 likes. I wanted there to be a reference. This guys acting a little different, let me check, oh, that’s why. Then it’d be like that’s pretty dope, you know what I mean?
Jake Atlas: It’s for me. I was really, really happy with the turn out, with the response from it. I think it’s good for Southern California. I think we needed that representation. You have Parrow, who I don’t know if you know about him, but he’s over in Orlando wrestling for EVOLVE and he’s this big guy. He just recently came out as well a couple weeks ago. He blew up as well. I felt like Southern California needed somebody. I’m glad I was able to step up.
Steve: Yeah. When you think about even 15 years ago, they [WWE] had Pat Patterson in bra and panties matches and stuff like that.
Jake Atlas: Yeah. It’s come a long way.
Steve: After coming out, have any promoters reached out you up anything like that? “Hey, we want you on the show” or the opposite?
Jake Atlas: Yeah. Actually a couple people, like two promoters in Florida. So, I’m kind of in the works for that. Mostly everything has been a good response. I’m kind of excited. Promoters have just hit me up and they’ve just congratulated me. People like Marcus Mac from APW. They’ve all sent personal messages. To know that they have my back is honestly, that’s dope. I know that it’s my work that’s getting me somewhere. It’s not because of that. I don’t want it to be because of that. Again, that’s another conversation I had with Parrow. He said, some people are going to say, “oh, it’s because you’re gay that you got booked”, which sounds crazy, right? I don’t want that to be it. I want to get booked because I’m a good fucking wrestler.
Steve: Now, I was around, and I’m showing my age here, but I was around for every single one of the Rookie of the Years that have come through so far. As far as just rookie years go, I think your’s and Samoa Joe’s are the two best of the last 20 years.
Jake Atlas: Thank you.
Steve: You’re so much more polished than any of the others aside from Samoa Joe who was just like some monster coming out at the time. I don’t know if you agree, but what do you attribute that to, the early success?
Jake Atlas: I’m really passionate and I want to be successful. We held a really important class one day and Joey Kaos was just, “what is your goal?” He was so passionate in saying what is your goal and he pointed at me and I said, I want to be in the Hall of Fame. Like that’s how passionate I am about this. I’ve had promoters tell me, you’re rushing. Your time will come. Your time will come. I’m like no, my time is now. I am going to do everything possible to do that. So, I’m studying my matches all the time. I watch them five to six times, 10 times over and over to see how I can be better. I’m at the dojo at Santino Bros. five days a week. I’m trying so hard to be the best. It’s just the commitment I’ve made to myself. Yes, my goal is WWE, but I want to be a good wrestler. I don’t just want to get to WWE, I want to be a fucking good wrestler at WWE.
Steve: It’s definitely paid off because I know some of the bigger promotions, you’re on their radar. PWG for example is easily the biggest thing around, maybe the most important independent in the U.S. Is getting someplace like that a goal or milestone for you?
Jake Atlas: Right. PWG is definitely a goal. It’s definitely a goal. You know, it’s funny. I see myself wrestling for PWG. It sounds arrogant, but I see it. I don’t know when it is going to happen. I see it and it’s something I want in my future. I see it. I want it. I love wrestling in general. I don’t know what my goal is to get to my ultimate goal? I’m game man. I want to go to Japan. I want to do PWG. I want DEFY. I want EVOLVE. I want Beyond. I want Limitless. I want to be a top name. I want to do whatever I can to get there.
Steve: Kind of going back, you said growing up watching lucha libre. Have you got to wrestle in Mexico?
Jake Atlas: I have not yet. No. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten that chance. I hope to man. I hope to go down there and actually train. I think that’d be really cool. I’ve been to so many shows over there. You have no idea.
Steve: Do you have a time frame in mind for your goals? Like you say to yourself you have to be in WWE in three years or something like that?
Jake Atlas: I write down my goals and they’re my screen on my phone. I definitely want to get to the WWE within the next like three to four years. It’s something that I definitely want to be a part of in any capacity. I just want to see how far I can push myself to get there.
Steve: Other than WWE and Japan, personally what kind of goals do you have, not wrestling related. I know you were talking about depression. Do you feel like there’s a way that you can defeat that?
Jake Atlas: Yeah. Personally, I’ve always and this is going to sound crazy, I like to be honest. I’ve always craved fame. So, I’ve always wanted to be famous in whatever sense that was. That’s my ultimate goal. I do have a stopping point with wrestling. There is an age that I won’t disclose that I do want to stop wrestling regardless of anything. Secretly, I’ve been pursuing to get into the entertainment industry. The reason why I’ve always wanted to be famous is not materialistic. It’s not for anything other than just for being famous. It’s because I want a platform. I feel like, I’ve always felt this way and this is why I call myself a Super Star, I’ve always felt that I was more than ordinary. It sounds crazy, but I’ve always felt that way. You know when you watch movies and there’s always a click of three people, there’s always the head guy or the head girl. There’s always that head person and they’ve got their side kicks. I’ve always felt like that was me. I’ve always felt it in my heart and I’ve always wanted to do something with that.
I like to think of myself as a good person. I do. I don’t believe that you should call yourself that, but I do feel that in my heart. I’ve always wanted to help people because I know what my mom has gone through. I know my family history. There’s so many stories that I feel that we can use to help others. There’s something special there between all of us. Between my entire family. Everything I’ve been through, I feel like I can help someone and that’s all I’ve ever wanted. However, I get there, obviously I want it to be through wrestling, but however I get there, that’s what I want. I want to write a book. I want to share my stories of how I got over things or why I fell into things. A lot of people like to talk about things after they’ve happened. I want to talk about things of what I’m going through.
I’ve tried to have conversations through networking. I’ve tried to talk to different production companies about even reality shows and trying to get into that. Reality shows nowadays are very toxic and I think there is something positive I can do. There’s so many things man. Honestly, my mind is always turning and I want to do something big. My personal goal is just to be a household name and make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what I want.
Steve: What do you feel has been your best match so far?
Jake Atlas: I definitely have two favorites. I wrestled with B-Boy at AWS in December. That was probably my best match and my favorite. My second one would have to be with Tyler Bateman, again at AWS. Both of those I feel I lost myself in it and that’s why I like it so much. Regardless of anything that happened in it, it’s me losing myself in it and being involved in it that really made me love it. I feel like those two are my best.
Steve: Now, I asked Douglas James this a couple of years ago and called Brody King as the next Rookie of the Year. Then Brody had told me he thought you were going to win it the next year.
Jake Atlas: I actually didn’t know that.
Steve: Who do you think is the next Rookie of the Year?
Jake Atlas: Oh. That is tough, but I can definitely throw two names in the hat. I am beyond fond of Dominic Kubrick’s work and Matt Vandagriff. I think what’s going to make it so special between the two of them is that they are so different in so many ways. Not saying that Dominic isn’t athletic, but it’s not his … He’s so different from Matt in that sense. People will get behind him because of his character and he’s so passionate about that. I think it’s going to come down to that. What’s going to prevail is … I’m not saying that Matt doesn’t have character. I’m just saying that their characters are conveyed in two different aspects. I think it will be a challenge between the two. I definitely think it’s going to be a Santino Bros., though. I’m calling it already. Both of those guys I have a lot of respect for. I just wrestled Matt yesterday at Santino Bros. and he did phenomenal. I think he’s a great talent. He reminds me a lot of myself and I wish them both the best of luck.
Steve: Now, before I let you go is there anything that you want to add that we haven’t covered?
Jake Atlas: I just really want to say thank you obviously to you Steve. Behind the scenes we see each other not very often, but I do want to say thank you for your support. That’s something that’s always needed. I’ve always felt a connection to people. I sense a good soul. I sense good energy. I appreciate that in you. Not just you, a lot of people. I want to make SoCal bigger than it was and that’s something that Brody’s doing right now. He’s going out, he’s making a name for himself. I want to be that next guy. I want to get eyes on this place. I thank you for everything. I thank everyone that’s supported me. Yeah. Let’s just keep killing it.
Steve: Alright. Thank you for your time.
Jake Atlas: No. Thank you. Honestly Steve, this was great.