WWE NXT Star Jake Atlas Says He Doesn't Want to Be Known as 'the Gay Wrestler'
The new wrestling star is the first out-gay man signed to the sport — “but you’re not going to watch me because I’m gay. You’re going to watch me because I’m good"
When Jake Atlas reported for training at the World Wrestling Entertainment facilities in Orlando this past January, the 25-year-old became the first openly gay man signed to the sport.
For Atlas — whose real name is Kenny Marquez — wrestling is his destiny. “This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” Atlas says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. “Or be.”
Atlas gained the WWE’s attention when he appeared on the show Undercover Boss. As a then-unsigned, aspiring wrestler who worked part-time at a Los Angeles gym, Atlas told WWE’s chief brand manager Stephanie McMahon that he planned to be the first out gay male wrestler. He had been planning on saying that for more than 10 years.
Atlas’s mother grew up in Mexico and imbued her own love of Lucha libre into her two sons. Atlas latched onto it and was eventually able to pivot his cheerleading and tumbling skills into wrestling.
But for most of his life, he wasn’t sure being gay and being a professional wrestler was compatible. In fact, he wasn’t even sure being gay and a member of his family was compatible.
“I came out when I was 15,” he remembers. “I didn't tell a friend. I went straight to my mom. When I told her was the first time that I uttered the word ‘gay.’ I didn't even say bisexual, because I knew I had been lying to myself. I was crying and I even said the words, ‘I know this is wrong, but I'm gay.’ ”
By that point, his mother was crying too. “I know that more than anything, she was crying out of disappointment. And she brought religion into it. It was a difficult moment," says Atlas.
The pain propelled Atlas forward.
“I knew it was going to be really hard to make her proud now. I knew that I wasn't going to do it in a month, or two months, even a year. I knew that I wasn't going to make her proud until I did something with my life. Until I accomplished something big.”
He dropped out of college and began wrestling professionally — while still working part-time — in 2018. But he wanted to do it as an out gay man.
He came out, very publicly, on Twitter, which led to thousands of negative and positive comments. He recounts, “It was scary and difficult to go into this headfirst. But there was no other way.”
He was signed to the WWE in 2019 as a NXT Superstar. And this year, he made his debut in the ring. He lost his first match, but he knows he’s still winning. That’s due in part to the shoulders he’s standing on outside of the ring.
“Sonya Deville was one of the first superstars that reached out to me," he tells PEOPLE. Atlas knew her through his own TV screen, as the first out lesbian wrestler in the league. “We have been able to get closer and understand each other. And like we're both here, you know? I have your back; we have my back.”
The other person holding him up? His mother.
“We’ve now had countless conversations,” he says. “I'm always educating her and I'm always trying to understand her as well. I think that's the important part about acceptance, understanding each other so that we can find that common ground. Then we can move forward together. And progress. Together.”
WWE NXT airs on Wednesdays on the USA network.
For more about Atlas, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.