A shaggy-haired man with a painted face screamed at the camera, ranting about his enemy. Sweat beaded on the man’s bare chest, his veins popping from his freakishly large biceps. He shook with every word he spoke as if he were hooked up to an electrical outlet.
Seven-year-old Austin Matelson stared at the TV screen in his Woodland Hills home, utterly hypnotized.
The man on the screen was a professional wrestler dubbed The Ultimate Warrior, and to Matelson, the performer embodied his mythological heroes.
“That was it. The moment I saw the Ultimate Warrior I was like, ‘This is Conan the Barbarian wrestling,’” said Matelson ’08, M.A. ’10 (History).
It was an early epiphany for Matelson: He decided to become a professional wrestler.
Now 34, after grinding in the business as a developmental talent for the biggest global brand in entertainment wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a stint on the reality show “Big Brother” and a run on wrestling’s blue-collar independent circuit, Matelson is on the brink of the most important and prominent run of his wrestling career. At 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 250 pounds, he is known as Luchasaurus — a masked grappler signed to the fledgling All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the most significant market challenge to WWE since the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling battled for cable ratings superiority in the late 1990s.
Beyond his reptilian mask and his giant presence, Matelson possesses something a little more unique in his world: bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And though physicality is the first characteristic one would connect with wrestling, Matelson might surprise you when he notes that his CSUN education has made a significant impact on his career.
He arrived at CSUN somewhat an introvert after being home-schooled, Matelson said. He found that history classes aligned with his interests, particularly medieval history, and he bonded with some of his professors — especially history professor Clementine Oliver, for whom he later worked as a teaching assistant.
“It was exactly the time period and the stuff that I was interested in, and medieval [classes] in America that are that good aren’t easy to find. She was the best, and we just connected really well,” Matelson said. “I had a couple of other professors whom I connected with really well, and I just had so much fun and felt really at home in the department. I was excelling with [my] studies and I was getting it, and it was exciting.”
In graduate school, Matelson became Oliver’s teaching assistant. Oliver, who teaches medieval European history and other courses in Western civilization, said she recognized Matelson’s strong ability to connect with others through his personality and sense of humor. She referred to him as “effervescent.” But she also noted his intelligence and work ethic.
“The flashes of brilliance were there as an undergrad,” she said. “I remember one exam where he sat down and wrote a long essay, and it kind of blew me away [after reading it]. It was sort of when it all gels for him his critical thinking skills are up there with the best of them, not just CSUN.”
Matelson was passionate about his studies, thinking that writing historical fiction or a career in law or teaching might be in his future. But he tends to “live in the moment,” which precludes firm plans, he said.
Still, CSUN proved a training ground for what eventually became his career.
“I would have fun with the professors there and put on these performances where I had to get up in front of the class and do these projects, and made them up like a wrestling show. And I’d have the whole class laughing,” Matelson said. “I really enjoyed being the center of attention. I enjoyed giving speeches. I enjoyed interacting in front of a crowd. I was like, ‘You know what? This is like wrestling.’”
While in the master’s program at CSUN, a friend turned Matelson on to a wrestling school in Van Nuys. By morning, Matelson studied the writings of medieval poets Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach for his thesis, and by night he learned the art of the clothesline and German suplex moves at wrestling school.
Matelson’s thesis was so good, Oliver said, that she recently lent it to a CSUN student as reference for their own thesis.
Matelson completed his master’s degree and soon gained a bit of notoriety in the ring. Eventually, WWE producers got hold of his highlight tape and signed him to a developmental deal. He wrestled under the name “Judas Draven.”
A combination of circumstances — being still green in the business, his independent nature, creative differences and injury — ended his time with WWE after two years, he said. As his goal of working for the top company in the business fell through, Matelson fell into a depression.
While he contemplated his future, he pursued physical therapy and personal training to rally back to health. Then, through a contact, he reached out to a producer of the show “Big Brother” in hopes of becoming a cast member. Producers liked his story of “wrestler with a master’s degree” and cast him for the show’s 17th season.
After the show, he healed and resumed his wrestling career. He went to a tryout for the Lucha Underground wrestling organization and was hired the next day. The organizers assigned Matelson an ominous character named “Vibora,” who wore a snake mask. When he took the floor to wrestle in his first match, fans began chanting: “Luchasaurus! Luchasaurus!”
“One of my best friends, John Morrison, who’s ‘Johnny Mundo’ on the show, tells me, ‘Dude, you’ve got to run with that ‘Luchasaurus’ thing,’” Matelson recalled. “I thought, it’s so ridiculous it might just work.”
That was 2016. Matelson has embraced his reptilian persona. And though Oliver has never seen her former student wrestle, she could see how he would connect his CSUN studies to his craft.
“There was something about both the ancient and medieval world that attracted him,” she said. “The distant landscape is ripe for critical examination. It lends itself to imagination and re-creation. I think he was drawn to that and drawn to chivalry. I could see how he could find the perfect blend of performance and emotion and critical thinking in the classroom.”
The industry landscape has changed, with AEW bubbling up. Backer Tony Khan, co-owner of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars, helped found the new organization on Jan. 1. It will have a two-hour show airing weekly on TNT, beginning in October.
In late May, the organization signed Matelson, making an announcement on Twitter: “He has a Master’s Degree … and now @JudasDraven/#LuchaSaurus is #AllElite.” He performed at AEW’s inaugural event, “All or Nothing,” in front of more than 10,000 people at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“It’s all connected,” Matelson said of CSUN and his wrestling career. “I learned a different way of approaching a topic and an argument [and found] new ways of using my brain that I didn’t have before [studying] history. We learn how to write history, how to interpret things without truth. And wrestling is the ultimate thing that has no truth because it’s performance, and it’s half-pretending and half-real. There’s a lot of analyzing of the character you’re doing — how to perform in front of a crowd and get them to react to things a certain way.
“What you’re doing is almost telling a story like a historian tells a story,” he said. “There’s a lot of correlation in the way you can approach it from that analytical point of view.”