Wrestler of the Week: Shayna Baszler

Kimberly Schueler
Shayna Baszler, Kairi Sane (source: WWE)

RondaRousey.com’s Wrestler of the Week series profiles significant wrestlers from the past and present. 

Shayna Baszler has successfully made the transition from pioneer for women in combat sports to an important, intimidating figure in the WWE Women’s Evolution. While Ronda Rousey dominates on the main roster, Baszler holds it down for the Four Horsewomen along with Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir in NXT, where she is the brand’s first two-time Women’s Champion. This week, RondaRousey.com will look at how she got there.

A Khun Kru in Muay Thai and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Baszler had her first professional fight in 2003, which she won by submission. She debuted for EliteXC in July 2007 and submitted three opponents at ShoXC events, then started moving up to main EliteXC cards. After EliteXC’s shut down, Baszler competed for Strikeforce starting in 2009 and entered the Freestyle Cage Fighting Women’s Bantamweight Grand Prix in 2010, where she began to become known for submitting opponents with her signature “Shwing” twister submission. In the next few years, she went on to become the FCF Women’s Bantamweight Grand Prix Champion, the first TCI (The Cage Inc.) Women’s 140 lbs Champion, and compete in Invicta Fighting Championships.

During this period, Baszler started to incorporate catch wrestling into her MMA training, something extremely unusual for a female fighter. Trained by former UFC fighter and pro wrestler Josh Barnett, as well as Billy Robinson, Baszler is currently the only American woman certified in catch wrestling. In fact, she’s one of only a handful of Americans, period.

She also credits Barnett for tutoring her in how to build an engaging MMA persona, telling her: “Be something different so they can’t replace you.” Baszler started carrying an electric guitar to the ring, leaning into a rock star image. But she still struggled with her public persona and connected it with the something she observed about gender. “Girls are still afraid to have their own identity on a personal level,” Baszler said in 2009, something that someone watching her wrestle in 2019 would never expect to hear from the mouth of “The Queen of Spades.”

Baszler became more well-known after she signed with UFC in 2013 as part of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, where both she and Jessamyn Duke were on Team Rousey, while Marina Shafir was also a coach. Unfortunately, Baszler had to pull out of her TUF Nations Finale fight with Sarah Kaufman due to injury. After losing her first two UFC fights (to Bethe Correia and Amanda Nunes, both by TKO), Bazler was released by UFC in 2015. She ended her MMA career at 15-11, with 13 of those wins by submission.

For Baszler, the next logical step her in career was to pursue professional wrestling, of which she was a longtime fan. Backstage at the 2017 Mae Young Classic, she said that because of her background in catch wrestling, whose fellow practitioners-turned-pro-wrestlers include her trainers Barnett and Robinson, as well as “The God of Pro Wrestling” Karl Gotch, “Transitioning to pro wrestling was a way to honor my martial heritage… The way to earn my black belt in catch wrestling, if catch wrestling had black belts, would be to move on to professional wrestling.”

Baszler made her pro wrestling debut in September 2015 at Quintessential Pro Wrestling in Reno, NV against Nicole Matthews. Just a few months later, she defeated Ruby Raze to pick up her first title (in California’s PREMIER Wrestling promotion), the PREMIER Women’s Championship. But she significantly raised her profile in Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW), where “she was able to truly tap into her ‘Queen of Spades’ persona,” especially after winning their Women’s Championship in 2016. Baszler’s January 2017 tour of World Wonder Ring Stardom in Japan—including a high-profile, acclaimed match in which she challenged Io Shirai for the World of Stardom Championship—established her as a force worldwide.

She took her next step in July 2017, when she entered WWE’s inaugural Mae Young Classic tournament. Baszler lost in the final to Kairi Sane but made a strong impression and kicked off what has so far been her defining rivalry in WWE. Baszler officially signed with NXT in October 2017 and showed up on TV a few months later. She was unsuccessful in her first attempt at the NXT Women’s Championship against Ember Moon at NXT TakeOver Philadelphia in January 2018 but managed to win the title at TakeOver: New Orleans.

Baszler had been a terrifying, dominant presence from the moment she set foot in a WWE ring, but now she could back that up with gold. After retaining her championship against Dakota Kai and Nikki Cross, she rekindled her rivalry with Sane and the two went on to have a series of acclaimed matches. Baszler lost her title to Sane at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 after holding it for 133 days, won it back at WWE Evolution—with help from Duke and Shafir—to become the first-ever two-time NXT Women’s Championship, and then retained it against “The Pirate Princess” at NXT TakeOver: WarGames II.

By the time of Baszler’s title defense—against Bianca Belair at NXT TakeOver: Phoenix—the next, somehow even more ruthless phase of her NXT persona had been well-established. Whoever Baszler’s future challengers are will not only have to deal with her strength, striking ability, and submission expertise but probably the extralegal help of Duke and Shafir as well. As “The Queen of Spades” keeps the locker room on notice, her attitude and fighting style bring to mind something she told The Orlando Sentinel in 2017:

“I spent so many years in MMA waving the banner for pro wrestling, telling fighters they had to be more entertaining. Now I see my job as reminding pro wrestlers that it’s supposed to be a fight.”

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