Ember Moon knows what it’s like to grind it out to get what you want. Her path to WWE wasn’t an easy one: Working the indies, making a name for herself, she took part in four WWE tryouts before finally being signed. It’s the kind of struggle that can make or break a person, but Ember seems to use that as fuel.
Since coming to WWE, she’s found herself rising through the ranks. In NXT, she had numerous tough bouts with the unbeatable Asuka and then claimed the NXT Women’s Championship when Asuka vacated it before moving to the main roster. Since then, Ember Moon’s been trying to climb the ladder on SmackDown and win her first WWE championship outside of NXT.
RondaRousey.com got to sit down with “The War Goddess” just a few days after SummerSlam to talk about her bout with SmackDown Women’s Champion Bayley, the staggering amount of competition within WWE, her difficulties with a childhood filled with bullying and her escape into wrestling, and how badly she wants to wrestle Io Shirai.
First off: We’re coming off SummerSlam weekend. Kind of a tough loss [against Bayley for the SmackDown Women’s Championship]. How are you feeling?
A little sore, a little defeated. But I’m super motivated to try and get back in that contendership, and just try and move forward.
What’s Bayley like as an opponent?
She’s tough, she’s hard-hitting, she’s extremely passionate, just like I am. So it’s kind of like wrestling a weird version of myself. She’s a fighting champion. Bayley comes out and she’s not going to lie, and she’s going to tell you what she’s all about straight up, to your face.
Does some of the similarity come from both of you making your way through NXT?
Bayley and I have more history than just NXT though: We’ve always shared locker rooms and crossed paths before we got to WWE. We used to work in SHIMMER Women Athletes, and we’d always see each other from across the locker room. We never had much interaction, we’d say “Hello, how are you,” then move along to the next person. But we were both these up and coming rising stars, and then in NXT we were both these up and coming rising stars. And it took, what, almost four years since I was hired by WWE for us to have that match. It’s a really cool moment because we have had similar paths.
Is that a lot of pressure, having that “rising star” label attached to you?
Yes and no. I tried to get into WWE for 10 years, so it’s kind of a grey area. It’s a different kind of pressure on the indies because you’re trying to get booked, you’re trying to get paid, you’re trying to pay the bills and stuff like that. That’s keeping the lights on, and feeding your family. It’s a little different here, because it still does that, but on a whole other level. I remember being that person [a “rising star”], and when Bayley left the independent scene…I’m not saying she was beneath me, but I’m going to say it a little bit. Not to diminish her, but I had worked so hard to get where I was on the independent scene and I was kinda like the big star, but she…when she started rising she got signed. She was already gone. She was here [in WWE] making a name for herself, establishing herself as a force in the women’s division.
So yeah, when I came to NXT she’s already at the top of the mountain and I’m trying to get to her level. So it’s like, even though we’ve both seen success at different times in our careers, she’s always been that one step ahead, and it irritates me.
[At SummerSlam], I thought I was finally going to surpass that mountain, but it’s not true, and it sucks. 14 years wrestling versus…I know Bayley hasn’t wrestled as long as me, but she got the head start here. Coming here, it’s the best of the best. Women I never even thought I’d see or share a ring with.
So it’s a huge step.
It’s one of those things…I thought I was so sure of myself. Going from “I don’t need WWE, I don’t need any of these other companies out there” to then finally getting that opportunity, and reveling in the moment. I had four WWE tryouts before I got signed. Sasha [Banks] got signed first time around. Bayley got signed first time around. I wasn’t what they were looking for, but I made them choose me. I had to find myself out there.
We got to talk to Matt Riddle recently about his journey, and he said that while he was confident in what he was doing, coming to WWE was still a big step up when it comes to competition, and when it comes to performing for the people at home and not just the ones in a small venue.
You get a little bit of that on the independent scene with iPPV, but when I was there it was still so new. It was like “we may or may not be up and running in five minutes.” You could always be frozen on a blank screen. It’s crazy how far that’s come in the last 10 or 15 years.
I think if you love wrestling, right now is the best time to be a fan. You have access to so much stuff at the click of a button.
Everything. And not just with WWE, but the independent scene…EVOLVE, SHIMMER, SHINE, RISE. Sports entertainment….there’s so much. There’s so much talent, so many different vibes at each company.
So does that give someone like you, who’s grinding on the independents, more of an opportunity? There are different paths to get to WWE.
100%. I feel like because it is so competitive now, you have to be on your “A” game. There are going to be different avenues. WWE wants premier athletes, premier sports entertainers. Overall, it’s all about entertainment. You might be the best actor, or football player, or cheerleader, and WWE will see something in you. Lacey Evans is a prime example of someone that was just superior at everything that she did in life because she has that dedication. Former Marine, stay-at-home mom, like, she takes care of all of her….mmmm.
You can say “shit.” We can curse here.
I try not to! I have a terrible mouth. But she takes care of her family, and that motivates her. I remember when she came in and she was in sweatpants and a tank top and she knew nothing about our world, but look at her now. Multiple PPVs. She is the Lady of WWE. She’s shown that dedication, and that shows me that WWE saw something special in her way back when she didn’t even know. It’s a cool transformation to see. I also think of like Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose. I saw them on Day 1 walking into the Performance Center, and look at them now. It’s such a crazy atmosphere, and I think that’s why NXT is so beneficial.
There’s talent everywhere, and I think just as a whole, humanity has evolved past what it used to be.
It’s almost like the floor for the expected athleticism, and what you need to be able to do, has skyrocketed in the last, say, 10 years or so. You need to be at a certain level to be even thinking about this job.
It’s just…crazy. I go back and watch a lot of old school wrestling [laughs]….like, I would never go out there and do that stuff. I was doing that stuff in Year 1. Lockups and hip tosses, and the crowd is going wild! Now you have to do a 450 to the outside to get that reaction.
I think about the stuff you do, or someone like Charlotte or Seth Rollins. The things that they’re doing in every single match, on PPVs and Mondays and Tuesdays and live shows…you’d maybe see one of those moves once on a PPV throughout the whole year back in the day. Now it’s all the time! That’s just where the talent is.
It’s crazy. [SummerSlam] Sunday I had to follow one of the most athletically-entertaining matches I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember being like “we’re following Ricochet and AJ Styles, it’s going to be great! We’re going to do great!” And then I see Ricochet do this Phoenix Splash and AJ catches him in a powerbomb and then goes Styles Clash, and that was the end of their match, and I was like, “Well, there’s nothing we can do” [laughs].
So you still get those feelings? Like, you’re watching a match like that and it’s intimidating to follow?
I don’t get intimidated. I just enjoy other people’s matches. I enjoy…Ricochet is just crazy. He’s been doing it since he was, like, 16, and at that level. We’re the same age, or I’m a year older, and it’s terrifying how much potential he has. Following them is…I was afraid they might not care about us after seeing that, sure. It’s not intimidating, but…
It’s respect, right? It pushes you.
It motivates me to be better. We were in a weird situation. Bayley and I had never wrestled, no real interaction. So what’s the chemistry going to be like? Are people going to want to see this match? I think it’s curiosity more than anything. Once we watch that match go down, suddenly I’m asking more questions.
But we ended on good terms. She came out and helped me when Nattie put me in the sharpshooter. I went in thinking I was going to beat the tar out of this girl.
That’s Bayley’s whole M.O. though. You think you’re going to kick her ass, but then she’s just coming at you.
Yeah, she brings an intensity that I didn’t expect. You think you have this woman-child, with the ponytail and the Bayley Buddies and hugging everyone, then you get this beast in the ring. She’s shown her maturity, how much she’s grown since the girl I knew as Davina Rose.
Do you keep up with the NXT product?
I try to, I try to. Especially because I have so many friends there.
Yeah, who wouldn’t? I actually have a history with damn near every woman down there.
I mean, you have history with Drew Gulak even.
You know, I feel like right when all of my friends were coming and getting signed to NXT, I got drafted to RAW. It was like, “Oh my god, Io Shirai!” Io Shirai is the one woman I wish I got to work with on the independent scene. So she got hired and I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do this!” Then it’s, “Ember, you’re going to RAW” and I’m like, “What?” You know, just give me one more match!
I’ve had plenty of matches with Candice LeRae. I want another match with Mia Yim. Shayna Baszler, and Bianca Belair, Deonna Purrazzo, Rachael Evers…just so many names, this [pool] of talent, and I just can’t wait. I fantasy book everything in life. I’m pretty sure if I never made it to WWE I would still have a fantasy league or something. You know, we used to put down our bets for every PPV, write it up on a chalkboard. It was official. Now if I want to watch a PPV, I have to watch it two days later when I’m home.
Like, Royal Rumble is a religious holiday. So it was kind of bittersweet that my first PPV was the Royal Rumble. I remember when they told me, and my arm was all bandaged up so I had to do it with one arm, and I was like “I’m not missing this for the world,” and then just having this moment where I wished I could be home watching myself.
Did you have family that were into wrestling, or were you kind of the outsider?
My mom watched it because I watched it, but it was me and my brother who were always like, “I’m going to be Jeff Hardy today!” My best friend was into it too. But when I came up in middle school, I got heavy into it. Like, it wasn’t cool to like wrestling.
I remember I was in high school when Eddie Guerrero passed away, and I got my Letterman jacket and put “R.I.P. E.G.” on it with duct tape, just strutting around and not ashamed of it because someone I loved watching on TV….it was like an uncle had passed away. And that gives credit to WWE and their storytelling, and how they get people invested.
I never got to meet Eddie, obviously, but I did get to meet Vickie later on, when I did that first Rumble. I was so happy. It’s funny because it was like 5 a.m. and we’re all getting makeup done to do our photos, and I see Vickie Guerrero walk in, and we lock eyes and I start crying. I’d been hired for a couple years, and Torrie Wilson is sitting there with her little dog, and Beth Phoenix is there. So little kid me is losing it, right?
So I thought I was going to be okay, but then she walks in and I start bawling, like, “Oh my god, it’s Vickie Guerrero.” She runs up to me and gives me a hug and says hi, and I’m just thinking how this is the greatest day of my life. It’s cool to have those connections with people you’ve never met through wrestling. She was like, “I watch NXT all the time and I love you,” and it was so great.
I would think holding on to that little kid feeling, that passion, is probably good for you.
I am one of the best and worst at hiding how much of a fan I am. I’ll tell you a fun story, and now she will know about this:
When I was a kid, me and my friend used to pretend to be Stephanie McMahon. We’d slap someone, reenact the promos. And this is middle school, so we’re definitely old enough to not be doing this. But I remember this one time walking in, and Stephanie was there and had like 20 people walking with her. I’m just an NXT nobody, I think my second week there. So my thing was, “Okay, you’re going to say hi to somebody this week.” So I saw her and was like “Oh hi, Stephanie.” She stops, and all 20 people do this Plinko thing, turning behind her. She turns and goes “Hi, how are you?” and I froze.
You weren’t expecting the interaction.
No. She stopped and was like, “Hi, how are you?” and I just ran away. I bailed.
You did not run away from Stephanie McMahon.
I did. I ran away so quick.
You don’t still do that, do you?
I try not to. But I still have really awkward interactions because it’s like meeting your heroes. Except I work with my heroes, which is even worse because they have to work with me. I remember sitting with Ruby Riott and she was like, “Okay, here comes Stephanie, don’t be weird.” So I just tried to fake it, “Hi Stephanie, how are you?” and she asked me if I had a good winter, and I was like, “ummmmm.” It’s the simplest question, and all I had to do was say yes, but I was like, “Ready to get back to work!” really awkwardly. And Ruby’s looking at me like, “Oh my god, you blew it again.” I had a string of bad instances back to back to back.
So you have no chill with this?
I have no chill with this. I really don’t. Undertaker was one of those people for me, I remember the first time I met him. I was here for “extra talent,” I think I was 18. This is in Dallas [where Ember grew up], and catering at the time had these black curtains you had to go through. So I remember going through the curtains and just [smacks hands] running into a wall and falling down, then looking up and being like, “Oh my god, you’re Taker!” and he’s like, “Are you okay?” and I just scurried away. I was in high heels and this terrible skirt and top.
There’s a lot of scurrying in your WWE journey, I have to say.
[Laughs] Yeah. Everybody here has been absolutely amazing and chill though. It’s really not that I have to work with them, but that they have to work with me.
There are times when I actually get to sit back and just take in moments. I’ll get here super early and just go sit in the ring, thinking about how I accomplished my dreams, getting teary-eyed. I remember how I felt watching WWE growing up. I had a terrible situation at school…not at home, we kept that very separate. I got bullied maliciously. You name it, if it happened in a movie or a TV show or sitcom, it probably happened to me. I remember one year for my birthday all I wanted were these blue heels, and I wore them to school and this girl kicked the heel out from under me, and I broke my toe and broke the heels the first day.
I was so miserable, and the only thing I had to look forward to was WWE. I could go and see The Hurricane stand up to The Rock, you know? These people that I watched as a kid, they weren’t afraid to express who they were, and there was some sort of fascination with that, and now here I am doing the same thing, and I hope I motivate people to do that, to be that person. If I’m the rainbow at the end of a rainy day, I want to be that for them. It keeps me passionate, it keeps me motivated to do whatever I need to do to be that person for someone.
It’s a powerful tool, to be able to transport someone out of their current situation, one that could be tough, and giving them weekly moments of escape.
It’s awesome. When people come to a WWE show, they could be having the worst day, but this is their moment to escape that sadness and anger and enjoy something, and someone else’s pain and torment in the ring [laughs]. It’s their opportunity to have fun and be entertained, and that’s all we want to do. Most of us have been fans before starting doing this, and we understand what they want.
I got to watch that live, and I remember when they asked me to do it, I was like, “I want to be in the front row. I’m 5’1”, I’m going to be in the front row.” I had zombie makeup on from the Kickoff Show, and this is my first show back from injury. I’m watching him in this match and hoping he wins, and we didn’t know anything about anything before the match. If you wanted to know you could maybe find out, but like I said, I’m a fan, I want to feel that.
So I have all this zombie makeup on, and this, like, bone vest, and I just look angry, like what was I thinking? But I remember just being so happy when Kofi won, then all of a sudden…and you can go back and watch this while we celebrate…you see me and Asuka just disappear. Everyone starts celebrating, and we get pushed to the back. Me and Asuka just looking at each other like, “What?”
And you and Asuka have some history, so who knows what’s going to happen back there.
[Laughs] Aww man, Asuka is one of my closest friends. I speak a little bit of Japanese, so me and Asuka just have a very special bond. We’ll kick the crap out of each other in the ring, but we do have a very special bond. She’s another person that I met on the indies; we actually wrestled on the indies, and we hated each other. Or at least it was one-sided, on my part, but I like to think that it went both ways.
But yeah, I have so many fond memories of Asuka after we had this knockout, drag-out catfight. It was like Day 1 and we were very uneasy because we hadn’t seen each other since that match. It was like, “Okay, you gonna be cool?” And it was very weird, but then we kinda did the handshake thing and we hugged, and then yeah. Asuka is a Day 1 for me. We’ve been wrestling for the same amount of time, we started at SHIMMER around the same time. We had a match in SHIMMER, then we hated each other, then we’re Day 1 side-by-side in NXT with each other.
Was there a moment where you felt like the sports entertainment thing really clicked for you, where you felt like this was your path for sure?
It was love at first bump for me. I really started training with Skandor Akbar, World Class Championship Wrestling. He did a tryout class with me, to see if I liked it because, you know, you’re spending a lot of money when you train. I remember falling back and hitting my head, learning a couple holds, and that was the first class and I was like, “Oh man, I’m coming back.”
I came back the next time, paid my money, and he ran me up and down the freeway for two months. Highway 80 in Mesquite, Texas.
That’s some Karate Kid stuff.
Sure was. I got the bug. Every day for two months I ran up and down that freeway. Two miles up, two miles back. I never made a class. My motivation was always, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll get in the ring, maybe tomorrow I’ll get in the ring.” I remember the day he told me to get in the ring, and it was the biggest gift in the world. Now, every time I get to go in that ring, that’s a reward for me.
Do you have a certain philosophy that you bring to your wrestling? What are you trying to do when you step in the ring that’s different from everybody else? What’s Ember Moon bringing to the game?
The one thing I like to bring to the ring is…I’m just me. I don’t strive to be anything but me, and I strive to be different. I don’t consider myself a “sex symbol” or “sexy,” and some people have those gimmicks and it’s fine, but I just want to be the first Ember Moon. They always say that you emulate someone, and there are a lot of people that have had an influence on my career, but I’ve never really emulated anybody.
Like, you look at Bayley and she’s the new “Macho Man,” but you look at Ember Moon and I didn’t come from anything in this business. I didn’t have a famous dad, a famous uncle. I did this because it was the only thing I did for myself. It was the only thing I wanted to do for myself, and I didn’t want to go through life regretting never trying to wrestle. I was really big in soccer for years and years, playing in college. That was supposed to be my jam, but this always felt right. And I feel like that’s very important to know about me, because I didn’t have any help to get anywhere in life, getting to NXT, getting to WWE. I’ve done everything my way. It goes hand in hand; I’m a superfan, and I’m extremely passionate about what I do.
I want to be the first Ember Moon. There’s no one like me. I’m cut from different cloth, but it’s because I chose to be that way. I remember at one point in my career thinking, “Oh, I need to be sexy.” I think I wore chaps at one point in time. It’s a not a good thing. I thought I needed to be the next Diva.
You were trying to cater to a certain type.
I was trying to cater to WWE, to be a part of WWE. I’m glad they said no the first time, the second time, the third time, because it gave me an opportunity to figure out who I was. I hate dressing up, I can’t walk in high heels, I don’t like makeup, and I’m kind of a hermit and socially awkward. But I found out that I love video games, that I’m a big nerd, that I love vampires, witches, supernatural stuff, I love to play Dungeons and Dragons. If people in the back hear me talking about that, they look at me like I’m a crazy person. With the exception of Ronda, she was pretty friggin’ awesome and that’s how we bonded.
It’s just like, I’m the first me and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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