While she officially burst onto the radar of the WWE Universe in 2017, during the inaugural Mae Young Classic tournament—where she made it to the Finals, against Kairi Sane—Shayna Baszler actually made her in-ring professional wrestling debut back in the fall of 2015, after about a decade as a professional in the world of mixed martial arts. Prior to her taking over the black and gold brand’s women’s division, Shayna competed in indies all over, even making a name for herself in the United States’ and Japan’s premier all-women’s companies, respectively, SHIMMER and STARDOM.
RondaRousey.com recently got the chance to interview “The Queen of Spades” Shayna Baszler, and she spoke with us about the catch origins of professional wrestling, how contemporary wrestling can draw in MMA fans, her own personal dream matches, and more.
Okay, so I apologize in advance: I have two fans going right now… because it is very hot.
Okay, well I’m going to eat sushi while I’m doing this. So we’ll be perfect.
Perfect. Well, you’re eating sushi right now, but how do you usually unwind when you’re not in wrestling mode? Or are you always in wrestling mode?
I mean, you obviously need some decompress time. So, if we’re talking like a moment where I’ll sit back and kind of do whatever I want, then it’s going to be eat a good cheat meal. And I’m really, really into craft beer. I subscribe to this service that sends micro-brewed craft beers. So I like doing that. But obviously I can’t drink those all the time, so I like to enjoy those when I can.
What about favorite TV shows or movies? Or are you only watching wrestling?
No. I’m binge-watching the Community right now.
Is it the first time you’ve watched?
“The Community.” It is the first time through for me, but everyone was telling me it’s crazy, so I had to start watching it. I love it. I’m watching that, I’ll watch movies—we go to movies sometimes. I have a ‘69 Mustang, so I like cruising around. I don’t know. Stuff that’s more relaxing because we always have to be on, so if I can do anything where I can just shut off. Kind of be, that’s a bonus for me.
That makes sense.
Before you got into the business, were there any wrestlers or matches specifically that inspired you? What was the exact moment where you said to yourself, “Yeah, I have to do this?”
What’s funny about that is, I never really thought about actually doing pro wrestling until I started doing pro wrestling. I don’t know, maybe it was just because of the way women were at the time or something—I didn’t think it was an option for me. So I think I got into fighting and then became my pro wrestler self in fighting.
And that’s not to say I [went] into fighting thinking, “I’m going to be a pro wrestler.” What I mean is that, I trained with Josh Barnett—who is an old school style pro wrestler—and back in his training and lineage, you had to fight before you could pro wrestle. And so I kind of always knew where it came from, so I just figured I was already a pro wrestler. You know what I mean? You see my old MMA stuff, I’m coming out with a guitar and I’m saying hilarious stuff during… Can I swear in this?
Oh yeah, you can definitely swear.
Yeah. So I’m saying hilarious shit during interviews and stuff like that. And then, I get to pro wrestling and now I’m like, “Shayna’s a fighter.” I don’t do much.
Basically, you switched it up: You had a gimmick in MMA and then in pro wrestling, your gimmick is MMA.
Did you have any favorite wrestlers beforehand though, before you got into wrestling yourself?
Yeah, I’ve always watched it. I think my first favorite pro wrestler was Shawn Michaels. And then I really liked The Ultimate Warrior, because when The Ultimate Warrior versus Hulk Hogan feud was going on, I think part of it was his face paint. I was a kid and it was cool. But I think also, [since] Hulk Hogan was everyone’s favorite, I had to kind of be like, “the other guy.”
Yeah, you couldn’t choose the popular one.
You worked the indies before you got to NXT. How did those years of grinding there prepare you for NXT and WWE as a whole?
Well, I think understanding the social dynamic of wrestling. Everything in life has a subculture around it, right? So you go do one thing and there’s a whole kind of list of unwritten social rules. And I learned those on the indies and didn’t have to get briefed on how things were once I got to NXT, as far as behind-the-scenes in the locker room. Just little stuff that people wouldn’t know.
But I think the biggest thing about the indies and why it was important for me to work on the indies was the action [of doing it]. I had never have wanted… And I don’t mean this in a way where I don’t appreciate things Ronda has done for me, but I didn’t ever want it, at least to the people I’d be working with, to my colleagues… I wanted them to know that I worked to get there and I did this stuff they did. I didn’t make a phone call and ask for a favor, you know? So I think just getting the respect of my colleagues was the most important thing that I gained working on the indies.
Based on how Josh Barnett trained you, I’m guessing “culture-wise” would probably be the best way to frame this question, but: What was really the biggest hurdle for you making the move from MMA to pro wrestling?
I think the hardest thing from MMA to pro wrestling is slowing down. The pace is slower. In MMA, you can’t give any time for the other person to do anything. But in pro wrestling, we’re storytellers. So I need to tell a story in between the moves. The moves don’t tell the story of our reactions and our facial expressions and all those in-between moments. So we’re in a fight. In MMA if I get hit with something or someone does something dirty to me, I want to keep my composure and still keep it going. Even though inside I’m like raging.
But in pro wrestling, I want to show on my face that I am appalled or annoyed or embarrassed or angry because I do want to make everything bigger. It’s still real, right? But it’s bigger and you’re telling that to the people way up in the nosebleeds that you’re annoyed because, like I said, it’s a story. So just learning the times to slow down, stop going after the person and giving them the space and those moments to breathe and let the story tell itself and tell the story … in between those [moments]. I think—and from what I’ve seen other people that have crossed over—that’s kind of probably the hardest thing, the thing that takes the longest to learn. The slowing down.
I know you’ve been asked this a million times, but I’m gonna make it a million and one: Can you please explain how catch style translates into your pro wrestling career? I know people always want to know that.
Yeah. So catch wrestling is a martial art, a legit martial art. Way back in the early days, we’re talking like 1800s, early 1900s, pro wrestling rules [were] win by pinfall or submission. That was what MMA was. So I guess another way of looking at it is “MMA with pins.” So catch wrestling is pins and hold-downs and rides, takedowns—just like amateur style wrestling that we see today, like high school wrestling, college wrestling—but also joint locks and submission holds. And those were removed. Just for safety, for guys maybe who were a little bit less experienced. So that’s why we call freestyle and folkstyle wrestling “amateur wrestling” today, because professional wrestling was then, “okay, now we’re going to add in submission holds, joint locks, neck cranks, etc., and we’re going to do pinfalls as well.”
That being said, that was the art I learned. Well, one of the arts I learned to do mixed martial arts. I learned it for that. And I think catch wrestling is really beneficial in MMA, because a lot of times an art… Like say Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is content with being on the bottom and on their back—I don’t think that’s conducive in MMA all the time. So learning how to get up off the bottom and stay on top when you are on top and things like that are really beneficial.
So I learned that. And back in those early days I was talking about before, these guys would start fixing fights, basically. And the secret was not out yet. So it had to look legit. And so these guys that were pro wrestlers that were real fighters were fixing their fights because they found they could make a lot more money manipulating the emotions of the audience, making them bet and then making them lose. And that’s why back in those days you had to learn to do it for real before you could go and do it as a storytelling for a show element, because you had to make it look real. That’s kind of what catch wrestling is and why it translates to pro wrestling, because it is pro wrestling.
I don’t know. That was a really long-winded answer.
No, that’s exactly what people want to read and know about. They want to know about how you see wrestling, specifically. So what is your personal philosophy about pro wrestling?
Pro wrestling is storytelling through the medium of fighting, I think.
I would need to sit with someone for days to really extrapolate on what I mean. But it’s the same folklore that’s been told throughout human history, good guy versus bad guy. The incomparable dragon guarding the treasure and who’s gonna defeat the dragon. These stories that are in every culture, we’re just telling it through the medium of fighting. Pro wrestling doesn’t claim to be anything more than what it is anymore. The show about fighting—and the fights are just the end of the stories or like the bullet points of the story.
To me, it’s a little different. I guess where I differ in my pro wrestling philosophy than maybe some other people is that I think that, at least to honor my lineage and my coaches, I have to keep it real. You’re not going to see me do very many jumps off the top, flip around and stuff, which has its place in pro wrestling—but you’ll be hard-pressed to see me do very much in a pro wrestling ring that you could not fathom me doing in a UFC cage, for example. And it’s important to me to keep that just to honor my coaches and my lineage.
Speaking of your coach, did you get a chance to see Josh’s Bloodsport show in April?
So here’s what’s funny about that: If you were to ask me right now today, who’s my favorite wrestler I will tell you Minoru Suzuki. So I was texting [Josh Barnett] and lost my shit when [Barnett vs. Suzuki] got announced. So I at least saw that. And then they just announced the second one against [Jon] Moxley. So, I don’t know. Crazy.
Yes, that’s the next show.
Now that show is what Josh’s vision of pro wrestling is, which they went in and said no one can use their “finisher” and also no one talk to each other, until [they] get in the ring. So let’s go. And that’s crazy. And there’s not very many pro wrestlers that can do that today, that can work that way. So it’s a really, really cool event.
And if you’re a person—not to plug it and maybe I’ll get in trouble, I don’t know—that doesn’t like to watch pro wrestling because you think it looks too hokey or something, you can start with Bloodsport and I think you can work up to things like watching Suzuki or watching me in NXT.
You should definitely plug yourself in NXT.
It’s a good starting point.
Do you feel that shoot style is becoming more popular in the States?
I think it’s swinging around more that way because of the popularity, obviously, of MMA. Josh said something to me one time that… Josh is really old school. He really thinks that everyone should learn how to fight and wrestle for real before they go pro wrestling. He believes that that should be today as well. His logic, one of his arguments was, for example, Keanu Reeves—to do John Wick—went and studied those martial arts for real to do a movie. Which, everyone knows the movie is not real. So now that the secret is out, of what fights look like, there should be some attempt to do that, you know?
I think that just based on the popularity and it being more visible, that style, it’s drawing fans. There’s fans out there that … there’s still a lot of them that are like, “Why would I watch that fake stuff when I could watch the real stuff?” Well, I think once you can get past the fact that it’s not trying to replace it—it’s just a stage show about it—they’re gonna start recognizing stuff. Some big fans before that wouldn’t have watched that ‘80s style of wrestling are going to watch now that this shoot style is becoming more popular.
Moving on to a different kind of wrestler, can we talk for a second about how awesome Mercedes Martinez is?
Oh yeah. I worked with her a lot. We had a faction together.
Trifecta. Please say anything you want about it.
Yep. So, I think a lot of times people start wrestling and their first show will be on a student show against another student and it’s hard. I was blessed in the fact that my first matches were all with really good wrestlers. And on top of that, one of my first mentors in the business was Mercedes, who… She wouldn’t necessarily claim to be a shooter per se, but man, she’ll mess you up if you backtalk.
I don’t know, I was really lucky to get aligned with her in a program for SHIMMER and then her and Nicole Savoy and myself. And the opportunity to work not just with, but like alongside girls like that was… Just, her psychology is so much more advanced just based on her experience, that it made my learning curve really fast.
Speaking of that era of your career, in general, do you have any other matches or wrestlers from back in your indy days that you really loved working?
I was just lucky. My first match I wrestled, my first few matches… I’ll throw you some names out there, and people that follow indies will… Their heads will explode, because these are my first matches.
These are my first few matches. So just the fact that I was so lucky to be able to show up for a show and be like, “Look, I don’t know anything, just tell me what to do,” and then they could lead me? And I’m a heel, and I don’t know if most people… I don’t know if this is too much fourth wall stuff, but the heel usually leads the match. Matches aren’t necessarily all planned out. It’s kind of improv—it’s stunt improv. So the heel is usually the one in there like, “Okay, go over there. Okay.” Or however they’re communicating. But I was the heel always. I had put these vets in a very difficult spot to not just carry someone who was newer in a sense, but also to lead as a babyface. So yeah, I just—I was lucky. I’m very fortunate, I think about that all the time.
And now you’re on the top in NXT. Kyle Fowle, one of our writers actually wrote a piece saying that you just might be the greatest NXT Women’s Champion of all time. Are you cognizant of the fact that your reigns—multiple—challenge that immortal reign of Asuka? Do you ever really think about that or are you just living in the moment?
When I saw that article and when articles like that come up, it’s funny because I go into the article going, “Okay, convince me.” Because to me I’m just doing the same thing I’ve always done. It’s not been that different for like 20 years now of: Show up at the gym, go to work, go to strength conditioning. Every now and then I have a fight. I compete. So this is the same thing I’ve always done. So it’s hard for me. It’s easy for me to forget that, there’s this whole—what’s the word—legacy that I’m falling into and where my place is in that.
So when I read articles like that or every now… I don’t read Twitter a lot about that stuff, but every now and then when I’m in one of those, I like to go into it and try to convince myself by reading that stuff. It’s a very cool place to be, for sure. And I think not just because I am the champion right now, but I think the NXT [Women’s] title is the most prestigious one at the moment. I know there’s some other girls that work for the same company as me that won’t agree with that, but we can sort that out in the future someday.
Absolutely. If they have a problem with it, they can come see you.
Now, this is actually a question from my mother, following up on your championship reign. My mother would like to know: Can you take it easy on your opponents sometimes? Please.
That’s not the name of the game. We sign these contracts. We’re not signing up to have an easy way of it.
Alright, I’ll tell my mother. She’ll be upset, but she’ll appreciate that you even answered the question. As for your opponents, is there any match that you haven’t had yet in NXT that you’re hoping you will have? One that you’re excited for? I know you’re going to be defending your title against Mia Yim at the next TakeOver, but looking past that.
You know, there’s some stories I really feel like the fans deserve some closure for. The Dakota Kai storyline. Before she got injured … I think that was building to be a really good story, and I think that if we call back to that, the fans will really be about all that. Her and I have good chemistry and all that, so I think we could tell a really good story.
And then, Candice [LeRae] is an indy wrestling legend, that for whatever reason, our paths have never truly crossed. We’ve actually been booked to wrestle on the indies a couple of times, it just never worked out. Either something came up for one of us or one of us would miss a flight. It was really, really, really weird.
I saw that you just posted on Twitter, the picture of Candice with the blood all over a face from Guerrilla Warfare.
Yeah, because that was a discussion—somebody was like, “Hey, can anyone tell me, is there any woman besides Sarah Logan that has had deathmatches?” So I just posted that picture in the reply.
Were you there for that match? Because I know you went to PWG a lot. I was there for that one.
No, I didn’t go to that one. A funny story about Candice and PWG. When I started going to PWG, I had just started thinking about wrestling—pro wrestling—and kind of moving towards that. And it was supposed to only be a temporary thing because I’d gotten injured and we didn’t know how long it was going to be ‘til my next fight. So there was something to keep me in shape and stay busy, but I start training and like anyone else, I was like, “Oh no, I want to do all the cool moves. Why can’t I do this?” And Josh was like, “Nobody can do the things you do, even though you think they’re simple. People will kill.” So we had this whole thing.
I remember going to PWG and seeing Candice wrestle and Candice … for the most part, she’s associated as the only girl with PWG, at least in the modern PWG that everyone’ knows. So here’s Candice doing all this crazy stuff and that’s the same Candice in the picture I posted with the blood all over her face. But, I remember at the end of the show going, “If that’s what girls have to do, I will never be a wrestler. I’ll never be able to do that stuff.” And I tell Candice that story often, I remind her of that. But yes, she’s another one that would be really fun.
And then of course … I think Asuka and I could have a really great match style-wise. Obviously, any of those girls on the main roster would be. I’ve just been really excited at what the future looks like, but if we’re talking immediate NXT, it’s definitely, just the fan in me wants the story with Dakota Kai to go through and then the person Shayna mark in me wants something with Candice.
We can make you want whatever we want to. [Ed. note: It’s hard to transcribe the mic drop from Shayna that followed this answer. But it happened.] Yeah, I think there is. I think that will always be there. That’ll always be there.
But back to reality, specifically NXT reality: Do you know who stole [Malcolm Bivens’] CD player?
It’s funny, he didn’t have enough money to give me.
He didn’t give you the $250?
He gave me the $250, but yeah, I’m getting more from the other person.
Oh, the other person. Got it. See, I talked to Matt Riddle, and he said it was either Mia Yim or that it was all made up.
I don’t know why he’s even looking for it. A CD player?
A CD player in 2019.
I don’t know.
We’ve talked about your flipping of gimmicks from MMA to pro wrestling. But if you couldn’t be “The Queen of Spades” and you had to have a gimmick like the ones in the early ‘90s, one of those professional gimmicks like The Goon or Duke “The Dumpster” Droese or IRS, what would your gimmick be?
I’d be “The Card Shark.”
So in all honesty, that was the kid pretending to pro wrestle. That’s what I was. I was like a Gambit, sort of. I guess a weird Gambit, like a martial artist that does card tricks.
That’s actually adorable. Although maybe I should cut this part out because I don’t know if people should know that Shayna Baszler is actually adorable.
It’s already too late. I’ve made too many jokes.
Oh yes! I would. I’ve wanted to a few times. It’s just really hard. My schedule is so crazy that I haven’t been able to go out there when the other girls had gone out there and stuff like that. But yeah.
You’re a busy champ.