WrestleMania 37: Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley loom as ‘the new generation’ of WWE stars

Home » WrestleMania 37: Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley loom as ‘the new generation’ of WWE stars
WrestleMania 37: Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley loom as ‘the new generation’ of WWE stars

Look at any combat sport you like; the ones who draw the most money aren’t the best pure fighters, but the biggest stars.

Pro wrestling is no different. The greatest boom period in history came when superstar talents like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock became mainstream celebrities; they were irresistible, bringing in viewership numbers that have never been repeated.

The challenge, then, is creating new stars when the old ones burn out; and there isn’t a division stocked with more potential greats than WWE’s women.

Watch WWE WrestleMania on Main Event on Foxtel, this Sunday April 11 and Monday April 12 from 10am AEST. ORDER NOW >

This weekend’s WrestleMania 37 will be a perfect example. On each of the two nights, one of the headline matches will feature a pair of incredibly talented women; Sasha Banks vs Bianca Belair on Sunday (Australian time), and Asuka vs Australia’s own Rhea Ripley on Monday.

It’s the perfect summation of WWE’s growth from a ‘Divas’ division, which was more focused on hiring models and getting talent onto the cover of Playboy than treating them as wrestlers, never mind equals to the men, to a proper women’s wrestling division.

The champions, Banks and Asuka, were part of that first generation of women who proved they could do anything the men could. They, along with Becky Lynch, Charlotte and Ronda Rousey, headlined pay per views (including WrestleMania), while earning their own PPV, a yearly Royal Rumble match and the respect of the wrestling world.

WRESTLEMANIA 37 GUIDE: Start time in Australia, full card and how to watch WrestleMania week shows

The challengers, Ripley and Belair, are part of the next generation.

At 24 years old, Ripley is the youngest person on the WrestleMania card, and just one of four performers on the show under the age of 30; the others being 26-year-old pair Liv Morgan and the debuting Omos, plus the 29-year-old Sasha Banks.

Belair is 31, but is still a fresh face on a WWE roster that heavily features experienced stars in their mid-30s or later.

At times WWE has found it difficult to spotlight younger wrestlers, relying on established names from the late 1990s, while stockpiling talent in its bursting-at-the-seams developmental division without letting them progress into the main event scene.

In turn, this has led to a rise in the average age of the WWE TV viewer; partially, the theory goes, because younger people aren’t seeing people their age to get behind.

Ripley and Belair, who’ve been viewed as future stars for some time, have burst onto the scene over the past 12 months; which hasn’t been easy.

Adelaide’s Ripley got her breakthrough at last year’s WrestleMania, but it didn’t go to plan. Not only did she lose her match to Charlotte – who she has replaced in this year’s match with Asuka – but it was behind closed doors, as the show fell just weeks into the pandemic.

Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair stole the show at WrestleMania 36; albeit with no fans in attendance.Source: Supplied

“I look back on it and I still really appreciate it,” she told Foxsports.com.au.

“It was such a wild time in my life, and even though I had ups and downs after that and my life was sort of like a rollercoaster, I felt like I learned so much from everything that I was going through.

“Even though I lost at WrestleMania, I still love that match, and watch it and get excited, and remember all the good bits and the bad bits, and can feel it as I’m watching it.

“It’s wild to think my WrestleMania was in front of zero fans, but at the end of the day, it’s still WrestleMania, it’s still a really important show – and we treated it as such.”

This year, which will see some 25,000 fans at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium – the home of this past Super Bowl – will be “extremely special”, according to Ripley.

It’ll be the same for Belair, who made an appearance in a battle royal three WrestleManias ago, but is not only making her singles debut on the biggest show of the year, but also making her first appearance in front of fans since moving up from the developmental NXT brand to the main roster.

“It’s gonna be crazy. We do what we do to put smiles on fans’ faces, but I don’t think it’s said enough that the fans put smiles on our faces,” Belair told Foxsports.com.au.

“It’s been tough without the fans. I debuted on Raw and SmackDown, I won the Royal Rumble in front of no fans, and it’s been tough.

“I’ve had to connect with people through a TV screen, or virtually through the Thunderdome which has been amazing, but it’s gonna be amazing to finally come out and see our fans’ faces physically.

“My parents, my family, they’re finally gonna be there, so to be able to share that magical night with them and the fans … it’s gonna be like a family reunion.”

The biggest moment of Bianca Belair’s career, winning the Royal Rumble, came behind closed doors.Source: Supplied

For Belair, it’s the culmination of years of work since entering WWE in early 2016.

She was a star college athlete, also competing in CrossFit and powerlifting before an injury forced her to abandon her pro sports dreams. That saw her transition into pro wrestling, which wasn’t easy.

“Being in WWE, I feel like the athletic and physical part came easiest for me; I was able to do a 450 (splash off the top rope) in the first month of being here,’ she said.

“But realising that there’s so much more going into being a WWE superstar than just going in there and doing moves – it’s the art, it’s the storytelling, it’s the performing part that I had to learn.

“I was starting from the ground up and I didn’t have anything else to rely on, but that’s the part that made me fall in love with WWE. I had to realise that it’s not just going in there and fighting.”

Thankfully she had some help – her husband, fellow WWE wrestler Montez Ford, one half of The Street Profits.

“I didn’t really watch wrestling growing up – I watched it with my brother when we were fighting over the remote, and he won, so we watched what he wanted to watch – but my husband watched it growing up,” she explained.

“When we were at home, he’d say to watch this person, watch them, watch that. He was one of the people who really encouraged me to wear my braid, and work with the braid. He explained to me that you want to stand out, you want to be unique, because if you look at all of the girls on the roster, none of them wear their hair like that.

“So if someone comes to a show for the first time, and might not know your name the first time, they’re always going to know ‘that’s the girl with the braid’, so he really helped me with my character, my style and my look.

“(Former WWE champion) Mark Henry was really important too – he was the only who told me that you want to be able to walk in the ring and, without opening your mouth, everyone knows what you’re about and knows what you do. So everything from my hair, my make-up, my lipstick, my gear, it’s so important, it has so much to do with your success.”

Ripley joined WWE a year after Belair, and the pair came up through the NXT developmental system together.

Having wrestled multiple times, both there and on the main roster, it makes their simultaneous rise to WrestleMania “special”, according to Belair.

Ripley and Belair were the final two in this year’s Women’s Royal Rumble.Source: Supplied

“We’ve had so many great moments together; I was there when she won the (NXT) title from Shayna (Baszler) and everyone was super happy for her, and we were the last two in the Women’s Royal Rumble match,” she said.

“Now that we’re both having a WrestleMania match, it’s amazing – I feel like we’re the new generation of women coming through, and we’re at the forefront of it.

“I’m excited to show what the future holds, and even though Rhea and I are at the forefront, I want people to be excited because there are so many more women coming up from NXT behind us – and they’re special. It’s gonna be a special time; there’s a lot of good coming.”

Ripley agreed, calling it “a fairytale”.

“Being with Bianca in NXT, and seeing her overcome the things she’s overcome, and being dealt such bad cards at times and still being so positive through it all. It’s so amazing to see how she’s grown in herself and as a performer, and to see how far she’s come, and she finally gets her chance to show everyone what she can do,” she said.

“Because she’s absolutely incredible … she’s one of my favourite people to wrestle, I feel like we definitely connect. So being the last two in the Royal Rumble was a really special moment because it really does feel like the future is here.”

Their respective matches at WrestleMania are two of the most hotly-anticipated. For Belair, it’s a chance to win her first championship in the company – and finally get her big moment on the main roster in front of fans.

“I just want to soak in the moment,” she said. “I usually skip down the ramp and get in the ring pretty fast, but I’m gonna have to take my time and have a little moment when I come out just to see the fans.

“I’m already gonna be out of the roof being at WrestleMania but being there with fans … I want to feel my nerves but I’ll have to calm them down before the match starts.”

Ripley has a history with Asuka; the pair were on multiple shows together when Ripley went on a multi-month tour of Japan as a teenager.

At the time, Asuka – known as Kana – was one of the best women’s wrestlers on the planet and on the brink of moving to the United States to sign with WWE, where she has continued to show her incredible talent; it’s clear Ripley has major respect for her.

“I remember watching her and thinking she was so cool, I can’t talk to this lady, she’s just absolutely incredible,” Ripley said.

“So to be able to have moments with her on Raw and now WrestleMania, I’m so excited.

“I wanna say that I’m gonna kick her a**, but it’s Asuka… so I’m gonna try my best. She keeps saying I’m not ready for her, and I keep saying I am ready for her, so I guess we’ll see on the day.

“But I feel like it’s going to be absolutely brutal and hard-hitting.”

Watch WWE WrestleMania on Main Event on Foxtel, this Sunday April 11 and Monday April 12 from 10am AEST. ORDER NOW >

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