She’s only been on the main roster for about a year – and she’s only been wrestling since 2015 – but Sonya Deville is fast becoming one of most exciting and authentic performers in WWE’s women’s division.
A former Tough Enough competitor, Sonya Deville was the third person eliminated when the show’s sixth season first aired back in 2015. But WWE brass must have seen something special in her; just a few months later she was signed to developmental brand NXT. At 21 years old, the New Jersey native was one of the youngest Tough Enough competitors, but she wasn’t a total rookie. Over five years of MMA training lent her a unique edge which has seen her fit almost effortlessly into the pro-wrestling world.
Like her contemporary Shayna Baszler, Deville has successfully adapted to WWE’s in-ring style. Her strikes are crisp and well-executed. She has a diverse arsenal of holds. Her kicks look legitimately painful, but her poise and control keeps her opponents safe from actual harm. And if Elimination Chamber proved anything, it’s that Deville has one of the most lethal spears in the business right now.
There’s a problem, though. While Deville’s MMA gimmick was fresh and interesting when she made her NXT debut, she’s suddenly found herself overshadowed by the arrival of Ronda Rousey, and to a lesser extent Shayna Baszler and her Horsewomen cronies. It seems a little unfair – Deville was there first, and she’s certainly put in the hours; starting from the bottom of the NXT ladder and climbing up through sheer hard work.
But Rousey is top of the tree as far as the women’s division goes, and that’s bad news for Deville, whose MMA asskicker persona now looks a little anemic in comparison.
It’s not Deville’s fault; she’s arguably more polished in the ring than Rousey, and in any case they’re offering different flavours of MMA. Rousey brings her Judo expertise to the ring, while Deville is well schooled in striking, particularly legwork. There’s no reason they can’t comfortably coexist, except that in the fickle world of WWE, similarity is anathema – doubly so when you’re seen to be emulating the Top Guy.
All of these leaves Deville in something of a no-man’s land. Her gimmick, which – though underexplored – is simple and effective is now perceived as derivative, a poor man’s Ronda Rousey. And this situation is not going to get better: Shayna Baszler is surely destined for the main roster sooner rather than later, and nobody does the MMA thing better than her right now. Not to mention the solid NXT pedigree she’s accrued – two-time champion, and indisputably the most dominant heel NXT women’s division has ever seen (unless you count perpetual tweener Asuka).
There’s also the matter of Deville playing support to tag partner Mandy Rose’s prominent main roster role. Rose found herself playing the femme fatale in a questionable love triangle storyline involving real-life couple Jimmy Uso and Naomi. Deville, meanwhile, has not done an awful lot of anything recently.
That’s not to take away from Rose; while the storyline might be a tad Attitude Era in the worst sense of the phrase, she’s improved in leaps and bounds since being called up. She’s also an excellent foil to Deville in tag team terms. Deville’s no-nonsense, fast-paced striking acumen contrasts nicely with the more effervescent Rose, whose deceptive strength and easy charisma add depth to what could otherwise have been quite a shallow character.
As Fire and Desire, Deville and Rose are one of the most cohesive units at an exciting juncture for the WWE women’s division. After a seemingly endless string of rumours and rumblings, the Women’s Tag Championships have finally become a reality, and while it makes abundant sense for Sasha Banks and Bayley to be the inaugural champions, it also feels logical that Deville and Rose should be in strong contention to take the belts from them at some point in the future.
Of course, they’re not the only well-established tag team on the roster: the IIconics are basically inseparable at this point, and Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan have form as part of the Riott Squad. But the former Absolution stablemates have the edge over the IIconics as far as in-ring work goes, and they seem a more polished team than Logan and Morgan.
The latter is understandable, since the Riott Squad have been a solid trio since their main roster inception, while Deville and Rose have had to come to terms with the retirement of former leader Paige – an unfortunate turn of events which, nonetheless, seems to have worked in the duo’s favour. Their genuine chemistry is informed by their real-life friendship, which reveals them to be an incredibly gregarious and charming pair – you’ve not lived ’til you’ve seen Deville and Rose exuberantly rating local doughnuts. Perhaps an eventual babyface run might not be unrealistic given their naturally likeable real-life personas?
But while tag gold seems an inevitable part of Deville’s future, I hope this doesn’t lead to her being typecast as half of a duo. Deville has not yet had the opportunity to show fully what she’s capable of in terms of singles matches. She’s shown glimpses of real promise in matches against Charlotte Flair and Asuka, but she’s lacked the time and space to truly showcase her skills.
And those skills are unquestionably present. Deville’s run in NXT was brief but during that time she was able to demonstrate a smoothness of style, a tenacious and aggressive in-ring presence, and a believable toughness which brings to mind classic Steve Blackman. It’s not hard to understand why she was called up after such a short on-screen tenure.
There’s an argument to be made that the only thing holding Deville back right now is her gimmick. It’s purely bad timing that the characteristics which made Deville unique are suddenly ten a penny, but there’s scope to open up her character. The aforementioned comparison to Steve Blackman could prove to be an interesting archetype to expand out to the women’s division. And how about that time Deville dressed as Raven…?
And while it shouldn’t be her defining characteristic, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that Deville is WWE’s first openly lesbian performer. It’s not about tokenism; Deville’s ability is plain to see, and at just 25 years old she’s got plenty of time to develop further. But it’s difficult to articulate how much it means, as a queer wrestling fan, to see an openly, unapologetically LGBT+ wrestler onscreen, and not in the frankly awful ‘Billy and Chuck’ sense, but as a legitimate part of who she is. To see Sonya Deville wearing rainbow gear and to know that it actually means something – that WWE have granted her the right to be herself, without hiding the fact, or turning it into an ill-advised storyline – is incredibly important.
The seeds of a potential breakup have already been subtly sown, and while it’s too early to take Fire and Desire out of the running just yet, there are grounds at least for a parting of ways, perhaps a future feud should Rose and Deville clash on the way out. In the meantime, Asuka is lacking in credible opposition for her SmackDown Women’s Championship, and we’ve seen tantalizing glimpses of what it might be like to watch her and Deville trade bone-rattling strikes in a PPV-length match…
There’s no telling yet just how high Sonya Deville’s ceiling is, but with enough time and space to flourish it’s eminently possible that she could go on to become one of the division’s stand-out performers. A little tweaking of her gimmick and a chance to showcase her skills one-on-one could be all Deville needs to take her to the next level.