Rhea Ripley chats with Daily DDT about her upcoming battle with Io Shirai on WWE NXT, her recent success, Becky Lynch, facing Charlotte Flair, and much more.
At this time one year ago, Rhea Ripley was still reeling from her loss of the NXT UK Women’s Championship to Toni Storm and appeared to be directionless on the NXT UK brand.
Now, she’s arguably among WWE’s biggest stars and is in the process of preparing for her first bout back since losing the NXT Women’s Championship to Charlotte Flair in a barn burner at WrestleMania 36.
To say it’s been a whirlwind of a year for the Australian-born Superstar would be an understatement, and the best part is that she’s just getting started.
Ripley signed with WWE at the age of 20 and made her debut for the company soon after as part of the inaugural Mae Young Classic. She made it all the way to the semifinals before being eliminated by Io Shirai.
This Wednesday night on NXT on USA Network, they’ll go one-on-one for the first time since that night with the implication being that the winner will earn another opportunity to compete for the NXT Women’s title at a later date.
A lot has changed since they last stepped in the ring together almost two years ago, but Ripley is admittedly more ready for Shirai than she’ll ever be.
“Man, I’m totally ready for Io Shirai. I don’t think she’s ready for me. I don’t think she was ready for me to come back (laughs), but I’m ready,” Ripley said in a phone interview. “We’ve already gone toe-to-toe before at the second-ever Mae Young Classic, and I’m keen to see exactly what pans out for this one and [see] what happens.
Although they may be polar opposites in the ring, Ripley and Shirai are similar in several respects, specifically with how they both have reinvented themselves over the last year. They started out in WWE as bubbly babyfaces before becoming badass heels, which is where they’ve found their most success.
It was this transition that truly took Ripley to the next level in WWE, and when asked about what else helped her find her footing as a performer, she cites her new, no-nonsense attitude as the driving factor.
“Starting out, I was listening to too many people. Everybody told me to smile, be more bubbly, so that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t working for me,” Ripley said.
“The person you see in the ring these days, that’s me. That’s who I was in Australia, this is 110% me. I’m more confident in myself, so this is exactly how I portray myself and I feel Io has done the same thing. Before, she listened to everyone, but now she’s like, ‘Nah, screw it. I’m gonna do me.’ And that’s what she’s doing. I feel like we’re very, very similar in that aspect.”
Several Superstars have influenced Ripley throughout her career but perhaps no one more than Triple H and Beth Phoenix for very different reasons. While HHH was the main reason why she fell in love with wrestling in the first place, Phoenix had broken barriers and inspired her to embrace everything that was unique about her inside and outside of the ring.
At only 23-years-old, Ripley realizes she’s a part of an entirely different generation than some of the stars who have come before her, and that there will eventually come a time when she’ll be the one aspiring wrestlers look to when they’re on their way up in the business.
“I feel like everyone’s got their own story and everyone’s got their own favorites, so that sort of builds character within themselves and makes them who they are today,” Ripley said.
“I loved Beth Phoenix because I had a strong build like her and I’m not skinny, I don’t have the perfect body that everybody thinks is perfect. I’m a big girl, and that’s why I love Beth Phoenix. I loved the way that she was, I loved the way she was confident in her own skin.
“With Triple H, he was just a full badass, you know? He didn’t care. He just knuckled down and beat people up and that’s what I loved. It’s funny when I say I grew up watching these people because everybody’s like, ‘Dang, you grew up watching these people. You’re so young! This is ridiculous!” But that’s just the new generation these days. I’m going to be saying the same thing later on when I’m older (laughs).”
As far as her biggest challenge throughout her wrestling journey is concerned, fans tend to forget the sacrifices she made in moving from her home in Australia to to be where she is today. While not the easiest decision, it did lead her to greener pastures in the United States.
Starting anew was difficult in itself, but being so far away from her family was and continues to be her biggest struggle.
“It’s very, very difficult for me, as a big family person, to not be able to see my mom, my dad, my sister every day,” Ripley said. “It’s very difficult and I do miss them a lot. If I had them here, it would help me a lot more, but I’ve had to struggle and learn and adapt and grow up. That was really the biggest struggle for me to be honest.”
The timing of Ripley’s WWE arrival couldn’t have been better. She was immediately announced as a participant in the first-ever Mae Young Classic and had a pair of stellar showings before disappearing from WWE TV until the second Mae Young Classic came around in the summer of 2017.
Had it not been for the critically-acclaimed tournament, there’s no telling how else Ripley would have made a name for herself within the NXT ranks. Both installments went exceptionally well by all accounts, but it has yet to be brought back for a third time, which Ripley argues is overdue.
“Dude, I would love to see it return. I was hoping they were planning for a Mae Young Classic III because it’s a great platform for people to show what they have,” said Ripley. “That’s pretty much where I built my brand, built myself. The first Mae Young Classic, I was very young. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was just there to please people and try to do my best and show people exactly what I can do.
“With the second one, I was sporting a whole new attitude, whole new gear, whole new look and I was more confident and comfortable in my own skin. That definitely did help build Rhea Ripley. Everything that happened there, even though Tegan [Nox] getting injured wasn’t part of my plan and it was a horrible thing to have happen, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It’s scary to think how opportunities can be made and opportunities can be taken away.”
Ripley turned a negative into a positive by running with the heat she had from being blamed by fans for Nox’s injury in storyline. That took her over to NXT UK, where she had a chance to come into her own and show the whole world what she was all about.
She was one-woman wrecking crew from the get-go and defeated Toni Storm in the finals of a tournament to crown the inaugural NXT UK Women’s champion. The series of matches the two had from there were incredible and played an important role in their respective rises to the top.
Ripley’s entire stint provided her with opportunities to grow and get exposure that wasn’t available to her in NXT back then. The experience was exactly what she needed to break out and hit her stride finally.
“[The matches with Toni Storm] were very important because, coming from Australia, we don’t really have massive, massive crowds, at least not when I was there. It’s kind of growing now, but when I was there, you were very lucky, and it had to be a big show, to get possibly 500 people,” Ripley explained.
“To be going from that to the Mae Young Classic to NXT UK where there’s so many people in the audience and they’re so loud and rowdy. The UK audience, I don’t even know how to describe it. I swear you guys go outside and practice your chants because it’s absolutely insane.
“To be over there and face Toni Storm, someone I’ve known since we were 16-years-old, it was a great way to learn in front of a big crowd and just learn everything in general like promo-wise, confidence-wise in general.
“To then going to NXT in front of the Full Sail crowd to then going to SummerSlam, WrestleMania if there was a crowd (laughs) to then going to those stages… I don’t want to say NXT UK was a warm-up because NXT UK is absolutely amazing and I don’t want to discredit it at all, but it was a great learning curve for me.”
Truth be told, Ripley didn’t have to change much about her on-air persona whatsoever upon making the move from NXT UK to NXT in mid-2019. She simply shifted her sights from the fan favorites overseas to the top heel on the black-and-gold brand: Shayna Baszler.
By that point, Baszler had been NXT Women’s champion for nearly one year and had run through everyone put in front of her. There was nothing redeemable or likable about The Queen of Spades during her dominant title run, so fans felt compelled to rally behind Ripley as she targeted the title.
That meant staying true to herself and watching as the audience turned in her favor.
“With badass babyfaces, they kind of have to be organic and I feel like with me being myself, the crowd could sort of see that. It’s crazy how it worked,” Ripley said. “I myself wasn’t expecting that much of a pop when I came out the first time. I don’t think anyone was really expecting it, but it happened and it’s boosted my career to the next level and I’ve just been nonstop from then and there.”
Ripley’s first big break upon joining NXT full-time last year came when she was featured at the forefront of the brand’s invasion of Raw and SmackDown during Survivor Series season. She pinned Charlotte Flair in a Triple Threat on SmackDown, won a WarGames match, and was among the sole survivors for NXT’s women’s team at Survivor Series, all within a 72-hour period.
She then dethroned Baszler as NXT Women’s champion in December before appearing on Raw leading into WrestleMania to feud with Flair. Her hectic schedule was actually what resulted in her taking time off for a brief bit coming out of WrestleMania, despite what reports may have indicated.
“I think I just needed a rest, to be completely honest,” Ripley said. “I had gone from the busiest five or six months I have ever had in my entire life. I was doing absolutely everything and I think that it was critical for me, if I were to lose to Charlotte, that I would stay quiet for a while. Also, it helped me recover with everything that I’ve gone through and my mental game as well.
“Sometimes, you’re just fried and need time off. Luckily, it was written out that way, but I also think I needed it at the same time, which was great because I got to focus on myself and focus on getting better and training hard in my own little gym that I made here at my house.
“Even though I hate not being at work and not doing stuff because I’m someone who needs to be doing stuff and otherwise I get really, really bored, I know it was very essential for my body.”
On the bright side, Ripley was able to spend some of her downtime in her new makeshift gym at home and rewatching all of Supernatural with her partner Kevin, in addition to plotting her next move upon her ultimate return to NXT.
During her absence, Becky Lynch announced her pregnancy and relinquished her Raw Women’s Championship after a historic 399-day reign. Ripley expressed her excitement for Lynch and her husband-to-be Seth Rollins as well as for the idea of other women getting the chance to rise to the occasion and seizing opportunity.
“I’m excited to see what happens with the women’s division,” Ripley said. “I am so incredibly happy for Becky and Seth. It’s so hard to start a family when you’re a professional wrestler because if you’re a female, you have to have that time off.
“You want to spend time with your kid and it’s very hard if you’re a wrestler. I’m super ecstatic for them and I know that she’s going to be a badass mom and he’s going to be a badass dad and it’s going to be great.
“But with Becky’s absence, there is a spot open and I am very excited to see what’s going to happen with the women’s division. Whether I take that opportunity, I don’t know, whether Shayna [Baszler] takes that opportunity, I don’t know, whether Nia Jax, anyone. I’m just excited to see what happens.”
If she were to call it a career tomorrow, The Mosh Pit Kid can say with certainty that she stole the show at WrestleMania at only 23-years-old with the decorated Charlotte Flair. Even without all the bright lights and pomp and circumstance, it still felt like the Show of Shows to her.
“It was super cool. It was weird, of course, because there were no fans in attendance, but it’s still WrestleMania and to be on WrestleMania at 23-years-old is insane,” Ripley said.
“If I could go back and tell younger me that this would be a thing, I wouldn’t believe myself at all. It was great. Even though the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, like you said, we stole the show and that’s incredible. I’m very proud of that match and I do love that match. It’s something I’m never going to forget and something I can check off my bucket list.”
As memorable of a moment as that was for her, it’s hard for her initial NXT Women’s Championship victory over Baszler in December to be topped. After all, she got to celebrate with a giant mosh pit in the ring, and how many people can say that?
Ripley confirmed that it was likely a Triple H call for the mosh pit to happen and that she wasn’t expecting it to be as grand as it was, but she’s glad it played out the way it did.
“I still love the mosh pit after I won the NXT Women’s Championship,” Ripley said. “That was just something else. It felt so special and I love mosh pits. Everybody knows how much I love mosh pits, so to have everybody in the crowd enjoying that moment with me, it was like … Shayna was the longest-running NXT Women’s champ.
“That was a big, big moment for me. I love WrestleMania, but that was something that hit my heart in a whole different way.”
Looking forward to the future, Ripley is ready to take on everyone the NXT women’s division has to offer. More specifically, she hopes to mix it up with Tegan Nox, Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez, all of whom she has history with.
“Man, there is so many for sure,” Ripley said. “I love wrestling Tegan and I’d love to wrestle her again after everything that went down. A big one that I want to wrestle Dakota [Kai] and Raquel [Gonzalez]. Raquel is my former tag partner and I’d love to face her in the ring. I think it’d be so much fun.”
Whether it’s on NXT, the main roster or elsewhere, you can rest assured that she is on the fast track to super stardom and will stop at nothing until her brutality is felt by everyone imaginable in the WWE Universe, starting with Io Shirai.
Rhea Ripley will face Io Shirai tonight on NXT at 8pm ET on USA Network.