Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Destined To Break In: WWE's Sasha Banks Is Ready For Her Spotlight

VIA: Ahead of the biggest weekend of her life, The Boss opens up about her rise to the top.

The biggest moment (so far) in the career of Sasha Banks seemed to be improvised. The current NXT Women’s Champion won her jewel-encrusted belt last February, during a grueling Fatal Four-Way match at NXT TakeOver: Rival. In it, she faced off with Bayley, Becky Lynch, and then-champion Charlotte for a shot at the most prestigious women’s belt in professional wrestling. The match’s climax occurred in minute 13, as Banks locked Charlotte into her trademark Banks Statement submission hold, torquing the champ’s head backward beyond a normal human’s breaking point. It would not have surprised many to see Sasha become the champion with that move, but longtime wrestling fans understand these types of matches rarely end so simply. And so, instead of relying on the move that got her there, she used the leverage that she had gained over Charlotte to roll the exhausted champ onto her shoulders for a quick pin. Thus began the reign of The Boss.

That’s Sasha Banks: charismatic, brutal, and creative enough to separate herself in a crowded women’s division that sees considerably less on-air opportunities than their male counterparts. She’s "The Boss,” a self-appointed title that nowadays feels more like a coronation than narcissism. That’s not how it always was for the 23-year-old born Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado. She arrived at NXT in 2012 with some impressive indie federation cred—she was the longest-reigning women’s champion in Chaotic Wrestling, based out of her native Massachusetts—but was stuck in NXT’s lower rungs, serving as a stepping stone for the “more important” talent surrounding her because her acting skills and connection to fans were not as developed as her in-ring pacing and physical abilities.

To become the protagonist she is today, Banks worked with the legendary Dusty Rhodes, a.k.a. the American Dream,

channeling her frustrations at being passed over for important programs into her persona. The best characters in wrestling are the ones that take the performer’s real personality and crank it up to 11, and this was certainly the case for Banks. Already confident that she was the best, she transformed herself from “Sasha Banks, Anonymous Wrestler No. 4,” into The Boss. And it worked.

In the last year, Banks has been constantly in the spotlight as women’s wrestling receives a much-needed overhaul. As part of NXT’s Four Horsewomen (a non-canonical stable featuring the four women from the aforementioned Fatal Fourway match), she has elevated not just the technical wrestling quality of women’s matches, but also the storytelling. Following the lead of her childhood idol, Eddie Guerrero, Banks developed a cult following as a heel too talented to be truly hated. Instead of lying, cheating, and stealing like Eddie, however, she focused on throwing shade left and right, turning old friends into hated rivals. Her match with Becky Lynch at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable is arguably the greatest WWE women’s match ever, a brutal clinic in attempted arm-mangling (at one point, it looked like Sasha was going to rip Becky’s arm out of its socket) and technical proficiency that had the wrestling world buzzing about a true revolution for women in wrestling.

This Saturday, her two-year running feud with Bayley culminates with a match for Banks’ championship, and it’s hard to name a story as powerful or elaborately built as this on any wrestling show, not just NXT. Additionally, Banks was promoted to the main roster of WWE last month as part of an ongoing “Divas Revolution,” which hopes to change how mainstream wrestling fans think about women’s wrestling. The climax of that story takes place this Sunday at SummerSlam in the form of a massive nine-woman, triple-team elimination match. Despite the inclusion of both Becky Lynch and Charlotte, the only constant between NXT’s biggest night and WWE’s second-largest pay-per-view is Sasha Banks, and for good reason: She’s the baddest diva in wrestling, and she’s not afraid to let you know.

We caught up with Banks a few days before her double feature and discussed her meteoric rise, her role as a role model for young female fans of WWE, and what it’s going to be like to wrestle in both the “WrestleMania of NXT” and her first-ever SummerSlam.

Big week for you, with TakeOver and SummerSlam. How are you feeling?

Honestly, I feel like I'm on cloud nine. I am extremely nervous, excited, beyond the moon. I have so many mixed emotions, because I have two big matches back-to-back and I'm so nervous. I'm so excited for TakeOver. I can't wait for my match against Bayley and the next night, I get to have my first SummerSlam, so I'm beyond blessed right now.

Only you and Kevin Owens are pulling double-duty those two nights, which shows how much trust WWE has in you. They're just throwing you guys out there and seeing what happens.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. It just shows that they put faith in me, especially as a woman. That's just beyond crazy to me. Even [this past Monday], to have my match against Nikki Bella, I'm just like, "My life, it's unbelievable right now." It's like so many things are happening and it just keeps getting bigger and better.

You mentioned the match against Bayley. Obviously, NXT is growing, but there are still people that are going to tune in for the first time this weekend. What should they expect from Sasha Banks vs. Bayley?

What should they expect? They should expect the greatest women's match they've ever seen in their whole life. That's the match I'm going to have this Saturday. It's crazy how far we've come, because me and Bayley started with each other.

My first real feud at NXT was against her, all of my matches were against her. To see how far I've come from 2012 to 2015, it's almost full-circle that we're coming back to this place and I get to have this match against her, and in our first Pay-Per-View outside of Florida, and it's sold-out.

It's going to be at the same place as SummerSlam, and it's just like, "Where is NXT going?" It's so crazy to see how far it's grown and how big it's getting. The fact that they put trust in NXT, that we can have a sold-out arena like this, it's unbelievable. This is just a start, who knows how big it's going to get? I'm so excited to be a part of it and I'm so excited to watch it grow and to be the NXT Women's Champion for them.

Speaking of Bayley, you said you guys came up together. That really shines through, not just in the ring, where you guys have really good chemistry, but also with your characters, which play off of each other really well. What is it like working with her, building up to this huge match? How is that preparation going?

God, the preparation...I feel like we've been waiting for an opportunity like this for a very long time. When it came around that me and her were going to have a TakeOver match, we just said to each other, "This is it. This is our spotlight. This is our moment to show that we are two of the best female wrestlers in the whole world."

We just want to leave our mark to be the next Lita, the next Trish. Just to have fans remember us for a lifetime, and just to watch this match and be like, "Holy shit." That's what I want the reaction from the fans to be when they see this match. I want them to know that NXT is where it's at, and we are making a name for women's wrestling and we're bringing it to the main roster.

To have this moment with Bayley, I say this a lot, there would be no Sasha Banks if there wasn't a Bayley. We are legit superheroes, like Superman and Batman, I would have to say. We're just such opposites that it works so well. We have the fans either liking me or hating me and the fans just absolutely love her. I can't imagine the reaction when she's going to come out. God, I have goosebumps just thinking about it. I'm so stoked. I feel like these are my WrestleMania moments, so I can't wait.

It does feel like the “WrestleMania of NXT.” Related: I know you're a fan of Japanese wrestling, so getting Jushin "Thunder" Liger to show up, even if it's for one event, that's huge. That is as big of a sign of NXT arriving as anything else. What's the buzz around his appearance, and of Tyler getting to wrestle him?

When I find out that Jushin Liger was coming, I was so excited. I am such a fan. I couldn't believe it, I'm like, "What?" That's how cool NXT is. We're getting people from all over the world and they want to come and be a part of our company. Jushin Liger's coming to our company to face Tyler Breeze, and just talking to [Tyler], he was so excited. I cannot wait to see that match.

The buzz is crazy. We have Samoa Joe, we just have the best wrestlers in the whole world. It's unbelievable.

Is there anyone else you want to see jump over to NXT, even if it is just to have a match?

There's a lot. I think it'd be so cool if we had Manami Toyota come over. I would love to wrestle her. Really, though, I say just bring everybody, why not? It's really cool, the opportunities that NXT brings. Who would ever thought that Jushin Liger would be in this company, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn? It's crazy. Man, I don't know, bring anybody. I want to wrestle with everybody. Even I want to wrestle Jushin Liger, so I'm jealous.

That’d be a great match! Now, in terms of WWE, is there anyone that you haven't worked with yet that you really want to? Or a type of match that you haven’t done?

To me, my dream is just to have it all. I would love to be the first woman to have a ladder match, the first woman to have a Money in the Bank match. That's just a dream of mine, but that's such a far dream that who knows if that's going to happen?

Can it be a guy that I want to wrestle? Can I choose a guy or does it have to be a woman?

Yeah, you can choose whoever you want.

Okay, I would absolutely love to wrestle Sami Zayn, because he's absolutely one of my favorites to watch. I think me and his style would just work. That would definitely be a dream match of mine.

The biggest dream of mine, though, is to wrestle Bayley at WrestleMania. We'll have that WrestleMania moment this Saturday at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, but I want that WrestleMania, too, that's also a big dream of mine. I'll make it happen one way or another.

Moving to the in-ring product, there’s been a noticeable shift towards submission wrestling from the women in NXT: you swapped from the "Bankrupt" to the "Banks Statement." Becky's got the awesomely named "DisArmHer," Charlotte has the "Figure 8.” How did that happen?

Honestly, I don't know how that happened. I remember looking around and everyone had a submission. I knew that I wanted my finisher to be unique and something that I've never seen before, and I had never seen the combination of a backstabber into a crossface.

I'm like, "This is pretty cool," but looking around, a lot of the women have submissions. It's always good to have in your back pocket, to have a submission and also just a regular finisher to pull out of nowhere. You might see something new at NXT Takeover, so be prepared for that.

Do you think that also came as a result of working with Sara [Amato, the assistant head coach] in NXT? What is it like working with her?

Oh, absolutely. She's just been absolutely incredible to work with. We've got two- working with Sara and Norman Smiley, those were the two big factors that have helped women's wrestling grow and helped our training grow.

When Sara came in, it just seemed like everything just started to change. For a long time, they were telling us just to wrestle like Divas. We were so confused, we were like, "What does 'wrestle like Divas' mean?" I just remember them saying, "Just hair pull, and don't strike. Don't do punches, just be girly." We were just like, "Uhhh...no."

When she came in, she just started training us just like the guys. I think that's the big factor that helped us and just with Hunter, too, giving us the opportunities to have these matches and then have the fans talk about them. They wanted to see what we can bring to the table.

When they started the buzz around having these longer matches, the opportunities just kept arising. Anything they handed to us, we just took and tried to make it ten times bigger than what they gave to us, so a huge thanks to Sara, and a huge thanks to Norman. There are just so many people that had a helping hand of where the women are going now. It's crazy to see what's happening in the world today with women wrestling.

It's not just in the ring that you guys are, to use the buzzword, "revolutionizing" the industry, but also NXT characters are more fleshed out, they have more time to grow. "The Boss" is a perfect example of that. You went from, in the last two years, being a member of the BFFs, to then being Charlotte's rival, to then being Bayley's rival, to being the champ and now being on Raw. When did you realize that “The Boss” was your character, your calling card, going forward?

I just remember that when I started at NXT, I had no character. I had nothing. I was just so excited to be here and just to be a wrestler. Opportunities weren't happening for me. I would sit back and I would watch NXT and I would just ask myself, "How come I'm not on? How come the fans are not connecting with me?"

I didn't have a character. I didn't have nothing that they can get behind, so I really sat down and I thought, "What does NXT not have right now? What are they missing?" I just thought, this cocky, arrogant person who thinks she's better than everybody else.

I remember when I first started and I started to come out with the glasses and the jacket and the bling and fans would just be like, "What is she wearing? What is she doing?" Then, finally, it just clicked. I just kept working on it with Dusty [Rhodes, who worked in NXT before his passing this year], and with all the coaches at the Performance Center. I just clicked and everything just started to flow into pieces.

I just kept getting bigger and bigger and eventually, I became the NXT Women's Champion. It's just crazy to see how far my career has gone from when I first started at NXT. I remember being at FCW [the precursor to NXT] in this little warehouse, getting to train for three hours a day and then just leaving.

Then we moved to the Performance Center, which has been absolutely amazing and has helped my career so much, because we have such a great place to learn. You cannot not succeed when you come to the Performance Center, because we have it all.

The biggest thing for me was having that character. I remember always sitting down with Dusty Rhodes and working on promos and being able to watch my promos back and watch my matches back and see what I can do differently. And now, here's The Boss today, made her debut on Raw, got to wrestle Nikki Bella last night on Raw. The opportunities are endless when you put in the work.

How has your rise over the last year impacted your day-to-day life? Do you get recognized? Do people yell "Sasha's ratchet!" at you in public?

Actually, yes. It's so funny. This weekend, we had live event shows in South Dakota. I would go to the gym or Walgreens and people would know who I was. I was just like, "Wow, if people know who I am in South Dakota, out of anywhere, it's crazy." Sometimes I almost get weirded out by it, that people know who I am. I don't know, I'm still getting used to it.

My day-to-day life, it's gotten so much crazier since I made it to the main roster. I'm home one day a week, I pack my bags and go to the next town. It's an absolute dream. This is what I wanted since I was a little girl. It's just crazy that I'm a part of both. I'm a part of NXT and WWE.

I don't know, there hasn't been a stop for me to really think and realize where I've gone so far. I made my debut on Raw, I had a pay-per-view match, I had to go do Tough Enough. I had to go do NXT, I had to do live shows. It's just going on and on. I can't stop, I just love it.

It’s noticeable, on social media especially, that you guys are very active in engaging with a lot of your younger fans, whether it's re-tweeting, regramming, or even just talking with them. How important is it to you to be this role model for a lot of younger fans, especially a lot of young girls, who haven't always had that in their lives via wrestling before?

Oh, it's very important. When we started, when we were younger, we didn't have all this social media. To be able to interact with fans and just to let them know that we care and we see what they're saying and what they say to us, it really means something, especially when it's good things, not so much the bad things.

It's cool to know that I can be that role model, even though I play the bad guy. I have a lot of people be like, "Because of you, I'm confident. Because of you, I stand up for myself. Because of you, I do so-and-so."

That's so cool to see and just to know that, because of me, their lives have changed, it's really crazy. I know, when I was younger, I looked up to Eddie Guerrero, that was my role model. Being a role model to little girls, it's really humbling to know that, because something that I did or something that I said, that will change their lives forever. It's awesome.

You mentioned Eddie Guerrero, which reminds me of the Jericho Podcast you did last week, where you told that story [of being at Eddie’s tribute show and not knowing he had died], which was heartbreaking.

Yeah, and the craziest thing is I told that story just a week ago on Jericho's podcast and that was in Minnesota. Then, I had the go-home show for SummerSlam [on Monday], in Minnesota at the Target Center.

I was just like, "What is my life? This is insane." I just remember, I was sitting in the ring, and I looked up where I used to sit when I was a kid, and I just went from the nosebleed seats to sitting in the ring. It's just so crazy how life works and how it comes full-circle. I told that story, and now that I’m in Minnesota and got to wrestle Nikki Bella, Champion vs Champion. Life is so crazy. It's crazy, how it works.

The timing of that could not have been more perfect.

Exactly. I thought about that last night, too, like, "My life is so cool."

Here’s something a bit different: Are you aware of how much your theme song is loved by NXT fans? It’s almost like a cult hit with fans of the show.

I definitely get a tweet about that every day, that my song is really cool. I remember when they first played me my theme song, I hated it. I absolutely hated it. I was like, "Oh, my God, I don't like it."

Then, I just remember I turned it up way loud in my car and I was like, "Wow, this is actually a really good song." I listened to the lyrics and it's actually everything that I preach, so even I work out to my theme song at the gym. It's so good.

Finally, what do you think is next for both the Divas Revolution as a whole, and specifically for Sasha Banks, after this weekend?

I'm here to lead my team to victory and just to show the world that I'm here to be the best. What's next for Sasha Banks? I want that Divas Championship. I want to be the NXT and the Diva's Champion. That's what I'm looking forward to.

Definitely, [on Monday], beating Nikki gave me a lot of confidence that I can do that and I can chase that dream. I'm actually really excited to see what's going to happen for the Divas after SummerSlam, because I don't even know what's yet to come.

I've just been so focused on my match with Bayley, that I can't wait until that's over, so I can think about the SummerSlam match. I don't know, I'm excited. I don't know what the future's going to hold, but I just know that it's going to be really great things. We'll find out after SummerSlam.

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