The pain and doubt WWE’s Rhea Ripley conquered to reach WrestleMania 36

Rhea Ripley draws strength from her scars.

When the NXT women’s champion was younger she used to cut herself. She said it was a means to cope with being bullied and dealing with those around her mocking her intelligence, body and dream to be a wrestler.

Some of those small scars from a “very dark” time in her life are still visible on her wrist and thighs. They serve a different purpose now as the 23-year-old Australian and first ever WWE UK women’s champion continues her rise in the company.

“I still feel myself slipping there from time to time, but I find that if I do look at the scars that I have from that time it helps me to remind myself that I’ve been through all of this and I was able to overcome it,” Ripley said in a phone interview. “And I think that that’s really special in the way that I know that I can keep going and keep doing what I love and I have people in my life that are going to help me overcome whatever I need to overcome at that point in time. … I have fans there for me and I’m legitimately working the job I dreamt about since being a child and I have to remember that sometimes.”

Ripley is defending her championship against Charlotte Flair at the two-day WrestleMania 36 on April 4 and 5 (7 p.m., WWE Network, Fox Sports App). It will be the first time an NXT title will appear on the show. She was told at an early age she’d never get to WWE, let alone this prominent position.

The doubts came from friends and family, calling it “silly” and telling her to take up karate. Her mom eventually came around and was very supportive of Ripley’s dream that started with seeing a match between Ric Flair and Triple H and has taken her all the way to WWE’s biggest show — continuing to “prove people wrong.”

“To be knowing that I’m going to WrestleMania 36 to face Charlotte Flair and put my NXT championship on the line is just absolutely insane,” she said. “I’m so, so excited. Man, I’m going to be in tears afterward. I know it.”

Her journey there wasn’t easy.

Ripley tried out for WWE at age 17 and went to Japan after being told to come back when she was 21. Ripley sported long blonde hair and a completely different persona in the first Mae Young Classic tournament in 2017. She decided to finally put on screen a version of Rhea Ripley more true to herself for her second go in the tournament a year later. Her hair, ring attire and attitude all changed, making way for the tough-talking, leather-wearing, punk-rock-loving wrestler we see today.

“It was like, I’m gonna do me,” said Ripley, who called out Flair after beating Shayna Baszler for the NXT title in December. “You guys can tell me to do this, but I’m going to do this [instead].”

Another thing she needed to get past was doing promos. They weren’t easy for her. Ripley grew up fearing public speaking, saying “my palms just get like sweaty and I get dry mouth and I forget how to talk and forget how to read.” She remembers her classmates mumbling to each other as she struggled before the laughing began.

“It’s still terrifying [today],” Ripley said. “It’s still absolutely terrifying.”

She credits her time at WWE’s Performance Center, practicing her craft, as helping her move past those fears. Ripley has learned how to stay in control when in front of a crowd.

“Because I talk too fast and I start stuffing up my words, I start mumbling and stuttering,” she said. “I just have to remember to slow down.”

One thing she’s said WWE won’t let her change about her look is getting tattoos on her upper body. Ripley, however, has plenty of ideas on what she’d want to get, including arm sleeves and tattoos on her stomach, back and “under-boob.”

“One day,” she said. “One day they’ll let me. I’m working on it.”

Even with all her success, the negativity around her hasn’t gone away. Ripley, who doesn’t shy away from reading what’s being said about her on the internet and social media, said she gets “picked on” daily and doesn’t understand where the hate comes from. Her focus, however, is showing people that it’s OK to be different and true to yourself.

“Especially being a punk and all that, I love my look and I don’t care if someone doesn’t like it,” she said. “I really couldn’t care less because I know that I’m being me and that’s what I’m trying to put forward. I’m trying to put forward that everyone should be comfortable in their own skin and they should be happy being themselves.”

It’s what makes Flair the ideal opponent for her character at WrestleMania. Flair’s persona is the epitome of glitz and glamour, and brings the perception of preferential treatment because of her last name. Both women are confident and comfortable in who they are just in different ways.

“We just clash really, really well,” Ripley said.

Ripley, who was in a boot for last year’s WrestleMania after getting injured, said she is “bummed” that her first time on the show won’t be in front of 80,000-plus people. WWE had to move the event from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando and other closed sets with only essential personnel to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s “still a massive deal” to her because she knows people will be watching at home. She wants to entertain and believes WWE is doing what it can to provide a safe environment for those involved in WrestleMania 36.

“We are definitely taking every precaution that is necessary because we don’t want anyone getting sick, but we also want to entertain everyone while they’re stuck at home,” Ripley said.

The biggest thing she misses is going to the gym because the ones where she lives in Orlando are closed because of the coronavirus. She and her boyfriend bought as much home-gym equipment as they could and are trying to work out outside as safely as they can – even on the tennis court of their apartment complex.

“We’ve been going there and doing stuff or we’ve been going to the park and kicking the soccer ball around while staying far away from people because 10 is a crowd at this time,” Ripley said. “But we’ve just been trying to do anything we can, like park gyms. We wipe them down and they’re good to use, but it’s been difficult for sure.”

It all part of Ripley preparing for a WrestleMania moment she thought was possible, even when many others didn’t. Nothing is going to keep her from enjoying it.

“I’m shocked and surprised that I’ll be the first to defend an NXT championship at WrestleMania, but man that’s just history in the making,” Ripley said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to make history.”

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