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By Mike Johnson on 2020-05-20 11:12:00

The Spring of 2020 was supposed to be very, very different for Rhea Ripley, just as it was for the entire world.

The 23-year old Australian star was supposed to make her official Wrestlemania in-ring debut, as the first WWE NXT Women’s Champion to step foot on WWE’s largest stage.  She was supposed to tear the house down in front of untold thousands of fans in Tampa.  It was not to be as planned.

Even more important, Ripley’s family were to travel from Australia to the United States.   She was to spend time with her family.  Her sister was slated to spend a few weeks with Ripley and then they would return Down Under so her work visa could be renewed.  There would be time at home after years of being away and then Ripley would return to work.  None of that happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic took hold and like all of us, Ripley found herself trapped in the vortex with untold ripple effects coming out of the world changing overnight into a new normal.

Wrestlemania took place under very different circumstances.  Her family remained home in Australia.  Ripley’s trip back was canceled at the last minute.  Like untold millions around the world, what Ripley planned for her 2020 was changed forever and she doesn’t know if or when she’ll see her family again.

“It's very sad,” Ripley admitted earlier this week during a phone interview with  “I'm a huge family person. I love having my mom, my dad, and my sister around. I love having all my friends around from Australia and I really, really do miss them, and it's sad. Especially knowing that for WrestleMania, they were supposed to be in the crowd watching me. And then I had to go home and do my visa, which is now... I have to do it from here somehow. And then my sister was coming back to do a camp that I don't remember what it was called, but a camp. I was supposed to spend a lot of time with them and knowing that I won't get to see them for a lot longer now it's sad because I haven't seen them since I want to say Christmas, and it's too long for me. I miss my family. FaceTime can only do so much. I want to give him a hug. I want to spend time with them. So I was talking to my mom and she was saying that possibly Australia might not open up its border for like two years. And I'm like, that's so long for me.”

With all the uncertainty in the world today, Ripley is fighting through it the best she can, like all of us.

The one constant that has remained for Ripley is that tonight, she gets to step back inside the ring to perform for the WWE NXT brand.  Having returned after her scheduled post-Wrestlemania hiatus, Ripley is slated to face Japanese star Io Shirai on tonight’s WWE NXT broadcast on the USA Network, a bout to determine who WWE NXT Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair’s next challenger will be as NXT Takeover: In Your House looms on the horizon.

Ripley and Io have faced off before, but Ripley isn’t taking the bout, her first match since Wrestlemania 36 was taped in March, lightly.

“Obviously Io is a credible athlete and she's very, very good at what she does,” said Ripley.  “At the same time, I think that I'm pretty good. And last time we had a match at the second ever Mae Young Classic, it was amazing. It's one of my favorite matches. I constantly go back and watch it just to see what I did well. So this match is going to be nothing else but that. Yeah, just sit down and enjoy pretty much, that's all I'm going to say. We're going to have a hard hitting match and I can't wait. I love that sort of style. I love the Japanese style and I'm very excited.”

Ripley’s return puts her back into the trajectory of a rematch with Charlotte Flair.  While Wrestlemania 36 took place under the most unique circumstances in the history of WWE’s flagship event, being taped before no fans at the WWE Performance Center, the general consensus was that Ripley vs. Flair stole the show, something Ripley remains proud of while reflecting on the experience.

“I absolutely loved it, “ said a beaming Ripley.  “I enjoyed it thoroughly, even though it was super weird with no crowd. And it was the first time that I had competed or just come out in front of no crowd.  It was super strange, but at the same time, like Wrestlemania is Wrestlemania and it was still a huge moment for me in my career; to be able to share that and share the ring was no one other than Charlotte Flair was just incredible. To have so much praise on that match after we did it, it was just insane to think that I'm 23 years old, I've been wrestling for eight years and I was just on Wrestlemania. Everyone telling me that I just absolutely killed it. Man, it was definitely a confidence boost. And I was so happy that I legit, like I don't cry, but I cried. I sat down and I teared up. I was just sobbing. It's just like an overwhelming feeling of just pride and stress just being lifted, but it was amazing.”

Always trying to sharpen her edge as a performer, Ripley has gone back to watch her Mania debut - not to relive the emotions of the bout, but to see what she could do even better in the future.

“I have watched it a couple of times, even though, yes, I don't like to watch my matches back too much. At the same time, I want to learn from my mistakes and watching that match back, it was great to watch back because I was happy and proud of myself, but at the same time, I'm sitting there and I'm critiquing myself, working out what I could do better. And I do that with every single match. Even if I'm really proud of it and I go back and I watch it, I'm like, ‘Okay, I can't just sit here and enjoy it. I have to sit here and critique myself.’ And that's what I did.”

Ripley has done the same to prepare for tonight’s WWE NXT battle with Shirai, diving back into their encounter at the Mae Young Classic several years ago.

“I'm a huge perfectionist in everything that I do,” Ripley said,  “It doesn't matter what, whether it's sewing, or wrestling, or let's just say playing checkers, I'm a perfectionist. And when I go back and watch my matches, I'm really looking for the 1%, the things that can take me from a good performer to a great performer. And that's what I'm looking for. I've learned so much. I can't even narrow it down. It's just little bits and pieces that most people really won't even pick up, but I pick it up because I know myself and I know that I could be better, whether it's taking something a certain way. It's pretty much anything I'm just trying to get better and perfect my craft so I can be in this business for a long time, whether that helps me with Io and then possibly Charlotte, we'll see. But yeah, I'm just trying to... I'm a perfectionist man. I'm just trying to be perfect.”

Of course, with the world having sheltered in place due to the ongoing pandemic, WWE has transitioned the Performance Center in Orlando into a full-time production facility.  So what happens to talents like Ripley, who live their life in a state of perpetual motion every week when they are forced to rev down their internal engine?

“It's sort of nice to have the time off, but at the same time, I love working, “ Ripley notes, the emphasis in her voice hitting the world love the hardest.  “I love being nonstop and doing all that, even though time off is essential. If anything, it's taught me that I do need to stay in ring shape. Wrestling is an incredibly difficult thing to do and to have a month off, I don't like it just because I wished that I was still in the ring and getting better each time that I was doing things, because I get very rusty very quickly. And that's what I'm worried about. So having that time off, it's just... It's nice, at the same time I'm a worker and I love to work.”

Life, however, has changed in many ways over the last several months and not having the PC as her regular destination to go train has taken some getting used to, with Ripley having turned her garage into a gym so she can maintain her workouts.

“It's super weird not having to go into the Performance Center every day, because that's been my life the last three years, “ Ripley admits.  “But if anything, I just need to try and stay on my own game, because there is a lot of things that you can do from home, but it's more the in ring stuff and it's hard because you don't have a ring to train in, but hey, we deal with what we get and hopefully it's enough to be Io and win a number one contender-ship match for my NXT women's championship, I guess we'll see and we'll find out, but it's been super weird and super hard, but that's life at the moment. Everyone's going through it. Not just me, it's everyone.”

One thing that is certain for Ripley, and all NXT competitors, is that June 7th will be the next destination event for NXT, the first Takeover that looks to take place without an audience for what has traditionally been the most intimate WWE brand, but things have changed in the new normal.

“As weird as it is, I feel like it's definitely the new norm right now,” said Ripley.  “Hopefully I can be the one to go to Takeover:  In Your House. I'm not too sure exactly how it's going to pan out or what's going to happen, but man, even if we have to perform in front of no crowd, it's still Takeover. I don't want to discredit anything. It's still a Takeover and it's still a huge opportunity. I think it's going to be pretty entertaining myself. You know?”

Through all the upheaval and uncertainty of the world, Ripley remains a fighter, fighting to return to prominence in NXT.  Fighting through the same highs and lows and frustrations that everyone is dealing with, but doing so while her family and home country seem so far out of reach.  In focusing on her job and stepping back into the ring tonight, Ripley hopes to provide some normalcy in a world where normal seems so long ago and a distraction all tuning into WWE NXT on the USA Network.

“it's going to be a bloody ripper of a show. It's entertaining. It's going to distract you and it's going to bring positivity to your life.”

Like all of us, Rhea Ripley fights on.

Mike Johnson can be reached at

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