“I don’t even know what that means anymore: dream match. If it’s a dream, then it shouldn’t happen.”
Toni Storm doesn’t mince words. Toni Storm doesn’t celebrate yesterday, and she’s had a collection of yesterdays typically reserved for someone with gray hairs and grandkids. All Elite Wrestling’s Interim Women’s World champion has a detailed and dedicated path to the top of the wrestling world; tournaments, championships, moments, memories … they all exist, but they aren’t the focus for Toni Storm, they’re the process. For now, the champ is looking at what she’s got to do to keep that process going, and what’s next is not only ambitious, but it’s also concrete: Toni Storm is going to make you watch women’s wrestling.
At AEW Full Gear in Newark, New Jersey, Storm will defend her title against former friend (and pandemic plot mate) Jamie Hayter. This will be her fourth defense of the title since winning the interim championship at AEW All Out in September, and while appreciative and celebratory and aware, Storm’s mindset around titles is twofold: they are the target on her back and the weight on her shoulders, both of which she welcomes. It’s possible that so much early success has shifted expectations. Just 27 years old, Toni’s been wrestling for more than half her life, starting her training with New Zealand’s Impact Pro Wrestling at 13. It’s almost off the John G. Avildsen film assembly line: Kid from a single-parent household finds discipline through sport, excels through adversity, and gets the happy ending. “It was just me and my mom and my younger sister at the time”—Storm’s family relocated to Gold Coast, Australia, from New Zealand after her parents separated—“and there was a wrestling school that offered training for 12 and up, and I needed to do something. It was around that time, that age where you start getting into trouble. I think wrestling was a really good thing for me then because it kept me focused on something, it kept me on the straight and narrow. And I haven’t stopped since.” Like Ryu’s Street Fighter II victory screen, even when she hits a milestone, that podium is bare. Toni Storm is chasing two opponents: the wrestler in front of her, and the locker room she wants to see thrive.
Storm’s interest in wrestling began when she was 10, and two WWE Ruthless Aggression–era talents stood out to her. “Mickie James was a big part of that [fandom] … and I wanted to be like Jeff Hardy,” Toni says, reflecting on Jeff’s post Attitude Era–run that saw him break out as a singles star. It’s possible that watching a talent at their peak can produce unrealistic expectations. Storm likely couldn’t walk, or barely talk, during the plaid-pants, enhancement-talent Hardy Boyz days, and wasn’t old enough to attend elementary school when the TLC match was introduced. The Jeff Hardy that caught her eye had gone from Saturday-morning fodder for Razor Ramon (shout-out to Keith Davis) to tag-team specialist with older brother Matt to bona fide singles megastar and WWE Champion, on par with the Triple Hs, Edges, and John Cenas of the time. There’s this ownership, this artistic entitlement that comes from “coming up with the band.” You were there for the dank bars, the cheap merch, and the songs they wrote before hitting it big. So when someone’s first impression is their third chart-topper, there’s an instinctual desire to set them straight on how they should go about their fandom. Toni Storm may not have been there for the entire ride, but not even her largest inspiration knocks her off her pivot. “I still want to be like Jeff Hardy,” she says matter-of-factly, understanding his importance, while also acknowledging hers. “It’s always good when someone you grow up watching, you’re able to share the same locker room with [them], it’s always a good thing, right? That just means that I’ve gotten to where I’ve always wanted to be.” Early and sustained success, it seems, is just what’s supposed to happen for Storm.
Storm’s style is hard-hitting and deliberate, utilizing the late Mitsuharu Misawa’s Tiger Driver as her primary finisher. She credits her time in Japan for adding a dimension of toughness to her style after training with Impact Pro Wrestling and her initial run with Progress Wrestling (where she was their inaugural Progress Wrestling World Women’s Champion). “I think Stardom really helped toughen me up, because training in the dojo out there was very tough. The women out there are just incredibly hard-hitting, very, very talented, and it was those matches … training with them out in Japan and those experiences that really helped me get better.” World Wonder Ring Stardom, often shortened to simply Stardom, is an all-women’s wrestling promotion in Japan founded in 2010. Known for their stiff kicks, elaborate gear, and pronounced pageantry, Stardom is a popular destination for those looking to compete against some of the most stylish, technically sound women in the world. While she credits many competitors and trainers, it was here that she competed against (and trained with) some of the top women’s talent in recent years, including Mayu Iwatani; one of her Mae Young Classic opponents, Kairi Sane; and one half of the current WWE Women’s Tag Team champions, IYO SKY. Storm was only 20 in her first match with the then–Io Shirai, a rivalry that would carry over to both the Mae Young Classic and into NXT, where Storm would attempt to capture Shirai’s NXT’s Women’s title. “I wrestled her a few times and trained with her as well in the dojo. I was really young when I first started going to Japan and working for Stardom. I think I was 20 years old, and I didn’t have as much experience and [she] really helped bring a lot out of me … So did [Iwatani] and [Sane], you know, they taught me a lot, and really brought me up. It’s because of women like that that I’m where I am today.” While mostly training with (but not competing regularly against) Sane, Storm would defeat Iwatani for her first and only World of Stardom Championship, recognized as the top title in that promotion.
While Storm’s run in Stardom was a lot of building confidence and technique, her NXT run wasn’t just about learning but putting the finishing touches on who we’d see as a performer. The biggest plus, according to Storm, was the direction on wrestling for TV. While you can learn every move and hold created or popularized, how you apply them with a camera in your face is what provides access to the largest audience (a sentiment echoed by current NXT star Carmelo Hayes). Once more, Storm was blessed to work with some of the very best minds in wrestling, this time some of the longtime European stars and coaches. “NXT UK was honestly something so special. The experience I gained from that was unbelievable. The coaches that I got to work with in the [NXT UK Performance Center were] amazing and it was a really good and unique introduction to WWE for me … I got to train with Johnny Saint, I got to train with Robbie Brookside and Johnny Moss and James Mason, and it was really wonderful. Those are all very highly skilled guys that really know what they’re doing, and I was really blessed to be able to learn from them. The training was unbelievable and I’m really lucky I got to experience that. It was a really wonderful thing, NXT UK. And I got to learn from [current AEW coworker] William Regal a lot as well. I got the chance to spend a lot of time with him and that was just another great learning experience for me.”
This was also where Storm began to truly articulate her (expected and appreciated) burden of success. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s performing in front of a majority English-speaking audience, maybe it’s the confidence from being coached up by the people you grew up watching. But Storm’s championship run in NXT is where the responsibility of status became apparent for her. Storm captured the NXT UK Women’s Championship by defeating Rhea Ripley at NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool, and would hold the title for seven months. “It’s a lot of pressure, and that comes with being champion anywhere. It doesn’t matter what company you’re with. When you’re a champion, you’re the leader of the division, the company, and a lot is expected of you. A lot is asked of you. You’re the guy that everyone’s going to turn to, and you have to lead by example. And that was a lot of pressure on my shoulders at a young age and for a major place. And I still feel the same today as champion in AEW. You’re responsible for a lot, and you’re there to set an example as well. And I’m thankful that I got to experience that at such a young age, and it’s all really helped me.”
Toni’s short stint on WWE’s main roster is well documented, and while fans (myself included) will always ponder “What if?” concerning potential rivalries, matches, and moments, Toni’s stance on anything outside of what went well, at any stop, is both firm and forthright. “I don’t really think about that at all, to be honest. I don’t operate that way. It’s just a job, to be honest. I could be like, ‘Oh, yeah, it would have been nice to face everyone.’ I’m a fan of everyone there, but I’m not, like, mad about it.” It’s hard to argue a need for anger or resentment when you look at the things she was able to do. In just over four years, she was a brand’s top champion, competed against peers and mentors alike in a fan favorite tournament, was part of the team that won the only triple-branded traditional Survivor Series elimination match, and a now–main roster staple WarGames match. Outside of the rare air of winning a Royal Rumble or main-eventing WrestleMania, her time in WWE is up there with the best short runs in recent memory. After leaving WWE in December of 2021, she debuted for All Elite Wrestling in March of 2022, and in six months became interim champion after AEW Women’s champion Thunder Rosa suffered a back injury that’s kept her out of action since August. The “interim” championship, popularized in boxing and MMA, is like a large drum, both heavy and hollow. In most cases, the current champion’s failure to compete necessitates a torchbearer, a placeholder, to keep business afloat. However, it comes with an “until” clause, meaning both interim champion and potential challengers alike feel as if they have a claim to take, or eliminate, that designation. Killing off any talks of luck, after Storm defeated former AEW champions Britt Baker and Hikaru Shida, as well as her next challenger Jamie Hayter, she then successfully defended the title against Baker, former NXT Women’s champion Athena, and former National Wrestling Alliance World Women’s champion Serena Deeb.
The victories counted, the victories earned her the current top spot in the women’s division, and they have granted her a premiere match on AEW’s Full Gear card this Saturday. Storm thinks all of that is great, but admits to feeling like the reign, and challenges that come with it, have had a new type of difficulty she hasn’t faced before. Where the steps have always seemed laid out, if not exact, there are aspects of an interim title reign that simply do not exist on a planned path. “There’s so much added pressure because I defend the title like a real, true fighting champion. But if I lose the interim championship, then that basically means I never was champion, really. And it was all for nothing. Essentially doesn’t go down in the record books as the actual champion. So there’s just so much more pressure involved with that because it’s not just like losing a championship. You lose and then it’s all for nothing, basically. So I have to get through all these defenses before I even become the undisputed champion, and there’s just so much pressure with that. What do I do if I lose? The embarrassment, the humiliation if I was to lose the interim championship, it just feels [like] so much work.”
The other obstacle in maintaining this reign, both literally and figuratively, is Storm’s next challenger: Jamie Hayter. Their paths are similar: they’re the same age, both spent time honing their craft in the U.K. and in Stardom in Japan (where they both held the SWA World Championship), then became American wrestling mainstays. But the similarities run deeper than resumes. While the world was forced into their homes during a global pandemic, Hayter and Storm decided to share a home. They trained, they talked, and they watched matches from all different brands, countries, genders, and time periods. None of this is lost on Storm, as her preparation for her title defense isn’t just rooted in physicality, but an understanding that there might not be anyone this prepared for her to date. “She knows me very well. I mean, we spent the entire pandemic watching tape after tape. We know each other very well. We’ve wrestled before in the U.K. We’re very similar. This is going to be the fight of my life, for sure.” Hayter spent the downtime during the pandemic adding muscle and developing a mean streak, returning to join the division’s most prolific talent Britt Baker, both as a tag partner and bodyguard of sorts. On the path to becoming Storm’s top contender, Hayter has severed all ties, both by alignment and by attacking Storm and her allies, with no plans to abide by former relationships. “This has been brought to a personal level. Me and Jamie Hayter were former friends. We were very close at one point, and now we don’t see eye-to-eye, and we have Full Gear coming up, and this title match is looming. And I’m under threat, you know, by this rising star that is Jamie Hayter. She’s got a lot of momentum going into this match against me, and I have to bring my A-game here. This could be the biggest match of my career because this is the most pressure I’ve ever felt.”
That added pressure hasn’t pushed the elephant out of the room. That “interim” informs “permanent,” and the permanent in this case is AEW Women’s champion Thunder Rosa. Rosa, the Mexican-born, Texas-based lucha star, captured the AEW Women’s title on March 16 after a long feud with Baker, culminating in a steel cage match in her adopted hometown of San Antonio. A title rematch was scheduled for AEW’s All Out pay-per-view in September, but the aforementioned back injury led to the match being called off and replaced with the match Storm won to become interim champion. Toni Storm is impatient, not as a personality trait, but as an understanding of her accomplishments. At every stop, Toni has put in the time and been rewarded in kind. Six years of training through her formative years led to Progress Wrestling. Three years in Progress led to her being their first Women’s Champion. One year in Stardom, she became champion. Less than two years in NXT UK, same result. So on Toni Storm’s clock, it’s been time for her to get her shot. Thunder Rosa’s injury has affected that shot, throwing off that timeline. Toni is succinct in her criticism: For her, titles are for those who can defend them. “Personally, I think she should just come to work and defend her championship like she’s supposed to, like a champion should. But if the injury lingers too long, I believe she should probably be stripped. And then I should be the AEW undisputed Women’s World Champion like I was supposed to be at All Out. That’s verbatim. I think she should defend her title. I think all champions should defend that championship. That doesn’t just go for Thunder Rosa. That goes for everybody.”
Speaking of everybody, Toni’s not just looking to be a division tentpole, she wants to be the division’s rising tide. She’s watched women like Mickie James, who gained her initial popularity in WWE, but then went on to star in and elevate women’s locker rooms for promotions across the world. “There’s so many women, so many talented, hungry, driven, young women that are just ready for the world to see them. And I’m excited to see what they can do.” Storm’s immediate thoughts go to Skye Blue, a 23-year-old talent who’s been with AEW for just over a year. “I’m excited to see what she’s going to do in AEW because, personally, I think she’s going to be a master. I’m very proud of her and I’m keeping an eye on her.
“I wouldn’t mind getting in there with Anna Jay,” Storm continued. “I think she’s another one that we’re going to see a lot more of.” With so much success at every stop, Storm both knows the level of her talent, and that a singular talent can’t make a division grow. More than anything, she’s adamant that leadership is about being pushed, and the more eyes she can help to get on the AEW women’s division, the more it can grow to be the next great roster she’s on. The i in Toni Storm starts and stops with who she’s gonna beat next, and outside of that, it’s about the team. “We want this to be bigger. We want more time. We want to push our division above and beyond. And for that we need everyone’s support. We need everyone to support us and tune into Dynamite and Rampage each week.”
Toni Storm has studied under international stars, her local legends, and everyone in between. She’s running out of room on her mantle and has a trophy case that is begging for a water break. But what keeps her level, what keeps her from resting on her laurels, is that this wasn’t chance, this wasn’t luck: This was the job, and like most jobs, even when it’s done, you clock back in and keep working. “I look back to old pictures of my first-ever match—really, nothing has changed. Like, so much has changed, but it’s also stayed the same. In a way, I just look exactly like the -year-old version of my 13-year-old self that started wrestling.”
Cameron Hawkins writes about pro wrestling, Blade II, and obscure ’90s sitcoms for Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and FanSided DDT. You can follow him on Twitter at @CeeHawk.