Jenaé Easterly earned her law degree from Florida A&M University in 2015 after completing her undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech. She currently works for the Tennessee public defender’s office, 4th District, where she’s been an assistant public defender for two years. Her personal accomplishments are numerous and have had an impact on our world at large. But to wrestling fans, it’s a different accomplishment that stands out: Easterly was the first person to beat Bianca Belair in an athletic competition. “I was on the track. … I was wearing my gymnastics outfits on the track,” Bianca said. The other track athletes would call her Flo-Jo, in reference to the late, fashion-forward track legend Florence Griffith Joyner. “They were writing articles on me, put me in the newspaper. And I got comfortable. And every Saturday, I went to check [my competition]. I was like, ‘Oh, I got this guy on the line.’ Gun went off, and she went, and I was just so caught off guard. … She crossed the finish line before me, and I cried, and I was like, ‘Who is this girl?’ And I quit. I didn’t want to run track anymore.” What seems like an instance of unbecoming overconfidence meeting shame is easily forgiven with an additional detail: Bianca Belair was 5 years old.
Belair has lived her entire athletic career under a magnifying glass. From grade school to college and from CrossFit to pro wrestling, her athletic ability, combined with her style, grace, and presence, has always stood out, regardless of the track, gym, or arena she has occupied. Whether you read 2000s sports almanacs or just watch WWE highlight packages, you know Belair picked track back up and competed at multiple Division I schools, earning All-American and all-conference honors at the University of Tennessee. Her return to track came only a couple years after she left as a 5-year-old, and the person who led to her exit turned into both a rival and a sister, the latter designation becoming lifelong. “I walked on the track at track practice, and she saw me, and I was so nervous. I didn’t know anybody. And she was like, ‘Hey, this is my girl, Bianca. She’s my best friend.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know this girl.’ And she beat me. But she was the nicest person to me ever. And so we became best friends. We’ve been best friends since we were like 6, 7 years old.” Jenae’s encouragement that day led to Belair continuing the sport, and in turn, participating in other sports, like CrossFit and eventually pro wrestling. Going into her third straight WrestleMania title match is both humbling and exciting for her, knowing the legacies of the people she’s faced, as well as the task in front of her.
Belair’s first taste of WWE championship-level competition presented itself in the form of Shayna Baszler, who at the time had been the NXT Women’s champion for 19 months and nine days. Under the tutelage of both UFC legend Josh Barnett and catch wrestling master Billy Robinson, Baszler had created a visceral, credible amalgamation of two styles. Heading into NXT TakeOver: Phoenix, Baszler acknowledged Belair’s physical gifts while declaring that they wouldn’t be enough to overcome the need to breathe. With the assistance of her Four Horsewomen compatriots Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, Baszler would ultimately choke Belair out and retain her title. One attempt, one miss. Belair has vivid memories of the match and the utmost respect for her opponent, both as a rival and as a template for career success. “Yeah, that was a poor memory for me in WWE and NXT because before that, I was on the whole undefeated streak in NXT. And I remember I had a lot of confidence. But when I got to TakeOver, I was, like, dealing with impostor syndrome a little bit because it was my very first TakeOver and my first time on the stage and really showing people that I can go in there and I can hang with the champion. … And so I was like, ‘OK, let me go in here and, whatever, show these people.’ But I learned a whole lot from Shayna. … [She’s] like a complete package. She brings the physical part. She’s great on the mic. She’s great with personality. Honestly, my mama, one of her favorites is Shayna Baszler. She loves Shayna. … I learned a lot from her just being in the ring with her. … That match was very important for me to build the confidence of, like, ‘No, you belong here.’”
Belair would have one more attempt at the NXT Women’s Championship, competing against still-champion Baszler, but also Kairi Sane and Io Shirai, in a fatal four-way match at NXT TakeOver: New York. Once more, she’d come out on the losing end, but competing against those three solidified her as a future star in the business, in the crowd’s eyes and in her own. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m in the ring with three veterans. … I’m the girl who doesn’t have this experience, and I got to show that I can hang with them. I want my name to be the one they’re talking about.’”
When the back-to-back WrestleMania main-eventer reflects on the experiences that prepared her for performing on a big stage, she easily pinpoints one event: the Penn Relays from her collegiate career. The Penn Relays are America’s oldest and largest track and field competition, hosting a wide array of talent, with competitors coming from elementary schools all the way to the professional level. The event is now Belair’s second most important April weekend on her athletic résumé. Although she posted personal bests in the 60-meter hurdles and 200-meter dash during her 2011 season, it’s a moment from the 100-meter hurdles in the Penn Relays that stays with her. “I ran the 100 hurdles and I fell over the first hurdle, so I ran, but I didn’t run.”
That would be the last time she’d be less than stellar when the cameras were on her. In 2021, Belair would win the women’s Royal Rumble match, last eliminating professional counterpart Rhea Ripley, this year’s winner. Her next hurdle would be her highest to date: perhaps the best American women’s wrestler ever, the pro wrestler formerly known as Sasha Banks. They’d be friendly. They’d team together, do press appearances together, and go on to win an ESPY together. But first, Belair had to face Banks in the first WrestleMania main event between two Black wrestlers: She would have to keep pace with the SmackDown Women’s champion while also maintaining her composure in front of the largest crowd she’d ever seen. “All this anticipation and pressure and the buildup, and now we’re finally there,” she said. “Now I’m in the ring at WrestleMania, main event in the ring, on the verge of tears. … People don’t realize it, but that was actually our first time ever touching. We didn’t get any reps before that. We didn’t have any live events. We didn’t have any previous matches on SmackDown. We didn’t feel each other out. But going back and watching that match, it was just like bread and butter. Everything just flowed. It was just like it was meant to be. … And me being into sports my whole life, being an athlete my whole life, winning an ESPY, that’s like an Oscar. That’s like a Grammy now. Win an ESPY in WWE; that was just an amazing time. And everything that happened in that time, it’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Belair would defeat Sasha for the SmackDown Women’s title at her very first singles match at WrestleMania to rave reviews from the live crowd and online pundits alike. After less than five years in the business, she was the victor in the largest one-on-one women’s match in history. She’d tally an impressive string of title defenses up until SummerSlam in 2021, when a returning Becky Lynch would use the shock of her presence and the subterfuge of a friendly handshake to lure Belair into a Manhandle Slam and a 26-second, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it loss. Belair’s almost five-month reign had come to an end due to a misdirection, and she’d once again have to rebuild after a setback. Belair would win the six-woman Elimination Chamber match to challenge Becky Lynch for the Raw Women’s title at WrestleMania 38. A fall and winter full of disqualifications, triple-threat matches, and other technicalities weren’t able to overpower her desire to get back on top. The only thing in her way? The size of the moment. “We were able to have this yearlong feud. … And it was something inside of me that I was just like, ‘I need for this to all pay off, and I need for this to make sense, and I need my redemption,’ because it was something inside of me that just didn’t sit right with me. And so I was super nervous, about 38, but I know I was in good hands. Becky came back better than ever.”
Lynch—the first woman to main-event and win at WrestleMania—went undefeated for a year before relinquishing her championship title in May 2020 and taking time off because of her pregnancy. Having evolved into the Man, highlighted by her Tori Scott–esque attitude and attire, Lynch was WWE’s closest facsimile to former frontman “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, playing by her own rules and mowing down all the competition in the process. Though she returned sporting her familiar leather jacket and tough talk, she soon traded them in for runway attire and hand hiding, blaming everyone but herself for the losses she suffered against Belair and others. But once the bell rang at WrestleMania, all the tools Becky had accumulated over the years were thrown at Belair, who would once again win gold on the grandest stage. “I remember our first match that we had together was at a live event a little bit after SummerSlam, and it was like we had been wrestling for years together,” Belair says. “It was easy. And so I knew that it was going to be a great match and it was going to be easy. It was … the whole story behind this match. If we do this right, this is going to go down in history too.”
It’s been almost a year since Belair’s title victory over Lynch. She’s managed to defeat all challengers, again defeating Lynch, finding new long-term rivals in Bayley and Damage CTRL, and overcoming the latent but effective supernatural powers of Alexa Bliss. But now, she’s up against someone—something—different. Asuka, who still holds NXT’s longest undefeated streak, will challenge Belair for the Raw Women’s Championship at WrestleMania 39. She’ll likely be Belair’s most familiar opponent, with the two having competed against each other in NXT, on SmackDown, and over the last year on Raw. But sometimes there’s a Jenaé. Sometimes there’s a hurdle. Sometimes there’s a funny handshake. Asuka seems to have reached back to a time prior to NXT when she was known as Kana, begrudgingly respected throughout Japan as the Murder Clown. She’s been ruthless, attacking opponents, spitting mist at them, and laughing through the pain she inflicts, all with painted-on diamonds splitting at her mouth. But where she once had nerves, Belair now has a focus, an appreciation of competition, and a desire to perform. “My biggest thing when I got into WWE, they kept telling me, ‘You’re moving way too fast.’ Like, ‘Just slow down a little bit.’ I got in the ring with Asuka, and I’m like, ‘You all say I move fast? Yeah, but I love it.’ … I feel like I’m not holding back and I can just go with her, but I gotta duck [her kicks]. And I’m always, like, on my toes. … NXT, I’ve had a few with her. And every single time, I feel like I’ve come out of the match better. Even if it was an eight-minute match or a six-minute match, just the flow of how she moves and having to stay on my P’s and Q’s. And I have to bring my best; you can’t go in half[way]. You got to bring 100 percent. So I’m excited. And Asuka is actually one that I’ve always said I feel like she’s one of the best wrestlers in the world.”
Almost 30 years after her first race, Bianca Belair has earned amazing wins because she has learned from the losses she carries with her to this day. She remembers her competitors at every level. When asked about her time in CrossFit, she forgoes records and wins and instead mentions the standouts that made competing worthwhile. “I remember I didn’t get to compete against her, but it’s a woman named Elisabeth Akinwale, and she was one of the few Black women that did CrossFit. … She had a body like mine. I loved her, and I watched YouTube videos of her all the time doing CrossFit, but I also got to compete against [a woman] named Taylor Made. … And then there was Talayna Fortunato. There was Brooke Ence. ... These are women that I got to watch.”
While Belair’s otherworldly physical talents have often outweighed her experience, a suffix-trailed attribute that isn’t often attached to her is quietEST. Being able to tell you about every venue, every win, every loss, every opponent is not a talent honed by those who are quick to speak or in a rush to explain. A large part of her success is her ability to survey, plan, appreciate, and understand the moment. “Yeah, I’m not a small-talker,” she says. “If I’m talking about something, it’s going to be something important.” That database she keeps of the highs, lows, scenes, and sounds is why Belair’s hold on WWE’s biggest stage isn’t likely to get Jenaé’d any time soon.
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.