It’s Friday, March 31, 2023. WWE is on its second day of WrestleMania media, an event held in one of the large meeting rooms in downtown Los Angeles’s JW Marriott hotel. Wrestlers and managers take photos, do short-form interviews, and provide extra hype for their upcoming WrestleMania moments amid logo-emblazoned backdrops and random flashing lights. Rhea Ripley’s not on the docket that day, but she’s coming up the escalator in a plain T-shirt and shorts, likely venturing out to explore DTLA. Recognizing her and remembering her run-ins with airport autograph seekers, I shouted from a short distance, “Excuse me, Miss, can you sign these 50 pieces of merch for me?” She stops, processes, turns around, and laughs heartily. It’s been a whirlwind year for Ripley, from running the table in the 2023 Royal Rumble match, to becoming the inaugural winner of the newly established WWE Women’s World Championship. “It’s definitely got a lot more crazy and hectic, for sure,” she says, nine months after our initial conversation, thinking over all of the requests for her time, for autographs, or whatever else she’s asked on a whim. “I not only get wrestling fans coming up to me, and even at the airport, them wanting me to sign stuff … but I get people at the gym that randomly come up to me and they know nothing about wrestling, but they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re the girl from TikTok.’” Awareness of Ripley on social media has taken off for two main reasons—WWE’s efforts to enhance its presence across digital platforms and the world’s appreciation of Rhea’s authenticity.
That authenticity was challenged in a big way in the summer of 2017, when Ripley first tested the WWE waters. She walked into the locker room and saw a lot of women who looked a lot like her. “I don’t want to say they were all the same,” she says, “but there was a lot of the same sort of build and same sort of gimmicks in the business at that time.” All of 20 years old, Rhea put on a respectable outing, losing to Dakota Kai in the semifinals of the first Mae Young Classic tournament. But if you watch that match on mute, you might not recognize Ripley, whose look was way more in line with the projected aesthetic of that time. Sporting long blond hair braided to one side and traditional ring gear with Sean Waltman–esque kick pads, Rhea was more create-a-wrestler than creative entity. That effort to fit in, however, almost got her pushed out of WWE altogether. “I was on the chopping block,” Ripley says. “I nearly got fired a few times. I don’t know if they wanted me to know that, but I did know that.” In the time between her Mae Young Classic debut and the same tournament the following year, Rhea started to move away from what was accepted and more into what was feared: the strength of the individual, the sound of the unsatisfied, and the look of the unintimidated. Ripley was influenced by the music that she listened to, featuring bands who weren’t concerned with “the way that they dress and the way that they acted. They didn’t care about what anyone thought. And I really aspired to be like that. I love the studded jackets, I love the painted jackets. I love the black makeup, the black hair. I’ve always loved that grungy look. And that’s been me, deep down. I’ve just been hiding it for so long because I was trying to be the girl next door, the beachy sort of vibes, but it wasn’t me. But after I had a little discussion with myself, I stopped caring about what they wanted from me.” She’d pair the sound and the look with a larger, more intimidating physique, flipping the “childhood dream” that was synonymous with her generation’s wrestlers to become the full-blown “Nightmare,” as intimidating as she was hungry to prove her worth. Facing rejection from management more than once made the risk both necessary and cathartic, as she’d at least be doing things on her terms. “If I’m going to die on a sword, I’m going to die on the sword that I put down and be my genuine self. If I don’t make it that way, then it wasn’t meant to be.”
A new look and workout routine aren’t novel ideas in wrestling, but confidence and authenticity can produce some fantastic moments. After being the last competitor eliminated in the 2021 Royal Rumble match, Ripley won it in 2023, becoming the only woman—and fourth winner overall—to win the Rumble as the first entrant. She’d use that victory to challenge and defeat Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown Women’s Championship at WrestleMania 39. Charlotte was the ideal opponent for multiple reasons: Rhea faced a top-tier competitor while revisiting the physicality and intensity of her first WrestleMania loss three years earlier. “From WrestleMania 36, the first time that we had ever touched in a singles match, it was just there instantly,” Ripley explains. “I love to get hit and I love a bit of blood. So when I step in the ring with, like, Charlotte, Bianca [Belair], Nia [Jax], Shayna [Baszler], Raquel [Rodriguez], we’re always going in there and we’re going to go hard no matter what. So to have that WrestleMania match with Charlotte, we didn’t really have a game plan going into it. We just know that we bring out the best in each other and the roughest side of each other because we’re in there to prove a point.”
It’s tough to decide which accolade stands out the most: wire-to-wire Rumble winner; one of the best matches at the largest WrestleMania ever; inaugural WWE Women’s World Champion; first women’s WarGames winner; or being the leader of the Judgment Day, currently WWE’s top faction. Rhea’s the power broker and powerlifter of the group, both inciting the conflict with her words and standing on it with her signature black boots. She simultaneously has Dominik Mysterio’s eye and Paul Heyman’s ear. But what’s most impressive is that she often catches herself using the tools of her teammates and targets she’s acquired over her time running with the purple and black. “I don’t even realize that I’m learning most of the time because I’m just watching and I’m taking it in and then I catch myself pulling little bits and pieces and I’m like, ‘Oh, that was very, like, Edge of me. Oh, that was very AJ Styles of me.’”
The entire continent of Australia doesn’t have enough elephants to fill a Royal Rumble match, but its most dominant export is more than aware of the one elephant she shares a room with. One of WWE’s strongest declarations toward changing the presentation and feel of the industry was its initial booking of an intimidating, peerless, leather-clad femme fatale that men respected and women feared. The late Joanie “Chyna” Laurer was the first to carry the torch as the female heavy for successful male stars. She was, in fact, introduced during the Attitude Era as a bodyguard for Triple H, who in his post-wrestling career is now WWE’s head of creative and essentially Ripley’s boss. The similarities, and familiarity, aren’t lost on Ripley. “Hunter definitely likes to put me next to Chyna,” she reflects, recognizing Triple H’s understanding and enthusiasm for versatile talents. “We didn’t actually have like a sitdown conversation about how my career would pan out. We sort of just let it all grow, in a way, naturally.”
Ripley explains that while her role in Judgment Day was never specified as, “you’re going to be beating up the men,” that was the natural progression of her role. Ripley credits Chyna, who she feels “paved the way in the way that she got in the ring with the men, and she proved that women can beat up men and be just as good as them. Where I’m sort of following on with that, but I’m trying to make my own name for myself at the same time.”
The way Ripley chooses to solidify her name—starting with the steamrolling of her 2023 Rumble competition—isn’t just meant to be one of fear and intimidation, but also rooted in the idea that your name, your stamp, should be unique. Channeling her feelings of stagnation into creating a character unlike any other in sports entertainment wasn’t difficult, but Ripley’s here to do so much more: She wants to be a cornerstone of the WWE women’s division and carve out her own spot in wrestling history. And being the leader she is, she wants to push everyone around her to find ownership on their terms. “I feel like Bianca and I, we are two peas in a pod, pretty much coming up in NXT together, going to war, going to the main roster pretty much, and making it into the  Royal Rumble and being the last two, it was very fitting. I feel like Bianca is my person that will always be there, and we will be the new faces of the women’s division coming up. We’ve pretty much already taken over now, but once the Charlottes leave, the Beckys leave, the Bayleys leave, it’s left to us. And this is now our division. It’s fully our division, and we’re the new generation.” But two superstars do not an ecosystem make. As Rhea’s become a focal point on WWE’s flagship Raw program, she’s blurred the lines of what men and women can do with one another in competition, and she doesn’t think that this time, or these moments, should be limited to her. If anything, she wants her journey to make it easier for everyone to get their opportunities. “I just hope that it transcends, and it just takes that next step in the business where we do start getting more TV time. Like, we have so many women on the roster, and I feel like a lot of the time, you see three-minute tag matches, and I really want to see the women get the opportunities to really shine,” Ripley says.
Rhea Ripley’s maturation from programmed powder puff to plot-pushing powerhouse has played out across WWE media for almost a decade, but she’s really just scratching the surface of what she can provide. That willingness to embrace her individuality gave her the tools to stand tall in 2023’s Rumble, and continues to make her one of wrestling’s biggest standouts. So now, the only real issue is putting her signature stomp down for those airport collectors and would-be social media moguls and letting them know there’s a place and time to get a hold of Mami’s name, image, and likeness.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Ripley assures me with a laugh. “I do now.”
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.