WWE

Q&A: Natalya on WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge, Nakamura, and why she didn’t want Sami Zayn as her partner

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WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge debuts tonight and will stream live in the U.S. exclusively on Facebook Watch at 10 p.m. ET.

The first match of the inaugural Mixed Match Challenge will be Shinsuke Nakamura and Natalya vs. Finn Balor and Sasha Banks. I had the chance to chat with Natalya about why she’s so excited to team with Nakamura, the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble and why she was thrilled that Sami Zayn wasn’t her teammate.

How is your relationship with Shinsuke Nakamura? This is someone who you haven’t worked with on television before, so I imagine you have to be excited to have the opportunity to share some on-screen time with him.

“I’m so excited to be working with him. When we first found out that there was a group of girls and a group of guys who were going to be competing in the Mixed Match Challenge concept, he was one of the first people I wanted to team with because he’s very quirky, he’s very unusual, he’s very different.

It’s hard to explain exactly what Nakamura is like. His persona on TV is kind of like how he is backstage. He has this mystique about him. He’s very, very charismatic. He leaves people talking and guessing and wondering.

He’ll walk through an airport and grab attention in a different way than say somebody like Braun Strowman. Obviously their proportions are different (laughs).

He’s really cool. He’ll wear like really weird shoes, or a really cool hat, or a really big scarf and you’re like he’s so cool.

Nakamura embraces his own unique eccentricities and that’s what we, at WWE, want to express, especially when we’re talking to kids about bullying and having goals and being different in this crazy thing called life.

We talk to kids about being different and embracing it and Nakamura totally embraces that. It’s very important to be different. I don’t want to be like the person next to me and nor should anyone. When I see Nakamura, he loves to be unique. He is proud of it.

It’s so funny, we’ve been filming a lot of these backstage vignettes on my phone and yesterday I showed him a gift I got for Finn [Balor] and Sasha [Banks] when they lose to us because I don’t want them to feel sad.

So I was explaining this to Nakamura and he’s like ‘a present? Why did you get them a present?’ And I was like, when they lose, they’re going to be sad, and we don’t want that. So I showed him the present was and it was magnets with cats’ bottoms. I saw them at the dollar store and thought they were so stupid and funny at the same time.

I showed them to Nakamura and he was like ‘I want them!’ And I was like no you can’t have them, they’re for Finn and Sasha when they lose. He was fighting with me about wanting to keep the magnets for himself. We got it on tape and I was like Nakamura these are presents for them! And he was like ‘oh yes, yes, yes, yes, we will give them presents.’ He just cracks me up. That’s why I think partnering with him will be so great.

The charity aspect of the Mixed Match Challenge is the cherry on top of this whole thing. Yeah we’re doing this for fun and it’s a great thing for the superstars, a great dynamic for us backstage, and a great way for us to perform. It’s a great way for the WWE Universe to see a different concept because you don’t always see girl and guy tag teams and it’s so cool to see inter-branded tag teams matches.

But then you throw in the charity aspect and there are so many charities the WWE is working with from Connor’s Cure, to Make-A-Wish [Foundation], to Rescue Dogs Rock and so many more. It’s really cool.

Make-A-Wish is the charity that Nakamura and I are representing and it’s one that is really close to my heart because I have granted wishes. And when you can change a kid’s perspective or change their quality of life, even if it’s for a few moments, you realize what the worth of your actual career is. I want to make people happy and lift kids up who don’t have that much time left.”

The use of cats in the promos you’ve done with Nakamura has been hilarious. Was there any thought of having 2pawz as the manager for your team?

“I thought about it and then I thought well, I don’t want PETA coming after me because 10,000 people are yelling as I walk down to the ring with my cat (laughs).

You know, 2pawz doesn’t get out of bed for just anyone or anything. I truly had thought about it because that would be so cool if he came down with us. My mom actually made him a costume that matches Nakamura’s ring costume.

We will reign victorious in the first ever #WWE #mixedmatchchallenge! #NAKAMEOWA

A post shared by 2pawz (@2pawz) on

We filmed some videos and posted them on my account. 2pawz has posted them on his Instagram account. He’s very into Nakamura’s music, his costume and Japanese culture. He’s very ready to do this!

But like I said, I thought about him, but I just think it might be too much for him. I don’t want to traumatize the cat.”

Nakamura does strike me as someone who would have a cat.

“Yes. Now I know he has a dog, but he definitely has cat-owner-like qualities because cats are … Cesaro is a cat owner and he’s kind of like a cat. My husband, TJ, is kind of snippy. They’re like cats. Everything is on their terms.

Whereas dog people … dog people are like Mojo Rawley and Bayley and Becky Lynch. They’re happy. They want to hug you. They want to play and jump. They want attention (laughs). But us cat people, we make you work for it.

Your reaction to Nakamura being revealed as your teammate for the Mixed Match Challenge was noteworthy because of how excited you were that Sami Zayn wasn’t your partner. Why were you so excited that Sami wasn’t standing behind you in the selfie?

“What’s so funny about this is that I actually forgot I said that because I have such spontaneous reactions. The WWE producers were like we need to film a video for you because soon you’re going to find out who your partner is, but it’s not today. So I was doing this interview and then all of a sudden they were like do you want to take a selfie because you’re going to need a selfie for the Mixed Match Challenge and all of a sudden I see these red teeth behind me and it was Nakamura wearing a mouthguard and I was like oh my God, Nakamura is my partner! Like it just clicked to me that this was the reveal.

 

I was so excited, but I had this feeling that I was going to get Sami because he and I were both bad guys on TV. I was like I’m going to get Sami and I don’t know if I have chemistry with Sami, I don’t know if it’s there. It wasn’t that I don’t like Sami, I just couldn’t see us gelling together in the ring. In order to have really compelling and great matches, you need to be able to gel with your partner.

So my first reaction was to jump up and down and yell ‘I didn’t get Sami!’ And then later on that day Sami walks up to me and goes ‘are you and I OK?’ And I go yeah, why? And he goes, ‘because you jumped up and down and said you were so happy that I wasn’t your partner and WWE aired that on Twitter to like 12 million people.’ I was like, ‘I don’t recall doing that (laughs).’ Of course it was like the first thing I did (laughs).

It was so funny because Sami thought I was mad at him. He was like I love you and TJ so much that I didn’t know if I ticked you off and I was like, ‘No!’ I just wanted Nakamura.”

With the first women’s Royal Rumble coming up quickly, I was wondering how much you’ve thought about the potential impact of the match on the division as a whole.

“The WWE is really putting their money where their mouth is. They’re really pulling out all of the stops for this. It’s not just 20 girls in this Royal Rumble. They’re trying to, as much as humanly possible, make it as equal to the guys as they can.

We can try to be as equal to the men as we possibly can, but there are some things that … look you’re not going to have girl who is the same height as Braun (6’8”). There are reasons why different is good. There are a lot of things that the women bring to the table that the men can’t do and there’s a lot of things the men bring to the table that the girls can’t do.

WWE has gone above and beyond in every way, shape, and form to make this first-ever women’s Royal Rumble feel equal and that to me is huge. We have 30 women competing and it’s over-the-top-rope.

It’s all about us girls standing out and showing that we’re equal and WWE has been awesome about embracing that.

I have thought a lot about what I’m going to do in the Royal Rumble. I’ve thought a lot about who could possibly be in the match. There has been a lot of speculation and that’s really the fun part. Who is going to be a part of this? Am I going to see Trish Stratus? Am I going to see Michelle McCool? Is there going to be someone who isn’t even a female superstar come and be a part of it?

I was thinking about the girls from G.L.O.W. like what a shock that would be to see one of the girls from the show because it’s so popular. Anything and everything can happen and there’s this huge element of surprise.

The crowd in Philadelphia will let you know … they’re one of those renegade, rowdy, wild, awesome, amazing powerhouse of a crowd. They’re going to let us know what they love and they’re going to let us know what they hate and they’re going to put the pressure on us more than ever.

I think you’re going to see some magic for sure.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Mick Foley on advice he gave to Braun Strowman, Raw’s 25th anniversary, Jericho vs. Omega

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The 25th anniversary of Raw will be celebrated on January 22nd with a special broadcast from the Barclays Center and the Manhattan Center live at 8 p.m. ET on USA.

I had the chance to chat with Mick Foley about the event, the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match, the advice he gave to Braun Strowman and what he thought of the build for Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega.

Is December 26th the saddest day of the year for you, or does Christmas never end for you?

“As long as I’ve got my Hallmark movie stockpile, I can continue in the season for the next few weeks.”

Those don’t get old for you?

“Nah, we know how they end. It’s a nice way to escape the real world. I also made it a point to see a great production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ on December 30th. I love the season, but it’s nice to get a little break from it. I’m looking out of my window and a foot of snow is mounting and so it still feels like the holiday season.”

You joined WWE after Raw left the Manhattan Center, do you have any memories of working in the building, or have you never had the chance to work there?

“Is it still called the Manhattan Center?”

Yeah it is.

“I guess not. I wrestled in the Penta Hotel in 1990, but I guess I never worked the Manhattan Center.”

The Raw 25th anniversary show is another chance for WWE to celebrate their past by bringing back some of the all-time greats, but when thinking ahead to the future, I don’t know if something like this will be possible when say, the Raw 50th anniversary show happens, because none of the stars on today’s roster, besides John Cena, seem to be able to break through the glass ceiling and reach that next level of super-stardom. What has to change in order for there to be more household names like there were during the Attitude Era?

“Well that’s more of a societal change. I don’t think we can go back there. I think WWE did what they had to do to become more successful than ever on a global basis. I would love to say, ‘Hey, things were much better back in my day,’ but the company just turned its biggest profit ever. They knew that we were in a wave, so you can either let the wave subside and complain about the way things used to be, or move forward in every area possible and that’s what they did.

So I’d say that on a global basis, the superstars are just as big, if not bigger, with the exception of you know, a Rock or a Stone Cold. I think they’re doing just fine.”

As a huge advocate for women’s wrestling, I’m sure you were thrilled to find out about the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble. What are some challenges that the women will face in having to do that match for the first time?

“I guess it depends on the positioning of the match on the card. I’m guessing that it’s going to be first.

Just trying to live up to the lure of rumbles in the past will be a challenge. It is almost always the highlight of the show. The match really gains due to the anticipation during it.

I’ll be rooting for the women. I’ll be glued to my TV set and just hoping that it goes as well as possible for everybody. I hope they have a couple of surprise entrees. Both from the past and a couple of new names.

The women are so determined. Through sheer force of will, they’re going to have a very good match, but the one thing you can’t ever … you can’t book magic. I hope there’s that element of magic in the air when they take to the ring.”

Outside of working with Stephanie McMahon on screen during your time as the general manager of Raw, what were some of your favorite moments during your run last year?

“I loved doing work with The Bar (Sheamus and Cesaro), especially putting them together and then interacting with them after they teamed up.

I loved interactions with guys like Sami [Zayn]. Anyone who I was able to kind of get in and try to make a difference with, I really enjoyed.

I tried to bring a certain element of fear to the way I handled Braun Strowman. I had a major talk with him about the importance of throwing things backstage. [laughs] I told him about a legendary basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, when Darryl Dawkins was ejected. I never saw the dressing room after he was done with it, but I heard about it and it was legendary in my mind and I said to him that he had a chance to be Darryl Dawkins after that game.

He had the physical presence to do it. He was the one guy who had the strength to throw things around in a way that would be meaningful and I think he really took that lesson to heart. Anytime I see Braun Strowman throwing items backstage, I smile.”

His growth last year was one of the more shocking developments in the past few years. Obviously you see the potential based on his look, but it seemed like he really sunk his teeth into the advice he was given and understood how to use it to his advantage.

“Yeah, I put out a post one day on Facebook and I don’t think I quite hit it on the sweet spot of the bat, but it was basically Baron von Frankenstein saying, ‘Oh, that’s how you build a monster.’

I think it’s one of the most impressive builds I’ve seen a long time. Everybody has benefited.”

For sure. He’s one of the few guys on the roster who feels “protected,” and that’s something I was trying to hit at earlier about the lack of superstars on the roster. So many characters just don’t feel like they’re being protected. He’s someone who has been and the crowd understands that and is reacting to him as a top level star.

“Well, the guys go out there and do their thing with the great matches they have and there’s a feeling that the fans respect that and any guy can win at any given time.

Believe me, it’s tough when you have to have good, competitive matches for three hours [every week]. It was much easier in the days of ‘WWE Superstars’ or before that with the wrestling I saw once or twice a week where a decent match every six weeks was considered a treat.

It’s really difficult to have dominant characters when they have to be competitive so often. When you have a chance to build someone like Braun in a different way, it really stands out.”

And that’s why I feel like whoever can show their personality using the microphone or in a backstage segment, will standout even more so than in the past because we see 20 minute matches every week with extensive selling from both guys. I look at someone like Adam Cole, who can get himself over by just using facial expressions, and think that’s someone who will immediately standout to the audience because he’s expressing his character without selling a body part for 60 percent of a match or making a move look cool.

“There’s a guy who came up in an airport, almost combatively saying, ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Raw these days!’

Oh boy.

“And I’m like all right, what is it? And he goes ‘How can you have a three hour show without someone like The Miz?’

And he’s right. When someone is that entertaining that regularly, you miss him when he’s gone. So it shows that there’s room for someone else to step up.

It’s like hey guess what, Jason Jordan is entertaining. Now Drew Gulak is entertaining. Now Rusev is on the other show, but he’s entertaining. Guys find ways to step up and they find a way to make the best out of mediocre situations. They show what they can do and then they get a couple key people believing in them and then they get the ball.”

You’ve said people always come up to you and ask about Hell in the Cell with The Undertaker, but what are some of the more underappreciated moments/matches from your career that you wish people would ask you about more often?

“I was thrilled to be on Edge and Christian’s podcast where Shawn Michaels and I talked about our match at ‘In Your House: Mind Games’ for over an hour. It was amazing how vividly both of us remembered that match.

Some of my matches tend to blend together, but that was really different. A lot of outside of the box stuff.

The stuff that I did to set up the matches with The Rock that resulted in I think five consecutive Pay-Per-View matches, all of which were good.

The non-cell matches with The Undertaker, including the first-ever Buried Alive match.

Every once in a while someone will show the clip of the Big Show throwing me from the stage into a grave on a short hop.

I forget about a lot of the things I’ve done over the years, but I think I was fully appreciated.”

I assume based off of this media tour you’ve done this morning that you haven’t had a chance to watch Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega yet.

“No! It’s shame because last night I was going to put a post out wishing those guys luck and I guess I confused the time zone changes and thought it would be taking place later today. I hear they did a tremendous job though.”

Oh, it was excellent. A great blend of new school and old school. I was not expecting it to go over 40 minutes …

“Woah!”

It was fantastic. What did you think of the build for that match?

“I thought it was great. I’ve been a big fan of Kenny’s work for a long time. During the beginning of their feud, I reached out to him and was like, is this something you guys are working on? Is everything OK between you two? And he was like don’t worry about me, just having some fun.

I thought Jericho isn’t just going to go after a phenomenal athlete like Kenny Omega and reduce him to being a curiosity. And then as soon as the match was announced I was like, ah that Jericho, he knows what he’s doing.

The article that I was going to write last night … I just happened to find a cool photo of Chris and I backstage and I was going to point out that for all of the fun and shenanigans, Jericho is a very competitive guy. Very driven. Stands up for stuff that he believes in. He wants everything he does to be the best and I had no doubt that when this thing was announced that they were going to steal the show.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Sasha Banks Q&A: 2018 Royal Rumble, future of women’s wrestling, becoming face of WWE

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History was made this past Monday night on Raw when Stephanie McMahon announced that on Jan. 28th, the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match will take place live at a special start time of 7 p.m. ET on the WWE Network.

I had the opportunity to chat with Sasha Banks about if she’s thought about what role she would like to play in the Royal Rumble match, which stars from the past she’s hoping will make a surprise appearance, the next step she wants to take in her career, Ronda Rousey, and why she hates Christmas.

So let’s start off with Ronda … Just kidding

“Yeah, you better not.”

Of course, this interview is about you.

As someone who has dreamt of being in a Royal Rumble match, have you thought about what role you would want to have? I assume starting first and then going on to win the match would be at the top of your list, but there is also something about coming in hot at say like number seven and eliminating a bunch of people that seems like it would be really enticing.

“I don’t know if I would want to start off first. I would have to do extra cardio to prepare and with the holiday season I’ve been eating a lot, so I don’t know if I would be ready for that … just kidding (laughs).

Honestly, I would rather get that lucky number 30 and throw everyone out that’s left. I don’t want to sweat my makeup off. I want to look good! But no, I haven’t seriously thought about it or had a chance to because I’m still kind of in that shock moment and I’ve been more thinking about what legend could be in the match or if we’ll have girls from NXT be in the match because with [the] SmackDown and Raw [rosters] we don’t have enough to get to that 30 number yet.

The potential of what legend can I work has me more excited than which number I’ll be in the Royal Rumble match, but I think when I get closer to the actual Royal Rumble, that’s when I’ll get more of my nerves. I don’t want to say I’m in shock because I guessed that this would happen, but it’s still so crazy to kick off 2018 knowing that the women are going to have a Royal Rumble match at the Royal Rumble. It’s really cool.”

Do you know how many girls are going to be in the match?

“I don’t. I would hope 30, right? Just like the guys.”

I would think so, but when I counted all of the active women on the main roster, I realized almost a third of the match would be legends and NXT girls if that magic 30 number was going to be hit. So perfect time to ask this; is there anyone from the past that you can’t wait to hear their music after the crowd finishes their countdown?

“I would love to hear Trish Stratus’ music. Of course Lita, Molly Holly, Jazz, Jacqueline, man even Victoria. It would be an honor to be in the ring with any of those girls.

Beth Phoenix. Of course I want to win it, but at the same time, I would just want her to pick me up and throw me over the top. I would mark out, but I would land on my hands and go back into the ring like Kofi Kingston (laughs).

Any of those girls would be incredible, but of course I would love to see girls from NXT get the opportunity, but of course they wouldn’t win it because I would be the last person standing.”

What about any girls from the Mae Young Classic?

“I mean a lot of the girls from the Mae Young Classic were signed to NXT, so I guess it would be any of the girls who are in NXT now.

My girl Lacey Evans, she was in the Mae Young Classic and she signed with NXT. I have like a women’s crush on her because she reminds me of Sailor Moon, so I really like her (laughs).”

You talked about wanting to sit in the ring at your old wrestling school and reflect on your career recently. I wondered how much the thought of reassessing your personal goals and figuring out where you’re going to go next with your character played a part in wanting to do that.

“For me it’s always been the goal of wanting to be the best and wanting to make a name, my statement here in the WWE. I want to go down as a legend and as the greatest of all time, so those goals have always been a priority for anything I can do.

If I’m even given a five-minute match, I want it to be the best match on the show. Things like that are easy, but for me the hardest thing is to actually think back about all of the things I have accomplished because with how fast things go here in the WWE, we’re on the road every single week, we do live TV every week, it’s hard to actually get to sit down and reflect on where I came from, where I’ve been and how much I’ve done in the company already and I’ve only been on the main roster for almost three years now and I’ve been with WWE for five.

It’s crazy to actually try to have the time to reflect and not get overwhelmed. Like wow dude, look at all of the stuff you’ve done in three years, but it’s crazy because I just want so much more because I’m never satisfied. Of course after the Royal Rumble, the next goal is to main event WrestleMania, to have a singles match at WrestleMania. To main event WWE house shows is a goal.

There are just so many goals … like we keep talking about this women’s evolution, but I just want it to become normal where it’s not just interviews talking about the women, I just want it to be Sasha Banks the WWE superstar. Being the face of the company.

There are so many goals … what I’ve done in these three years is almost like a haze because sometimes I’m like is this a dream? There’s been a lot of stuff (laughs).”

I feel like it’s only going to take time to get people to realize that the women’s revolution or evolution, whatever you want to call it, was a period of time that was needed to get to a point where it’s normal to have women featured in the main event of any show and it’s not a big deal that needs to be pointed out. The storyline will have dictated the placement.

“Exactly and that’s what the number one thing is. I don’t just want something to be given to us just to put that little stamp like ‘Oh look the women are doing it now it’s cool.’ No.

My goal is to main event WrestleMania and if we’re going to main event it, I need it to be the greatest storyline ever. I need the fans to be invested. I just don’t want to get handed something because they’re putting a first time ever [match] for women. I want it to be a good storyline and I want the crowd to care because those are the moments that …

I feel like the reason people talk about the Brooklyn match [I had] with Bayley so much is because of the history between me and Bayley. You know that she fought from the very beginning to get the women’s championship and for me, I fought to keep that and to show people that I’m the best.

People are invested in the storylines more than just putting a name on something and bam! First time ever, you know what I mean?”

Yeah, and it leads me to this, on the Steve Austin podcast you opened up about the idea of women’s tag team championships as a way to help create storyline options for women and give fans more reasons to invest in the division, which led me to this thought. If there was only going be one title on each show, what about having contender’s rankings, so that way every match has a consequence for the winner and loser. It feels like the crowd is able to check out quite a bit on both men’s and women’s matches because there is no reason to invest in the finish of the match.

“Yeah I can hear that, but at the same time … sometimes you get to the matches and they’re like there’s no story to it, but the main story is that you want to win and the more wins you get, the more management sees you as being a potential to go for a championship, so it’s just more about putting on good matches and having fans invested because every single week I want to win, dude. I don’t want to lose.”

You’ve said that the ‘Boss’ character has given you confidence outside of the world of WWE, but has it helped to give you the confidence to fight for something with your character when you disagree with a direction?

“Absolutely. It’s pretty much we within myself that is someone I always wanted to be because I was very shy growing up. I kept to myself. I didn’t have the confidence that I have when I’m in that ring. So if it’s a storyline or things that I want to do in a match, I can be very opinionated, which sometimes sucks because I have a mouth on me.

You learn to pick your battles and to really feel out what’s important to me because you can’t fight for everything, but the things you do fight for should mean something.

I try to fight for the things that have the potential to make something incredible.”

The last thing I have is, what, if anything, is on your Christmas list?

“Well if you were a fan, you would know that I do not like Christmas.”

(Writer’s note here: I didn’t see this topic come up in any of my research, so yes I felt like a stupid idiot here.)

I did not know that (nervously laughing).

“I don’t like Christmas. I don’t care for it at all. If anyone wants to buy me anything for Christmas, I do love makeup. I love Starbucks gift cards because I’m a coffee addict. I don’t mind getting the gifts, I just don’t like buying people gifts because I feel like they are always so ungrateful.

I would always go to my grandmother’s house for Christmas and she had some money, but every time she wanted me to write her a list, I would write WWE action figure and not a stupid Barbie and she would always buy me a Barbie and it would always hurt my feelings, which is another reason why I don’t like Christmas.

But it’s cool now because I now have an action figure and I have a Barbie, so take that grandma.”

You showed her didn’t you?

“I did (laughs). But the nicest thing I did was I actually surprised my husband with a Christmas tree because that’s how much I dislike Christmas.

He never had one, so that was his Christmas present. He saw it today and he cried.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis