When SPORTbible spoke to WWE superstar Dave Mastiff in September, he said that British wrestling is "hotter than it's been in the last 30 years." For both male and female superstars, it couldn't be closer to the truth. WWE has changed the landscape of British wrestling since the first United Kingdom Championship Tournament was held in 2017. Since then, the company has established NXT UK and is building a platform to showcase the talent of British wrestlers. But when it specifically comes to women, Toni Storm is one of the biggest names on the UK scene.
The 23-year-old has taken British wrestling by storm (pun very much intended!) and has quickly climbed the ladder to the top of the NXT UK brand. Storm, real name Toni Rossall, was born in New Zealand and lived most of her childhood in Australia, but that was before she made the difficult decision to leave her mother and sister behind to come and live in Liverpool at the age of 17. For Storm, it was no easy task to leave everything behind with the hope that she could break into such a competitive industry. However, it would be one that would lead to considerable success around the world, from competing in Japan at World Wonder Ring Stardom to Progress Wrestling in the UK.
Adopting a style that has infused both elements of Japanese and British wrestling, Storm has been a formidable force since she burst on the scene in WWE. Oh, and that's not to mention a heavy metal look inspired by Mötley Crüe and the band's bassist, Nikki Sixx, giving her persona an edgy 1980s/1990s vibe about it. Liverpool's adopted daughter made it to the semi-final of the inaugural Mae Young Classic in 2017, but that was only a small sign of what she was capable of achieving. Fast-forward a year later and Storm won the second Mae Young Classic last month at WWE Evolution, the first-ever all-women's pay-per-view.
In NXT UK, she reached the final of the UK Women's Championship tournament and faced off against Rhea Ripley. That rivalry will extend into NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool on 12th January 2019, with Storm once again reigniting her feud with Ripley.
SPORTbible had the opportunity to catch up with Rossall ahead of NXT UK's show in Liverpool. We spoke to her about her experience of coming to Liverpool at such a young age, competing in both Mae Young Classics, the impact of NXT UK in British wrestling and WWE superstars that she would love to compete against one day.
[SPORTbible] So, what was the reason for using the name Storm as part of your ring name?
[Toni Storm] Ha-ha! Well, it changed to Toni Storm when I first moved out to the UK, so I was about 17 and I just got landed with it because I was originally just Storm. I got given that [name] when I was 13 and I stuck with it. It was because, to be honest, my grandmother thought it would be really cool. And I was debuting quite soon after training, so I needed a name fast and I went through every name and then my grandmother just thought it was great!
Born in New Zealand, grew up in Australia and competed around the entire world. How has that experience helped to shape your career?
It's great because it's helped me mould into having a lot of styles, so I can be quite versatile when I'm wrestling. I've also been lucky enough to have so many experiences because I've gone everywhere. And yeah, it's just made me more well rounded.
You said you came to Liverpool at the age of 17. Speaking of which, what was it like to move here at such a young age, develop on the British wrestling scene and get to where you're at now with WWE?
I was quite lucky. When I first came out here -- from about 17 to 18 -- I was just on and off again. By the time I was 19, I was fully moved here. But I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Dean Allmark, who is a trainer like quite local, and he helped me get to where I wanted to be. It was baby steps at first. It was really hard at first because I moved over with nothing. I was lucky enough to have a bit of family support, but I essentially moved over with about £30.
I trained as much as I could, went to as many shows as I could, started at the bottom and then eventually developed into bigger and bigger shows. I started going around [the] Europe scene more into Germany, Italy and then I eventually did Japan, which helped boost my reputation so I could come back and get on to bigger shows like Progress, which has helped me to lead to now, NXT UK.
What does it feel like to compete in NXT UK in Liverpool? It must feel like a homecoming for you, no?
It really does! Just NXT UK, as a whole, I'm so proud of the brand. It's been a long time coming. It's such a hotspot over here; it has been for so many years. We have some of the best talent in the world, and now we finally have a brand where we can showcase that to millions of people now, which is what, to be honest, we always needed.
Especially being in Liverpool, I've already got goosebumps thinking about it because things really began to kick off for me when I moved to Liverpool. Things really started to move forward. Yeah, it's a big part of me. It's a big part of my journey, so hopefully people see that.
What do you like about the city the most, then?
I absolutely love the accent. I'm only just understanding it now, but I love it. It's just definitely become very much home to me: just the sights, the sounds, every part of it. I love the people especially -- it's a big part of it. Some of the friendliest people in the world are from Liverpool, to me. So, yeah, I'm happy to be home.
You moved here to convince your mother that you wanted to become a professional wrestler. How did you stop it from ever becoming a negative idea rather than a motivational one? Considering your success, have you revisited that first conversation with your mother about you leaving Australia behind and coming to live in Liverpool?
I've definitely faced my dark days. Being away from my mom and my sister -- thankfully, they've only just recently moved out [here] -- but for years it's definitely been hard. I struggled a lot being away from home, not having that support. Like, there were so many times when you were down and you've had enough, you're beat up, you're tired... I just wanted [to] go and sit and have a coffee with my mum. And I didn't get to do that for so long. What kept me going was I knew there was going to be an end result coming: I knew I would do good things and she would be able to watch that and be really proud of that. And, well, literally my vision is happening because they're going to be watching me in Liverpool and it's a dream come true! Ha-ha!
I think we will [revisit the conversation] after the Liverpool shows. When she's watched me and it's all happening. It's always been a very vivid dream, it's always been the end result and I finally get to have it, which is fantastic.
How much of an impact has NXT UK had on women's wrestling?
We've had so many hidden gems in the women's division in the UK that haven't been able to, you know, be on the grand stage that is NXT UK in WWE. So, NXT UK is gonna be able to show the world what incredible hidden gems we have for women's wrestling.
Some people would consider you to be the face of the NXT UK women's division, following on from the success that you've had in WWE so far. How do you deal with the pressure of maintaining that position?
There's definitely a lot of pressure and it's definitely very difficult to deal with because, yeah, there's a lot of weight on my shoulders and a lot of pressure to be the best in any locker room. But I just keep doing my thing. I keep pushing through. I figured that if I can come from nothing in Australia all the way to NXT UK, then there's no limit to what I can do. So I just need to keep pushing like I always have done.
You had the chance to compete in both Mae Young Classics and win the second tournament at WWE Evolution. What was that journey like going from a semi-final finish first time around to winning the tournament at the first-ever all-women's pay-per-view?
It was definitely a very stressful experience, very rewarding in the most incredible experience of my life, but the journey was hard. Because I made it to [the] semi-finals [in] 2017 and going into 2018 I was like, 'well, if I get less than semi-finals, then that's a knock on me.' So I had so much pressure, so much drive and determination to get to the finals because that had sat with me for over a year and I was like, 'I have to get to the finals. I have to win this thing.' It's all I need to do, so I just kept that vision in mind and it worked out for the best. Ha-ha!
When you competed in both Mae Young Classics, was it a shock to the system when it came to wrestling with people who have adopted different wrestling styles from around the world?
I feel like my very nomadic experience leading up until now has very much helped in both Mae Young Classics because I've had many experiences in Japan, America previously and all over Europe and I feel like I was able to combine all those different styles. So no matter who I faced, I was able to be adaptable and fit into their style and it worked out quite well.
Having competed in both Mae Young Classics, how important has that experience been going into the NXT UK Women's Championship tournament?
I feel like I have a lot of pressure going into it. I feel like I've got to this point and I can't fail now. I've already got to the finals, I've won the Mae Young Classic, I was at Evolution -- like, I can't fail now. If I were to fail now, that would be such a letdown. So I got the momentum behind me and take it through this women's tournament.
You've competed against many women in your career, but some people would say that Rhea Ripley is your toughest test in the final of the Women's Championship tournament. What's it like to step into the ring with someone like Ripley?
I'm not going to lie and say I'm not intimidated when I'm in the ring with, you know, athletic machines like Rhea Ripley [and] girls like Meiko Satomura and Io Shirai. It's an intimidating world and it's a very high-pressure situation, but I just got to remember and keep in the back of my head where I came from and the journey that it has taken for me to get here. If I can overcome that, then I can overcome anyone.
If the challenge for the UK Women's Championship fails, would you consider a run for a women's version of the NXT UK Tag Team Championship if they were introduced? And if so, who would you like your partner to be?
Of course! I mean, I've always been quite the lone wolf throughout my entire career, but I can be quite friendly. I'm not sure who I would pick. That would take a lot of intricate thinking. It would definitely [be] only the best partner -- someone that can keep me in line. Good luck to them. Ha-ha!
Every wrestler has their own moveset and certain types of moves that they claim over time. For example, there was a video that featured the '20 best Toni Storm moves' on YouTube. Are you always on the lookout for a new move to adopt in your wrestling arsenal? And have there ever been cases when you think one of your current moves should be dropped going forward?
Yeah, I'm very quite picky. To be honest, sometimes I just want to completely change everything, studying all kinds of different matches and maybe I'll do that or maybe I'll do this or maybe this is more effective than that. It goes around my head quite a lot, but I do kind of stick to the same thinking each time. I always keep coming back to the same kind of moveset, which is quite Japanese style, Japanese oriented. Yeah, it's worked out for me in the best bit. Sometimes I do like to chop and change -- see what works better than the other.
If you had the chance to face one woman on the US branch of NXT tomorrow, who would it be and why?
There's so many! I've already faced Kairi Sane; I've already faced Shayna Baszler. I would love to step in there with the likes of Deonna Purrazzo, a very good friend of mine. I faced her in Japan, but I would like to see where she's at now and see how far I can push myself. Bianca Blair, very incredible and very strong. Don't know how I would do it, but I would find a way! I would say those two for now.
And let's do the same for Raw and SmackDown, too.
I've always dreamt of having a match with Becky Lynch. I've always wanted that to happen. She said it at the 2017 Mae Young that she would love a match. And then I was speaking to Sasha [Banks] in a recent interview and she said she would love to step in the ring with me. Actually, kind of thinking about it that might be quite good!
NXT is the brainchild of Triple H and people credit him a lot for its success. He's been heavily pushing into the British wrestling scene with NXT UK. Have you met him and what was it like?
It's incredible. He's the man. He's been there and he's done it all. He's someone who I was such a huge fan of for so many years and then I get to meet him, get advice from him, work with him. And it's just incredible. I feel like in just a short time that I've been able to grab some advice off him I've learnt so much just from those little bits. I'm very lucky; I'm very blessed to be able to work with literally the best of the best and it's helped me so much.
Out of curiosity, were there any female wrestlers who were an inspiration for you?
Mickie James has always been a big one. And then, obviously, you got Trish Stratus, who I recently got to meet at Evolution and it was ridiculous as an interview where you can see I am shaking with fear and freaking out and it was the most incredible, surreal experience of my life. She was a big, big influence for me. Alundra Blayze as well, who I have met a few times. It's crazy because I grew up inspired to be just like these women and now I kind of brush past them in the hallways of a locker room. It's just incredible.
We've had a women's Royal Rumble, we've had a women's Money in the Bank match, we've had revamped women's titles and we've had a massive push in the women's wrestling scene. Where does women's wrestling go from here?
You know what? Women are gonna headline WrestleMania. There's no doubt about it. That's gonna happen.
Maybe next year, maybe the year after -- who knows? The universe is gonna have one way of working it out, whether it's next year, the year after. It's gonna work out, it's gonna happen and it's been my dream so clearly since I was a young child, so it's definitely gonna happen because I've already envisioned it. It's definitely gonna happen.
Is the dream to watch it or to see Toni Storm in the headline?
Yes, definitely. One day I'm going to headline WrestleMania!
Tickets for NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool are now sold out, but tickets for NXT UK: The Aftermath on 13th January are still available on Eventim.
Featured Image Credit: WWE