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When the pioneering former UFC champion Ronda Rousey stepped into WWE, speculation was rife about how she would cope with the transition to sports entertainment. While she had put women's MMA on the map on the way to becoming one of the top box-office draws in that industry, pro wrestling demands a very different skillset. Enter Natalya, former two-time women's champion, 12-year WWE veteran and modern-day flag-bearer for the legendary Hart wrestling family. Natalya helped train the Rowdy One for WWE rings, and as Rousey's star was ascending, they met again in a classic championship match on an episode of Monday Night Raw. In an exclusive interview with SPORTbible, Natalya recalls how the pair turned a short-notice TV encounter into one of the most memorable matches of Rousey's WWE tenure.
"I've talked about that match being one of the most special matches of my career and I know it's one of Ronda's. It took everything Ronda had learned from me, from Triple H, from Stephanie McMahon, from Kurt Angle, from working with Sasha Banks and all these different people. All the stuff Ronda had learned about pro wrestling in the last year in WWE, she had to take all that, with no time to plan or prepare. Literally her music hit, my music hit and it was just two pros in the ring looking at each other going "here we go'."
Natalya's looked to her rich heritage in wrestling to inform the match. The daughter of Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart and the niece of his Hart Foundation partner Bret "The Hitman" Hart, Natalya drew inspiration from the old-school purveyors of the family business to construct her incredible battle with Rousey.
"Bret Hart has told me some of the best matches of his career were just called in the ring. He literally just did them in the ring on the fly, because it's something that's coming from his heart. Ronda and I just had that chemistry, we had that connection. She's just a natural athlete, an elite athlete. She's somebody who's not only really gifted when she puts her mind to something, but she also understands about pushing through pain. When you want something badly enough you will do whatever it takes to get there. I really wish I could still compete against Ronda because we never got to do more than that one match."
The bout not only took a physical toll on the competitors, but in Ronda's case especially, her bout with Natalya brought out some complex emotions. Standing across the ring from a woman who had been such a huge part of her WWE journey in a high-profile title attraction brought something to the surface for someone Natalya describes as "wearing her heart on her sleeve".
"I loved that when we had that match she was crying, she was crying in the ring because of emotions when we were wrestling each other, because of what it meant to her, because of what the story of the match was she didn't want to hurt her friend. We got backstage and she was crying. That's who Ronda is, she's emotional, she cares, sometimes she cares too much. She's passionate and that's what I think really resonated with a lot of the audience and it resonated with me."
High-profile matches such as this have not always been the norm for WWE's women. In the past, female competitors have been relegated to bit-part roles in the larger landscape of the company. The tide began to shift in 2014 with the onset of the 'Women's Evolution'. Part of WWE since 2008, Natalya is uniquely placed to comment on the two approaches to women's wrestling.
"You had the Attitude Era with Trish Stratus and Lita and a few girls in there like Sable and Sunny. You had a few girls during the Attitude Era but you weren't getting these stories with just the women. If Trish Stratus was in a main storyline it's because she was partnered up with The Rock. Before 2014 we were struggling to get matches that had stories, we were struggling to mean something. We couldn't mean something if the stories weren't written. If I was told to go out to the ring and do a three-minute match, I have to do a three-minute match. I do what I'm told. To get that freedom is really special, it's really cool. You can just see how the women have taken the ball and run with it."
The emblem of this change has been 'The Man' Becky Lynch, who has risen to main event stardom in the company, including winning the first ever women's match to headline Wrestlemania, when she bested Rousey and Charlotte Flair in 2019.
"Becky main evented and won two championships at Wrestlemania and was basically the head talent in WWE. (She was) selling more shirts than the top guys. Because Becky was part of stories that made our audience care, Becky rose above all the BS. Becky showed the world that you will always be at your most successful if you just be yourself. When you're allowed to tell stories like the women are being allowed to do right now in WWE, it makes all the difference."
Summerslam 2020 is heading our way this weekend, and at last year's event Natalya got the opportunity to meet Lynch in the ring. Fondly remembering the bout, the Canadian explains the "indescribable feeling of all of the stars aligning" as the Superstars wrestled a "beautiful match". A homecoming for Natalya, this Raw Women's Championship clash took place in Toronto, with Natalya drawing from Canadian wrestling royalty to help create a classic.
"Being able to have Bret Hart and Edge backstage. Edge and Bret Hart were actually a big part of the process of putting the match together, I pulled from them a lot. Becky reminded me of Steve Austin and I felt like I was kind of playing the role of Bret. We both believed in what we were doing, we both believed we were right and we were both babyfaces. I also had help from my husband Tyson Kidd and Fit Finlay. I wanted to leave no stone unturned in putting this match together with Becky because I knew our story was powerful."
As well as being present for vast changes to the presentation of women in WWE, in 2020 Natalya has had to deal with another set of radical adjustments this year. COVID-19 may still be preventing wrestling shows in front of live crowds, but it hasn't slowed the WWE juggernaut who have adapted by continuing to present closed-doors shows throughout the pandemic.
"This era of not having the fans being at our shows, it's given people a chance to try different things and step outside their comfort zone. I have seen Sasha Banks and Bayley do their very best work during this pandemic. Sasha is hitting her stride, she's a different Sasha than she was a year ago. Sonya and Mandy's story is exciting to watch because this pandemic has allowed us to really focus in and go "wow!". Sonya maybe has the best promo of any female in WWE, we never knew that because before the pandemic she never got the chance to speak on the mic. People are getting opportunities that they didn't necessarily get prior to this. Now we're seeing these girls shine."
As well as Summerslam, this weekend will also play host to NXT Takeover: XXX, the thirtieth major event from WWE's third brand. Natalya competed at the first ever Takeover in an NXT Women's Championship bout with Charlotte Flair, a match that helped establish the second-generation star as a major player in the company.
"That match I had with Charlotte Flair is special because for me when I wrestled her she didn't believe in herself. She didn't know what she had inside of her, she was just worried about living in Ric Flair's shadow. It took somebody like myself who had already been through all that to go "I know exactly what you're going through". Through my career I never wanted anybody to think I was trying to be like my Dad, or trying to be like my uncles, or trying to be like Bret or trying to be like my grandfather. I had to work extra hard to create my own identity. I wanted to honour my family, but create my own identity. Once I was able to pull down those barriers from Charlotte, it was a great feeling to be able to give to her something no one else had been able to do. That was to be able to showcase the potential that she had. I think you're going to see that at this Takeover that we have."
It's a testament to what Natalya has accomplished that she has been a part of so many pivotal parts of the Women's Evolution, and clashed with all it's emerging stars in high-profile bouts. Natalya represents not only the proud Hart legacy, but an entire generation of women who are finally getting the chance to tell engaging stories in the ring.
Watch WWE SummerSlam live on the award-winning WWE Network and BT Sport Box Office this Sunday from 12am.
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