To a lot of people, Shayna Baszler's move from MMA to pro wrestling was leaving one world for another.
But for her, given her background, it's more like switching branches on the same tree, an analogy she's used for years, long before she became a pro wrestler, since it was taught to her that way by Billy Robinson.
Baszler, who trains under Josh Barnett, has long considered Robinson one of her major mentors, and catch wrestling as her specialty. Robinson was a British and European champion in amateur wrestling, who would have been an Olympic medal contender in 1960 since he had wins over a couple of Olympic medalists, but decided to turn professional while still a teenager. During the 60s, he studied at the Snake Pit in Wigan, which legend had it was the home of the toughest submission wrestlers in the world, and in his prime, he was considered the best of that group. He was also a major star as a pro wrestler on several continents, including North America. During the late 60s and throughout the 70s, he was almost a household name in Japan.
"I kind of had a feeling I'd enjoy it," Baszler told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour about getting into pro wrestling less than two years ago after her run in the UFC ended with losses to Bethe Correia and current bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. "I mean, if you follow my MMA career, I've always been the pro wrestler of women’s MMA, coming out with a guitar, saying crazy things on interviews, promos and such. Being a disciple of Josh Barnett, and learning about pro wrestling coming from old school catch wrestling, it's always been a big part of our training.
"Maybe people won't understand this or know the history of catch wrestling and the shared history of pro wrestling/sports entertainment has with mixed martial arts and fighting, but I've been under Josh for 12 years. I felt it was a way I could follow in his footsteps and Billy Robinson's footsteps and carry the catch wrestling banner in my fights.
"It was important to me to be Josh's first really successful sports entertainer,” Baszler added. “That was my goal, to honor everything he did for me."
On July 13 and 14, Baszler was in Winter Park, Fla., as one of 32 women to compete in the Mae Young Classic, a tournament put on by World Wrestling Entertainment to both produce a ten episode miniseries tournament and for the company to get a look at some of the top women wrestlers from around the world that the company didn't already have under contract. That was the primary goal.
On the second day of taping, a secondary goal seemed to be unveiled. Baszler was booked to be a tournament standout, choking out all of her opponents using an MMA-based ring style.
When Baszler originally decided to try pro wrestling, it was one where her odds of success on paper weren't high. She was already 35 years old in a youth-oriented business. The industry leader, WWE, for years had a certain mentality about women competitors. The phrase was that while they were no longer in business with Playboy — at another time, WWE and Playboy had a working relationship where WWE women stars would pose and Playboy would get near record numbers from those issues — they wanted women who looked like they could pose for Playboy. Until a few years ago, the women were scorned if they tried to wrestle hard, physical matches, similar to the men. Many of the women at that time were frustrated when they'd copy the top male matches and be told that they were wrestling like men, and they wanted them to wrestle like women.
Ironically, a huge part of the change was one of Baszler's best friends, Rousey. When Rousey proved in UFC that women could draw big numbers on pay-per-view, the fan base and WWE management's view on women shifted to where they wanted more athletic women, and were no longer focused on just the model body type. Since that time, WWE has on a few occasions, including once on a major pay-per-view, put a women's match in the main event position, something that would have been unheard of in the modern era, even though such a thing was commonplace in the 40s and 50s.
Baszler got strong reviews for her work on independent shows in the U.S., and did well in Japan, where the highest caliber of women wrestlers were competing. She even main evented on Feb. 23 in Tokyo's famed Korakuen Hall against Io Shirai, the champion of the Stardom promotion, who many consider as the top female wrestler in the world.
This led to an invitation to the WWE tournament. While Baszler couldn't give details, since the WWE tournament will air in five week installments released on Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 on the WWE Network, she is one of the two finalists. She will face Kairi Sane, a wrestler she faced on her early 2017 Japanese tour, then known as Kairi Hojo, in the championship match.
The match will air live from Las Vegas on Sept. 12 at 10 p.m. ET on the WWE Network.
She also can't talk about whether she has an actual WWE deal. But between her showing at the tournament, the fact she is no longer taking independent bookings, and that she started wrestling full-time this past weekend on NXT shows in Florida, which is WWE's developmental brand, that would seem indicate she's bucked the odds and gotten a contract, at the age of 37, and less than two years after starting her journey. At worst, she would be under strong consideration for a deal, which, whether she has one or not, wouldn't be announced until after the tournament concludes.
"It's sooner than I thought, but at the same time, it's exactly the right time," she said. "I think it had to happen this way, and there's no better way than this tournament, where hopefully I show what I can do and what I bring to the table. The tournament, and its historical importance is surreal to me."
The tournament is the first of its kind for WWE, and the first time the company has ever produced an in-ring television show aimed at the Netflix generation of binge watchers as opposed to the traditional weekly series.
Paul Levesque, better known as HHH, who put the tournament together, said that releasing all the episodes at one time was an experiment.
Baszler was one of many women in the tournament who got strong reviews, although she and Sane, who had signed a WWE deal months earlier, are the only two who have been doing shows with the company after the tournament.
Baszler's success comes at the same time of rumors regarding Rousey in WWE.
A clear angle was set up during the tapings where Baszler held up four fingers in front of WWE main roster stars Bayley (Pamela Martinez), Becky Lynch (Rebecca Quin) and Charlotte (Ashley Fliehr, the daughter of Ric Flair). Years ago, Baszler coined the MMA quartet of herself and running mates Rousey, Duke and Shafir as "The Four Horsewomen," after a legendary pro wrestling quartet led by Ric Flair and Arn Anderson, with a variety of different other members.
This led to a shouting match that garnered headlines throughout pro wrestling, where Rousey, Duke and Shafir, put on a different side of the ring, started yelling at the WWE Horsewomen. This tease is expected to air on one of the shows released on Sept. 4.
"If they think they want to challenge us, I don't see any of the four of us saying no," said Baszler. "I have to win this tournament first. I have to worry about that."
Baszler has long been a student of pro wrestling, stemming from her training with Robinson. Watching wrestling on Monday nights became a tradition with the four at one point. Later, they often attended live events, particularly Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows in Reseda, Calif., where at least two and sometimes all four would be seated in the front row.
Before entering pro wrestling, Baszler often trained with several of the WWE women including Charlotte, Natalya and Nikki Bella, with her teaching them ground based submission techniques they could apply to their pro wrestling matches and them giving her pointers on a potential pro wrestling career.
Later, Bayley, Lynch, Charlotte and Sasha Banks (Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado), who started together in WWE and were key parts of the company's transition to a more athletic based women's presentation, dubbed themselves the Four Horsewomen. At the time, nobody was thinking of a rivalry, although Baszler from the start hoped it would end up that way.
It's a natural rivalry, particularly if Rousey is part of it.
There are reports that Rousey has been training with Brian Kendrick, a WWE performer who has trained other women wrestlers, within the last few weeks. Photos have gotten around of Duke training with Kendrick in the last two weeks. Shafir, as coincidence would have it, is currently engaged to a WWE wrestler, Roderick Strong, who she met when Strong wrestled for PWG, and is living with him in Florida.
Baszler was coy about answering whether Rousey was training for pro wrestling.
"Well, if they want to do it, I'd be all the happier to have my friends along for the ride," she said. "The truth is, they came out to the tournament to watch me. I specifically asked them. This was the biggest milestone in my career and it was important to me to have my closest friends, and they were genuinely there to watch and support me. If they want to get into it, who wouldn't want their friends with them at work?"
"Ronda and Jess both, they aren't doing anything different than before," said Baszler. "It's just suddenly everyone is interested in it."
Rousey did an appearance for WWE two years ago at WrestleMania, in a surprise in-ring skit with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and WWE's royal couple, Levesque and wife Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, the daughter of Vince McMahon. Originally the plan was to lead to a Rousey vs. Stephanie match, which still hasn't happened.
"Ronda's a natural athlete," said Baszler. "Just learning a different rule set and bringing what she has from MMA would be the same, does her judo translate to MMA, will her MMA translate to pro wrestling? She's been pretty successful one way, and I think she'll be pretty successful the other way.
"Ronda's one of those people that when she learns something, she goes in hard. If she wants to pursue this, she should pursue this ... to where she would be one of the best, so we'll see."