Before she was a WWE superstar, Sonya Deville was an aspiring MMA fighter known as “The Jersey Devil” Daria Berenato.
Her passion was most definitely fighting, but she also loved acting and performing, which led her to host a podcast dedicated to UFC coverage. Eventually, she earned an opportunity for a try out for the WWE reality series Tough Enough, and seven years later, the now 28-year-old couldn’t imagine her life going any differently.
“It’s funny, when I first made the transition [to WWE], I was having severe withdrawal syndrome [from fighting],” Deville told MMA Fighting. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ Just because I dedicated six years of my life to fighting. I loved fighting. MMA was kind of like my first love. So yes, in the beginning a lot, but now not so much.
“I’m just loving what I’m doing, and it’s kind of like my dream career. ... I’m kind of like in my dream career now, but I still love MMA. My heart’s there. I spent my youth years training martial arts. So I definitely miss it sometimes.”
While pro fighters becoming professional wrestling isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, the number of athletes making the move has increased exponentially in recent years. At the top of that list is ex-UFC champion Ronda Rousey, who left behind her fighting career to ink a WWE deal. On Saturday, she headlines her second WrestleMania event. The same two-night card also features another past UFC champion in Brock Lesnar; other MMA vets include Strikeforce veteran Bobby Lashley and UFC vets Shayna Baszler and Matt Riddle.
According to Deville, she only expects those numbers to multiply in the coming years, especially when high-profile prospects like Gable Steveson choose WWE over a potential UFC career.
“I don’t think that transition will die out any time soon, and I think you’re right saying that it will continue to grow and be more so,” Deville said. “There’s so many different things that can draw you to this world. It could be the performance aspect. It could be the physicality and what we do here but it could also be the gigantic platform that comes with being a WWE superstar.
“I think globally, digitally, socially, we have such an influence, and we have such a name that people are proud to represent, now especially. So I think people just want to be part of the fun. We have fun what we do here. It’s a little different than most sports. We work together and we have a lot of fun.”
Deville argues that fighters are largely built for a career in pro wrestling because MMA often times requires more than just the skills inside the cage to become a star. A perfect example is Conor McGregor, who became the UFC’s first ever simultaneous two-division champion and was also an incredibly magnetic personality on the microphone, which allowed him to build a massive audience.
“I think just the legitimacy and the intensity and the passion of the fighter translates so well into what we do here in sports entertainment and WWE,” Deville explained. “You come with fight skills. You come with the footwork and the agility and so all that’s a given. What we do in WWE, we fight and we story-tell and tell these stories of passion and intensity. If you’re in the world of MMA, more likely than not you already have those characteristics and those traits inside you.
“I feel like it’s just a natural crossover, in a lot of ways. For me, I like doing both. I like performing and fighting so it was a no brainer. You get larger than life personalities in both MMA and professional wrestling. They have a lot of dualities and commonalities so I just feel like it’s kind of a natural transition.”
While not every fight can have McGregor’s exuberant personality, there’s no denying that the ability of an athlete to sell themselves outside the cage is a huge asset in combat sports. It’s the exact same way in WWE, where Deville has seen those over-the-top athletes flourish over the years. The trend has only grown stronger thanks to the thirst for content creation and the explosion of social media platforms.
“Part of being an MMA fighter now is having a persona and representing yourself accordingly,” Deville said. “Whether it’s intentional or something organic that is part of you, it helps sell tickets and putting butts in seats regardless.
“I think that absolutely you have to have a personality and a persona for both. Ronda and Conor are probably the best examples of that coming from the MMA world. They knew how to entertain and how to sell tickets but they were also incredible inside the cage. That translates great to sports entertainment.”
In her personal career, Deville has blossomed from just being a performer to a more recent role where she’s taken a role as an on-air personality while also getting in the ring as well. She sees the move as the next stage of evolution for her character, which also helps to separate her from other ex-fighters now on the WWE roster.
“When I came over [to WWE], I was the MMA fighter,” Deville said. “I was the first female MMA fighter to come to WWE, that was the thing around me. ‘She’s a fighter, her strikes are great, her submissions are great,’ so they never thought to give me a bunch of mic time. That wasn’t my role. My role was to go out and kick butt and kind of be the muscle in Absolution and then in Fire & Desire. That was kind of what I was known for, and I love that time period of my career, but being an actor and being someone who was always a performer, I craved the mic and I wanted to show everybody that I could do both. You guys might think I’m just an ass kicker, but I have chops on the mic, too.
“Once I got that opportunity, and I was able to show the fans I had more depth to my character than just being the MMA fighter, especially when we had people like Shayna Baszler and Ronda coming over. I wanted to show them that my character went beyond that, and I could be known for something aside from that.”