The 37-year-old has virtually done it all in the wrestling business, but by taking part in the first-ever women’s wrestling match in Saudi Arabia, she did far more than make wrestling history – it was a cultural shift.
The significance of the match with Lacey Evans has been lost on no one and judging by the rapturous Saudi Arabian crowd and the positive reaction online, the milestone was certainly a success.
talkSPORT had the chance to talk to the two-time Women’s champion following her ground-breaking match in Riyadh and Nattie opened up on a whole range of topics.
First of all, huge congratulations, Natalya! What a special moment that was for you and millions of others. When did you actually know you were definitely going to be doing the match?
I found out for sure we were going to do the match at the press conference before Crown Jewel. And, for me, knowing that we were going to make history, it was just life-changing. The moment I found out on Wednesday night, I knew it was going to be something special and something we wouldn’t be able to fully wrap our heads around for years to come.
Who told you and what was said? Is it something Vince McMahon himself passes down?
Upper management found us and told us ‘Hey, there’s a good chance this might be happening’ and once we got the confirmation from Michael Cole, we knew that it was really happening. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia before in Jeddah in May and we were told ‘Hey, there’s a chance you guys might have a match, we’re working on it. It looks good, but we’re not sure’. It’s one of those things that we just weren’t sure but we weren’t holding our breath. We understand that it takes time for cultures to change. We were being cautiously optimistic.
Speaking of that failed attempt in Jeddah, talk us through what happened there and how disappointing was that for everyone?
We were disappointed, but we also knew that we were making baby steps towards change and we were working towards that moment. So when that moment happened in Riyad, we were ready. We were absolutely 100 percent ready. Saudi Arabia was ready and the world was ready. So it couldn’t have been more of a perfect fit.
It’s pretty cool to think WWE had you in line for the first women’s match in Jeddah and again when it finally did happen in Riyad. That must make you feel good to know they value you so highly?
Yeah, it makes me so proud that they wanted me to be apart of that first match. I feel like I’ve been expressing it too that I want to be apart of that first women’s match in Saudi Arabia. They second WWE announced the partnership with Saudi Arabia I said ‘I want to be apart of that match’.
I didn’t actually notice at the time, but thanks to Twitter I saw that somebody threw a bottle at you on your way down to the ring at Crown Jewel. First of all, I thought you reacted perfectly and almost defiantly; what happened from your point of view and how did it make you feel?
You know, for me, having the bottle thrown… I’ve been through way, way worse than that [laughs]. But, it was very symbolic of life. Not just wrestling, not just WWE, not just walking down a ramp to go to a ring – but in that moment, doing something where we’re about to change the world, I kind of just brushed it off. Because I was like ‘You know what, nothing is going to take away from this moment for me’ because in life, you just have to keep going forward. Forward is forward no matter what the pace. I just let it roll off me. Nothing was going to take away from the special moment. When you get knocked down, you get back up and keep going and that’s what I did – kept going forward.
Natalya barely broke stride. She wasn’t letting anyone ruin a history-making moment.
Talk to us about the emotion that flowed after the match and being able to share that with the Saudi women and children at ringside?
It was a very, very special moment. Lacey and I, we couldn’t contain ourselves from crying. We were so happy we were doing something that was part of a real change and that Saudi Arabia was allowing us to be apart of that change with them and we were on their journey with them. For me, that was inspiring and we were just in the moment. We were proud, we were happy, we were crying tears of joy when we got out of the ring. The first thing that happened when we got out of the ring, the women and the children, the little girls, they all wanted to hug us. They wanted to show us so much love and that’s what we did. We were hugging them.
A little girl wanted a selfie but she couldn’t quite reach, so I gently grabbed her phone out of her hand and took a selfie together. At that moment I thought, this girl is just like me when I was a little girl. She had big dreams. And her dreams might one day to be a WWE superstar. And one day, that little girl I took a selfie with in the front row, with her mum, her brother and her dad behind her, she might become the first-ever female superstar from Saudi Arabia. What we did was transcending and I honestly couldn’t be more proud and more grateful that we had that moment.
Almost just as important is how the men received the match and they made their voices heard with ‘this is awesome chants’ and remained engaged throughout. Did that exceed your expectations?
The crowd was receptive, they embraced us and they were ready for it. They let us know they were ready and we couldn’t have gotten a more positive experience from a crowd than what we got in Saudi Arabia. It was so epic. It’s a moment I’ll remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
Explain what it was like when you walked backstage after the match? What happened? One has to assume Vince McMahon was delighted.
Vince was extremely happy. We had a camera crew back there and I hugged Fit Finlay – the producer of the match – and I hugged my husband (TJ Wilson, aka Tyson Kidd)… Lana was back there, we gave her a hug because she was the other girl on the show, Lacey and I hugged each other and it was just a really great moment where we felt we finally did it. I know that WWE fought really hard for this match. They fought really, really, really hard to make this match happen and as I said before: we were ready for it, WWE was ready for it, Saudi Arabia was ready for it and people all over the world were ready for it. And all of that readiness made all the difference.
I’m going to imagine your DMs and whatnot blew up after making history like this. Tell us about some of the messages that meant the most to you that you received?
There were quite a few girls that reached out to me in the locker room. Getting a text from Sasha Banks, getting a text from Bayley, getting a text from Becky Lynch – those three girls especially that reached out to me, they meant the world to me that they cared enough to say ‘Hey, Nattie, I want to let you know how much it has impacted me and how special it was what you girls did tonight, how it really touched me’. Getting a text from those girls – and not a tweet, a text – meant so much to me.
Ronda Rousey reached out and said: ‘Nattie, we’re watching it on TV on the Network right now and we’re emotional watching it. Beth Phoenix reached out to me and said: ‘Thank you so much for inspiring my daughters’. And they’re all people that I’m friends with but it meant a lot. I won’t ever forget the support the women have shown me.
WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart is a man who blazed a few trails of his own – how did he react to seeing his niece make history?
Bret was very happy. He watched it with the family. Bret has been a huge influence on my life as far as fighting for what I believe in and always standing up for myself and he’s been one of my great inspirations in the ring and out of the ring. So he was very happy and it’s just nice to feel the love and support from my family.
Many girls on the WWE roster would have loved to get this opportunity and must have been professionally envious of you for being in that position, but at the same time, I’ve spoken to many, many female superstars and your name is always brought up in the highest regard when it comes to the locker room and being a friend. How did it feel to be entrusted with this?
I was very lucky that I got the opportunity. Anytime you get a big opportunity in the WWE, we’re selected for them. I couldn’t be more grateful for that, but at the same time, I know opportunities are earned and you have to really be trusted by upper management, trusted in the locker room and trusted in society. And that’s one of the reasons I have a great reputation because I treat people with respect and how I would want to be treated and I believe that together, we can make the world a better place.
How does WWE progress in Saudi Arabia and beyond from here with their women?
I would like to make sure based off the success of this match that women continue to go back to Saudi Arabia, continue to make an impact continue to inspire so we can have first-ever championship match in Saudi Arabia, first-ever Women’s Tag Team championship match in Saudi Arabia and all these different type of matches that we’ve broken through in recent years, we can do them in Saudi Arabia too. I want us to continue to inspire over there and I really want to be apart of that for years to come.
Stephanie McMahon told Bleacher Report recently that, essentially, WWE couldn’t find space in the calendar for Evolution 2 this year and it would probably be happening next year or beyond. Is that disappointing for you guys? I’d imagine you are one of the strongest campaigners for that PPV?
I would love to have another Evolution. I definitely think it’s around the corner. WWE surprises us with a lot of great things that come unexpectedly, like the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble, the first-ever Women’s main event at WrestleMania and the first-ever Women’s match in Saudi Arabia. So I think there are some incredible opportunities coming up for the girls and I absolutely, 100 percent know for a fact that there is an Evolution 2 right around the corner.
Circling back to the match with Lacey in Saudi Arabia, is it fair to say Fit Finlay produced it and did TJ help?
Yes. Fit Finlay has been a huge proponent of the women’s division for decades now. He is literally the unsung hero in the women’s division He’s been one of the main men behind so much change for the girls. He fought for us when it wasn’t cool to fight for the girls in the women’s division. My husband is a new producer to the company and he absolutely loves working with the girls. He worked with the girls this past year for the first-ever women’s main event at WrestleMania. I’m bias because he’s my husband, but he really is an incredible producer. But back to Fit Fight.
Finally, we’ve read a ton of different things about the flight out of Saudi Arabia encountering mechanical problems and the myriad of theories spawning from that. From your perspective, what happened and how was it for you?
For me, I was told to get off the plane because there was mechanical issues. I got off the plane because I didn’t want to be on a plane that’s having mechanical issues [laughs]. Yeah… with a charter of 175 people, I’d rather not be in the air with mechanical issues! After leaving the plane we all went to a five-star hotel and for me, I travel so much globally – in one week I was on 21 flights and one delay was 14 hours! – so for me I’m just not really phased anymore. I respected the flight attendants when they say ‘Hey, guys, we need everyone off the plane’ and obviously we have no choice but to do what we’re told.
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