By Chuck Carroll
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? It’s hard not to cheer for the underdog. We rally behind them, championing them as though we’re cheering on ourselves. Their successes are our successes. And we hurt, as they do, when the outcome isn’t ideal. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that we all ride together. So, when the unlikely contender finally reaches the top, it is a sweet moment that is savored collectively.
That paragraph sums up the near eight-year career of Naomi in WWE. Her first contract came in 2009, when she was groomed in Florida Championship Wrestling, which has evolved into NXT. It took more than two years of paying dues before WWE green-lit her for the main roster. From there, her wait to finally conquer the women’s division was even longer. Initially, Naomi wasn’t even wrestling. Tapping into her real-life dance background, she was one-half of a pair of flashy valets known as The Funkadactyls.
The struggle for ring time persisted for months, until she finally got her break in a match just before Christmas. Moving forward, she and her partner at the time, Cameron, garnered some momentum heading into WrestleMania 29. She was over the moon excited to have a match in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. The clock was ticking toward her mixed-tag match with the Bella Twins. But in a devastating moment, the group learned at the last minute that their match was cut. The grandest stage of them all would have to wait.
The next four years were filled with ebbs and flows. Injuries, character changes and various storylines all left her career in somewhat of a limbo. But in the back of her mind she was cultivating an idea that would ultimately catapult her to the top of the women’s division. Perhaps success would have come sooner had she not been forced to turn heel — a move she never though she would have to make. While heeling it up, she received a number of title shots, but the decision was made not to give her the gold. Feeling that she had more to offer, she gambled on herself and pitched the “feel the glow” gimmick.
WWE officials, or “higher ups” as she calls them, didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some were confused and some flat out didn’t like it. But Naomi stayed persistent until they finally gave the okay to try it out. It turned out to be the best decision they ever made with her career. Less than a year later she’s a two-time SmackDown Women’s Champion. It’s funny how sometimes the most successful characters are the seeds of those portraying them.
Naturally, because this just seems to be a pattern with her career, her first title run was cut short by injury. It’s almost fitting that she had to relinquish the title so quickly. It was devastating at the time, but she says that it ultimately made her appreciate winning it back in front of 75,000 screaming fans. Indeed, she finally had her WrestleMania moment, and it came in her hometown, no less. Her tragedies made the triumph that much sweeter.
Naomi’s success is now blossoming outside of the ring as well. The 29-year-old champion recently learned that she will return as a featured cast member on Total Divas next season. She says there will be plenty of head-butting between her and her husband, Jimmy Uso, with two champions living under the same roof. Jimmy is one-half of the WWE SmackDown Tag Team Champions with twin brother, Jey. Additionally, the couple just filmed an upcoming show for Nickelodeon that is expected to premier in the fall. Due to her rising popularity, false rumors swirled that the pair were filming their own reality show during the four days they were working on the kid-friendly project.
I caught up with Naomi just before a recent SmackDown taping, as the women prepared for their first-ever ladder match at Money In The Bank pay-per-view. The champion wishes she were in it. However, she’ll be busy grappling with the Ravishing Russian, Lana, who is transitioning from her husband’s spokeswoman to in-ring competitor. It’s a gamble that Naomi knows all too well. It just seems fitting that she’s Lana’s first opponent.
Yours is a story of perseverance. You worked for years to get to the top, and you finally win it at Elimination Chamber. But then, boom! You get injured and the title is gone. Then you win it back at WrestleMania. Describe the emotion and rollercoaster that you went through.
The best way I can describe it is fulfilling. Since 2009 this is a vision I’ve always had of myself, at some point in my career, having the title. I didn’t think it would take me just about eight years to get it, but I think going through that journey and struggle makes it so much better and meaningful to myself and the fans, because it was such a long haul. I appreciate it all. I wouldn’t have been as prepared as I am now had I not gone through all of those struggle through my career, through injuries, through different phases and characters and storylines. I’m on cloud nine right now, living my dream. I’m just happy to be champion, and I’m ready to show what I can do as a champion.
What I find interesting, you just talked about all of those characters. But the “Feel The Glow” character, that was all you. Correct?
Talk to me about the jitters in pitching that. It has to be nerve-racking. Will they go for this? How did that whole pitch process play out?
It maybe took me about two years. Back in 2014, I had the idea and wanted to do it, but it wasn’t the right time. I ended up turning heel, which I never thought I would do. I was pretty pissed off about things, so I thought it’s time for this good girl to go bad.
I had my time with that and felt like there was more to Naomi than that. I wanted to make a change and push for the idea again. I went at it and stayed persistent about it, because a lot of people didn’t think it would work it, didn’t like it, didn’t understand it, didn’t know what it meant. That was the hardest part, just convincing the higher-ups to just let me try it.
Once I finally got that decision, it took me even more time to figure out the lighting and costumes. I tried tons of costumes before I finally debuted in the one I did. A lot of them didn’t work or wouldn’t react or glow. Originally, I didn’t want to use black lights, because I wanted to literally glow in the dark. I didn’t want to have light on me. But it just didn’t work, and that’s when we got the idea of using the black light. Then the message and character and stuff had to come into play. It was pretty stressful. It was tricky, the convincing part. Not only that, but finally getting that far and starting to doubt myself. It was like if this doesn’t work I don’t know what there is for me after that. I put so much time and effort into this working, I never thought: what happens if I go out there and I just bomb?
But you didn’t. You got the gold.
I didn’t! I didn’t! I’m so happy and grateful. I just want to continue to work hard and stay healthy so that I can prove why I deserve to be champion. I don’t want to let the WWE Universe down, because they said I deserve it.
I have to ask you about a rumor making the rounds that you and your husband were off filming a new TV show. What’s the story there?
What?! I can’t say what it is, but I can tell you it’s for Nickelodeon.
It’s for Nickelodeon so who’s getting slimed?
Oh, man. I can’t speak on it yet, but it’s definitely a fun show, a kid-friendly show. We went out there and filmed it for four days, and it was a lot of fun. You guys will be seeing that in November, I believe.
I know you can’t give too much away, but was this a one-time thing?
Yeah. It’s not a reality show or anything like that. I wish I could tell you! I’ve probably already told you too much already! It’s just a one-time thing that we filmed, and we had a blast. It’s actually a kids show. It’s a race like a tournament. You guys will see it later this year.
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You definitely have the next season of ‘Total Divas’ coming up on the horizon. You have to be excited about that.
Oh, yeah. I just got the info this week. So, I will be back on this season. Thank goodness, because I probably would have blown a gasket if I was off another season. Yes, we are on this season, and we have so much for y’all this season. There are a lot of changes and a lot going on in our lives right now outside of work.
I’ll bet. Both you and your husband have the gold.
Oh yeah! We’ve got two champions in the house, so we tend to butt heads a lot.
A lot sooner than that you have Money In The Bank coming up. For the first time ever, there’s a women’s Money In The Bank match. And I know you’re not actually in that match, but you still have to sit back as a woman on the roster and be like ‘holy crap, we have a Money In The Bank match!’
I’m so proud of our division. I am so happy that we have this moment and opportunity to make history. I wish so bad that I could have been in this match, because it’s a match that I always knew that, if we ever had a ladder match, I knew that I would be in that match. I was going to show out and kill it and do all of these crazy things that I would risk and do. But on the sweet side, I’m not in it because they’re coming after my title. It’s bittersweet that I’m not in the match but I’m happy for our women because we’ll show up and stand up like we always do. It’s just really cool to be part of history. This match will always be remembered. We have an amazing group of women to showcase in this match. I’m just excited for it and [to] see who will be my opponent.
WRESTLING NEWS AND NOTES
With a tour of the United Kingdom approaching in August, Ring of Honor officials are keenly aware of the recent terror attacks in England.
“Our deepest concerns are with the victims of the recent attacks and their families,” said Joe Koff, ROH COO. “We send our strength to them and stand with the people of London and Manchester.”
Currently, there are no plans to cancel the London or Liverpool shows. The show in Edinburgh, Scotland is also still on as of now.
“We’re not going to let that fear get in our way,” said ROH COO Joe Koff. Koff also says that the situation is fluid, and everything is being closely monitored as the dates draw closer.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.