“The Queen of Spades,” Shayna Baszler, has bulldozed her way through NXT since joining the brand in 2017. After an impressive showing in that year’s Mae Young Classic, where she made it all the way to the finals, the former UFC star is now a record-breaking pro wrestling women’s champion.
Muscle & Fitness sat down with the tough Sioux Falls, S.D., native to discuss her rapid rise to the top of NXT, the brand’s impending USA Network debut, and her friendship with fellow mixed-martial-artist-turned-pro-wrestler, Ronda Rousey.
Did you watch pro wrestling before you got into MMA?
Yes, I’ve watched pro wrestling since I was super young. I’ve watched it my whole life, and then even in MMA, I started training with Josh Barnett, and he’s a pro wrestler himself. He was kind of a tie-in, so when I was studying mixed martial arts, he was the one that showed me how the two [disciplines] are like cousins of each other. And then when I moved in with Ronda and the girls (Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir), I’m the one that was watching [pro wrestling] and I kind of sucked them into it.
When did you decide you wanted to try out pro wrestling?
It’s funny, because I never really thought of actually doing pro wrestling before I was fighting [in MMA]. I trained with Josh Barnett, and with Billy Robinson, who is a legendary British professional wrestler. The way that they do pro wrestling, they want you to have [MMA] fights first, in order to graduate into pro wrestling. I guess it was just kind of a natural progression.
I was fighting for the UFC, and I tore my ACL in my last fight, and with the UFC they sign you for a few years but you don’t know when you’re fighting next. They don’t give you an advanced schedule. They’ll call you and say, “Hey, we have a fight for you, say, in three months. Do you want to take it?” But then when the fight is over, you don’t know when you’re fighting next until they call you again.
So knowing I was injured and then sitting on the bench for a little while, Josh asked me how I felt about doing some professional wrestling. I said, “Yeah, if it keeps me active, cool,” and then it has kind of just snowballed from there.
It’s no secret that a pro wrestler’s schedule is pretty crazy, but what does a normal week of training look like for you?
The hardest part is maintaining fitness. We’re on the road, keeping a diet, and [trying to get] workouts. Say we go to a city, Philadelphia or somewhere. I don’t know what equipment the gym has available. So I’ll have an idea of what I want to train, like upper body, but then I have to have a very flexible plan based on the equipment that is available.
Typically, if we’re not on the road travelling, we train daily in the ring [at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando] and have strength and conditioning sessions daily. Then [in NXT], we’re performing at least Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the Florida area. We’re constantly on the go.
Does your no-nonsense character reflect who you are as a person?
Well, I think I have a lot to draw from [thanks to MMA]. Before pro wrestling, I knew what it felt like to stand behind the curtain and wait to get called out to the ring to beat someone up. It’s a very familiar thing to me. But then also, I think there is some reality to the fact that even the style of pro wrestling, if you look at a guy like Billy Robinson or Josh Barnett—that style is very no-nonsense.
If you watch the matches that these guys put on, you won’t see much of a difference between MMA and pro wrestling. That’s the style that I have ingrained in me, and I bring it to the ring.
You mentioned that you lived with Ronda Rousey. With both of you being active in WWE at the same time, did you provide each other with support or advice?
Yeah, a little bit. Rather than giving advice, it was just nice to have someone to talk about [being in WWE] with. So it was like sharing in the uniqueness of what we were both going through.
Then, of course, Ronda getting to the position where she was in WWE, mirrored what I was going through in NXT, where we were both kind of at the top of the division.
We would get together and train, of course, and we always did that in MMA too. So it was more like getting together and just sharing in the process of it, rather than tips and tricks.
Your rise to the top of NXT was exceptionally quick. How proud are you to be the first woman ever to hold the NXT title on two occasions?
In my opinion, the NXT Women’s title is a very prestigious title to have. So the fact that I’m the only person to have ever held it twice is a huge thing that I definitely add to my list of accomplishments. I am very, very proud of it.
NXT debuts on the USA Network on Wednesday, Sept. 18, and you must really be looking forward to being a part of that. What changes have you noticed at NXT since you first walked through the doors in 2017?
There’s a lot of things. I think I got into NXT at a very historic time. And I don’t mean just the USA [Network] stuff. NXT on USA is probably the most important day in our history.
We’ll look back on it as the key day, but even going back to the first ever Mae Young Classic, I’ve been such a huge part of these historic moments with NXT and WWE that I’m so excited to see what’s next.
I was sitting [backstage] at the Mae Young Classic and was thinking to myself. “Wow, this is a pretty historic moment,”and not thinking ahead to the next historic moment. But then you know, here we are with NXT on USA and I can’t wait to see what’s next!
What is the camaraderie like in NXT? Do you have the mindset that you want to put on the best show of the week?
We’ve always been proud of the fact that #WeAreNXT, and we say it, you know? It’s our hashtag. So, I think there’s always been a certain thing where we are NXT, and we are going to be the best that we can be, and want to put on these amazing shows and to show the product.
I think the only difference with NXT being on USA isn’t in our mindset, it’s just that everybody else is going to see it now. We’re doing what we’ve always done; now it’s in front of everyone.
How would you describe NXT to someone who has never watched it?
That’s an interesting question! If you ever had any preconceived ideas about what pro wrestling is, I think you’ll find that they were wrong. Everyone should check it out! (laughs).