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On the surface, Natalya Neidhart’s walk down the ramp at SummerSlam on Sunday will be just like the ones she’s made thousands of times. Her music will hit, she’ll walk to the ring and she will get ready to perform in front of thousands of fans.
When you dig deeper though, that walk and the match that follows it will be among the most emotional that Neidhart has had to endure in her professional wrestling career.
“It’s been a really intense year,” Neidhart told Yahoo Sports. “I think about my dad every day, and SummerSlam falls [near] the anniversary of his passing. It’s been a really challenging year because something very traumatic happened in my personal life, I felt more inspired than ever to achieve greatness in the ring and I needed to rise to the occasion and be the best I could be.”
Neidhart is wrestling Becky Lynch for the Raw Women’s Championship at WWE’s second-biggest show of the year. Adding to the significant stakes — both personally and professionally — the night will be a homecoming of sorts for her. Although she’s originally from Calgary, SummerSlam is in Toronto this year, so she’ll have the weight of an entire country on her shoulders.
“It’s so cool that I’m getting to be back in Canada,” Neidhart said. “Being from the Hart family, being born in Canada, considering everything the family has done in the country, we take a lot of pride in being Canadian. It makes this match so special because I’m getting this huge opportunity to prove myself in my home country. I was talking to [my uncle] Bret [Hart] about this the other day, it’s just cool to me to be in Canada, but I’m not using it as an advantage to get more cheers. If the fans want to cheer me great, if the fans want to cheer Becky, great.”
Despite being engaged in a program for less than a month, the feud between Neidhart and Lynch has been a heated one, blurring the lines between professional wrestling’s traditional heel and babyface roles.
Part of the intensity and ambiguity is the history and similarities the two stars share.
“I first met Becky in Canada when we did a show together called SuperGirls and ended up being on tour together a year later in Japan. I was looking back at old pictures of us together from that very first tour and to see how far we’ve come. What I respect so much about Becky is that she has a very similar passion for the business that I do. It’s almost like our passion is so strong that we’re butting heads. Becky feels like this is her time but I also feel that way. Becky’s not going to be the women’s champion forever, why shouldn’t it be me? For me it’s a serious match because I know I should be the one to beat her.”
Lynch’s rise to becoming arguably WWE’s biggest draw started with a heel turn at SummerSlam last year in Brooklyn. After turning on Charlotte Flair, Lynch skyrocketed in popularity and was sent on a crash course to WrestleMania’s main event against Flair and then-Raw Women’s Champion, Ronda Rousey.
After years of playing underdog, Lynch suddenly became a huge celebrity. For someone who called herself “Becky Balboa” earlier in her career, the similarities between her and Sylvester Stallone’s character at the start of “Rocky III” are striking.
“She’s always felt deprived,” Neidhart said. “Becky hated Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair for this and that, but she’s become everything that she hated. She got everything she wanted, she became champion, she main evented WrestleMania, she’s walking red carpets, getting to be on the covers of magazines and promotional material for the company.”
For all of the talk about Lynch’s monster year, Neidhart has quietly put together an impressive run of her own. Since SummerSlam last August, Neidhart was involved in an intensely personal feud with Ruby Riott, lasted the longest out of any woman in the second women’s Royal Rumble match (one that Lynch eventually won), wrestled alongside Beth Phoenix at WrestleMania, and competed in her fourth Money in the Bank ladder match.
The genesis of this particular feud came last month when, after Neidhart won a four-woman match to become number one contender, Lynch confronted the longtime star. In a heated promo, Lynch channeled her arrogance and said she would make Neidhart “relevant” again.
If we’re running with the “Rocky III” metaphor, what happened next would make Neidhart Clubber Lang.
“How dare she — this really struck a nerve with me internally because it was a really intense match — say she’s going to make me relevant again and that she’s going to be the most important thing in my career, that nobody really cares about me,” Neidhart said. “That ignited something in me, it pissed me off.
“Where was she when I was busting my ass? For her to say that and that she’s done more than me, it really hits a nerve. I have bumps, bruises and scars from fighting for women and this division and Becky knows that more than anyone. You did see me change gears, go off script and I don’t regret that. It took me 10 years to break rules in WWE and sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
After Lynch’s feud with Lacey Evans, getting to wrestle Neidhart represents a change of pace. While the Lynch-Evans feud was primarily focused outside of the ring, Neidhart is one of the most gifted technical wrestlers in the women’s division.
Neidhart hopes that this match can mirror some of the all-time greats that her family has had. For inspiration heading into the event, Neidhart has been watching old Bret Hart film, particularly his match against the British Bulldog at SummerSlam in 1992 and his iconic match against Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIII in 1997.
“It’s funny because I feel like this match is really important for women,” Neidhart said. “I want this match to be one that women look back on for inspiration. [Hart-Austin] was a really intense match and it was really cool to go back and watch wrestlers from decades ago to find inspiration in them. I hope Becky and I can do that for other females coming up in the industry 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”
Should Neidhart win at SummerSlam — her favorite WWE event of the year — It would also be the second time in four years she has captured a title at WWE’s second biggest show.
“That would be incredible and to do that in Canada, that would be so huge” Neidhart said. “I’m still hoping that my uncle will be in attendance. It would be such a cool moment. Obviously I would love to have my dad in Toronto, but I feel like having Bret there would be so special. I want to represent the Hart family has stood for.”
A victory would also put her in elite company. If Neidhart beats Lynch, she will become only the second woman to win the Diva’s, Raw and Smackdown women’s championships. The only other woman to accomplish that feat is Flair and it could set up a showdown similar to the iconic one the two had at NXT TakeOver in 2014.
“Charlotte is one of my favorite opponents because she’s not afraid to go,” Neidhart said. “There’s something about when you wrestle certain people, there’s this magical chemistry. Steve Austin said to me at the Raw Reunion that Bret was a huge turning point in his career because they had this magic. Steve Austin said Bret is the epitome of grit, determination and strength. That stuck with me. I think about Charlotte Flair and as much as Bret and Steve Austin were the perfect match for each other, she and I are wrestling soulmates.
“She is a very special, one-of-a-kind performer. We come from wrestling greatness. For us, we had these huge shoes to fill and it’s been hard. How do you fill those shoes? You don’t, you have to blaze your own trail and create your own journey. You have to be different because we’re women. I feel like we have lived up to so many high standards and expectations and that we’ll tango again soon.”
Sunday the time for talking will be over and all that will be left for Neidhart is to walk the walk.
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