For Natalie “Natalya” Neidhart, wrestling isn’t just her profession, it’s her life. Always has been, always will be.
The 36-year-old is part of one of the most beloved wrestling dynasties of all time, the legendary Hart family. A third-generation professional wrestler, Neidhart trained in Stu Hart’s infamous “dungeon,” wrestled across the globe, and has spent the past decade in WWE, all the while carrying on the legacy of not only her uncle, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, but also her father, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
Everything Neidhart does in WWE pays homage to her family. She wears the iconic pink and black ring attire, her entrance music starts with a guitar screech like her uncle Bret, and her submission finisher – the Sharpshooter – was made famous during the Hart Foundation’s heyday.
It’s that deep-rooted connection to her family and their legacy that has made her most recent storyline emotionally taxing for her while simultaneously captivating for WWE fans across the world.
“A lot of people have asked me, girls that I work with backstage, other superstars, people at home, if I’m OK with this storyline and how do I feel about it,” Neidhart told Yahoo Sports.
“For me, this is what is going on in my life, this is the elephant in the room.”
The elephant Neidhart is referring to is the recent death of her father, Jim.
Neidhart’s dad passed away suddenly this past August due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The 63-year-old’s death sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling world, particularly for those who watched him and Bret dominate the WWE’s tag-team division in the 1980s.
At the most basic level, professional wrestling boils down to two athletes performing in the ring. The athleticism on display is often times enough to captivate a crowd, but the best matches and most memorable angles will often involve another layer of storytelling, a blending of what’s real and what’s scripted.
That element, the incorporation of reality, is precisely what makes Neidhart’s ongoing feud with Ruby Riott so enticing. For weeks now, Riott has provoked and incited Neidhart by mocking her late father and the legacy of the Hart family.
For some, the invocation of a late family member may be too much, but in a way, Neidhart admits, this has been a chance for her father, “The Anvil,” to get a proper sendoff in WWE.
“My dad was a professional wrestler,” Neidhart said. “He was a WWE superstar, he was a WWE legend before he passed away and I feel like in some crazy way this is like my dad is having one last run.
“I feel like if I asked my dad right now, ‘Daddy, how do you feel about me doing this storyline?’ My dad would say go for it. He understood pro wrestling, he understood how, for fans to become emotionally invested in stories, there has to be emotionally charged content.”
Dealing with death in the world of professional wrestling can be tricky. Often times when a former wrestler dies, it’s after years of being away from the spotlight and, tragically, before his or her time.
While Neidhart’s death was sudden, it was also particularly jarring because of how frequently he was seen on “Total Divas,” the E! reality television series his daughter stars on.
“My dad and I were really close. Anybody who watched [the show] or followed me on Instagram would see that,” Natalie Neidhart said. “When I wasn’t wrestling I was home with my family and spending so much time with my dad, we had this really incredible bond and relationship.”
By all accounts, Jim Neidhart loved being on the show and it provided a look inside a retired professional wrestler’s life that fans are rarely privy to.
“My dad was a family man, he isn’t just another statistic to me,” Natalie Neidhart said. “I feel like all of this was really different. I felt like it was really important for me to share my dad’s funeral and share his journey and what we were going through. Even my own family asked why we were having cameras there for the funeral, but it was what my dad would have wanted. He loved the entertainment side.”
Natalie acknowledges her unique grieving process. After her father’s death, the two-time champion was quickly back at work and, just a few months later, part of an angle that has focused primarily on her tragic loss.
“In some weird way, this storyline has been strangely therapeutic because anything I’m feeling I can get it out,” Natalie said. “If I need to cry, I can get it out. I can let everybody see it, hear it and I can take the WWE universe on this journey with me. I need to speak the truth and I need to remind the world that my dad was a WWE star, he was special and everyone can feel that with me.”
In addition to homing in on her late father, the Riott-Neidhart storyline has incorporated several other tangential layers.
For many, it’s easy to assume that Natalie, given her pedigree and ties to the industry, has had it easy up until this point in her career.
In reality, she not only had to scratch and claw her way into WWE, but also to get the kind of opportunities that relative newcomers – like Riott – have been able to relish in during the “Women’s Evolution.”
“It took me five years to get hired in WWE,” Neidhart admitted. “I had family connections and it still took that long. I sent in tapes, went to tryouts, whenever WWE came to Calgary I went backstage and I would try to get a tryout. I was relentless, but I was rejected for a long time. I used that rejection to fuel me, but I knew in my heart I would get here.
“I stuck it out through 45-second matches, dancing with the Great Khali, crazy gimmicks, because I knew there would be a moment in time that I would get to deliver in the ring.”
When Natalie debuted in 2008, the first hurdle was cleared, but it wouldn’t be until 2014 – when she had an instant-classic match against Charlotte Flair at NXT TakeOver – that she’d begin to fully come into her own as a WWE wrestler.
“When I did make my debut on SmackDown in 2008 … I didn’t know where I fit in,” Natalie said. “I knew that I could wrestle, but at the time I felt like WWE didn’t want the women wrestling. I didn’t feel pretty enough, I couldn’t dance, I didn’t know if I could wear a bikini on TV, that just wasn’t me.
“When I was ready for the ‘Women’s Evolution,’ the ‘Women’s Evolution’ wasn’t ready for me.”
Natalie has served as a mentor for many women throughout the years – both on camera and behind the scenes – and is one of the most respected and well-liked veterans in WWE. It’s a wrinkle that helps make Riott the perfect Joker to Natalie’s Batman (or Catwoman, which is a more fitting reference for the feline-obsessed star).
“Ruby Riott and the Riott Squad are some of the biggest heels in the industry today,” Natalie said. “They’re embracing these characters and Ruby has really [run with] it and she has been nothing but evil.”
Although Riott’s work as a heel has been heralded, that doesn’t mean Neidhart isn’t bringing some of her own heat.
On the most recent episode of “Raw,” Neidhart referenced one of professional wrestling’s most talked about moments – the Montreal Screwjob – where her uncle allegedly punched Vince McMahon backstage after a championship match at Survivor Series.
“I didn’t mince my words when I said anything. I’ve been wanting to say [the stuff about the Montreal Screwjob] for a long time because Ruby had been saying I got my opportunity because of who my family is,” Natalie said. “No, actually when your uncle punches the boss in the face, it makes it really hard for you to even get a job in WWE.
“I had never spoken about that, I was worried about Bret being upset, but I thought to myself, I’m just going to say it and I don’t care who gets mad that I said it.”
If her recent work is any indication, 10 years into her WWE career, Neidhart remains a consistent, driving force in the women’s division and a worthy successor to carry on the Hart dynasty for many more to come.
“On Sunday, it is going to be one of my most powerful performances and it’s going to be for my dad.”
“TLC” will stream live on the WWE Network this Sunday at 7pm ET.