WrestleMania: Rhea Ripley on being true to herself, working with Dominik Mysterio

Three years ago, many WWE fans expected that year's WrestleMania 36 to be the launching point for Rhea Ripley. She was the women's champion of WWE's NXT brand, which often serves as the feeder league for the main WWE roster. Charlotte Flair, the most decorated female star in the WWE, won that year's Royal Rumble, earning her a title shot against anyone she wanted. Instead of challenging the champion of the "Raw" or "SmackDown," brands, Flair surprisingly challenged Ripley.

It was assumed that Ripley would win, move up to the main roster and become the dominate star. Instead, she lost by submission to Flair, then disappeared for a while returning to Australia to deal with work visa issues. She returned to NXT and didn't get promoted until almost a year after WrestleMania 36. Over the last year, since becoming aligned with the Judgment Day faction, she has become arguably the most popular woman on the roster, even though she is a heel. With her goth look and power moves (occasionally even power slamming men), there is a definite buzz in the arena when she enters.

It all culminated back where it was three years ago. This time Ripley won the Royal Rumble and challenged Flair for the SmackDown women's title in the main event of Night 1 of WrestleMania on Saturday. We recently talked to Ripley about her journey.

Q: Three years ago, it seemed you were on the cusp of being one of the top WWE stars, instead, you lost and your rise was delayed. Do you look back at that night with any sense of disappointment?

Ripley: Charlotte and I wrestled in front of zero people at WrestleMania (note: WrestleMania 36 was held in an empty arena because of the Covid pandemic). That's a historic moment right there. And we absolutely tore the house down. We went out there and left everything that we had in that ring. Even though there was no adrenaline, there was no noise, there was no nothing. So I am not disappointed in that match. Obviously, the outcome sucks to me wanting to win. But I'm not disappointed in that match at all. It's actually one of my favorites. It was a very hard time for a lot of us. And I think a lot of us grew in that period of time.

Q: You seem to have improved by leaps and bounds over the last two years. Do you feel that?

Ripley: I think it's more of a confidence thing for me. Finding confidence in myself, it's a very roller-coaster situation. Some days I am the most confident person in the world. And some days I have absolutely zero confidence, it really depends on me as a human outside of work. And it shines through into what you see in WWE where I have to portray myself as confident every single day. And sometimes it is very, very difficult. Where now I feel like I've grown in a way that I know how the fans are going to react, I know what they like and what they dislike. And I've been here long enough to establish my name in front of them , and have them react in ways that I want them to react. So it's a lot easier for me going out there and I'm just having fun at this point. I'm saying what I want to say and I'm doing what I want to do. And they enjoy it. They obviously boo me as well. Like they dislike it, but they just like it in a joyful way. I'm there to entertain them, but they want to boo me and I thrive on that. I love it.

Q: I've seen video of you at house shows where you interact with people along the aisle and like you know, your main character is trying to scare people or interact in different ways. And that seems to give you a boost — you seem to thrive off that.

Ripley: I do. And it's funny, because that's not just Rhea Ripley, but that's me as a person. Like I do that backstage here as well. Like, I'm constantly scaring people. Sometimes people walk past and I'll just be walking normally and I'll jump at them. And they're like, "Why? Why did you do that?" I think the fans see that I'm just going out there and having fun. But I feel like the house shows are definitely where I get to just let go. And it's really cool because that's where a lot of people get connected to your character as well because they get to interact more with you since you're not just focused on the camera. So you can do things like you can scare people, you can go to high-five them and then take it away, you can untie people's shoelaces. But we're just having fun.

Q: Even though you play a dastardly villain, you are a role model to a lot of young girls. They see you present yourself as a confident, badass woman. I imagine that's a blessing and a curse in some ways because, if you're out in public, you're just trying to have a day off. But do you still have to remain in this character you've developed, when you're interacting with with kids especially?

Ripley: It really depends on the environment. Like, if I'm working, then yes, I'll stay in character a bit. But if I'm outside of work I'll be nicer to them, and I'll encourage them to do whatever they want, because obviously, I want people to feel comfortable in their own skin. And I want them to know that it's OK to be themselves and look how they want to look. Not everyone needs to look the same. Not all girls have to have long hair, they can have short hair, they can have tattoos, they can have muscles, like whatever they want to do, they can do it. And that's what I want to portray to them. I'll still throw Rhea Ripley in there, because Rhea Ripley is a 10x version of me anyway. So it is my natural sort of, I want to say charm, because people seem to like it. But I will be cheeky and like I will call someone out on their Liv Morgan shirt if they're wearing a Liv Morgan shirt. "You want to be my fan, but you're wearing a Liv Morgan shirt?" But I'll still make them feel good about themselves at the same time. Because I want them to know that you don't always have to please people in your life. Just be you, that's the whole point of life.

Q: Let's talk about you with Dominik Mysterio for a minute. Because that's just such an amazing pairing. When you and Dom first joined Judgment Day, were you surprised by how well the two of you play off each other? Because you guys have quite the chemistry together.

Ripley: It just built out of nothing. I barely talked to Dominik before. We were in different groups. But the pairing of us sort of just clicked, it was a really smooth and easy bond. And it's been really cool watching him grow as well. He was the biggest babyface all smiles to what he is now. It's just it's been fun to watch his evolution and him grow into the Latino Heat that he is today.

Q: You're often whispering in his ear on Raw. Do you ever try to make him break character? What's going on there?

Ripley: Everyone wants to know what I'm saying. But that's a little secret between me and Dom. A lot of the time, he does crack a smile. And that's what intrigues everyone because they don't know what I'm saying. But I don't want to spoil it too much. But I'll be coming up with some stuff.

Q: I've been to a lot of live events and there are some wrestlers who have a different buzz when they come out into the arena, you just feel it in the arena that "This wrestler can do whatever they want and no one's gonna say anything." It makes it so much easier to suspend your disbelief. You have that buzz now. Do you feel that when you come out?

Ripley: Right now it's at an all-time high. In my entrance I don't walk out at the very start of my song. But as soon as my song plays, the crowd erupts. And it's really cool to hear. It helps me out before I walk through in front of everyone. Just walking out there and not having to do anything, but having them eat out of the palm of my hand. It's definitely a really cool feeling. And it does feel like all the hard work sort of paid off in a way, because I've twisted their minds into reacting in ways that I want them to react. It definitely does get me fired up. It gets me ready, it gets me excited. And it gets me just so pumped for whatever I'm doing in that ring at that certain time.

Q: One day, you'll be inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame. You still have a lot of career left in front of you, so this answer could change in five years. But today, if you're going to go in who would you want to induct you?

Ripley: Oh, I've never been asked this question. So I've never really thought about it. It's very rare that I get different questions. I think right now I would love to have Dom Dom induct me. I think it would make sense.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.