Barbi Hayden stood nervously in front of a congregation of Chinese government officials.
Ahead of a 2015 Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling event in Dongguan, China, Hayden and her soon-to-be opponent, Tessa Blanchard, had to tell these officials what they would be doing in the ring. Normally, Hayden hits DDTs instead of describing them. But here she was, breaking down her art like a magician demonstrating how she is able to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
"We had to do a seminar and demonstration of what we would be doing," she told Bleacher Report. "We had to prove to them that we were doing wasn't violent. We had to explain to them every move we were going to do and why we do it."
The presentation apparently worked. The event was moved to a larger arena, and it sold out in an hour.
And the blond bruiser added a unique entry on her growing resume.
The fans in China ate up what Hayden, Blanchard and the rest of the wrestlers delivered that night.
"Anything you did, they were in awe of it," Hayden recalled. "They were just so appreciative of us being there and thought it was so cool. The fans would just come up and bum-rush you. They wanted to talk to you and get pictures. They wanted to invite us to go to the clubs and go eat."
During her eight-year career, be it in China, Mexico or the Elks Lodge in Sherman, Texas, Hayden has shown the kind of spark required to be a star in the squared circle.
On Saturday, she will get another chance to show off that quality as she competes in an all-women event dubbed Ladies Night Out at World Gym Arena in Texas City, Texas. A potential peek into who will be the next great women's wrestler, the night will bring together some of the fastest-rising grapplers on the independent circuit.
Will it be Hyan, a Houston-based wrestler who is an account manager at Geico by day? Will it be her opponent, Kylie Rae, the bubbly, high-energy babyface from Chicago? Or the frightening Su Yung, who is often covered in smeared Kabuki makeup?
Will Kiera Hogan, whose tomato-red hair flops in the air as she lands a wheelbarrow bulldog, emerge as the next big name?
WWE Hall of Famer Booker T, the founder of the Reality of Wrestling promotion, is set to host all of them for the Ladies Night Out show, something he hopes to turn into a quarterly affair with Title Match Wrestling Network.
Shaul Guerrero, the former WWE developmental prospect and daughter of Hall of Famer Eddie Guerrero, will make her first appearance on an indie show at Ladies Night Out. It will mark a return to an art she loves.
"It's so addicting," Guerrero said of performing in the ring. "Everyone has that superhero fantasy, or supervillain in my case. I loved playing the villain. I miss kicking ass."
This time around, she will be sticking to the vocal side of the game. Guerrero will be doing commentary, backstage interviews, announcing and, as she put it, "anything with a mic involved."
Ladies Night Out will offer her a reunion with Yung, an old peer from Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE's former developmental territory. But the Yung whom Guerrero used to observe in the ring is not the Yung one can see grinning with blood in her mouth today.
"Back then she was a nice girl and a normal girl," Guerrero said. "Now I didn't recognize her. She's a little scary. I cannot wait to see her. She has completely done a 180 with her personality."
There has been a clear shift in the industry as a whole and WWE in particular in recent years regarding the spot women occupy on the wrestling food chain. They are no longer a novelty. They are no longer an act one sprinkles into an otherwise male-dominated product.
It's a shift former world heavyweight champion Booker T has seen up close as a commentator on WWE Raw, where he called the action as Alexa Bliss, Sasha Banks, Asuka and others went to work.
"It was about models and fitness models," Booker T said of how women's wrestling has changed. "The wrestler was put to the back. Now, the wrestlers are getting their due."
For Ladies Night Out, Booker T searched for the best talent he could find around the country and around the globe. Hogan, now a member of Impact Wrestling's roster, is pumped to be among the women he called upon.
All-women shows are hard to come by, she explained. They offer the opportunity to network when one isn't hitting neckbreakers and a chance to impress.
"It's great for us as women to show this is why we're in the business," Hogan said. "We don't have to be on an all-men's show and have one match. We can have a show of our own."
The First Lady of Atlanta
When Hogan's big day came, she didn't believe it was real.
The Atlanta native was out with her dog at a dog park when Impact Wrestling Co-Executive Vice President Scott D'Amore called to offer her a job. The company had scouted her previously and now wanted to bring her aboard.
When Hogan called back D'Amore and he asked her to join Impact Wrestling's Knockouts division, the crimson-haired grappler struggled to process it. "This has to be a joke," Hogan told herself at first.
It wasn't. Long a waitress and hostess, Hogan was suddenly on the cusp of her biggest spotlight as a wrestler to date. TV time and national exposure were on their way.
She inked a deal and debuted during the January tapings. The fans buzzed about her new beginnings. "As soon as I had my first match, it lit up online," Hogan said. "So many people were waiting for me to debut."
This was a spot she had earned.
Hogan first trained at Atlanta-based World Wrestling Alliance 4 promotion under Curtis Hughes. She started out as a ring announcer, a backstage interviewer, a student. She was the company's Swiss army knife.
In 2015, she moved into the ring and soon took on fellow WWA4 alum Owen Knight in a series of bouts.
She has since had her share of doubters. Being 4'11" is a part of that.
"I feel like people underestimate me by the way that I look," she said. "People just think I'm a pretty face."
Fans shouldn't be fooled by her gleaming smile; Hogan is a fighter. A few seconds of watching her nail a foe with back elbows and running dropkicks is evidence enough.
"I can prove to them why I'm at a certain show or have a certain match the minute I get in the ring, the minute they see me hit the curtain," she said.
At Ladies Night Out, she will get her latest chance to prove she belongs when she takes on Yung. Hogan is no stranger to her. The two have met in the ring as both teammates and opponents.
And Yung has left an imprint on her that has yet to go away.
"Wrestling her, to this day, is still one of my favorite matches because she took me to a different place," Hogan recalled. "She took my mind and body to a different place. She just made me think differently about how to work. She just has an incredible, creative mind."
Whether she has battled Yung or teamed with Joey Ryan to form Booty Call, The First Lady of Atlanta has found a place where people understand her, where she's not the outcast she used to be.
"I just remember growing up and people not understanding wrestling," Hogan said. "Me and my best friend loved wrestling. And people thought we were weird because we loved it so much."
Energy to Spare
At a recent wrestling show in Delaware, Rae noticed a girl around seven years old approach her. The girl was shy and awkward but determined to share something with the grappler.
She began to thank Rae, to tell her how much she inspired her to be herself. She didn't fit in at school and has always felt different, but seeing Rae bounce around the ring in Pokemon-themed gear with little regard for what folks thought of her gave her newfound confidence.
"It was very overwhelming and definitely humbling," Rae said. "And that little girl made my day."
This is the kind of connection the wrestler from Chicago has been able to create across the independent circuit. Rae is an energetic babyface who is hard not to root for.
The sunny, spunky person fans see step into the ring at places like Rise Wrestling and Zelo Pro is the real Rae. It may be turned up for the sake of entertainment, but it's all her, not a persona she slips on along with her wrestling boots.
"Who I am in the ring is essentially who I am in real life," she explained. "Anyone who knows me knows I'm pretty awkward and I can be clumsy, that I pretty much always have a smile on my face, even if I'm angry or nervous."
And that's helped her win the audience over. Perhaps they sense her authenticity, or the fun she has each night rubs off.
"Me going out there and being myself, that's what has connected with them the most," Rae said. "They can see I'm not trying to be someone who I'm not."
A part of that is sporting ring gear with Pikachu from Pokemon plastered over it. Rae smacks her foes around while wearing a bright, yellow top with that famous cartoon character's likeness. She grew up playing Pokemon games and pays tribute to that now with her battle wear.
"It's fun. It's lighthearted, and it gets over with the crowd," she said of her attire.
Her look, disposition and in-ring versatility have been a winning combination thus far. Rae has won ROW's Diamonds Championship three times and is the inaugural Capital Wrestling Alliance champ.
And the list of fans who have bought what Rae is selling continues to grow. Count Guerrero among them.
"Kylie Rae really stands out to me," she said. "She reminds me of Bayley's weirdly happy personality. She has the talent and technical prowess to back up that smile."
When Rae takes on Hyan at Ladies Night Out, it will be a familiar matchup in a familiar place.
She trained with Booker T early in her career, and Hyan was often someone she could turn to. Rae had just moved to Houston from Chicago and made sure to pick many a brain.
Booker T noted that Rae's work ethic impressed him, as did her diligent study of the mat game. It's all paid off.
"I knew she was going to be special," the Hall of Famer said. "To go out there and make people believe and suspend their imagination for that moment in time is so important. And I think she's grasped that very well."
Big moments and big opportunities have come at Rae so fast she's struggled to process it all. She's fresh off a three-day WWE tryout. Time will tell if that will translate into a developmental deal with the company.
Whether her next stops include WWE, Ring of Honor or Japan, Rae will have exceeded her own expectations. Asked about when she was first training to be a wrestler, she said her only goal was to have one match.
She's now an emerging star who has been sure to savor every minute.
"Every night that I'm out there, I'm achieving my goals, weekend by weekend," Rae said. "Every time I'm in that ring, I'm living my dream."
Mouth and Muscle
Hayden fans can thank former WWE women's champ Mickie James for their favorite sassy scrapper. It was watching James that helped her first fall in love with wrestling.
The College Station, Texas, native danced, played softball and powerlifted. But then a boyfriend took her to Raw, and she was hit with squared circle fever. She saw herself in James.
"I've never been a super-thin girl," Hayden said. "I'm built more muscular. I've always been over the top with my personality. As soon as I saw her, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. She was the perfect mix of athlete and character to me."
Hayden loved that James was her own person, and the former NWA women's champion began to craft her own unique character.
And when one sees her perform, one can't help but notice her attitude. She saunters to the ring. She towers over a fallen opponent and talks trash mid-match. Her personality pops.
"I exude confidence," Hayden said. "Once I step foot out of the curtain, something overcomes me, and I just lose myself in there. It's such a good feeling."
That confidence has helped her gain a name well outside of College Station, the home of Texas A&M University. Her growing resume continues to be diverse. She has worked for Impact Wrestling, wrestled a dark match for WWE and recently went head-to-head with Joey Ryan for Sabotage Wrestling in Austin, Texas.
Ladies Night Out, where she will face Taeler Hendrix, will mark her first chance to work for Booker T's promotion.
As much as it's great to get her name out there by putting in the miles outside of her home state, there's something special about performing in Texas. She has a strong appreciation for the fans there. "I always just feel the fans are so in tune with the show, so in tune with the wrestlers," she said.
Guerrero, like more and more fans, has connected with Hayden's work.
"I've been following her for a while," she said of Hayden. "She looks like someone I would have liked to tag with as the Ultra Diva. She has quite a mouth on her. She's very charismatic in that way."
It feels inevitable that more and more fans will see that personality on display. The combination of Hayden's talent and increased opportunities is the recipe for a big break.
Women's wrestling is surging.
Guerrero remembers that the women struggled for airtime while she was with WWE's developmental system. Matches rarely went more than four or five minutes. That's not the case anymore.
WWE has now given its women stars ample time to tear down the house and put them in matches like Hell in a Cell and the Royal Rumble for the first time.
"The changes we have seen are monumental, and it's extremely exciting to watch," Guerrero said. "There was that select group of women who stepped up their game and showed they could handle being a main event and could handle huge matches."
The next wave of women set to follow suit—to light it up on pay-per-views and national TV—is on its way. They are wowing crowds in bars and VFW halls, honing their craft one violent trip to the canvas at a time.
They are hard-hitters like Hayden, dynamos like Hogan and skilled storytellers like Rae. They are hungry artists and athletes with their hands stretching toward the proverbial brass ring.