It was a month before Christmas, and Nia Jax had just punched Becky Lynch in the face.
Everything in the world of professional wrestling is supposed to look real. The whole point is to make the audience suspend their disbelief long enough to buy into a storyline.
That's the magic of good pro wrestling: We know what we're seeing, yet we still question it. But then there are the moments that are indisputably real.
Lynch—a veteran wrestler who recently experienced a meteoric rise to the top of WWE after christening herself "The Man"—had joined her SmackDown teammates to "invade" WWE's Raw show on Nov. 12. They were there to hype the upcoming Survivor Series matches between the WWE's Raw and SmackDown brands.
Jax had her back to the corner of the ring when Lynch approached her. Jax swung a right hand toward Lynch's face. The WWE's main broadcast angle made it look like the punch missed entirely. But one look at Lynch told a different story: Blood was pouring out of her broken nose and covering her blue SmackDown shirt.
Jax quickly headed backstage. Her first stop was to check in on Lynch to make sure she was OK. Lynch assured her she was fine. Jax then sought out Vince McMahon to make sure the boss was comfortable with what had just happened. He was.
Jax retreated into herself that night. It's what she tends to do in big moments or before big performances; she becomes self-reflective, quiet and withdrawn. As she reflected on what happened hours earlier in the ring and got a taste of the hatred fans were sending her way on social media for punching Lynch, she realized something important.
What happened next could be good or bad for her career. But it was an opportunity.
Long before the world knew her as Nia Jax, Savelina Fanene was born on May 29, 1984, in Sydney, Australia. Her family moved to Hawaii shortly after, where Jax and her cousins would play games in lush green fields until the sun came down.
When she was five or six years old, Jax discovered an old newspaper clipping on her dad's bedroom nightstand. She picked it up and looked at the photograph on the newsprint: It was her father's cousin Peter Maivia, the famous "High Chief" wrestler and patriarch of the legendary Anoa'i pro wrestling family Jax and her cousin Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson were part of.
In the photo, Maivia was covered in so much blood that his hair was drenched in it. But he was grinning ear to ear, and he was holding a bright championship belt.
"He had this big smile on his face," Jax says. "I thought it was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen."
Her father, Joseph Fanene, discovered Jax staring at the newspaper and reassured her that Maivia wasn't hurt. "He's OK, Bubby Girl," he told her, using the moniker he'd given her. "It's OK. He's not hurt."
Jax wasn't sure. After all, Maivia was covered in blood. How could he be OK?
"That was my first experience with wrestling and with our family legacy," she says. But unlike others in her family—and in other families with histories in professional wrestling—Jax had no intention of becoming a professional wrestler. Not back then, anyway. She was an athlete, and her sport was basketball. She wanted to play in the WNBA.
After a few years in Hawaii, Jax's family moved to Carlsbad, California, a small but growing town north of Los Angeles. When she was 18, a modeling agent saw her at an "air band" performance—think of it as a lip sync battle on steroids—and a few days later asked her if she had ever considered modeling. She hadn't, but she approached her father to discuss the opportunity. "Go for it, Bubby Girl," he said.
Jax signed a modeling contract with Wilhelmina International Inc., one of the top agencies in the world. She moved to New York and began her modeling career, but after a short time, she started to miss athletics. She moved back to California and enrolled at Palomar College in San Diego, where she played basketball. She played two solid seasons before being offered another scholarship, this time at Cal State San Bernardino.
The offer brought Jax to a fork in the road. She'd had surgery to repair her knees three times. Maybe basketball wasn't her future.
"I think the Lord was trying to tell me something," Jax says.
She enrolled at Cal State San Marcos instead and finished her business degree while continuing to model on the side.
Then, as if by fate, she found her way into the family business.
Jax was attending WrestleMania 28 with her aunt when she had a revelation: This was something she could do. With her family’s encouragement, Jax signed up at a wrestling school—the same school where her cousin Dwayne had originally trained—and quickly discovered that she had an aptitude for professional wrestling. After just a few days of training, she was tops in her class.
On May 7, 2014, Jax signed with World Wrestling Entertainment and reported to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.
Her first day at her new job was surreal; in her class was Finn Balor, who had enormous success as Prince Devitt in Japan before signing with WWE, and Dash Wilder, who is now half of the popular tag team The Revival.
New signees at the performance center are not allowed to even get in a ring for at least the first month after they arrive. There's a lot of physical training and discussions about pro wrestling and psychology, but you don't set foot in a ring until they believe you are ready.
Just as Jax was about to start actually practicing professional wrestling, she and her aunt Ata Maivia Johnson—The Rock's mother—were involved in a serious car crash in August 2014. Jax's injuries sidelined her for months, but she returned to training in early 2015.
Four months later, she was told she'd be making her in-ring debut.
"I was like, 'What? It's only been four months of training,'" Jax says. "'What is going on here?'"
But she had immense faith in Sara Amato, a veteran wrestler who trains new female signees at the performance center, and decided to listen when Amato gave her a pep talk.
"You don't understand what you have," Amato told her. "You're going to do fine."
"She saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself at the time," Jax says.
Amato spent extra time with Jax, encouraging her and going through film of Jax's practice sessions to critique her performance. Jax (using the name Zada) made her in-ring debut at an NXT live event May 7, 2015, teaming with Devin Taylor against Bayley and Carmella in the third match on the show. She was nervous. Even as she made her way into the ring, she was telling herself: "You can do this. You can do this."
But once she hit the ring, instinct took over. She could do this. Better yet, she was born for this.
Just four months after her debut, vignettes began airing on NXT television announcing her impending arrival as Nia Jax. In October 2015, she made her official television debut, beating Evie (Dakota Kai) in just over two minutes.
Just like that, she was off to the races. Less than a year after her first television match, Jax was drafted to Raw's roster and began her WWE career in earnest.
In the days following the Lynch accident, Jax did a lot of thinking.
"Everything's an opportunity in our business, whether you think it is or not," Jax says. "When the incident with Becky happened, it probably was one of those moments that I really was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is a huge turning point in my career. This could go extremely horribly for me and might be the end of my career. Or we can turn this into something pretty cool for not just me, but for others that are involved.'"
Jax drew inspiration for her next steps from a movie. The Campaign is a political comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as bumbling politicians running for a Congressional seat in their home state.
During one campaign stop, Ferrell and Galifianakis are shaking hands and kissing babies when Ferrell accidentally punches a newborn baby right in the face. Ferrell's response to the baby-punching incident is to question why nobody asked him how his hand was feeling. It is tone-deaf, oblivious and quite funny.
Jax, a huge fan of the movie, decided to incorporate it into her character following the incident. She hopped on Twitter, shared a photo of her injured hand and asked why nobody was asking her about it.
The response from WWE fans was swift and ugly. She'd injured their favorite performer, and they let her know how they felt about it.
"Oh man. That was it," Jax says. "The things that were said about me!"
Fan outcry was so brutal that her colleagues began checking in to see if she was OK. She called The Rock to discuss the situation. He was good at taking any situation and making it work to his advantage, and he encouraged her to do the same.
Jax spent Christmas with Charlotte Flair, a WWE star who is one of her closest friends outside the ring. Flair, the daughter of Ric Flair, one of the greatest performers in the history of the sport, encouraged her to look on the bright side. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Jax's errant punch had helped to create a fervor and tension around the women's championship picture.
"At the moment, I know it sucks. But look what it's done for Becky. Look what it's done for me," Flair told her. "Look what it's done for you as a heel."
Flair's words of encouragement helped Jax see how good things could come out of a bad situation. "I didn't really think of it that way when I was getting told to go die and never come out of my hole again," Jax says. "Some of the tweets really were going off the rails. But when she put it in that perspective, I started to think about it differently. Now, it's something that people will remember forever. It was crazy, but it turned into something pretty cool."
Jax's in-ring persona could not be more different from who she is in real life.
Though her wrestling persona has tended toward dastardly deeds, in reality she's funny, smart and sarcastic. She is using her blossoming career to help her capitalize on a couple of projects she's passionate about outside the ring. One such project is WWE's Be a STAR campaign, which seeks to end bullying among youth.
"I grew up not being the same as everybody else. When you're young, you just want to fit in, and then you get bullied when you don't look like everyone else," Jax says. "It's OK to be different. It's OK to be unique. Look where being unique has gotten me.
"I love promoting that message to young boys and young girls who feel like they don't fit in. I want them to know there's nothing wrong with not fitting in. Nobody should feel less than others just because they don't fit in."
Jax treats the subject of body positivity with the same passion. She's larger than your typical female WWE superstar, and to her, that's a good thing. It gives her another platform to reach young kids who might not be enthused about the way they look solely because they don't look like everyone else. They don't fit the mold, and that's OK. It's better than OK, actually. It's beautiful.
"I want the young fans that we have to be able to say: 'Look at Nia Jax out there. She's embracing her body. She's embracing who she is, and she's showing the whole world,'" Jax says. "'She's walking down the runway in front of people.' That's very empowering for everybody, and that's extremely important for me."
On Sunday, Jax will compete in the second women's Royal Rumble match. The winner goes on to face the champion of her choosing at WrestleMania, which means we could see Jax in the ring with Ronda Rousey, Lynch, Asuka or an unforeseen titleholder.
When she walks through the curtain in Phoenix to make her entrance, boos will cascade down from fans.
Which is perfectly fine with Jax.
Everything is an opportunity, after all.
And she's going to make the most of this one.
Nia Jax competes in the 2nd annual women's Royal Rumble match tonight on the WWE Network.