Off the Top Rope: Natalya Talks Vince McMahon's Role in History Making Match
It started with a bottle thrown in her direction, a sign that women's wrestling was not completely accepted, let alone embraced in Saudi Arabia. It ended in hugs and tears, Natalya and her Crown Jewel opponent, Lacey Evans, basking in glory and warm applause after taking one small step in the direction of progress.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden talked to one of WWE's locker-room leaders about her history-making match, who in WWE pushed to make it happen and how she's coping with the death of her legendary father, Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart.
As we do each Wednesday, we also choose a match of the week, get you up to date on the past seven days and deliver a scorching-hot take about the state of the business. All this, plus predictions for the top three matches at AEW's Full Gear pay-per-view.
Join us, won't you?
Natalya on Vince McMahon's Role in Making Her Historic Match Happen
Natalya has done it all in her decade-plus WWE career. She has been Divas champion, SmackDown women's champion and helped guide many of the promotion's top young talents both in and out of the ring.
She's even been inducted into the Canadian Wrestling Hall of Fame.
But last week saw a first for Natalya—because it was a first for any woman ever. She and Lacey Evans are the only women to ever compete in Saudi Arabia, a moment that was bigger than mere sport.
Bleacher Report caught up with the WWE Superstar after her return home to discuss what she considers the most important moment of her wrestling life.
Jonathan Snowden: What a moment. How does it feel to be part of something that's really bigger than wrestling, bigger than mere entertainment?
Natalya: For me to be a part of the first-ever women's wrestling match in Saudi Arabia, it was bigger than me. It was bigger than Lacey. It was bigger than WWE. It was life-changing. It was transcending.
We were opening doors that had never been opened before, but we also knew we were part of, like, a real change in the world. We were ready for it. Saudi Arabia was ready for it. Our WWE fans were ready for it. The world was ready for it.
It was such an incredible feeling to feel the love and support and embrace we got in Saudi Arabia. It's kind of hard to describe it. I'm still kind of on cloud nine and I'm not planning on coming off it for a while.
JS: You weren't initially announced for the card, so I know it must have come together really quickly. How did you find out that you were wrestling, and walk us through the whirlwind that came next.
Natalya: When we first got invited to Saudi Arabia, we were told "Hey, there's a chance you girls might get a match, but it's really still up in the air. We're working hard on it."
It wasn't my first time going to Saudi Arabia. I had actually been there in May. I went to Jeddah this past May with Alexa Bliss. At that time, Lexi and I were told 'Hey, there's a chance you girls might have a match, we're not sure. We're working on it.'
We knew things were in the works. We just weren't sure whether or not it was going to happen. To be honest, I wasn't really holding my breath.
I understand. I am a very realistic person. I understand it takes time. It takes time for cultural change. We're going into another country. They have different values, different beliefs. I wasn't offended by any of it. I just knew it took time. The night before we flew out, we were told, 'It's looking really good, but we're not sure yet. We're still waiting.' Then when Michael Cole announced it at the press conference in Riyadh, that's when it was real to me. Wow, we are actually going to do this.
From that moment on, I just felt like I was floating. I don't even think for years to come people will understand the magnitude and impact that this match is having on the world, but I'm trying to wrap my head around it.
To be a part of something so big and so special where women around the world can feel inspired, it just feels really incredible. It's a really incredible, positive step that we've taken. I'm so grateful to be a part of it. To be the first to do this, it's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my career.
JS: Based on what I'm hearing from you, this was quite an effort by the company. Who was behind the push to do this and went to bat for the women and helped make this match a reality?
Natalya: Vince McMahon. It was very important to him, especially, to make sure the women got this opportunity. For me, from everything I saw, it was very evident how hard Vince fought for us girls to be able to do something like this. I know it wasn't easy.
This kind of thing takes time. I know personally that Vince fought really, really hard for us girls, not just for the Women's Evolution, but he really wanted us to have this.
It's the most incredible experience for Lacey and for myself and for women around the world to be able to watch us. WWE is not just having wrestling matches, we're also changing the world. We're opening doors that have never been opened, being fully embraced by people there in Saudi Arabia that were watching and people around the world that were watching.
JS: It's not always easy to break new ground and walk a path no one has ever walked before. There are a lot of ways this could have gone very wrong out there. What were your biggest concerns as you faced the unknown?
Natalya: I always feel like my dad's got my back. He's always looking out for me. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like where my dad is right now, he had my back.
I never felt like for any one moment that something was gonna go wrong. The only thing I ever really worry about when I walk down to the ring, and it's not any different than in any other country I perform in, I always worry that people aren't going to react. They're not gonna cheer, they're not gonna know who I am, they're not gonna understand our story, they're not gonna get it.
I'm in the role of good guy, a babyface, on TV, and I always worry they won't react for me. This was so different because when they played a little clip of Lacey and myself earlier on the show, the entire arena erupted. The stadium erupted. The entire stadium erupted with cheers.
So I knew from that moment on that these people are so excited, so ready. We were ready, too. Lacey and I, we were just ready.
JS: As you walked down the ramp, a bottle flew towards you. It looked to me like you had to take a deep breath and gather yourself. What was going through your mind in that moment?
Natalya: I was talking to my mom about that the other day. Things don't always go your way. There's always going to be little bumps in the road. Little hiccups.
When that bottle was being thrown at me, I reacted because something was thrown at me, but I just kept going, I just kept moving forward. Forward is forward no matter what the pace is. You have to just keep moving forward not matter what happens to you in your life.
I never stay still long enough to look back or feel sorry for myself or have a pity party. Keep going forward. That's why I've gotten to the place I've gotten to in my career. A lot of things didn't work out for me in my career. I have had a lot more than bottles thrown at me. I've dealt with all sorts of hurdles and obstacles in my life, and it's all about how you react, about how you adapt.
JS: You guys definitely did some adapting in the ring. The last time I saw you and Lacey on opposite sides of the ring, it was in this epically violent Last Woman Standing match.
For the first time in Saudi Arabia, it seemed like you didn't want to push things too far. Did you intentionally ratchet the violence down a little to make it comfortable for the crowd as you ease them into this?
Natalya: I think we did change our style in very much the same way our attire was different. It was so much about what our industry and WWE is based on, which is about respect. Respect in the locker room, respect with our fans, respect with each other in the ring.
When you are going into another culture, you always have to respect their culture. There was a sort of mutual understanding, that any sort of difference that we had, we were putting it aside. Yes, we had some heated feuds like that Last Woman Standing match, but in this moment, for the first-ever women's match in Saudi Arabia, our match was about respect. It was about athleticism. It was about everything we wanted to introduce to the Saudi Arabian fan.
The women of WWE are athletic, we are competitive. Obviously, we want to win, but we also respect each other. That was the story of the match and what that match was based off of: respect and gratitude. Gratitude that we were getting such a life-changing opportunity. We were doing something that no women had ever done before and nobody could ever take away from us.
JS: There was so much emotion after it was over. Did you know immediately it was a big deal, that you had been a part of something special?
Natalya: Immediately after the match, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Even just talking about this match makes me feel like I'm on a different plane. I knew we were doing something that was making the world a better place.
When I hugged Lacey at the end of the match, it was because I was proud of her. I respected her, and I was so grateful we got that chance to inspire all the girls and all the women, especially, that were sitting front row and across the stadium and any little girl or woman that was watching at home. In return, we were being inspired. It was a mutual love.
When I hugged Lacey, both of us were crying so hard I think we having an out-of-body experience. Those little girls in the front row that I took a picture with on their phones, that we hugged, there's a chance that one day those little girls are the first-ever Saudi Arabian women to become WWE Superstars. Because of that moment, they might say, 'I want to do this.' They might say, 'I have a big dream to go to the WWE one day and travel around the world and inspire others.'
That's what I was thinking about.
JS: As a regular viewer of Total Divas, I know you've been struggling personally, both with loss and with your place in the company. Do you feel like you've found your place in the company again? Are you feeling good about where you are right now?
Natalya: I definitely feel like I'm hitting my stride. Losing my dad was very traumatic for me. My dad died about a year ago, a little over a year ago. You never really get over that kind of a loss. When my dad passed away, I definitely cried harder than I've ever cried in my life, but I knew I had to keep moving forward. I couldn't stay still. I couldn't look back. I couldn't stay in the same spot.
Working in the company has made me feel so strong. I feel like I could do anything because I've overcome so many obstacles, in the ring, out of the ring, around the world. You meet people who inspire you, who are extraordinary. Kids that are battling for their lives with cancer. We've met so many women struggling with breast cancer. We meet kids competing in the Special Olympics. We meet so many unique, courageous, special people, I feel like the best message I could send is you just have to keep going forward.
For me, I finally hit my stride. The match I had with Becky at Summerslam. I don't have to win these matches. I would love to be the Raw women's champion, but being able to inspire people around the world, to change the course of history around the world, to me that's way more fulfilling than any championship could ever possibly be.
Match of the Week: Daniel Bryan vs Adam Cole (SmackDown, Nov. 1)
On Friday night, WWE had a serious problem. The bulk of its roster was stuck in Saudi Arabia after the promotion's Crown Jewel event, victims of either mechanical issues with their airplane or a vast, international conspiracy.
Either way, SmackDown was looming, and the show must always go on.
A developmental league no more, the WWE's newest brand invaded the main roster and made themselves known to casual fans who may have never been exposed to their more vibrant, straight-forward style of wrestling. It was the perfect way to both introduce the company's newest box of toys and to propel them directly into the Survivor Series mix.
The highlight of an all-around excellent episode was the main event between NXT champion Adam Cole and WWE mainstay Daniel Bryan.
The was the best possible bout to showcase Cole to SmackDown's audience, a chance for him to go at full speed with one of the few main-roster talents who can keep up with him in his own style of match.
This wasn't an old 1990s-style match that saw the bigger star lose to the up-and-comer in some kind of fluke finish, never once intimating he was on the same level. Bryan wrestled a competitive match, gave it his all and fell short in a fierce contest.
It was a match that established Cole as one of the WWE's best overall performers while also allowing Bryan to reestablish himself as an in-ring genius and compelling competitor. There were no losers here—it was WWE at its absolute best.
Runners up: Tom Lawlor vs. Timothy Thatcher (MLW SuperFight); Tomohiro Ishii vs. KENTA (New Japan Power Struggle)
Illegal Double Team Hot Take: The Fiend Isn't Going to Work
After an audience revolt at Hell in a Cell, WWE tried a do-over at Crown Jewel, attempting to hit the reset button so they can cast Bray Wyatt's "The Fiend" character, a deranged clown with seemingly supernatural powers, as a babyface.
It's hard, however, to see a long-term future for this character as he currently exists.
A hero must overcome the odds. There's nothing interesting about a protagonist who faces no significant obstacles on their path to success and glory. The struggle to thrive and survive is central to the journey. If fans don't feel a slight tinge of fear or doubt on their hero's behalf, they are unlikely to feel anything at all.
That's kind of a problem for Bray Wyatt.
The Fiend has been presented as an all-but-unstoppable monster. Seth Rollins hit his finisher eight times at Crown Jewel, then dumped Wyatt off the stage and into an electrical contraption of some sort. Fireworks and sparks flew.
But the Fiend was unharmed.
All of this should make Wyatt an interesting challenge for a beloved babyface, a puzzle for a hero to struggle against and ultimately solve. That was no doubt WWE's intent before the audience shifted the story with the power of their voices.
Ultimately, it's Wyatt who will be hurt by the new direction this storyline has taken. He's a great performer presenting the kind of character WWE fans haven't seen in years. It's no wonder they've embraced this innovative act.
But that doesn't mean The Fiend should be a babyface. He was clearly created to be a villain for a hero to vanquish. The WWE's struggle to tell that story shouldn't be a sign to turn him toward the light.
It's an indication that they need a better babyface opposite him.
The problem isn't the audience or Wyatt. It's Rollins. Until he can grab the WWE Universe by their heart strings, it's impossible to make him the centerpiece of the promotion.
Unfortunately, that's a lesson WWE has been slow to learn.
Last Week in Wrestling
Missed your favorite wrestling shows over the last week? Here's everything you need to know from last week in the sport of kings.
- The Fiend beat Seth Rollins to become the WWE universal champion in a poorly received bout in Saudi Arabia.
- Brock Lesnar defeated Cain Velasquez via submission in a quick, MMA-style bout. He made a surprise appearance on SmackDown, only to quite the brand. Lesnar then pursued vengeance against Cain's mentor, Rey Mysterio, on Raw.
- Natalya and Lacey Evans had the first-ever women's match in Saudi Arabia.
- NXT invaded SmackDown in a show that culminated with an incredible match between Daniel Bryan and Adam Cole for the NXT Championship. Cole retained his title in a memorable bout for the ages.
- Hiromu Takahashi returned to New Japan Pro-Wrestling after an extended injury absence in an emotional display of his wild energy. He will challenge junior champion Will Ospreay in January at the Tokyo Dome.
- Jacob Fatu beat LA Park to defend his MLW Heavyweight Championship at SuperFight, the promotion's first pay-per-view. The bout was the culmination of a very strong night of wrestling and a triumph for promoter Court Bauer's vision of the sport.
- Kenny Omega returned to his roots in Japan with DDT, his original home. He teamed with AEW women's champion Riho in an intergender match as part of the group's Ultimate Party 2019.
Three-Count: Predictions for the Week Ahead
AEW Full Gear (BR Live PPV, November 9)
Location: Royal Farms Arena, Baltimore, Maryland
1. Cody Rhodes vs. Chris Jericho (c) for the AEW World Championship: I'm torn on how this one will go. Part of me believes we should see Cody chase quite a bit longer before finally winning the big gold belt that feels like his destiny.
At the same time, there's something to the old cliche that you need to strike while the iron is hot—and nobody in the business is hotter right now than Cody Rhodes.
Prediction: Jericho with the Judas Effect after something nefarious goes down.
2. Jon Moxley vs. Kenny Omega (Lights Out match): This is an unsanctioned match, which means we should expect plenty of plunder and a fair amount of chaos. Omega, despite his reputation as a technical marvel, is actually quite adept at these kinds of matches, and Moxley was born and bred on the hardcore scene.
This one is going to be excellent.
Prediction: Jon Moxley continues his march towards destiny, and Omega is left to reinvent himself once again.
3. The Young Bucks. vs. LAX: SCU may be the inaugural champions in the division, but this is the tag team match that will steal the show. Personally, I'm most interested in seeing what gear "the merch freak" Nick Jackson has his poor brother, Matt, wear to the ring.
Prediction: The promotion needs to continue to build the Inner Circle as a relevant, meaningful faction and not just Chris Jericho's sidekicks, so expect them to go over here.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.