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For WWE's NXT, the future is now and it belongs to Rhea Ripley

Rhea Ripley taunts NXT women's champion Shayna Baszler during an episode of NXT. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

If MVP voting were to take place today for the NFL and NBA, Lamar Jackson and Luka Doncic would be the favorites at age 22 and 20, respectively. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback and Dallas Mavericks forward potentially represent the future of not just their respective teams, but their sports as a whole. 

Along those same lines, Rhea Ripley represents the future of women’s wrestling in WWE and arguably its entire NXT brand.

The 23-year-old Australian phenom has had as impressive a month in professional wrestling as Jackson and Doncic did in their respective athletic fields. Despite household names like Becky Lynch, Brock Lesnar and Daniel Bryan headlining last month’s Survivor Series pay-per-view event, no star has shone brighter than Ripley’s.

“I thought it would take a lot longer [to reach this point in my career],” Ripley told Yahoo Sports. “My work ethic is don’t stop until you reach the top pretty much and I put in dedication every single day of my life, I’m glad it’s paying off. I don’t care how young I am, I’m going to work until I’m at the top.”

For Ripley, the top is rapidly approaching.

In a five-day span in November, Ripley wrestled against Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and captained teams opposite NXT women’s champion Shayna Baszler as well as female competitors from Raw and Smackdown. Four events, four matches, zero losses.

“I don’t really know how to put it into words to be honest,” Ripley said. “It was such a crazy, crazy week. I couldn’t really take it in too well while I was doing it, which was unfortunate because I was so busy. I have had time to take it in more now. To look back on it, it was life-changing and career-changing.”

‘I’ve got to give people what they’ve paid for’

Change has played a prominent role in Ripley’s rise to stardom in WWE. 

After making her debut with the company in 2017 at the Mae Young Classic, Ripley decided she needed to do something to stand out among the crowd of female talent. A tall, physically gifted blonde, Ripley was frequently compared to Charlotte Flair and Toni Storm. She would be eliminated in the second round of the inaugural tournament.

Barely old enough to drink, Ripley developed the look that would come to define her tenure with WWE.

“I wasn’t confident in myself at the first Mae Young Classic because I wasn’t being myself,” Ripley said. “I went out there and was trying to please everyone, be what they thought I should be. I was trying to make everyone happy, but it wasn’t making me happy at all. At the second Mae Young Classic, I changed everything, I was completely different. I was myself, the person that I know I am and brought the house down.”

Ripley would advance to the semifinals of the 2018 edition of the Mae Young Classic and would join NXT UK that same year. Ripley’s ascent would begin in earnest as she became the first-ever NXT UK Women’s Champion.

Despite spending four years on Australia’s independent circuit, there was a bit of a culture shock for Ripley when she came to WWE. 

“I guess wrestling isn’t as big in other countries as it is here, especially Australia,” Ripley said. “When I went to NXT UK and I was part of the women’s championship tournament, I saw all of those people and I was absolutely floored. I had never wrestled in front of that many people before. At home, I think the largest crowd I ever wrestled was in front of 500 people. To go from that to all of this now, there are so many people watching you and trying to enjoy the show, I think ‘Man, I’ve got to give people what they’ve paid for. Let’s go.’”

Ripley’s success is a testament to just how far women’s wrestling and international talent has come in WWE. Partially due to the inception of NXT and the WWE Performance Center, the company continues to bring in some of the most diverse talent in its history. Ripley is just one example of the kind of change WWE has undergone over the past five years.

“To be able to show everyone what wrestling is and who we are is insane,” Ripley said. “The WWE Performance Center is filled with so much international talent and all of them have something to prove or something to show. I’m proud of everyone.”

Rhea Ripley pins Shayna Baszler to win the women's WarGames match. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Trash cans, chairs and broken nails

Ripley returned to the U.S. version of NXT back in August, setting up a program with Baszler and slowly turning babyface in the process. On Oct. 30, Ripley and Baszler’s singles feud would be put on hold as the two were named captains for the first-ever women’s “WarGames” match.

Two days later, due to travel issues that prevented some talent from making it to “SmackDown Live,” WWE began an “NXT invasion” storyline ahead of the annual Survivor Series pay-per-view. Ripley would play a prominent role throughout the month, setting the stage for the aforementioned career-changing, five-day span.

First, there would be a showdown on Ripley’s home turf with Lynch, whose popularity level went nuclear at the same time in 2018. Despite being a fan favorite since then, “The Man” was no match for “The Nightmare” and her newfound popularity.

“To be able to step into the ring with Becky Lynch, the Raw women’s champion, on NXT and get the crowd to change its reaction, that was insane in itself,” Ripley said. “I had so much confidence that day because of that.” 

Next, Ripley was placed in a triple-threat match on “SmackDown” against Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair. Two of NXT’s famed “Four Horsewomen,” Banks and Flair have a combined 17 WWE title reigns. Ripley pinned Flair to pick up NXT’s first major victory of the weekend.

The following night, Ripley and seven other women were entrusted with kicking off “TakeOver: WarGames 3.” Of the four events, it’s safe to assume Ripley had been looking forward to her turn in the iconic match most.

“WarGames was a match that I’ve dreamt of my entire life,” Ripley said. “I’ve always wanted to have a match where I get to use weapons and I never got that back home. That was my first time being able to use all of that stuff in a match — legally. We put on a match that no one expected from us and helped prove why NXT is the main roster.

“We wanted to steal the show, we wanted to prove that females in wrestling can go just as hard as the guys. We had so much to prove and put on the line. I think we aced it, we absolutely killed it. Yes, I was a little banged up and bruised, but I was very happy and excited that I didn’t care. The main thing that I felt were two broken nails that I suffered while pulling the trash cans and chairs out from under the ring. My fingers were on fire.”

Rhea Ripley uses trash cans as weapons during a match at NXT TakeOver: WarGames 3. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Ripley capped off the weekend by captaining NXT’s women’s team in a traditional Survivor Series match. In a surreal moment, Ripley would pin Banks to win her third match in five days.

“I never expected to be on Survivor Series or any pay-per-view so early in my career,” Ripley said. “To be able to compete and win for NXT, it was electrifying and amazing in itself. I’m not a huge cryer but I definitely felt like I wanted to cry happy tears. It was career-making.”

If there was any debate entering Survivor Series which brand and star were the future of WWE, Ripley and NXT put it to bed with a dominant showing. Ripley’s performance, in particular, managed to capture the eye of former NXT women’s champion Paige and WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus.

“Trish Stratus, what a name and she’s talking about me and putting me over,” Ripley gushed. “That’s not something I would have thought was possible a couple of years ago. To listen to her say what she did, it’s insane. She’s one of the best and most well-respected athletes, especially for the females in WWE, to hear her put me over like that, it’s amazing. It makes me feel so special, makes me feel like everything I’m doing is worth it and right.”

Ripley remains on a collision course with Baszler, hoping to capture the NXT women’s championship. After coming into WWE without a true identity, Ripley has quieted any and all naysayers and established herself as the future of women’s wrestling.

“To get to this point and have people there supporting me and loving what I’m doing, enjoying what I’m doing, it makes it that much better,” Ripley said. “It makes it taste that much better when I achieve something.”

Rhea Ripley will square off against Dakota Kai on Wednesday night’s episode of NXT, which airs on the USA Network at 8 p.m. ET.

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