Growing up in South Dakota, Shayna Baszler was a fan of professional wrestling. Her favorite wrestlers were Shawn Michaels and the Ultimate Warrior. But little did she know back then that she would eventually build an MMA background that would lead her down a path to a WWE Raw Women’s Championship title shot against Becky Lynch at WrestleMania 36.
Shortly after college, Baszler started training MMA with former UFC heavyweight champion turned professional wrestler Josh Barnett. Using the fighting nickname “The Queen of Spades,” she quickly became a specialist in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Both of these disciplines shine through in her move set when she’s performing as a WWE superstar.
From 2007-2015, Baszler fought in various MMA promotions, including Elite XC (2007-08), Strikeforce (2009-10), Invicta FC (2012-13), and UFC (2013-15). Even then, Baszler embraced having a gimmick that would accompany her fighting. She would walk out to her fights carrying a guitar and give interviews that showed her personality.
One of Baszler’s most impressive MMA feats came in 2010 when she would compete in Freestyle Cage Fighting’s (FCF) women’s Bantamweight Grand Prix tournament. Baszler sent waves through the MMA world by winning the tournament and becoming the FCF bantamweight champion.
Just three years later, Baszler made her UFC debut on the promotion’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter. Competing as the first pick for Team Rousey, Baszler was forced to pull out just before the finals due to injury. She would still sign a contract with the promotion and fight two fights in the UFC, losing both by TKO — the second to Amanda Nunes at UFC Fight Night 62 — before being released in 2015 so that she could pursue her professional wrestling career.
In an interview with RondaRousey.com, Baszler describes her transition from MMA to pro wrestling as a flawless one.
“That’s not to say I went into fighting thinking, ‘I’m going to be a pro wrestler’….. back in [Josh Barnett’s] training and lineage, you had to fight before you could pro wrestle. And so I kind of always knew where it came from, so I just figured I was already a pro wrestler,” Baszler said.
Baszler adds that the hardest part of her transition was to change her MMA mindset of winning at all costs, as fast as possible to pacing herself through a professional wrestling match that is supposed to convey emotion and put on a show for fans. But coming from a combat sports background, her philosophy in the wrestling ring is to still portray some semblance of realism.
“There’s fans out there that, there’s still a lot of them that are like, ‘Why would I watch that fake stuff when I could watch the real stuff?'” Baszler said.
After bouncing around several indie pro wrestling promotions, even winning the women’s title in one (AIW), it remained unseen how Baszler would fair when she joined NXT — where WWE grooms its young talent.
Baszler would develop a rivalry with NXT women’s champion Ember Moon, getting her first title shot against Moon during the promotion’s TakeOver Philadelphia event. Baszler lost the first bout, but avenged her loss and took the title from Moon in a rematch at an event in New Orleans in April 2018. Over the next year, Baszler would defend her NXT title several times and even lose it once before winning it back. She is the first, and so far only, person to hold the women’s NXT title twice.
Baszler held her title for 416 days — the second-longest streak in NXT history. After Rhea Ripley dethroned her from atop the NXT ranks, Baszler was ready to make the jump to Raw, where she made a name for herself early by attacking Becky Lynch backstage during one of her promos. Baszler even bit Lynch on the neck, adding to her folklore.
Quickly becoming one of WWE’s most popular women’s superstars, Baszler found herself with a big opportunity at the promotion’s recent Elimination Chamber pay-per-view in Philadelphia. She dominated against members of the Riott Squad and Natalya and eventually was able to fight off an elite wrestler like Asuka to win the match and earn herself a title shot against Becky “The Man” Lynch at WrestleMania 36 on Sunday, April 5 in Tampa, Florida.
It will be an interesting match between Lynch — a striker — and Baszler, who likes to take things to the ground as quickly as possible. One thing’s for sure though: there will be no love lost as these two go at it for the Raw Women’s Championship.
Pat Donohue has been covering sports for more than 10 years. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter and has been covering the University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for Rivals.com since 2013. Pat graduated from Maryland with his master’s degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. As a wrestler for 13 years in Pennsylvania, Pat has a deep appreciation for MMA and a keen understanding of the sport.