Aug 15, 2023, 05:57AM

This is Her House

When she finally ascended the staircase up to the WWE’s main roster, Saraya was confronted with the full brunt of what it meant to be one of the WWE’s Divas.

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When Saraya Bevis confidently sauntered down to the All Elite Wrestling ring in New York City in September of 2022 and boldly proclaimed, “This is my house!” like pro wrestling’s most confident landlord, it was a moment that harkened back to an identical proclamation made a decade prior inside the ring of World Wrestling Entertainment. For the first time, one of the fixtures of WWE’s vaunted Women’s Revolution had jumped ship and was instantly one of the most recognizable faces on the roster of the opposition.


Whether or not Saraya’s house in AEW turns out to be more of a pop-up canopy than a luxury mansion (and most well-meaning wrestling fans hope it materializes as the latter) is largely irrelevant. If the ring-as-a-house analogy is a prerequisite to claiming ownership of a pro wrestling home, it would’ve taken no giant leap to observe that Saraya was functionally homeless for the better part of six years. And when consecutive injuries took their toll on and forced her into a public declaration of retirement at the early age of 26, it’s no metaphorical stretch to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.


Fast forward four years. Now, with AEW’s August 27th All In pay-per-view is on the horizon. The Wembley Stadium show—not so coincidentally emanating from the home of the WWE’s legendary 1992 Summerslam event that attracted more than 80,000 fans to one of the world’s most popular soccer venues—will be an opportunity for Saraya’s latest professional wrestling home to stake an international claim to relevance less than four hours from Saraya’s childhood home in Norwich, England.

Then again, Saraya’s accustomed to the concept of home being rather fluid ever since she left Norwich—a city she jokingly defines as having “... as many churches as there are months in a year, but as many pubs as there are days in the year”—on her quest to achieve mainstream professional wrestling success in the United States. Only 18 at the time of WWE contract signing, and 19 during her tearful airport departure, nearly every facet of her existence had already been permeated by professional wrestling in one way or another, down to her very name.

While it’s true that Saraya’s name is derived from her mother Julia Hamer-Bevis’ ring name “Sweet Saraya,” that’s simply the wholesome, purified reduction of a far more provocative story.

“The actual origin of [my name] was my mum was really young and at a Slayer concert, and she was tripping on acid,” explained Saraya. “She misheard ‘Slayer’ for ‘Saraya,’ and so that's how she got the name. It was just drugs actually, and not really listening to who she's listening to. But that's the origin of the name. And then I got told it was a Persian name too. Like there was a Persian princess called Saraya. I get told that every time I meet a Persian person. So not only is it a drug-induced name, but it's also a pretty princess from Persia.”

By the time she’d reached the age of 13, Saraya had similarly been absorbed into her mother’s wrestling career—the standard stock and trade of practically every member of the extended Bevis family—and was performing in U.K. rings as Britani, the newest, youngest member of the Knight wrestling dynasty. Aside from her family members, Saraya took inspiration from wrestlers of the past and present, both at home and abroad.

“I love Bull Nakano,” said Saraya. “She was, and still is incredible, but she was one of the first women that I saw where they kind of were just outside of the diva norm, where she just stood out and was very aggressive with the way she worked and stuff. Lita, too. I dressed like her for Halloween when I was younger. I stole my mom's underwear and put it above my hips like Lita did. I was obsessed with her. One of my first wrestling gears was Lita-inspired. And also ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin because he also stood out big time to me. I’ve also got to go with the Brits too and somebody Irish which is Fit Finley. I love Fit Finley. I love William Regal. I grew up watching World of Sport. So Johnny SaintBrian Maxine, and Clive Myers. There's a lot of old school British wrestlers that some people won't know unless you're a diehard wrestling fan. But some of those old-school wrestlers from the 1970s and 80s I absolutely adored.”

However, it was her fandom of British wrestler Klondyke Kate that spurred Saraya to physically exact retribution for insults heaped upon her hero by street hecklers.

“We just did a matinee show for this wrestling promoter in the U.K. called Brian Dixon,” recalled Saraya. “Klondyke is a larger woman. She's a thicker mummy. So, some of these girls that walked past, they started saying these awful things to her, calling her fat and gross and all that kind of stuff. And my brothers were there and I was just like, ‘Just hold my bag for a second.’ And I ran up and I punched one girl who fell backwards and head butted another one who fell backwards and headbutted another. It was like a domino effect. There were three girls on the ground from one punch. [Kate] called me ‘Chinna’ for the rest of my life. She still calls me ‘Chinna.’ And my brothers called me ‘Rocky’ just from that one punch. But I loved her so much. And I'm like, ‘How are you gonna bully this woman? She didn't do anything to you!’ The promoter came out like five minutes after I did it, and these girls are just on the floor, and he was just like, ‘What happened!’ And we were like, ‘We don't know! What the heck!’ And we got in the car from there.”

Signing a developmental contract with WWE in 2011 elevated the likelihood that Saraya would get to rub shoulders with her U.S.-based wrestling heroes to a near certainty while she pursued her dreams. However, her January 2012 landfall in Florida was accompanied by a series of unforeseen logistical challenges that might’ve left her with a distressing lack of lodgings had she not had someone watching her back.

“What's crazy is that WWE will get you the visa, but once I was there, I was on my own,” said Saraya. “They don't help you when you get there. It’s changed now. They’ve gotten better at getting people hotels, but when I got there, I was terrified. Luckily I knew Lexi Five. She's a female promoter and wrestler who worked for SHINE and SHIMMER. She was wonderful. She took me in for the first two weeks. I couldn't get paid because I didn't have social security. I had no idea what renters insurance was. I had no idea how to get a bank account. I didn't know any of these things, and you need credit to even get certain banks and stuff. So it was an insane feeling because I just didn't know where to start. But luckily I had a freaking guardian angel once I got out there and she got me an apartment. She got me furniture. She got me my renters insurance, health insurance. She started my bank account for me. She did everything and without her, I don't know what I would have done.”

And that doesn’t even factor in the cultural challenges that accompanied her Florida relocation.

“I was always traveling by myself. I was never scared. But this time I was scared because I was moving here,” she said. “So it was the most intimidating thing ever. Also the food is different and everything is so much bigger, like the roads, and the driving was intimidating. I had to try and get my driver's license over here, and it was a very intimidating experience. I had no family. I had no friends. I had nothing, and I cried for like six months straight. I had the worst anxiety I ever had. I was just like, I don't know if this is the right decision, and my dad was just like, ‘Stop calling me. You're not gonna call me crying. You're gonna brush yourself off. You're gonna cry into your pillow at night, but you're gonna stay strong and you're gonna stay there.”

Saraya made the critical adjustments to lay the framework for a comfortable life outside of the ring, but upon entering WWE’s Florida Championship Wrestling developmental territory and making it her first in-ring home on American soil, she had to contend with an initial challenge of not being able to present wrestling as entertainment in the fashion that she’d grown accustomed to.

“Even when I first got to FCW, we were doing bikini contests where instead of wrestling, we’d walk out and take our clothes off to be in a bikini,” said Saraya. “It made me feel icky. I was just like, this isn't what I wanna do. I wanna wrestle. That's why I came here. That's what I've been surrounded by my whole life is women being taken seriously. And I just felt like they weren't being taken as seriously. Because once people came to the show, sure they came because they wanted to see some girls take their clothes off. Fine. But there’s only so much you can do. You come one week I take my shirt off, you come another week, it's gonna get redundant and boring. It’s not gonna keep bringing people back.”

Fortunately for Saraya and the other women on the roster, the management of FCW was willing to remodel the promotion’s blueprint to accommodate the desires of the talent.

“It was never [Steve Keirn’s] fault. Steve was so supportive of us. When we wanted to just stop doing bikini contests, he was like, ‘Absolutely.’ Dr Tom and Norman Smiley and Joey Mercury—everyone was very receptive to wanting to see women's wrestling and wanting to see us wrestle rather than doing these things. So when we brought up, hey, we don't want to do this anymore, they were like, okay, let's stop doing them and let's have wrestling matches. So in FCW we were doing money in the bank matches. We were doing all these crazy matches and then you get the main roster which is controlled more by Vince, and you kind of have to start from scratch again and try to change the perception.”

When she finally ascended the staircase up to the WWE’s main roster under the name Paige, Saraya was confronted with the full brunt—both the good and bad—of what it meant to be categorized as one of the WWE’s Divas.

“I feel like there was a stigma to the term ‘Diva,’” said  Saraya. “And I didn't mind the term ‘Diva’ because it was like you had made it once you became a Diva, right? That was the WWE. When you think of women's wrestling back then, you were just like, I want to be a WWE Diva. Now we have a bunch of wrestling companies where you can go to AEW and you go to New Japan and you have Impact, and that's really awesome. But back then you’d either think of Diva, or you’d think of the early stages of TNA when they were the Knockout division, right? And so I didn't mind that term because it kind of was just like, ‘Hell yeah; I’m a Diva.’ But it did have a stigma where people didn't really take it seriously because WWE with the women back then, it would be more like here’s a bikini contest and you're in a pool of mud and you're mud wrestling.”

Adding to the stigma of the Divas as inconsequential eye candy was the fact that the Divas’ matches always seemed to be the first place the producers turned when it was time to reconfigure the WWE’s television programs and chop time to make way for matches and segments that had been prioritized.

“We tried really hard every single day when I got up there to fight to have longer matches and not have us cut,” said Saraya. “It was really disappointing when we first got up there, but one day our time got cut with me and the Bellas and Emma. We were just like, ‘You know what? Eff this! We're gonna do even less time than what you gave us! We're gonna go in there, do one or two things, roll up, get the fuck out of there, because we're just so tired of not being treated equally!’ Our merch numbers were just as good as the guys. We were putting butts in seats, we were doing these things. We had AJ Lee and the Bellas. We had all these women that could go. Michelle McCool could go. All these women can wrestle.” 

She continues: “WWE were receptive once the internet kind of took over, and that helped us big time. They were our voice for us. We could only do so much there, but the wrestling fans were our voice and they voiced their opinions about it and it worked, so that was awesome. So from the beginning when we weren't taken as seriously to now where the women are main-eventing pay-per-views and TV shows and selling out of merch, there’s been a major change. And people are coming just to see the girls at signings. The girls’ signings will sell out quicker than some of the guys’.  It feels good. And I'm so happy to be a part of it again because I wasn’t part of it for so many years.”

When injuries left Saraya’s neck with the stability of a house of cards and transformed her once stable WWE domicile into something more akin to a haunted house, Saraya thought that the whole of her mainstream career would be defined by three distinct feuds with three very different types of performers.

“In NXT, I’d say it was me and Emma because we were the first-ever championship match there with the NXT Women's Championship,” said Saraya. “We were the first female match to ever be on the WWE Network. I want to be remembered for that. But also there's two feuds that I really enjoyed with my time on the main roster, and one is AJ Lee. She helped me so much and she was one of the biggest stars on the roster. She was the champ. It was a very short match and she put me over within minutes, and I was just like, that's amazing. And then I also loved working with the Bellas. It was a very easy story to tell. It was like the weird girl against these beautiful, stunning supermodels that could go in the ring, with the mean girl kind of vibe. Those three storylines; I hope people remember me for those things.”

That trio of in-ring memories might’ve provided the foundation for framing Saraya’s entire mainstream wrestling career had AEW not made an inviting overture that resulted in a change of her wrestling residence. The WWE mainstay walked out of the company's front door and into Castle Khan, feeling like in many ways she had just been freed from being under house arrest.

“Since I was 18, I've been locked in such a really tight ironclad contract where even though we're classed as independent contractors, we weren’t at the same time,” explained Saraya. “We’d constantly have to ask permission to do everything. And a lot of times you'll get told no, and you can't just run out and do whatever you want, and it's a little frustrating. Then you're not being used, you're just sitting at home, and I don't like that. I don't like doing absolutely nothing. And then asking if I can do stuff and then being told no, even though I'm not doing anything and I'm not on the road. But AEW was like you can do whatever you want, which is the selling thing for me. As long as I go to work every Wednesday, my boss is happy. It’s just so pro-talent, like they want us to be happy in every aspect.”

This isn’t to say Saraya feels any ill will toward her former employers, or that her former professional abode had been the theoretical embodiment of a prison.

“For some reason, Twitter has this thing in their head that I talk shit about WWE,” laughed Saraya. “I never talk shit. I've never once ever talked shit. I did a promo, and it's like a character thing. It’s character. I've said in every interview, WWE took care of me. They helped me when I needed it. When I hit rock bottom, they were there, and I never had issues with them like that. I feel like I did everything that I could do for right now in WWE, and they gave me wonderful opportunities and I had such a great career, and I probably wouldn't be in AEW if I didn't have the career I had in WWE, so I'm very thankful for that. And on top of that, Hunter was really great when I told him I wanted to go to AEW. He was like, ‘Good luck with everything,’ and we left it on good terms too, and I really appreciate that.”

Saraya was quick to point out that having her on-screen statements misinterpreted by fans isn’t the only thing that has elicited a harsh online rebuke since she made her AEW debut last fall.

“I feel like Twitter is very hard on females in general, but they've been really, really hard on me,” added Saraya. “So, everything I do, they're so miserable about it. They have your back and then suddenly they're just like, wait, no, now we hate you again. We have really good women and people are getting more and more invested, even if they’re hate-watching. Every week, I'm trending whether you hate it or love it. People are watching even if they want to talk their shit. I'm like, ‘Yeah, but you're still watching.’ Having that match with Skye Blue, it felt really good. It was like a full-circle moment with her as well.”

And how does Saraya feel about being lauded as an elder stateswoman of wrestling at the age of 30?

“It's crazy because I don't feel like that,” insisted Saraya. “I don't feel old enough to be at that status. And, I've been wrestling since I was 13. So this year it will be 18 years I've been in wrestling, which is bananas considering I'm only gonna be 31. It's crazy to think that. And actually a lot of the people backstage at AEW are all so much younger than me, and they’re all like, ‘We watched you when we were growing up!’ and I'm like, ‘Are you serious? Shut the fuck up!’ It feels weird to have that status. I still have so much left to give though. So I don't fully want the status. I'm like, wait, let me get a little bit older and then give me that status.”

Fortunately for Saraya, she’s reunited with and reacquired old friends while in the midst of switching neighborhoods, including broadcaster Renee Paquette and producer Sarah Stock.

“I didn't even know Sarah was signed until we were by the ring, and there she was,” said Saraya. “I was like, what the fuck! She's been to different companies. She's been to Impact, she's been to WWE, and now at AEW. She's done the indies. She has the knowledge of everything. So it's pretty much like bringing over another person like me, but she has more knowledge than I do. So it's really cool and an asset to have her on board. She's incredible and the sweetest person alive. And then Renee: That's my bestie right there. We've done everything together, like get into WWE and doing Tough Enough together and then we did WWE Backstage together, we did Total Divas together, and she was making the leap to AEW. Kind of like going to a new high school. I'm happy that I have my friend there, that I can make a better transition.”

Now that she has a new yard to roam in AEW, who is Saraya most looking forward to engaging with as she helps to construct the women’s division into a bigger, better structure?

“I really enjoyed my story with Britt Baker, but I was coming in so nervous and I wasn't fully confident in myself just yet,” said Saraya. “I've been out for a really long time. So if at some point, we can do another one down the line. Like right now we're doing, The Outsiders against The Home Growns, which I love. And I hope that’s something that becomes really memorable and I hope we can tell a good story even if it's a slow burn. But if it's just me and Britt, I feel like we could have another match where I'm fully confident in myself at this point, where she doesn't have to stress about hurting me or me stressing that I'm just gonna fuck everything up.”

On August 27th, Saraya will undoubtedly be a vital ingredient at AEW’s All In, which will be touted as something of a homecoming for her. Yet, after more than a decade competing in wrestling rings primarily in the United States, and hopping from state to state, where does Saraya consider her true home to be?

“America!” proclaimed Saraya, without hesitation. “I've lived in different places in America. I lived in Florida. I lived in Texas. I lived in Pennsylvania. But California? I love it. The weather is perfect. It's just very relaxed. I love being at home. When I go to the UK and Norwich, I love it. I love being around my family. I love it so much, but then I get homesick about being here. I'm like, damn, I wish I was at home with my dogs and my boyfriend. It’s a weird feeling because I'm not from here, but I just love being in this country so much. I built a home. I built a family here. America is my home now, for sure.”

Simply by virtue of the fact that Saraya has made a visible return to the ring after her career was thought to have reached its conclusion, she can classify her professional wrestling comeback as a success. This also means that whether the landlord of wrestling proves to be a cornerstone of AEW’s women’s division or just another arbitrary brick, from the standpoint of her legacy, she’s playing with house money.


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