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Dublin: 6°C Thursday 6 May 2021

The Irish superstar set for the biggest night of her life

With Becky Lynch about to make history and headline Wrestlemania, we chat to fellow wrestler and former roommate Joe Cabray.

WWE Superstar Becky Lynch pictured at the Empire State Building on Friday.
WWE Superstar Becky Lynch pictured at the Empire State Building on Friday.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

IT WILL BE a historic occasion tonight in the world of professional wrestling.

For the first time ever, Wrestlemania — sometimes described as ‘the Super Bowl of sports entertainment’ — will be headlined by a women’s match.

The present situation represents a seismic step from the days of the late ’90s and early ’00s when female wrestlers were used more for their sex appeal than their in-ring ability and events like ‘bra-and-panties matches’ were commonplace.

This evening in East Rutherford, New Jersey represents the culmination of female wrestlers’ progress in recent years and it could not have happened without the remarkable rise of an Irishwoman.

The limited media coverage granted to WWE in Ireland means many people may not be aware quite how popular the event is in the US and elsewhere. It is watched by millions of fans worldwide, has helped make the company’s CEO Vince McMahon a billionaire and regular attracts rival bids from American cities due to its significant impact on their economies — last year’s Wrestlemania reportedly generated as much as $175 million for New Orleans.

And while professional wrestling remains hugely popular, it is not without controversy. WWE in particular has come under fire for its treatment of wrestlers and the rigorous demands put on them, with many critics suggesting they should be held partially responsible for the disproportionately high number of stars to have died young, due to arguably inter-related issues such as substance abuse. Recently, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver was scathing in his assessment of McMahon in a lengthy takedown, with the company moved to respond to the damning criticisms made by the popular talk-show host.

But while not everyone will feel completely comfortable with the decisions of those running the business, there is no doubting the talent and dedication of its top performers.

To get to the summit of WWE requires a combination of substantial in-ring ability, stamina, charisma, athleticism and luck, which are all qualities that Becky Lynch possesses in abundance.

Born in Limerick and raised in Baldoyle, Dublin, just as compelling as her character, nicknamed ‘The Man,’ is the story behind her rise.

The ascent of Lynch, whose real name is Rebecca Quin, was far from straightforward. Having grown up watching wrestling before starting to seriously compete in Ireland and around the world in her teens, she initially found superstardom hard to come by. As well as on these shores, she spent time wrestling in Britain, Canada and Japan among other places.

However, discouraged by injury problems, Lynch stopped competing for a period. Depression and body image issues were recurring features of this difficult time in her life and for a while, she gave up on her wrestling dream.

It’s almost that fight-or-flight thing where you’ve got something to prove,” Lynch told The42 back in February. “There’s always been something in me where I’ve always wanted more. I remember my ma would always say to me: ‘Why can’t you just be normal? Why can’t you just be normal? Why can’t you be like everyone else?’ She was always [saying it], it was a real Irish mammy type thing.

“It just wasn’t in me [to be normal]. I wanted more. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to do something that nobody has ever done before. Luckily, WWE gave me the platform to do it.”

WWE And Kidzania London Launch New Fan Experience Current WWE star Finn Balor helped train Lynch during their days together wrestling in Ireland. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

But before wrestling stardom, after her love of performing had temporarily fallen by the wayside, Lynch spent a few years trying to figure out an alternative path for herself, as the prospect of spending a lifetime working a ‘real job’ beckoned. She had stints as a personal trainer, a flight attendant in Aer Lingus and undertaking a course at the Gaiety School of Acting, before eventually re-discovering her true calling.

Yet even after entering WWE, it was a long, hard road to the top. In 2013, Lynch signed a two-year developmental deal with NXT, whose primary role is to serve as a farm system for the company’s main roster, which Lynch ultimately joined in 2015.

As recently as last year, the Irish star had to be content with a spot on the preliminary show of Wrestlemania, rather than the main part of the event.  

“There were people who I knew didn’t see any potential in me,” Lynch told GQ recently. “There’s always been a part of me that knew I was capable of doing this, but I lost my confidence and I wasn’t sure how to get it back. I eventually had to learn that not everyone has my best interests at heart. If I wanted to actually make something out of myself, I had to stop caring about who liked me.” 

Consequently, following an astonishing rise over the past 12 months, many would agree with Forbes’ description of Lynch as WWE’s “unquestioned top star”. As the babyface (wrestling slang for the ‘good’ character), she is the favourite to win the triple threat match for WWE title, in a bout that will also feature former UFC star Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair (daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair).

Recent figures put the 32-year-old star’s salary at $250,000, which is substantially less than the $12 million the company’s supposed best-paid athlete Brock Lesnar is reportedly earning, suggesting WWE still has some way to go in its promotion of gender equality. Nonetheless, it is still a stark contrast to the days when Lynch travelled the world wrestling at various events with little reward.

This is the industry I love more than anything,” she told Fanbyte recently. “This is the reason why I left [home] when I was freaking 15 and slept on couches and lived on $30 a show, you know?”

One person who knew her better than most in those early days was Joe Cabray, an Irish wrestler who is the founder of the popular Over The Top Wrestling promotion.

Cabray spent time in WWE around the same period as Lynch was starting out in the company, with the pair room-mates during their time spent together in Florida.

lw Cabray, whose ring name is 'Luther Ward' is a founder of Over The Top Wrestling.

Yet even before their respective Stateside ventures, Cabray and Lynch got to know one another initially at Irish wrestling events. Fergal Devitt, better known as Finn Balor — who also has a big match at Wrestlemania tonight against Bobby Lashley for the Intercontinental Championship — was another familiar face on the Irish wrestling scene back then. Devitt and fellow wrestler Paul Tracey opened NWA Ireland in 2002, and Lynch was one of the wrestlers they trained.

“The first time we would have met would have been at Bray’s NWA Ireland show about 10-12 years ago,” Cabray tells The42. “She started wrestling young. She was probably about 14 or 15 maybe when she joined with her brother [Richy], who was also a wrestler. 

“The first time I met her, it was a brief introduction. She wasn’t wrestling on the show. They didn’t have a female opponent for her. Fergal and Paul were a bit apprehensive about putting her in the ring with a guy. At the time, there wasn’t really much inter-gender wrestling, so I could see where they were coming from.

In the first few shows that NWA Ireland did, I don’t think she worked at many of them. She had to have a female opponent and wrestling was quite new in Ireland around that time. We don’t have a rich, independent wrestling scene like the UK where it goes back to Giant Haystacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Wrestling only started up in Ireland about 15 or 16 years ago.

“It’s just blown up in the last few years, so there’s a lot more people training. With social media, it’s a lot easier now to make contact with other wrestlers and bring them over to Ireland. Back then, Becky genuinely was the only female training. There were no other Irish female wrestlers. Alex Breslin came along, but she would have been about two years after Becky.

“The first time I saw [Becky] wrestle, it just seemed that ‘Jesus, this is a girl that’s equally holding up with the guys and is every bit as tough and rough as them.’” 

Lynch became friends with Cabray, and his words of encouragement contributed to her progress.

“The background story of it was that I was trying to get to WWE,” he explains. “Becky was training in the same gym as me, so we used to train more or less [at the same times] and we’d see each other. Becky had stopped wrestling because she’d suffered an injury. She just never came back [initially].

We obviously had a shared background in wrestling. So I told her I was in the mix for trying to get a WWE contract. I asked her would she be interested. At first, she was like: ‘No, I’ve moved away from wrestling.’ I was trying to tell her: ‘Go for a try-out, and if you get it, you’ve at least got it as an option.’ That’s what spurred her on to be like: ‘Yeah, maybe I can just use it as an option.’

“I think we worked on what way we were going to do our try-outs. I’d been signed five months before Becky. So I moved to the States and Becky moved a few months later.”

Even in those early days, Cabray could detect Lynch’s ambitious nature, though he emphasises how that characteristic alone is not enough to make it in WWE.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to move their life across the States just to survive. I’d already lived in Tampa for a while and the new performance centre was moving to Orlando — that’s when Becky started.

“You can live on your own, but it’s not the greatest way to save money. Everyone was kind of partnering up when we moved to Orlando, so it was just natural that myself and Becky would get an apartment, because we were good friends from back home.

But she came to Orlando and was quite focused on giving it her best. The thing about wrestling is that you’re only as good as someone’s perception. So no matter how much talent you have, wrestling’s not real. So if you’re Conor McGregor in MMA, you knock everybody out when you get in the cage, you’re never going to be denied. Unless you’re an absolute fuck-up, you’re going to make it.

“In wrestling, you can be the greatest wrestler ever, you can have the greatest promos ever, but it all is based on the perception of whoever’s overseeing it.

“So she was very confident, but we both knew in the back of our mind, in wrestling, you’re always at the mercy of someone else’s perception of you.”

Although the financial rewards can be handsome, life in WWE is far from easy. There is no off-season in wrestling and the physical demands on its competitors are considerable, while the risk of serious injury cannot be underestimated. The athletes are often expected to compete several times a week and barring injuries, time off is seldom afforded liberally. In addition, Lynch must now cope with the increasing pressure of being arguably the company’s leading star and the great expectations that status entails. 

When you get to the performance centre, they pretty much start getting you ready for it,” Cabray says. “In the performance centre, you go pretty much full-on. For a lot of hours in the day, you’d have to do your own gym routine and you’d have to do shows as well.

“NXT in general when you’re there and you sign a contract, it’s very much full-on. I lived in Orlando for the first six months and we were so busy that we never got to sleep-in or anything, it was just constant go-go-go. So it gets you ready for the madness of the main roster.

“But she has an amazing work-ethic. She keeps her head down and just keeps paving through — it’s inspiring.”

And despite Lynch’s hectic schedule, Cabray still keeps in touch with his old friend.

“I probably check in with her once every couple of months, because I can appreciate how extremely busy she is. I try to see her when she comes home. I did see her at Christmas. We met for dinner. It was just amazing to catch up and see how she’s grown into this larger-than-life figure. To me, Becky’s always just going to be the girl that I know from Fight Factory or NWA Ireland. But to see her go down the street and not be able to walk four blocks without someone stopping her is quite amazing.”

Source: WWE/YouTube

And is there a sense within the Irish wrestling community that for all Lynch has achieved, she is somewhat underappreciated in her native land?

I don’t think so. I know her mother found it quite hard when she was back home at Christmas that she couldn’t walk a couple of [yards] without being stopped.

“Maybe [she is underappreciated] by the media. I mean, if Conor McGregor walks to the shops, it’s all over the news. I suppose an Irish girl headlining Wrestlemania is quite gigantic and it hasn’t been picked up by the Irish media as much.”

Wrestlemania begins at 10:30pm Irish time tonight and will be available to stream live on WWE Network.

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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