As part of Women's History Month, Yahoo Sports is highlighting stories and accomplishments from athletes both past and present. Deonna Purrazzo, 27, is the reigning IMPACT Wrestling Knockouts Champion and among the most talented performers in her industry. Here is her story — in her own words — of overcoming adversity in what was, until recently, a male-dominated business
Even as I wrote the email, I knew sending it would probably mean the end of not only my career but, maybe, the end of a dream I’d had since I was an eight-year-old girl. My employer had a culture where feedback wasn’t that welcome — and my email was more than just feedback, I was outright refusing to comply with a directive.
My employer was World Wrestling Entertainment. I was signed to their Florida-based promotion, NXT, where a hundred or so athletes train five days a week and perform three nights a week, all hoping to be called up to the Raw or SmackDown WWE roster. It was March 2020, the onset of the pandemic, I was 25-years-old and I’d been at NXT for a year. But I was no rookie, I was already a six year veteran after turning professional age 19 near my hometown of Jefferson, New Jersey.
'You are ready to wrestle'
I should back up a bit.
Like many parents who had a nine-year-old boy obsessed with Stone Cold Steve Austin, my mom and dad probably expected their kid to tell them: “When I grow up, I’m going to be professional wrestler!”
They were surprised, though, that it wasn’t my twin brother, Dominic, who’d chosen this impossible dream. It was me.
I loved "Stone Cold," too, but I was awestruck by female wrestling stars like Trish Stratus, Lita and Gail Kim. Watching these women doing moonsaults from the top rope and the athletic feats they pulled off, it set my imagination on fire. I wanted to be like them: Loud, meeting life on my own terms, fearless.
Nine years after informing my parents of my career decision, 130 pounds soaking wet, I stepped into a professional wrestling gym for the first time.
The gym – The Adams Pro-Wrestling Training Camp - was barely 20 minutes from our house. There were half a dozen trainees. I was the only girl. The coach, Damian Adams, directed us to the ring, which was set up towards the back under a low ceiling.
“You’re going to learn how to take bumps,” he promised.
The next day I was so sore I struggled sit upright in bed. I did a little better the morning after that – just in time for my second lesson.
For the next year I trained like that every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. My body toughened up and as I learned the fundamentals of the craft. Training exclusively with men, I see now, wasn’t a disadvantage. My offense had to be extra crisp to be believable against them — and I had to hit the technique on a slam or suplex exactly right every single time. Unlike some of the guys, I couldn’t rely on pure muscle to get the job done.
Training just became part of my life. My new college friends learned to stop worrying when my Friday night outfits revealed deep purple bruises (although college boys never stopped asking me to put them in a Sharpshooter).
“You are ready to wrestle in front of a crowd,” Damian told me about a year into my training. “You have a match Friday.”
It was at a local show. Small crowd of hardcores, plus my family. But the nerves were crazy. Sensing my apprehension, Damian arranged for me to practice my match with my opponent. I soon wished he hadn’t.
My opponent, a 10-year veteran who was much bigger than me, was angry she’d be booked to lose a match to a kid and — BANG! — she hit me from behind with a forearm so hard it dislocated my jaw. I was furious. Wrestlers have to trust each other. What we do is dangerous enough without someone trying to inflect harm on purpose.
But it wasn’t my throbbing jaw that kept me up all night.
“Don’t worry,” my mom said at breakfast, “You’ve cheered in front of much bigger crowds.”
“I was never going to be a professional cheerleader, mom,” I explained. I’d spent literally half my life with my eyes fixed on this day; I was afraid of getting the answer to the question “Am I actually good at this?”
As anyone who performs in front of a live audience could tell you, that answer doesn’t come overnight. But I did well enough. My opponent didn’t stiff me again and we had as good a match as nervous 19-year-old in her debut could expect.
'Couldn’t I lose to someone new?'
Over the next few years I wrestled all over North America, performing two, three times a week everywhere from big shows major cities to performing in front of a few dozen people in towns I wouldn’t be able to find for you online. I also took bookings with well-respected promotions in Europe and Japan. Gradually, I gained a reputation as having potential. Success in any industry is the result of hard work and luck, and I’m thankful I did get some lucky breaks along the way.
One night I got a call from IMPACT Wrestling, one of the biggest promotions with millions of fans worldwide. They were putting on an historic all-female pay-per-view the following night – and someone had fallen off the card. The next 48hours were a blur. It was only when I got back home and sat on the couch it finally hit me: I’d shared a locker room with Gail Kim and other women who’d blazed the very trail I was making my way up. I’d been part of history – the first ever all-women's PPV event.
In June 2018 moved to Florida to join NXT full-time. Right away, there were signs I’d made the wrong decision. The trainers didn’t get me as a woman or as a performer. I was not a “character” — but also too much of one. My persona was too plain — and too complicated. Too aggressive, too meek. Too loud, too quiet.
I was the girl who used to hide behind her text books, terrified I’d be called to read aloud in class, so the smack talking aspect of wrestling was never going to come natural to me. I needed feedback, but other than being told I was getting it wrong, I didn’t get any.
Anxious to please, and to get some pointers, I spent my own money to produce a vignette explaining my villainous character and her motivations. I emailed it to the trainers not expecting praise but hoping for criticism. I wanted – needed – them to critique because only once I had information could I begin to make adjustments. I never got any feedback.
Soon, I kept telling myself, it’d be my time to be one of the talents getting the attention. My time never came. Wrestling wins and losses only matter if the fans notice – and fans were telling me on Twitter I had the most losses of anyone in NXT history.
Which brings me back to that email. I’d been asked to report to a TV taping to lose to a fellow performer who’d already beaten me in quick fashion three times recently. After a year of frustration and doing anything I could to please, I finally stood up for myself by — politely — suggesting an alternative: Couldn’t I lose to someone new? Wouldn’t wrestling someone different make sense all around?
The answer came back, no, you are losing to the same wrestler. No discussion, no "we understand your concern," no sign that one side of this professional relationship was prepared to listen to the other.
Something changed in me. I thought about it and then I emailed back, with respect, that wasn’t in my own interests and I’d prefer not to be part of that television taping. It was very liberating. I felt like I did when I was wrestling on the independent circuit, ready to take a chance on myself again.
Sure enough, a few days later I was fired. Within minutes my friend Madison Rayne called me and started putting things in motion for me to speak to Scott D’Amore, who runs IMPACT. Scott had heard reports that I was "difficult" but said he liked to treat people as he found them. Then he asked me something I’d be dying to hear for a very long time: He asked who I was and how I presented that on television.
I responded by emailing him the video I’d produced. Not only did Scott watch it, he asked if he could use it on IMPACT’s flagship AXS TV show.
A question, finally answered
When I made my big return to IMPACT Wrestling last summer, it was as a heel and I sewed the experience of the previous year into my character. In my persona’s mind, I’d been held down, treated unfairly and there was every justification to selfishly go after what I wanted.
My character — and my real self — would not be asking for permission anymore.
I fit in at IMPACT. Its women’s division – the Knockouts – is run by Gail Kim, one of the legends I looked up to as a kid. I hit the ground running, excited to prove what I could do with this new chance.
IMPACT informed me that I’d be winning the Knockouts Title – the oldest women’s world title in American wrestling – at their annual "Slammiversary" event on July 18. I’d be pinning Jordynne Grace, a great wrestler who has succeeded in the industry on her own terms. This was it! This was when I was going to answer, once and forever, the question I asked myself the day of my first professional match.
Am I good at this?
When my music hit for that match, I walked into the arena with a chip on my shoulder. I knew how good I was – and I knew how much better I could become with hard work and the opportunity. What Jordynne and I produced together, I am so proud of. We helped each other to perform at our very best. It was the greatest moment of my career.
If one thing was missing, though, it was the affirmation from the fans. Because of COVID-19, we were (and still are) performing in an empty arena. Social media feedback was great but, as a woman in an industry where women are often judged based on looks and body type, I’d learned not to take tweets seriously.
But, at a TV taping just before Christmas, Scott asked to see me. He smiled and said the fans had voted me IMPACT's Wrestler of the Year.
Not female wrestler of the year — wrestler, period.
So, yeah, I guess I am good at this.
Deonna Purrazzo is still the IMPACT Wrestling Knockouts Champion. She will make the next defense of her title on Sunday, April 25, at the REBELLION Pay-Per-View event. Follow her on Twitter @DeonnaPurrazzo
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