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Mae Young Classic standout Toni Storm playing key role in evolving world of women's wrestling

The second round match between Toni Storm and Hiroyo Matsumoto has been one of the standout performances thus far in the 2018 Mae Young Classic. Courtesy of WWE

Toni Storm entered the world of professional wrestling in Australia nearly a decade ago, and while that makes her a veteran among the field in the 2018 WWE Mae Young Classic, she's also among the youngest performers in the field at 22 years old (she turns 23 on Oct. 19).

The New Zealand-born young veteran has plied her craft in England, Germany, Japan and all over the world, earning a reputation as one of the most talented performers in the wrestling business today. In addition to her run in the Mae Young Classic, Storm is set to feature prominently as part of the WWE's new NXT U.K., which debuts on Wednesday.

KC Joyner sat down with Storm to talk about her start in the world of wrestling, her worldwide adventures, the evolving scope of women's wrestling and more.

ESPN: You started wrestling when you were 13 years old. How do you get started in the business when you are 13 years old?

Toni Storm: I was a fan when I was about 10, to begin with. I found a [wrestling] school that let you start training at 12. When I was 13, I found it and I begged my mom for ages to let me go, and she wasn't letting me go and it was expensive to train and everything but then eventually she let me do it. She would pay my fee by selling hot dogs at the shows that they would run. I wrestled in a little shed. I wrestled in front of moms and dads. It was borderline backyarding, but it was still a company. I got started then, and it was ridiculous and a silly age to start, but I'm glad I did it because now I have all of this experience and that helps.

You are in a perfect position where you are heading into the physical prime of your life and yet have nine years of wrestling experience behind you.

Yeah, it's weird but it's definitely to my advantage, although I don't know what taking all of those hard hits does to your body while growing up, but I guess I'll find out in 10 years. Right now I love it and I won't stop. I could never stop, I never considered stopping.

You have a very physical in-ring presence and use a variety of wrestling styles. Were the styles blended from your wide variety of wrestling experiences?

Yeah. I started in Australia and I moved to England when I was about 17 or 18. I just ended up living there [in England], so I've got the British style. The Japanese style I got because I went there for about two years on and off and trained there and wrestled there a lot. I'm kind of a mix of everything.


Toni Storm considers what she'd tell a young girl hoping to follow in her footsteps in the world of pro wrestling - and reflects on what starting at the age of 13 was like. (Interview courtesy of KC Joyner).

Tim Fiorvanti, ESPN.com53d ago

When you come to the Performance Center with all of these styles, do you have to adapt to using the NXT style or can you incorporate those styles into NXT or is it more of a mix of styles?

I feel like WWE is already quite a blend because the roster is so diverse and you've got trainers coming from every style in wrestling, so WWE is already quite a blend. It's not really hard to adjust.

When you start wrestling at the age of 13, what does that look like? Are you mostly training on the side or working a lot of matches, too?

It was mainly matches, but when I was 14 or 15 I did loads of hardcore matches and stuff like that. I wrestled with the guys most of the time, because there weren't many girls. Street signs, chairs -- all kinds of crazy stuff. Then I got older and realized I need to kind of save my body if I'm going to be doing this for a long time, so I stopped doing all that kind of thing. But there was a time when I was growing up where I would do hardcore matches and death matches and that type of stuff.

You still wrestle a pretty physically intense style. Do you see the WWE's women's divisions moving in that direction?

Women have done that kind of stuff for years all over the world. You only need to watch the Japanese wrestling to know how brutal it is and see that women can follow the guys. It's fine -- we're just as brutal sometimes [laughs]. You only need to watch a Meiko Satomura match to know how physical and how brutal it is. Women have been doing that for years and now finally people are going to start seeing how we're tougher than the guys.

It's now easy to envision a women's match in the main event at WrestleMania. Did you always imagine that might be the ceiling?

Eventually the way I want to see it is it's half men's matches and half women's matches, not just one or two women's matches. It's been a long time coming. I don't think [women's wrestling] has gotten better -- women have always been good, we've just never had the opportunity to shine. Now there's more demand than ever because people are like, "Hang on a second, we should have half of the card here." Eventually I think it's going to work its way up to that. You only need to look at the indies to realize there's a lot of cards that are just half girls. That's how it should be, because there's no reason why it shouldn't be mixed completely.

Wrestling has always been about being able to tell stories, and the women's division is proving to be equally capable of telling stories in and out of the ring.

Yeah, we've always been physically capable, we've proven that. We're all just as determined as the guys, we're all just as talented. There's no reason why it shouldn't be half and half. That's going to happen. We're going to have women main-eventing WrestleMania. That's so good for me because that has always been my dream growing up. I was like, "I want to headline WrestleMania", but I've always been like, "but women don't get that opportunity" and that really made me sad. I was just like, what's the point, I'll never get that, and now it's like a possibility and it's going to happen. So now there is a possibility that I'm going to live out my dream now, so that's great.

So headlining WrestleMania -- do you see that happening for you in five years? Three years?

It's strange because I can never figure out time frames in wrestling, because things can be the same for such a long time and then suddenly things change. This could all happen in a year or it could happen in 10 years. Wrestling is so unpredictable, I find. What's predictable right now is women are going to headline.

Is this change due in part to the audience embracing women's wrestling in a different way? Are the audiences now made up of a larger percentage of women?

I'd still say it's male dominated in the crowd, but I am seeing more and more women [in the crowd] than ever. That is so good because I always love it when I'm at a merch stand and there's female fans coming up as well and I'm like yeah, cool, this is awesome because it should be enjoyed by everyone and not just the guys.

How does it feel when 13-year old girls come up to you at the merchandise stands and show interest in following your path and becoming wrestlers at that age?

I'm probably not going to be the one to say, yeah, start young [laughs)] Because my body doesn't agree with that. But at the same time, you should have your dreams and stick to them. If you're 13, wait it out but stick to it. I can't imagine how hard it must have been on my mom. God bless her, she went through a lot with me, having a 13-year old girl being involved in wrestling and being the only girl there for a long time as well.

I couldn't imagine how hard it must have been on my mom, but I think she quite enjoyed watching me come up. She got to watch me at the NXT UK Royal Albert Hall show and that was after not watching me for years. Probably the last time she had seen me was when I was 16 working at a working man's club, and then the next thing I know I'm 22 and wrestling at the Royal Albert Hall. It's been all bad for her, but it's been kind of fun.

It had to be a proud moment for her.

I hope so, after all she's been through.

So she was really involved early in your career with selling the hot dogs and...

She would make my costumes as well. She wouldn't make all of them, but quite a lot of them. She would do that and sell the hot dogs and she was like the wrestling mom. All of the guys, she would be like a mother to them. She's very supportive, which is great because that's what I needed.

Does she see any of your stuff now?

She's sees my stuff now. She came to Royal Albert Hall recently, but she stayed in Australia with my younger sister for a while. [My mom] is only visiting the U.K. now, but I was away from home for a good 3-4 years and I'd only go home once a year. It's been 3-4 years that I've not gotten to regularly see her, and I'd see her once a year and that was usually during down times for me when I was beat up. During dark times, I'd go home so she usually wouldn't see the best side of me. So when she got to come to Royal Albert, it was a real good moment because I'm like, "see, it's all not bad!"

After making the semifinals in last year's Mae Young Classic again. Running deep into the tournament could require as many as five matches in two days - have you ever done that before?

Yeah, I've done something like that. But it's hard work. It's a lot of pressure going into it. And it's not been easy leading up to this point because I still work every single weekend and I still train every single day in Orlando leading up to this moment, and I'm exhausted. But in some ways, I find my best work comes out when I'm exhausted, funnily enough.


Toni Storm on the direction that women's wrestling is heading in in the WWE. (Interview courtesy of KC Joyner)

Tim Fiorvanti, ESPN.com53d ago

You travel quite a bit these days, including the trip for this tournament, but that's something that's been a part of your story and your career from the beginning. It started with your move from Australia to England -- how did that happen?

I had my grandmother living in England, so it was OK because there was a place to stay. I would go out and train for a few months, and come back. I went out there originally for three months, and then I ended up living there and I still haven't left. I was just training and doing some shows and then getting offered more and more shows, and I was like, "I've got to stay for this and then I'll stay for one more month." Then I was like, "I might as well get a house here because I'm not leaving, let's face it."

I met all of my friends and I found a home base within the United Kingdom. And then along came getting involved with Progress, which helped me develop quite a lot and pretty much led me to this point, I think. So I'm glad I stayed, because I don't think I would be where I am if I didn't move.

And there is a big WWE U.K. push now, and you are one of the faces of that.

Yeah, I'm among the first to launch this new brand of NXT UK. And I'm proud of it because it's what the United Kingdom deserves. It's such a hotspot for wrestling and I'm so proud of it and I love everyone involved, everyone is working so damn hard. Now the guys are getting the opportunities they deserve to be on WWE TV and it's just awesome and it's such a good feeling to be around.

They are such a great group of guys and girls and it's an excellent women's division to start off with. It's so good, I'm like proud of everyone, I'm like, "YES! We made this."

Women's wrestling just keeps getting bigger in the United States as well.

October is going to be massive. We've got our first women's pay-per-view [Evolution]. We didn't think that was going to happen five years ago, it was not even a question. But now it's actually happening and I still don't believe it until I've seen it. It's so good, there are so many opportunities for girls now. We've always deserved it but we've all worked hard and pushed forward even when there's been a lot of dark times. (16:08 to 16:44)

There's a lot of competition for spots in the women's division, but there also has to be a lot of camaraderie because everyone wants to see the women's division succeed.

A helluva lot [of camaraderie] among the women. It's very competitive, but you'd think it would be a bit of a nasty atmosphere where they are all trying to get past each other to get to the top, but it's very supportive. I'm around the NXT U.K. girls a lot and we all just take care of each other. It's good because we're all very competitive, of course, but at the same time we've all got to work together to launch this and that's what we've done so far, and it's starting to work. So if we all stick together as a team, we could have an all-women's WrestleMania. We've all gotten to this point -- we might as well keep going.!