Mumbai: With a dupatta draped around her waist in traditional salwar-kameez attire, Kavita Devi makes her way to ring like she owns it. Hailing from a small district in Jind, Haryana she redefines beauty; not by usual glamour quotient and good looks but with the aura she carries.
Her strength needs no definition either. A viral clip of her WWE debut in August 2017, single-handedly manhandling Dakota Kai at the Mae Young Classic has already garnered more than 40 million views and the world can’t get enough of her.
“Everyone in the industry was very surprised by the look of my attire initially,” says India’s first woman wrestler in WWE history.
“I was very happy to represent my culture. No one even thought about it because the women there represent themselves in a different way and it’s not even our sport. But I still decided to wear the suit-salwar. I felt this was a responsibility in some way since I am the first Indian here, so whoever follows me next shouldn’t face any barriers related to the costume. No one should tell them you can’t wrestle in these types of clothes. I have broken the perception. No one refuted me and they just love and appreciate it just how they do it back home,” she explains.
The journey to get into the limelight was an arduous one but Kavita would go on to defy the odds with sheer determination, resilience and hard work.
“The perception of the society and people around has changed now. When I took the first step, there were many people who objected, even a few of my relatives and family members. But today in my village, there is an example set in the school, ‘You must aspire to become like Kavita one day.’ So you can evaluate from here how much of a change has come,” says the proud mother of one.
Having won accolades at the national level in wushu, MMA and powerlifting; Kavita shot to fame after a podium finish at the 2016 South Asian Games in the 75kg weightlifting category. She was hungry for more.
Months later, Kavita kick-started her professional wrestling journey, training under the guidance of The Great Khali before clearing WWE’s first open tryout in Dubai last year. The rest is history.
“I don’t know if I had this natural power in me or something, but I always had the confidence that I could do anything. I didn’t ever think for a moment that I am a girl and I won’t be able to achieve this. My belief has got me where I am today. I always loved challenges and if there are none, I don’t enjoy life. I like challenges, the more tough, the better,” she asserts.
But success stories come with its own share of sacrifices. Kavita left her family and a secure government job before penning a professional WWE contract. However, the adulation and love she received back home made her decision firm.
“The journey was difficult. Whatever sacrifices I made were for my game. So I decided to leave my family and settle in the US. From a mother’s perspective, it is very difficult because you want to take note of everything your child does. But the love I get from everyone back home and the dream that people want to see me as a WWE champion gets me going. People's expectations keep me determined. That’s the dream I am living for,” the 32-year-old recalls.
Despite not being a regular face on the WWE women’s roster, Kavita made a grand appearance on Women’s Battle Royal at WrestleMania 34 last year. That also presented her with an opportunity to interact with WWE Raw women's champion Ronda Rousey.
“I wasn’t nervous but excited to meet her,” the soft-spoken wrestler says. “We were all together at Wrestlemania. Ronda is a strong athlete and now she is a champion. She took no time to make a mark and everyone in the industry looks up to her, just like me. It’s my dream to compete against her someday,” she adds.
Even Jinder Mahal couldn’t stop showering praises on his Indian counterpart.
“Jinder told me, ‘Kavita you’re the first Indian female in WWE and you need to make the country even prouder. Many girls look up to you and take you as a role model. You need to pave a way for them to follow your path.’ He always keeps motivating me,” she says.
— Singh Brothers (@SinghBrosWWE) July 14, 2017
Many more Indian women could follow Kavita’s footsteps with the WWE slated to hold their first-ever tryouts in India during March 2019.
“I headed to Dubai for my tryouts but this is the first time the tryouts are taking place and many opportunities like these will keep following. Everyone watches WWE on TV but don’t realise they too can make it there. It has become very easy for women now that the WWE has come here to hunt talent,” a message she sends out to women wanting to be like her.
Canyon Ceman, the Senior Director of Talent Development for WWE also revealed the growing demand for women’s wrestling: “I have been in this industry for seven years and it’s very clear the quantity and quality of female applicants is rising every year. Our current talent female roster is higher than it’s ever been in our history. It is really what our audience demands, so you can see women are getting more preference. Who knows where it stops?”
“It won’t surprise me at all if Wrestlemania 35 is headlined by women. Last year, we had the first women’s Royal Rumble last year, the Hell in the Cell match all these pay-per-view milestones. Those are not gifts given to women but places earned because the audience is demanding that. A great example is Ronda Rousey versus Becky Lynch. If there’s a fight the WWE wants to see then that’s probably it. More so than any fight you could name on the men’s side. That’s a statement about the evolution of both the talent roster and also the audiences’ taste. And if they want to watch great women’s wrestling, we are going to give that to them.”