TAMPA — Natalya Neidhart takes lots of selfies with fans. It’s part of her job as a WWE wrestler.
But Neidhart said she’ll never forget a photo she posed for last week with one little girl, at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“Her dad was clapping and crying and her mom was crying,” said Neidhart, 37, of Tampa. “I thought to myself, ‘This little girl might one day become a WWE superstar because of me.’”
Neidhart had just defeated the wrestler known as Lacey Evans in the scripted world of WWE during Saudi Arabia’s first-ever match between female professional wrestlers. Given the kingdom’s many laws restricting the actions of women, the contest required approval from the monarchy of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
What did it mean to Neidhart, daughter of late WWE Hall of Famer and longtime Pasco County resident Jim Neidhart?
“One of the greatest things to ever happen to me,” she said. "Not just in my wrestling career but life. We made history. The Saudi Arabian people were ready. We were ready. The world was ready.”
Her appearance in what has become an annual visit for WWE drew a different reaction from critics of Saudi Arabia, especially with the murder in October 2018 of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
“Unless the Saudi Arabian authorities implement real human rights reforms, it was just for show,” said Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director of Amnesty International. “Saudi Arabia is not a very good environment for women."
Among the examples, Nassif said: Divorce is still difficult for a female to obtain in Saudi Arabia, property cannot be held in a woman’s name, and the government allows men to use an app that tracks women’s movements. Women who speak out for better treatment, he said, are harassed by the government.
Those who led a successful movement granting women driving privileges have been arrested, he said, and many have been tortured and sexually assaulted in confinement.
“The crown prince chooses high profile events that he understands westerners appreciate and enjoy," Nassif said. The all-female wrestling match was "his way of saying critics who say they abuse women are wrong. But it’s just a PR stunt.”
For her part, wrestler Neidhart believes positive engagement can bring positive change.
“Every single person can do their part,” she said. “I am proof of that.”
Neidhart was selected as one of the female performers because she pressed for the opportunity.
“I kept expressing to upper management, ‘I want to go. I want to be the first person to do this. I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of this change. I really felt strong about doing it.”
She had to make a wardrobe concession.
Her pink-and-black wrestling attire typically shows off her muscular arms and toned stomach. But in Saudia Arabia, she performed in a pink T-shirt over a full black spandex body suit.
“It comes down to respect for their culture,” Neidhart said. “When we went to Egypt we had to wrestle in a similar outfit. It’s a little more conservative but the last thing in the world I was thinking about.”
Her primary focus, she said, was on the people seeing for the first-time what a female professional wrestler can do.
Neidhart, who wrestles under her own name, and Macey Estrella-Kadlec, who portrays Lacy Evans, demonstrated the moves that thrill WWE fans in more than 180 counties — acrobatic maneuvers, kicks and punches that look like the real thing, and tossing one another clear out of the ring.
Neidhart was declared the winner when her opponent, stuck in a tight hold, surrendered. The wrestlers embraced as the crowd cheered.
Moments later, Neidhart noticed the little girl in the front row trying to capture the moment with her cell phone camera.
“I grabbed it from her hand and said, ‘I’ll take the selfie for us,’” Neidhart said. “She might one day be the first ever Saudi Arabian female superstar in the WWE because she saw this match. She saw the possibility of change right in front of her eyes.”