TAMPA — Bianca Belair didn’t grow up following professional wrestling. She didn’t dream of WrestleMania title matches or championship belts.
Belair, whose real name is Bianca Blair Crawford, ran track and participated in gymnastics. She looked up to Florence Griffith Joyner, Gail Devers and Dominique Dawes, all Black female athletes and all champions. She hoped to emulate their paths to success.
She didn’t plan it this way, but Belair is now in similar shoes. One year after joining the WWE’s main roster, she will headline one of the matches at this weekend’s WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium. Even more historic? Her SmackDown tilt against Sasha Banks on Saturday night will be the first WrestleMania title match between two Black women.
“I think about how my role models influenced me as a little girl,” Belair said. “I became an athlete because of them. And I’m not a professional track athlete or gymnast, but because I did those things, that led me to where I am now. So my life, my success was so greatly influenced by them. ...
“I love the fact that this is not just something that’s just about me and it’s not just about making history. It’s about going out and representing for women and for Black women. It’s going to be amazing.”
Belair, 31, is one of the WWE’s rising stars. She possesses the combination of athleticism and charisma needed to be successful in professional wrestling, and Saturday’s title match should be the first of many to come.
“My path to WWE was unique,” Belair said. “I didn’t know it was a dream until it became my reality. But I didn’t find wrestling. Wrestling found me.”
A former college track athlete and CrossFit competitor, Belair landed in wrestling by happenstance. She developed costochondritis, a condition in which the cartilage between the ribs and the sternum becomes inflamed. She couldn’t tie her shoes or look back to her blind spot without feeling pain, which at times can feel on par to a heart attack. While training for a CrossFit competition, her rib popped out from her sternum, ending that career.
While Belair was healing, she looked for a new challenge. Mark Henry, a former WWE wrestler who was a national champion weightlifter and Olympian power lifter, commented on one of her Instagram posts and offered her a WWE tryout.
“When she came in and tried out for us, I don’t know that she knew necessarily what we were,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, the former WWE champion who is now the organization’s executive vice president of global talent strategy and development. “She came in and was just this crazy stud athlete, and then you see she’s just an amazing person and that charisma shines through.”
Belair developed her character voice on the NXT circuit, exhibiting this outwardly confident yet engaging persona. She boasted being the EST of NXT, the strongest, fastest and prettiest on the circuit. Her long, braided ponytail is one of her trademarks, and in the ring she has used it as a whip on opponents. Now, she seeks to be the EST of WWE.
“I think the most difficult thing for me was I feel like I was playing catchup in trying to learn the history of the business and the art part of performing,” she said. “I would say (the character Bianca Belair) is pretty much how I am, but just amped up to 1000.”
Belair has learned to manage her costochondritis by strengthening the muscles around the rib area.
“Luckily I haven’t had too many huge issues with it so far, but it was a tough journey dealing with it and getting here,” she said.
She made her WWE debut on the Monday Night Raw show after last year’s WrestleMania. And her women’s Royal Rumble win in January, emerging from a 30-competitor field, earned Belair the championship match at this weekend’s event. In February, it was announced that she would challenge titleholder Banks.
“When (Banks) calls herself the boss and she says she’s the blueprint, she’s definitely not lying, she’s all of those things,” Belair said. “She calls herself the best and me being the athlete that I am, I never run from competition. I love competition. I crave competition.”
“I’m excited to get in the ring with her at WrestleMania, because I call myself the best, the B-E-S-T,” she added. ”... And we’re going to see (who will) come out on top that night.”
Even if she doesn’t walk out of Raymond James Stadium with a title belt, Levesque said Belair’s future with the WWE is bright.
“It’s funny,” Levesque said. “Very shortly after she got with us, I was like, ‘It’s going to take a bit of time for her to learn to do this, but once she does, there’s no ceiling here.’ She’s got every tool. She’s got everything available, is humble, is hungry, and she’s going to be exactly what she’s becoming now, one of the biggest stars we’ve ever seen.”
Saturday-Sunday, Raymond James Stadium
Notable: Hulk Hogan and Titus O’Neil will host the two-night event, which will stream live exclusively on Peacock. Tickets are on sale now at Ticketmaster.com.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.