WWE star calls Saudi Arabia match a career-defining moment

Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans participated in the first women's professional wrestling match in Saudi Arabia at WWE's 'Crown Jewel' event on Oct. 31, 2019 in Riyadh. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

On the surface, Monday was just another day in the life of WWE Superstar Natalya Neidhart. After spending her morning doing a media blitz, Neidhart was in the car riding through New York City en route to an episode of “Raw.”

While a packed schedule — especially on TV days — isn’t unique for the men and women in wrestling, Neidhart is days removed from what she calls a career-defining moment that took place half a world away.

When asked about her history-making moment less than 96 hours earlier, Neidhart can’t help but gush about the emotions she felt before, during, and after her match with Lacey Evans in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Halloween.

“This was being the change that we have all been waiting for,” Neidhart told Yahoo Sports. “Being part of this incredible change that we were able to implement with our work, our body of work, our women’s evolution. It was one of the most impactful moments of my life. It was one of the most meaningful things that I’ve ever done. Knowing that I’m helping change the world.”

Neidhart’s match with Evans came together somewhat hastily. WWE announced that the two women would be performing on the “Crown Jewel” card less than 36 hours before the show was set to take place.

The scene leading up to Michael Cole’s announcement — coming at roughly 4 a.m. ET last Wednesday — was one that was familiar to Neidhart. Five months earlier, the veteran star and Alexa Bliss were anticipating performing at the “Super ShowDown” show in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but the negotiations to have the match fell through at the last minute.

“[When Cole announced it] that’s when it became official for me,” Neidhart said. “We had been hearing rumblings that we were going to get the match, but we still weren’t sure, it was up in the air. About two days before we went to Saudi Arabia this time, we were told, ‘Hey, there’s a good chance that you guys get a match. We can’t guarantee it, but it’s looking good.’ For us, we were cautiously optimistic because we didn’t want to get our hopes up and then have them dashed.”

Time zones be damned, an ecstatic Neidhart immediately made a phone call.

“The first thing I did was call my mom, it was three or four o’clock in the morning, but I called her and I just wanted to shout it from the rooftops,” Neidhart said. “Of course my mom was up — she said she was changing the kitty litter — but my mom was so excited, my whole family was so excited.”

After the announcement, Neidhart and Evans needed to get to work to plan out their match. The two women had been involved in a program in the weeks leading up to “Crown Jewel,” but this moment was too big to simply be another chapter in their rivalry. Neidhart, the face in this feud, recognized that there were higher stakes.

After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

“So much of what we do is about respect,” Neidhart said. “When we were putting together our match, our performance, I really wanted to think about what the story of the match was. For me, for this match, the story was not about me, not about Lacey, not about good versus bad, it was about respect. It was about athleticism, it was about showing and introducing the Saudi Arabian culture to what we do. So much of what we do — especially with this women’s evolution in WWE — is about pure athleticism.

“Our match was only about 8-to-10 minutes with entrances, but we knew we had one chance to make this great impression. We didn’t want to get too heavy, we wanted to give them just a little taste of what we do.”

Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans participated in the first women's professional wrestling match in Saudi Arabia at WWE's 'Crown Jewel' event on Oct. 31, 2019 in Riyadh. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

With the match planned, all that was left was to pull it off.

Despite having traveled across the world, Evans and Neidhart hadn’t yet performed in front of the Saudi Crowd, adding a degree of uncertainty to the show.

Neidhart, who made her entrance first, came through the curtain to an overwhelmingly positive reaction. As she made her way down the ramp — the first time a woman would do that alone — she took all of it in before being hit with a water bottle that was tossed from the stands.

A consummate pro, Neidhart didn’t break stride and continued her march to the ring.

“When that water bottle was thrown, it was kind of symbolic of my life, our lives as people,” Neidhart said. “I have yet to meet a person who has yet to have a struggle in their journey. For me, all I could think of in that moment was that ‘Oh, a bottle was thrown.’ I was going to keep going forward because forward is forward no matter what the pace is. Because of that mindset I’ve gotten to where I am today. I’ve had so much worse than bottles thrown at me.”

Evans, a relative newcomer in WWE, has strictly played a heel character since joining the “Raw” roster late in 2018. For this match, however, all of the traditional professional wrestling tropes were thrown out the window. As the Marine Corps veteran made her way to the ring, Neidhart watched in a state of euphoria.

“I couldn’t even feel my legs underneath me. It was totally surreal, I was floating,” Neidhart said. “I know Lacey was dying to be in character — she loves playing her character — but I just knew that we were creating this magical moment together and we were so emotional. Lacey said beforehand that she was thinking about her daughter and know the role her mom played in this change.”

Both Neidhart and Evans had their emotions on full display during the match, laughing and smiling throughout. The showcase of their athleticism drew plenty of crowd reactions during those few moments, including several “this is awesome” chants — the de facto stamp of approval from wrestling fans of every walk of life.

“It was really, really cool,” Neidhart said. “We could totally hear it in the ring and it’s a big part of my performance, being able to listen to them. I love letting the people in. We knew that it was special and when the crowd was getting behind us, we knew we had them. Wrestling speaks that universal language.”

Neidhart would submit Evans using her patented Sharpshooter maneuver, capping off the historic match. While Neidhart picked up a victory, she quickly took bows and shared a special moment with Evans, who earned something arguably more valuable.

“My respect for Lacey Evans has grown,” Neidhart said. “Lacey showed me an entirely different side of who she is, a side that I never knew existed. She proved to me that she’s got a passion for doing this and that she respects what we do and she was part of the huge change, opening doors that have never been open before. That she can connect with the audience on an emotional level, which is key to what we do in WWE.”

Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans participated in the first women's professional wrestling match in Saudi Arabia at WWE's 'Crown Jewel' event on Oct. 31, 2019 in Riyadh. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

As the two exited the stage, they were given a heroine’s welcome.

“Everybody was clapping,” Neidhart said. “We had everybody that could fit in gorilla position clapping and they gave us a beautiful standing ovation.”

After the ovation, next came the hugs.

“The first person I saw was [WWE producer] Fit Finlay, he was the producer of our match and the one who helped us construct our match and gave us the vision for our match,” Neidhart said. “I gave him a huge hug because he is the unsung hero for the women’s division. He has been there through thick and thin. There’s nobody who has believed in the women’s division like that man.”

Then there was Neidhart’s husband, T.J. Wilson — obviously.

Finally, Neidhart found herself in the grasp of the famed 24-inch pythons of Hulk Hogan.

“Lacey and I were hugging each other, crying and I remember Hulk Hogan coming up to me, giving me a hug and telling me that my dad would be proud of me and that he was proud of us girls,” Neidhart recalled. “Hulk Hogan to me, he put pro wrestling on the map and I have a lot of respect for him in the sense that he put his body on the line and was one of my dad’s close friends.

“To have someone like him and Ric Flair telling us we did a good job, it meant a lot. I appreciated them watching and showing support.”

Neidhart is a multi-time champion and with more than a decade of experience, one of the most well-respected performers in WWE. When asked where those 10 minutes in Saudi Arabia rank among her laundry list of accomplishments, Neidhart doesn’t hesitate.

“I think this ranks as the top moment of my career,” Neidhart said. “I don’t know what else could top this. I feel like this was the greatest moment because we were a part of something that was so incredibly real.

“I’m not taking away from anything or anyone else in pro wrestling, but this felt so much bigger than wrestling.”

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