Shayna Baszler has been on a tear in the WWE, claiming two tag team belts (WWE and NXT) in the last 30 days along with her tag team partner and former UFC women’s bantamweight champion, Ronda Rousey. Shayna is no stranger to winning belts on the pro-wrestling circuit, having won multiple times in both NXT and WWE proper.

As one of the pioneers of women’s MMA, Shayna has a unique perspective on both MMA and pro wrestling. The ‘Queen of Spades’ sat down for an exclusive interview with me a few days ago to talk about the good old days in MMA, what her transition into pro-wrestling has been like, the training environment at CSW where she worked with legends Erik Paulson and Josh Barnett, who she would choose for a tag team partner if Ronda weren’t available and more. Be sure to catch the whole interview on our podcast Substack for FREE. That’s right, folks, I’m letting you guys & gals have this one in its entirety without a paywall.

Shayna Baszler reflects on early MMA career

Stephie Haynes: We recently spoke with Julie Kedzie about the good old days when you ladies were starting out and she had some wild tales about training and weight cutting. What was it like back then? Were you as scientifically geared toward making weight and training as athletes are now?

Shayna Baszler: There wasn’t even blood work. And when I think about that, that’s crazy, right? We were punching each other. We’re just signing up at the door, basically. And especially for women at the time, there were so few women that there wasn’t really weight classes. So that was like, if another girl showed up, if they had another girl and you agreed to fight, you’d fight and there wasn’t even really weigh-ins. And there was no blood work. Like if it was a better event, they’d take your blood pressure and stuff. But like, other than that, it’s kind of crazy to think about.

And yeah, training. I started training with this group of guys in a garage with those really cheap puzzle mats that don’t stick on the floor. You know, they roll up. And so the garage floor wasn’t even, like it was all uneven and stuff. I mean, I’m from the Midwest, so it was a bunch of wrestlers learning submissions from Ken Shamrock’s book. And that was how we started. And it was just sparring.

We didn’t have actual drills and training and whatever. We just sparred. Sometimes it would be like, okay, the person on top has big gloves on. And they’re only allowed to punch and the person on bottom has to submit them. It was just like ‘GO!’ all the time. It was crazy and a very amateur wrestling mindset where it was.

If we go hard in here, then it’ll be easy in the ring. It’s crazy to think about now, knowing the science, especially with concussion studies and things like that. And it’s a lot more advanced now. So, yeah.

Stephie Haynes:  Was CSW your first professional level fight team?

Shayna Baszler:  That I was a part of? Yes. I trained a little bit for like, a week at Miletich. You know, I visited some other schools, some other teams, but as far as a team that I was on, yeah, CSW and Josh Barnett. That was my first pro team.

Stephie Haynes:  What was it like working with Josh Barnett and Erik Paulson? I mean, that’s legendary training material right there.

Shayna Baszler:  Yeah, it’s no secret. I think people that know Josh, know he’s a hardass. He’s not a coach that’s going to compliment you every day, all the time. It was a good balance for me. I like that style of coaching, it’s critical. There was times in training where it was just like, ‘Okay, now you’re tired. Let’s forget about that and just go.’

Like sometimes the best advice in a fight is to just fight. And it’s not about like, keep your elbow in, and turn your hip over. There’s a time and a place for that. But there’s also a time and a place deep in the water where you’re like, ‘Just fight, just go out and fight, do it.’ And he would drag us to that spot mentally a lot.

I think it was good for me. Some people don’t like that. I like it. And then when Josh did compliment you, it was like a million dollars, and then obviously Erik Paulson, legend way ahead of his time. Just being able to tap into that knowledge of catch wrestling and obviously leg locks before leg locks were cool. All that kind of stuff. Yeah.

Shayna Baszler (USA, li.) gegen Sarah Kaufman (Kanada) - -ZUMAse4 Ultimate Fighting Damen MMA 2009, Mixed Martial Arts, Strikeforce, Freefight, Free Fight, Kampfsport Gruppe Kent
Shayna Baszler vs Sarah Kaufman in Strikeforce in 2009 – Zuma Wire / IMAGO

Stephie Haynes:  When you look at the current crop of MMA fighters, men and women, and you see the wrestlers coming in, do you think that they’re adapting their wrestling specifically to MMA well? Or are you seeing a lot of people that are going to be stuck in a rut?

Shayna Baszler:  Yeah, obviously, MMA is a lot more popular than back in the day. So when someone’s ready to make the jump to MMA, it’s not often that they just come straight off of the amateur wrestling mat, and jump into MMA anymore. Like now it’s kind of this known thing.

You want to go learn jiu-jitsu, you want to learn some submissions, at least well enough to be able to defend, right? I think, like more and more today, you’re seeing a better balance of grappling skill sets. There might still be some disparity sometimes, especially as you see the more successful a wrestler was in their wrestling pedigree, they can go a lot further without concentrating on striking, if that makes sense.

But I do think if you don’t explore what you need, you’re gonna hit a ceiling at some point. And then the decision is going to be made for you, right? So if you don’t, if you just come in with straight wrestling and you haven’t dabbled in submissions, you’re gonna get submitted by someone eventually. It’s what happens to every wrestler that goes to a jiu-jitsu gym for the first time.

They’ll be like, ‘Okay, I got this, this is easy.’ They take them down, and then they get caught in a triangle, or they get caught in a guillotine because they’re just not used to someone fighting off their back, right?

Same thing with striking. You get these guys that come in, they know how to take someone down. Okay, now I can’t get submitted. So, I’m just gonna go take them down right away, but then you get someone with maybe average takedown defense, and now they can punch you in the face and knee you up the gut, and you know that now, it’s a completely different game. I think you do see wrestlers that don’t evolve hit a ceiling, and the ones that do evolve and get past that are historically very successful. It all comes out in the wash.

Stephie Haynes:  How much did your catch wrestling help you in your MMA career? And conversely, how much of your jiu-jitsu helped you in your wrestling career? Because when you were active in MMA, you were known as a submission threat.

Shayna Baszler:  I think that’s a good question. Catch wrestling, as far as MMA, for people that don’t know on both sides, that maybe don’t understand what catch wrestling is, it’s pro wrestling. Catch wrestling is a legitimate submission wrestling art. You could win by pinfall or submission. It’s jiu-jitsu with pins, I guess, if you want to call it that. I hate calling it that because they’re very different arts, but I think the things that they gave me in each are the same.

Meaning catch wrestling in MMA, I was known for like, ‘Oh man, Shayna came up with this crazy submission.’ I’m getting people in the armbars, ab-stretches or a twister. But that’s like a catch wrestling submission that’s been done for hundreds of years. It’s just nobody knew it because everybody was learning armbars and triangles, and omoplatas, you know? That’s the roadmap you learn in jiu-jitsu.

I was learning, double wrist lock, clock head scissor, then maybe armbar, AB stretch, rear-naked choke. So, just knowing things that other people didn’t know, I think that’s what benefits me in pro wrestling. Everybody knows that other stuff in pro wrestling. So now, it’s my jiu-jitsu that benefits me, because pro wrestlers don’t necessarily learn those passive submissions: armbar, triangle, kimura.

It’s interesting, I think in both. However, it did teach body mechanics and how to move. There’s a point in submission learning, and any jiu-jitsu artist or catch wrestler will tell you this: You’re learning moves when you first start, but once you get advanced to a certain point, now it’s concepts. So I think knowing more paths on the submission tree is never a bad thing. Especially once you learn concepts and body mechanics.

Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler defend their tag team belts

The hypotheticals

Stephie Haynes:  You were in the first crop of women to ever compete in the UFC. But if you’d had a choice back then to join either the UFC or the WWE, how hard would that choice have been and where would you have ended up?

Shayna Baszler:  That’s hard to say. I don’t know, man. I think, in hindsight, I am very thankful and happy with my MMA career and how it led to pro wrestling. I don’t think I would be what I am in pro wrestling had I done this before [MMA]. I think I am who I am in pro wrestling today because of the MMA career I had. So, knowing me, maybe I would have said yes to a WWE contract before the UFC came along, but I honestly don’t think that would have been to my benefit.

Knowing what I know now, I’m glad I did the UFC first. Obviously, just the experience of standing behind a curtain getting ready to walk to a ring where someone else is trying to take you apart, all that is very familiar. Being in front of a crowd trying to do this stuff, interviews. I had interviews with you, you know what I mean?

All this stuff prepared me and then, here’s the onslaught of hatred that me and my friends got in MMA that also prepared us, because I think it was just the beginning of social media becoming this hot huge thing. Like you could finally start using social media to make your brand and stuff when I was first in the UFC. So, I think having all that happen then, on a not-as-visible scale—although at the time I thought like it was the whole world—I think it makes me a little less inclined to be bothered by social media today. Because I’ve been there, done that. What else is new, you know what I mean?

Stephie Haynes:  If there were an instance, let’s say that Ronda might want to have another baby or she goes on an extended vacation for a month or two, or something like that. Is there anyone else that you could see yourself teaming up with for a tag team?

Shayna Baszler:  I mean, I have, you know, I’ve held these titles with other people.

Stephie Haynes:  Yeah, but if you had your choice, if you could pick right now.

Shayna Baszler:  Ah, so as Shayna the competitor, I’d have to choose… I guess I’d have to choose Rhea [Ripley] right now. She’s wrecking shop. She’s beating up dudes. She’s the champion. Like, if I’m gonna pick, if we’re picking teams, she’s got to be one of the top picks just because of the success rate of her work. So, you know, I guess it’d be her.

Stephie Haynes:  Who’s on your hit list that we might not know about?

Shayna Baszler:  Who has limbs to break off? We want to take out everyone. We’ve said since the beginning of this of this title run, bring it on. What we want to do is build an actual tag division. So, get together, make some friends. Don’t just look for an opportunity.

It seems like the history of the tag division has always been like, ‘Oh, man, a big PPV’s coming up, I better find a friend in the locker room to get in on this tag team action.’ But me and Ronda have been friends since 2013. And it’s showing. Our chemistry, we’re ruling the world right now. So, anybody that thinks they can find a real friend, not just someone to try to snag an opportunity, because that ain’t gonna work.

Trying to snag an opportunity on me and Ronda and the friendship we have is not going to work. So, you’re gonna need to find someone who you have real history with, have a real bond with, make some friendships. Let’s make this last and then give it a shot. Anybody that wants to step up, that thinks they have friends, they can get some. We’re looking to defend these every week all the time. Let’s do this.

Stephie Haynes: So here you are trailblazing again, trying to build a whole new division.

Shayna Baszler: I’ve been in a lucky position in my career to where I’ve been a part of some very historic shows. I was on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter that had women. I was in the first Mae Young classic, the first WWE all women’s tournament. There are so many of those that I’ve been a part of. I’m really lucky.

Wrestling: WWE Wrestlemania Night 2 Apr 2, 2023; Inglewood, CA, USA; Ronda Rousey (left) and Shayna Baszler during Wrestlemania Night 2 at SoFi Stadium. Inglewood SoFi Stadium CA USA, EDITORIAL USE ONLY PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY Copyright: xJoexCamporealex 20230402_jca_aa9_015
IMAGO / USA Today / Joe Camporeale

Stephie Haynes:  When you first got into the WWE, or even NXT, what was the hardest thing for you to master? And conversely, what was the easiest thing for you to master?

Shayna Baszler:  So obviously, the easiest part was knowing what to do in a situation under fire. I never felt lost. There was never anything that happened in a match, where I felt like I didn’t know what to do next. I’ve been here, you know what I mean?

And as far as the hardest to learn, I guess a couple of things go hand-in-hand. This is like a two-in-one answer. I think it’s the fact that in pro wrestling, you very much have to listen to the audience. Like the crowd is a character in the show. So, you have to have your ears open to that. Whereas in MMA or any other sport, really, you learn to tune that out, like, all you want to hear is your corner, all you want to hear is your coach.

I think that the fact that you have to take time to listen also slows the pace of what’s going on. In MMA, it was like, very tunnel vision. I want to listen to my coach. I want to get to the finish as fast as I can.

And as far as pro wrestling, it’s very much listening to the crowd. What do I want them to feel? What do I want to tell them and taking the time to let that happen? So I guess pacing and listening to the crowd was a thing that I really had to concentrate on and learn. But yeah, as far as being in a ring, trying to break someone in half, that part was easy.

Stephie Haynes:  What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you inside the ring?

Shayna Baszler:  Ah, man, there’s a lot. You know what? Did you watch Game of Thrones? We used to play this game in the locker room at NXT called for ‘The Watch.’ And what it was was basically a game of tag, where I walk up and pretend to stab you in the gut and say, ‘For the watch’ and the rule was, no matter where we were, no matter what we were doing, you had to sell that for 10 seconds.

And so you’d be in the middle of a store grocery shopping and you’d have to fall over on the floor acting like you were dying. But we started doing this in matches. You know, I’m punching someone in the corner, and then I punch them in the gut and I say, ‘For the watch,’ and they like have to fall over and do it. Or I’m tagging with someone randomly on a show. You know, I’m tagging with J. Duke [Jessamyn Duke], and I have to punch her in the gut behind the curtain as our music’s playing ‘For the watch.’ So we’d have to come through the curtain but whoever got got was ‘it.’

And you might not be present when whoever was ‘it’ got tagged, you know what I mean? So you never really knew who was ‘it’ unless you were the one involved in the in the last one. That was some fun times.

Stephie Haynes:  What’s been the hardest part of your WWE journey? And it doesn’t have to be physical. But you know, you mentioned not paying so much attention to social media, online hate and things like that. Well, was that difficult for you? Or was there anything at all difficult for you during your journey?

Shayna Baszler:  I don’t think I had as hard a time with the social media thing as some people. Like I said, I kind of experienced all that in MMA already, and had been through that. There’s like a certain process you go through. It’s my whole world and everybody hates me, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, that’s like 2% of the world. Okay, nobody really cares. Nevermind.’ I’d already been through all that.

But I would say the hardest part was adjusting—and  I love it now—but  I think adjusting to being on the road all the time. I’m not talking about like, homesick and all that. There is that but just getting used to not sleeping in your own bed, staying on a workout schedule, staying on a diet, figuring out all that. And then on top of that, and this is important for when you’re on the road all the time, is finding time to go see where you’re at. Like, every town and every city looks the same from inside a hotel room.

So, I want to always try at least to find time to go on a walk or go to a local coffee house. Or check out the local brewery or if there’s a local place, it’s like, oh, here’s a cool museum or here’s a monument to something or whatever. And then I go in a black hole doing research. Like I was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and did you know that is where the last bare knuckle boxing match happened? I mean, there’s bare knuckle boxing now, but I’m talking like old school.

Stephie Haynes:  You’re talking fisticuffs.

Shayna Baszler:  Yeah, talking like old school. They fought until one person couldn’t get up anymore. These two dudes fought 72 rounds. And it was illegal. People would buy tickets and then jump on a train and they didn’t know where they were going because if the cops found out, you know what I mean? And it was like, these guys took shots of whiskey in between rounds to help with the pain, like this was nuts. This was old school, and they have the site marked with a monument.

I’m like, ‘Man, I need to go’ because that’s kind of like, I don’t know, it’s a heritage thing for me. So, I went to see that. I think taking time to do that, in every town, and just adjusting to finding time for yourself while being on such a hectic schedule was the hardest adjustment for me because, I’ll be honest with you, it was miserable at first. But it’s good now. I love it now.

Wait, there’s more

There was a lot more in this interview, but you’ll need to check out the podcast for the rest. She answered questions like what’s at the top of her bucket list, what her biggest fear in life is, what kind of muscle car she’s got, what kind of gang she’s in (yep, she’s in a gang), and more. And in case you missed it above, I was so excited about this interview, I decided to give it away for FREE! That’s right, folks, NO PAYWALL on this one. I mean, it’s Shayna Baszler, so I had to make sure everyone could have access. You’re welcome!

Check out Chris Rini’s latest right here.

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About the author
Stephie Haynes
Stephie Haynes

Stephie Haynes has been covering MMA since 2005. She has also worked for MMA promotion Proelite and apparel brand TapouT. She hosted TapouT’s official radio show for four years before joining Bloody Elbow in 2012. She has interviewed everyone there is to interview in the fight game from from Dana White to Conor McGregor to Kimbo Slice, as well as mainstream TV, film and music stars including Norman Reedus, RZA and Anthony Bourdain. She has been producing the BE podcast network since 2017 and hosts four of its current shows.

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