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Bianca Belair enters the arena during a NXT taping at Full Sail University. WWE

Step into the ring with WWE NXT star Bianca Belair — if you dare

Belair is dominating the wrestling scene, and she’s doing it by being herself

The lash echoed throughout the arena. Some fans cheered. Some fans booed. Some fans were befuddled and didn’t know how to react. Bianca Belair grabbed her own hair, which was done into a single ponytail braid nearly as long as her 5-foot-7 frame, and — CRRRAAACCCK — whipped Kairi Sane viciously across her body.

Then she did it again. And again. And again.

It was something no one had ever seen before in the ring — a maneuver Belair came up with on a drive home with her then-boyfriend, NXT superstar Kenneth “Montez Ford” Crawford, whom she married in June. “You should start wearing your braid, and you can actually use that thang,” he told her.

Competing in 2017 in the WWE’s inaugural Mae Young Classic — a 32-woman tournament that featured superstars from WWE’s developmental brand, NXT, as well as independent wrestlers from around the world — Belair created an unforgettable moment, one that topped her grand entrance to the song “Watch Me Shine” — which is preceded by the sound of a cracking whip, of course.

“She just lost her mind a little bit and repeatedly whipped the bejesus out of her,” said Sara Amato, head female trainer and assistant head coach at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. “It was really cool, definitely different.”

Belair stole the show. But outshining her competition is nothing new for her.

Belair, whose real name is Bianca Blair, has had an athletic journey filled with success, making the dichotomy between her character and person as minuscule as a single letter in her name. This has fueled an unbridled aura of self-confidence, and as Bianca Belair, she gets to put it on full display.

“It’s just everything ramped up to 1,000, pretty much,” Blair said of her character. “Regardless of Bianca Blair or Bianca Belair, it’s the same person, essentially: talented, hardworking, athletic, a powerhouse and the best at everything that I do.”

Bianca Belair in action at a NXT match against Jessix Hill.

Courtesy WWE

Blair’s athletic prowess was apparent early on. Her mother, Travonda, would find her 5-year-old daughter sitting atop the dogwood tree in their front yard in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her father Leonard decided, “We need to get her into something before she kills herself,” so they signed her up for tumbling and track and field. Blair said she excelled in both and competed against girls who were older than her. She continued running in high school, setting school records in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles and winning a Tennessee state championship her senior year.

Blair was heavily recruited by SEC schools and earned a full scholarship to South Carolina. She admitted immaturity hindered her both on and off the track, forcing her to transfer to Texas A&M.

“I was 18 years old, I was young, it was my first time out of the house,” she said. “At the time, I blamed everyone else but myself. ‘Oh, it’s the coach.’ ‘Oh, it’s the program.’ ‘I am eating healthy, I don’t know why I’m gaining weight.’ It was just immaturity. I didn’t perform well at all. In high school I was probably running 13.4s in the 100-meter hurdles, and getting to college I was running a whole second slower. So I left South Carolina, transferred out of there and blamed everything but myself.”

As a sophomore at Texas A&M, an injury and feelings of homesickness led to her transferring again, this time back home to Tennessee. She took a semester off before joining the Lady Vols track team as a walk-on, later earning a full scholarship. As a sixth-year senior in 2013, Blair rediscovered the athletic success she was accustomed to and believed it was the right time to end her track career.

“I remember my last race, I just had something come over me that it just felt complete. My goal was to get back to where I was in high school, and I did that, and I ran faster,” Blair said. “It was a chapter I was ready to close. I had to move on with my life and figure out what was next, and that was when I found CrossFit.”

When she ran track, her size and strength were things she agonized over, but in CrossFit she embraced their beauty.

“I always had a lot of body image issues, I always thought I was too big,” she said. “In CrossFit, it’s an amazing community, it’s just positivity all around. I fell in love with my body, I fell in love with my muscles, I fell in love with my physique.”

It wasn’t long before Blair began to shine on this new stage, qualifying for regional competition within six months in 2014. She hoped to compete in the CrossFit Games, but it wasn’t meant to be. After years of overtraining, she developed an untreatable condition called intercostal chondritis, otherwise known as shifting rib syndrome. Two of her ribs would constantly pop in and out, detaching from her back and sternum and causing her great pain.

She couldn’t bend over to tie her shoe. She couldn’t play with her newborn nieces. With no remedy or surgery available, she had to quit CrossFit immediately.

“It really just hit me hard because I really felt like I had found my next step,” she said. “It was opening doors for other things. I had people contacting me to be on reality TV shows like American Ninja Warrior. I thought it was really going somewhere, and then it all completely stopped. … It literally felt like it crippled me.”

But it just so happened that her backup plan was right around the corner. On a whim, Blair decided to look up information about becoming a WWE wrestler. As she was preparing to submit her information into the WWE prospects database, she received a message from veteran wrestler and 2018 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Mark Henry. Henry, a former Olympic weightlifter, noticed her in a CrossFit competition in early 2015 and asked her if she ever considered becoming a professional wrestler. Once Blair said yes, Henry offered to get her a tryout.

“She reminded me of what the description of a wrestler is, because even in a room full of people from different sports, ethnicities, social backgrounds, you name it, she shined over everybody,” Henry said. “She had a big fluffy tutu on and a polka-dot bow in her hair, and every time she finished a lift or a run or a jump or whatever, she just had something extra and brought so much attention.”

Bianca Belair lifts Candice LeRae over her head during a NXT taping at Full Sail University.

Courtesy WWE

Blair’s first tryout was held in front of a live audience during intermission of a WWE event at the 2015 Arnold Sports Festival.

“I remember feeling the energy from the fans, and I fell in love with that,” she said.

She received a call back for a second tryout later that year at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, which she admits put her athletic prowess to the test as she performed drills she’d never heard of. But Henry said there was never a doubt in his mind that she’d be a perfect fit for the wrestling business.

“I normally have to give people the spiel: ‘OK, now if I co-sign for you, we’re gonna be tied together forever. I don’t want to be made to look bad, so don’t get in trouble, don’t back talk nobody.’ I didn’t have to give her no speech,” he said. “She was ready. She was like, ‘I’m gonna make you proud, you watch.’ ”

Blair never spent years grinding on the independent circuit. She never attended a single class at a wrestling school. Heck, the only time she would watch wrestling as a child was when one of her older brothers had it on. But she took to the ring like a sponge, and after only five months of training she wrestled in her first match.

“We had her wrestling on live events in a very short amount of time because she just had ‘it,’ ” said Amato. “She had the personality, the athletics. She got the mental aspect and obviously the physical attributes it takes to perform.”

She also learned how to manage her shifting rib syndrome to where it wouldn’t bother her in her new profession.

“I’ve figured out ways to maintain it. Luckily, I haven’t had any issues with it here,” she said. “I’ve figured out certain movements to stay away from, and even when I feel my rib slip to the back, I know how to get it back in there. That’s been like a four-year process of figuring it out, how to maintain that. It’s all good now.”

The WWE posted a YouTube video of Blair outshining her competition at the Performance Center Combine, a showcase of new recruits and NXT superstars competing in various athletic workouts. She even outshined most of the male competitors when she performed a dead lift of 400 pounds three times, doing so with a smile on her face. Soon after that, the WWE started advertising her as “the genetic beast” of the Performance Center.

“Bianca Belair, the EST of NXT,” she started calling herself. “I’m the fastest, I’m the quickest, I’m the strongest,” and above all else, she says, “I feel like I am the best athlete on the roster.”

Then came the Mae Young Classic. Blair’s match against Sane was designed to be a showcase performance for her. She drew some “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience when she performed a delayed vertical suplex and did a couple of squats while holding Sane above her head. She received a standing ovation after landing a beautiful 450-degree splash from the top rope, a maneuver she added to her repertoire spontaneously.

“She just said, ‘Oh, I think I can do this,’ and just went up and did it with such ease,” Amato said. And although Amato has seen other female wrestlers perform that move, she said, “I’ve never seen it come that naturally and to just land so picture-perfectly.”

Despite losing the match, the consensus reaction was Bianca Belair is a future star.

Afterward, the WWE released a 26-second video of Blair crying tears of joy and receiving words of encouragement from NXT founder Paul “Triple H” Levesque. While she wouldn’t reveal what he told her, Blair said the moment is dear to her heart because she finally felt like she found what she was meant to do.

“That moment was kind of like an outer-body experience, it’s something that’s just hard to explain,” she said. “I felt happiness, I was ecstatic. … It’s something that just made me fall in love with this sport. All throughout life I’ve tried with track, I’ve tried with CrossFit, I’ve tried with different jobs in the regular world, and it was a realization of, you can do this, and you’re really good at this, and you’re going to be great at this.”

A year after she shined in the Mae Young Classic, Belair is currently on an undefeated streak on WWE NXT, a fact she emphatically reminded fans about a few weeks ago while rocking a “Melanin Monroe” shirt. She continues to debut moves that earn the adulation of the NXT Universe, like when she lifted Candice LeRae off the ground with a Power Clean and then held LeRae above her head with a Military Press in one motion.

“I try to go in the ring and show that what I do in the ring, no one else on this roster can do,” she said.

Her peers have taken notice, and she’s already earned the respect of some of the best in the business. Charlotte Flair, daughter of pro wrestling legend Ric Flair and widely heralded as one of the best in-ring performers in all of WWE regardless of gender, recently tweeted that Belair is the one woman in NXT she’d love to face in a match. Blair and Flair both aspire to be the first woman to headline WrestleMania, so Blair wasn’t surprised by the shoutout. “The best always recognizes the best,” she said.

Closer on the horizon for her is a spot on WWE’s first all-female pay-per-view Evolution on Oct. 28. It can be expected that she will eventually challenge for the NXT Women’s Championship currently held by her old foe Sane, who is the last woman to defeat Belair in singles competition. Whether she gets elevated into the main-event scene sooner or later, one thing is clear, as Amato put it: “Sky’s the limit, she can do this forever. … She is very obviously a star for us and gonna be an even bigger star for us.”

And she will do it by being herself.

“I am who I am, I look how I look, I talk how I talk, and this is who I am,” she said.

“That’s one of the most important parts about all of this. I have little nieces and I have little girls who look up to me, and other little girls that I don’t know — black little girls that look just like me. It’s very important for me to be someone that they can look at and see that this is something that I wanted to do, and I’m doing it.”

Doric Sam is a New York-based freelance sportswriter. He's written for Newsday, SiriusXM, Wrestling Inc. and other online publications.