Interviews

Interview With . . . Kanji

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The return of PROGRESS Wrestling has introduced a whole new generation of talent to British wrestling fans, with the likes of Callum Newman, Alexxis Falcon, The Young Guns and more taking centre stage in the company’s first set of shows following a year-long hiatus. Undoubtedly the biggest name to benefit, however, is Kanji who could capture the PROGRESS Women’s Championship less than three months on from her debut!

Inside The Ropes‘ own Innes McVey recently sat down with Kanji to discuss her comeback after breaking her arm, competing on Charles Crowley’s You Are Cordially Invited, winning the first-ever women’s Thunderbastard match in her PROGRESS debut, her heartbreak over not being able to challenge Jinny, looking up to Millie McKenzie, why she’ll defeat Gisele Shaw to become PROGRESS Women’s Champion and what her wrestling goals for the future are!

Photo credit: Rob Brazier / Head Drop Photography

Before we dive into what you’ve been doing in PROGRESS, I wanted to talk about your injury before the pandemic. Obviously, everyone’s coming back to wrestling now after everything was shut down, but you suffered an injury just before that kept you out of action while the lockdown came into effect. So how’s your arm doing now? And how did it feel to finally compete again after almost a year away?

Yes, I broke it in October 2019 and I was out for a whole year, so I had my first match back in October the following year and it did take a while to come back. It was a slow recovery. I was scared to do the most simple things in the ring like a normal forward roll. So it was very slow. But to be able to get back into the ring again was incredible. For the first matches, I did take it slow and I was being very careful. But after the first couple, it felt like I was even better and stronger than I was before.

If I remember correctly it was an armbar that caused or at least aggravated the injury. Did you avoid arm-based submissions and moves for the first couple of matches?

Yes. I told whoever I was working with, I told them just to be cautious of my arm, I didn’t feel comfortable in people working my arm at all. But as I trained more and I got more comfortable with it, I became more confident with working with an injury.

One of the first matches you had coming back was in the Mr. Charles Crowley Invitational in what I believe was your first cinematic-type match. How was that as an introduction to pandemic-era wrestling, so to speak?

It was so fun. It was a very long day. I feel sorry for the other people that were there for, I think, two days. I was only in there for one. It was very, very long. But it was so exciting and so nice to see everybody back together, talking about and just doing things that we love and that brought us together in the very beginning. So it was almost just like a big get together for everyone.

How did that all come about? Was it just something that Charles set up or was it someone else’s idea?

So Charles Crowley has his own film company and his own crew that put people together. So I think it all came from him. He had this huge idea to get all the wrestlers together and put this mini-film together to bring people together in such a time that we’re all struggling. It came out for the new year and that was his whole plan to bring out in the new year to just give us a big light to start the year off and say ‘2021 is going to start and it’s going to be as bright as this.’

And judging by the reaction, I think a lot of people resonated with that! So a couple of months afterwards, you ended up debuting for PROGRESS at Chapter 105 and you made a massive impact right away by winning the first-ever women’s Thunderbastard! Talk to me about how you coming to PROGRESS all came about and what was running through your head when you won such a historic match in your debut?

I didn’t really believe it when they asked me to be in the Thunderbastard, I didn’t believe that it would actually happen. Obviously I’ve been out on injury so to come back from injury straight into a promotion like PROGRESS was such a huge opportunity and such huge news for me that it didn’t settle in straight away until I got there. And then I saw the ring, I saw the PROGRESS signs and I thought ‘Gosh, this is it. I’m here now. I’ve made it.’

So to come out actually victorious of that whole Thunderbastard match with some of the most amazing women I’ve ever met in wrestling was incredible, an incredible opportunity. I was just so happy to be around such supportive and amazing people. Not just the talent, but the crew and the production team who’re a part of PROGRESS as well. It was incredible.

Was there any pressure or excitement added by the fact that was also being broadcast on the WWE Network? Obviously, you competed on NXT UK in 2019 so you’ve been on the network before. Did that help at all?

Yeah, it was a huge thing for everybody when we found out that it was going on the network, it makes it more of a big deal for us women to represent British wrestling. I think we had an opportunity to prove ourselves and show what we’re really capable of. And 100 percent, when I watch it back and when I think back to how it all came about, I’m so proud of all of us. Not just the women who were involved, but the women and the men who put it together and helped us pull it off. I think it was incredible. I’m so proud of it all.

Winning in that match made you number one contender to the PROGRESS Women’s Championship, which at the time was held by Jinny and I’ve heard you talk in the past about how she helped you overcome this boundary that there was a limit as to how far you could go as an Indian wrestler. She’s since relinquished the belt, but what would it have meant to you to have challenged her for that title, given your history?

When I realised, by winning the Thunderbastard and winning that number one contender’s match, I was going to wrestle Jinny for the belt at PROGRESS, I could have cried. I was so happy and so excited that that was going to happen and in my mind, it was going to happen. I had this crazy expectation of what it was going to be like and how I’m going to feel on that day. I was so excited. So to have that just taken away from me, just like that because of circumstances that no one can control, was heartbreaking. Not only have we not seen each other for so long but it’s also still not certain when we’ll be able to wrestle each other again. So it was honestly heartbreaking and I was absolutely gutted. I still am when I think back to it, I’m so gutted.

During the Thunderbastard itself, you picked up one of your two pinfalls against Millie McKenzie and you went on to beat her again in the main event of Chapter 107. I’ve seen quite a few people call this match a ‘passing the torch’ from one rising star to another, so to speak. Do you agree with that idea given Millie, or rather Emilia now, is making waves in NXT UK? And how did it feel getting such a hard-fought win over someone who’s being such an established name in PROGRESS for so long?

I was honoured really to even be given the opportunity to wrestle Millie at PROGRESS. She’s had such a successful history in PROGRESS, not just PROGRESS actually, in British wrestling altogether. She’s been very successful and she’s such a respectable and respectful talent. So for me to actually have the honour of wrestling her in the main event at PROGRESS was incredible. Passing of the torch… I understand why people would say that with her being so credited and so respected at PROGRESS, in British wrestling and with her moving on to NXT UK.

I think ‘passing of the torch’ makes it seem like she’s gone and I don’t want to see it like that, you know what I mean? Because I think we should always just be hopeful for her to come back and for us to have her back so we can always have those competitive matches again. But I understand the term passing of the torch, and I do respect it. I’m very hopeful that she’ll be back with us sooner or later.

Hopefully! Would you say she’s someone you look up to and is there anyone else on the British scene that you particularly aspire to be like?

Yeah, 100 percent. Millie, I’ve looked up to for a long time with her attitude in the ring and the way she comes across as a proper fighter.

Especially at such a young age as well.

Yeah! Because she’s so young, yet she comes across like she’s a lot older than she really is. You look at her in the ring and you can see it in her eyes and in her whole ring presence that she’s really there for a fight and I love that. I love that aesthetic about her. In terms of other influences in the British scene, Jinny, obviously, is someone I’ve looked up to ever since I came across her from the very beginning. Also, Charli Evans is someone that I really am always inspired by – always. Every single time I see her wrestle, I’m inspired.

Most recently, you’ve been facing Gisele Shaw in a Best of Three series to crown the new PROGRESS Women’s Champion and as of right now, both of you are tied at one win each. As we head towards the final deciding match between the two of you, some might argue that Gisele has the experience advantage and that she’s travelled halfway across the world to get here. But what do you have that she doesn’t that will ultimately give you the edge to become PROGRESS Women’s Champion?

I think I have a fire in me and a drive that not only does she not have, but I don’t think anybody else has. The thing that got me started in wrestling was watching it from a young age with my dad and I’ve always grown up saying that I want to be a professional wrestler, that’s always been the dream. My dad passed away not long ago before I even started training so before he even got to know that I dived into this industry, he’d passed away.

So the drive that makes me want to even more and go even further and fight even harder is just the thought of how proud and how happy he would be if he was here. The fact that I’m carrying on and I’m still going even after this injury and still doing so well, it all comes down to that feeling of ‘If he was here’, you know? Honestly, I really feel like me wrestling and me continuing on this wrestling dream keeps his memory alive in me and within my family. It keeps his name alive and his whole memory with me through this whole journey. It’s that drive that I never want that to go. I feel like wrestling is keeping that, keeping that so strong and that’s what no one else has.

Every time I get into the ring, every time before a match, I pray to my dad and hope that he’s watching and hope that he’s happy and hope that he’s keeping us safe. Every time after a match, when I go backstage and I’m so proud of what I’ve done, I instantly think of how proud he would be and that he’s watching. And that’s something that I don’t think anybody else has. I think especially after such a horrific injury and to come back from this injury and still be driven, even more than before, just shows how much it actually means to me. It’s more than wrestling to me. It’s so much more than wrestling to me: Getting inside a ring, starting after that bell rings and finishing after it stops, it doesn’t stop there. It means so much more.

Does being a champion in other promotions, with you being a former Defiant Women’s Champion and obviously the Southside Women’s Champion at the moment, help bolster your confidence as you go into the decisive match?

Yeah, I think so. [Having a title] gives me that feeling like I’ve got something to defend and something to to protect, like I’ve had that feeling of defending and protecting a title that is already mine. So I think walking into a match and fighting for something to have that feeling again, to protect something that shows you’re at the top or protect something that you really want, is already there. So I know what I’m fighting for, I know exactly what I’m fighting for. I know exactly what I need to do.

Absolutely. In terms of the PROGRESS Women’s title itself, I read recently that Jordynne Grace called it “one of the most prestigious belts she’s ever held.” Does that add any pressure to you, compared to the other belts you’ve held, or is it just another title to you?

No. What’s so crazy is that when I first won the number one contendership after winning the Thunderbastard, I was speaking to people about what it means if I was to win. Or not even winning it, just the fact that I’m on a journey to chase it, people were instantly come up to me saying ‘Look at the people who’ve held this belt.’ You have Jordynne Grace, you have Toni Storm, you have Jinny, you have Meiko Satomura.

The fact that that could possibly pass on to me when you’ve got people who’ve held it like that: Who’ve travelled the world, who’ve faced some of the best wrestlers in the world. I mean, Meiko Satomura is someone that is arguably the best wrestler in the world and she’s held this belt. So the amount of credit that is on this championship is far more than even a lot of the belts that are out there for the men and the fact that I’m in the chase for it is huge.

Let’s say you do beat Gisele and you become PROGRESS Women’s Champion. What kind of champion can we expect from Kanji? Do you have any specific goals in mind or anyone, in particular, you’d want to defend the belt against? We talked about Jinny earlier, I’d assume she’d be near the top of that list.

Yeah, 100 percent. If I was to win, I would fight so hard to make sure I keep the belt until Jinny comes so I can give her the match that I wanted in the beginning after winning that Thunderbastard. Because that feeling I had after winning the Thunderbastard knowing that I would wrestle Jinny for the belt, I still want that. So if I was to win, that is the one thing I would do. I would be a fighting champion to make sure I held it until Jinny came back.

That’s admirable! To cap us off, I want to dive into your goals outside of PROGRESS. I’ve read that you want to wrestle in Japan to learn the style over there and also in India, given your heritage. Are those still your main goals or has your focus shifted at all to the more WWE and NXT side of things, given you’re now competing regularly on the network?

Japan is still somewhere I’m desperate to go and train and learn their craft 100 percent. That’s my next goal. That’s where I want to go and experience first. With the WWE, NXT and NXT UK, I think they’re incredible opportunities that I would happily open my arms up to if the opportunity was there. I think it would just be a process of weighing out a balance on whether Japan will still be able to be achievable if I NXT UK came first or not. But yeah, Japan is definitely the first thing on my checklist.

Is that anywhere specific in Japan you’re aiming for? Stardom or Sendai Girls or any other specific promotions?

Sendai Girls is somewhere I’m really looking at and the girls at Sendai are incredible and I look up to them so much. Their style, their discipline, everything, especially with Meiko being there as well. It’s at the top of my list.

Big thank you to Kanji for taking the time out to speak to us and to PROGRESS Wrestling for setting up the interview!

Kanji is set to face Gisele Shaw in the final of their Best of Three series to determine the new PROGRESS Women’s Champion at Chapter 111: One Leg In The Air, streaming live via Peacock and the WWE Network at 5pm BST on May 22nd. The show will also be available on-demand at Demand PROGRESS.