Inside the Ropes’ Senior Writer Liam Alexander-Stewart spoke with Ring of Honor Board of Directors member and women’s wrestling pioneer Maria Kanellis-Bennett ahead of Sunday’s Best in the World PPV Event which sees the return of crowds to Ring of Honor for the first time in over 17 months.
During an exclusive interview with Liam Alexander-Stewart, Kanellis would discuss; her role in developing Ring of Honor’s new-look women’s division, her thoughts on Lana’s recent comments regarding the treatment of women’s wrestling in the WWE, HHH’s comments that the best women’s wrestlers are all in the WWE and who she would have liked to get for Ring of Honor’s women’s championship tournament if she had the chance.
Photograph Credit: RING OF HONOR/Mike Adams
We are going to talk a bit about your own career later on but I want to start by focusing on the fantastic work in women’s wrestling within Ring of Honor, specifically the Women’s Championship Tournament. How excited are you to be involved in the show’s development and what was the thought process behind the tournament and the decision to bring the division back?
“So last year when I was released from WWE, I had just had my son, so I wasn’t exactly sure if I would even be involved in wrestling and in what capacity because nobody understood covid at the time. So we didn’t know if it was going to be this thing where we were stuck in our house for the rest of our lives or what was going to happen.
So and I’m sure for some people it definitely feels that way already. But for our family, Mike was going to start working more and more on the road last year and I was going to stay back with the kids and so when he came home, he would take covid tests and then quarantine and then come back to me and the two very young children.
As the summer kind of moved on and things started getting back to normal and we started to understand what was going on. Ring of Honor reached out to me and I reached out to Ring of Honor and we basically had the same idea. We wanted to bring back the women’s division and I wanted to move into more of an executive side, you know, kind of the mama bear human resources kind of aspect of women’s wrestling and they wanted the exact same thing. So for us, it was a really easy transition. Like they knew like I was on this path and I knew this is what I wanted to do.
So they had already announced that they were going to have a tournament last year and they weren’t able to do it because of covid and then things got weird because nobody knew when touring was going to happen. So things just kept getting pushed off and so finally, in January of this year, Ring of Honor started filming Women’s Matches again and when we started doing that, we really didn’t know where these matches were going to go and how it was going to kind of evolve into a tournament and into a brand new women’s division. But along the way, you know, me and my partners, we all asked, like, can we put this on YouTube so everybody can get to know these new stars because this is where their fan bases already are, like everybody talks about, oh, it was the attitude era. So now this is the social media YouTube streaming era of wrestling. Like it’s not a WWE era. It’s not necessarily like an AEW. or IMPACT, or a Ring of Honor era. It is a streaming era. So where people can watch wrestling, that’s where they watch it. So putting it on YouTube has been tremendous.
Some of these women have millions of views of their matches for Beyond Wrestling, for a Reality of Wrestling wherever they work. So putting it on, there was an easy transition and now where we’ve almost got all of our competitors announced for the tournament, it’s a great group of women, a diverse group. We have a mom. We’ve got people from all over the country, unfortunately not all over the world. We could not get approved by as much as we wanted to like. Not possible in this era of wrestling right now. So, yeah, I’m super excited about it. It’s been just a great like everything kind of came together very easy.
So crossing my fingers that it’ll keep going that way.”
We have around ten or so competitors announced for the tournament thus far with a mix of experience and youth and a whole array of styles, is there anyone you are really excited for fans to have the opportunity to see that they might not have experienced before?
“Since I’m on the board of directors I can’t give any favourites, but what I can say is that Trish Adora, Miranda Alize, Rok-C. Willow’s incredibly exciting to watch. Alex Gracia is another one.
I’m sure I’m missing people, but these are the women that have worked their tails off during the time of covid to keep relevant and Mazzerati another one. She’s the FSW champion right now. These women have worked really hard to build themselves up. So when we were putting this all together, we didn’t just want one style of wrestling and we didn’t want just one era of wrestling. So it’s all came together.
So I can’t say because I’m very diplomatic about this, but I do have to say that there’s a lot of women to look out for in this tournament.”
You have discussed previously that as part of your role within Ring of Honor you act as almost a talent scout for female talent, looking at recommendations, independent promotions and training schools for that next star. How difficult has this job role been during the pandemic and how exciting is the process of bringing in a new signing, seeing them grow and seeing them turn into a star?
“So it’s interesting because you would think because not as many places were running, there wouldn’t be as much talent, but because the field has narrowed. Everyone has worked really hard to get better and so actually the ones that are working are all very good. So, like, we have 15 in the tournament because of Angelina’s bye and I could have had easily I could have had 30 too.
Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. Like we’re still coming out of the covid protocols and everything. You can’t have that many people, so. Yeah, even though it might seem like it would be hard to find, with women, no. That and everybody’s attitude is different now, this old school mentality, like, OK, fine, it has its place. It really does. I respect all the people that came before me. I do. But we are in the social media era and everything ends up online.
There have been times where I’ve been going to a show when I’m in the airport and maybe I’m looking a little rough and I’m like, oh no, that’s online too. Everything ends up online. So everyone had to become more businesslike and less catty and all of these women are businesswomen.”
I want to ask you a little bit about Lana’s comments following her WWE release, Lana has stated that in the WWE she was made to feel like Women’s Wrestling is not as important as men’s, is this something you experienced and how important is it to you as both a woman and a member of the ROH board of directors to ensure that your talent doesn’t feel this way within your locker room?
“So I didn’t see what Lana had said on social media or wherever she said it but what I can say is WWE has their favourites and then everybody else kind of falls away and you’re there as a supporting character and you’re just kind of on standby, which is a really hard place to be.
So when women’s wrestling, there’s even more of that because women draw viewers. It’s always been that way internationally, like numbers from internationally is so huge. So women draw those numbers in, especially women’s wrestling draws those numbers in from India, from China, from the Middle East. Like we just we happen to get the numbers from Europe, from Japan, like its incredible
. So the WWE and places like that need women and we need to make sure that we have the women that are popular at that time, but they’re not always spot-lit. So that’s like a different beast for a Ring of Honor. The locker room has always been fantastic. I’ve always felt like I can trust the locker room to take care of me. Whether or not I’m having a good day, a bad day, I need a little bit of time with my family or whatever. Like I trust the locker room to be there for me.
I will spend hours talking to Mark Briscoe about diapers and like it’s a fantastic real atmosphere. And so I’ve never felt degraded by that locker room because I’m a woman or a mother or whatever. I’ve also always felt empowered. So for me, one of the first times I was able to really get creative as a woman in this industry was when I entered the Ring of Honor locker room and I was able to just cut my promos like I didn’t have to ask. Like they were just like, go enjoy, have fun and I was like, what?!
It like you tiptoe out there and you’re like, OK, I’ve got to do this and then you do it and then everybody’s patting you on the back afterwards. The Ring of Honor locker room is excited that you went out there and cut this promo on the fly or whatever you had in your brain or whatever. They’re excited for you. The fans are excited for you. Everybody’s on this journey together. So when I and my team were putting this group of women together, it was that team atmosphere.
It’s important you have to have people that are going to share little tidbits of like, hey, maybe you should try this on your social media. Hey, I saw that move you did. Maybe if you did it this way, it would be more impactful. But it’s also that, like, oh, crap, I had a crappy day, like, can you help build me up or like, you know, and stuff that you’re going to see and women’s division Wednesday, like you’re going to see that building of people that that team atmosphere.
So I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think for Ring of Honor, it’s just an environment of trust and respect.
I believe I believe you can fight to be the very best and not be an asshole like I just think you can. I think it is possible.
I think you can believe that you are the very best wrestler in the world and still not be a dick about it. So you know that that’s important, especially in this era that we’re in right now where everything gets blown up.”
So fans haven’t seen you in-ring since 2019 with you commenting of a few occasions that you are probably done in-ring, how hard was that decision to make and what was the moment you knew it was over for you?
“So I knew I was done wrestling at my last WrestleMania. I knew, I knew. I walked out there and I went, nope, I want to go back. I just knew I wasn’t done with the wrestling industry. I just was done with wrestling. Like, I didn’t want to go out there and put on a match and who knows? Never say never.
Like we all as wrestlers are like, that’s the last match that we have 50 more like I’m not going to do that. What I am going to say is like I don’t feel the same way about it as I used to when I went out there for my last match at WrestleMania literally got out there and looked around and went, Yeah, I just want to get back to my baby girl because my daughter was backstage that just wanted to get back to her. And that’s that’s really how I feel about my wrestling right now, as I just know there’s things bigger than me and my own personal stuff that I want to witness.
I want to see women grow. I want to see this industry change. I want more people to have my job as a woman in other companiesmand so that’s what I’m fighting for. I don’t need to go out there and duke it out in the ring because I have many, many fights that I’m doing behind the scenes every day, not within Ring of Honor, but just in the world and getting people to understand and have an appreciation for women’s wrestling.”
I want to end our chat today by asking about Triple H’s comments following an NXT TakeOver event, HHH would state that the best women’s wrestlers in the world work for or want to work for the WWE. What was your initial reaction to HHH’s comments and how harmful do you believe that mindset is to the development of women’s wrestling overall?
“So I think. I think, of course, has to say something like that, he has to say that everybody wants to be in WWE because that is where he works and that’s what’s required. But I think if you were honest with himself, he would realize that they aren’t the only place to work anymore and for a lot of people, they’re not even the place that they want to work.
I’ve heard a lot of women comment to me. I have a couple within Ring of Honor right now that are under contract with us that were made offers by the WWE that turned them down. So and of course, like, I’m not going to go on some tirade about that because I don’t think it has any value. I think that women. In general, we all have communications about how things are going, how much we’re getting paid and how well we’re treated, and so because of that community of women, the women’s wrestling coalition, as I like to call it, we have this underground network of boosting each other up and women’s wrestling matters and women want to do a really good job with the wrestling part of women’s wrestling.
So I think anywhere could have the best wrestler in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be in Ring of Honor, AEW, Impact, WWE, it could be over in Japan or China or over in the UK or anywhere in Europe. It’s possible that any one of these places has the very best women’s wrestler in the world. It’s just a matter of who that person is, not what company they work for. And I hope that over the next few months we’re able to see a couple of those women and Ring of Honor. But if not, it is something to work towards.
I mean, I would love to get Thunder Rosa for our tournament because I think she’s incredible. I would love to have LuFisto. I would love to bring a few girls in from Japan because there are great wrestlers everywhere and not all of them want to work for WWE. And after being there twice myself, I have to say that some of my most memorable moments in this industry had nothing to do with the big Stamford, Connecticut company, and it had everything to do with the people I was working with and the way that I felt working there”