La Feria News

Wrestling with success II

Valley native Victoria Gonzalez’s trek from local high school athlete to WWE NXT Superstar

Photo: World Wrestling Entertainment

NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part article

During Victoria’s meteoric rise in the Rio Grande Valley basketball scene, basketball became life for her, but that still didn’t deter her from her childhood dream of wanting to become a professional wrestler.

For father Rick, he noticed her passion but always remembered his grind throughout the independent scene, a path he did not want his daughter to follow while potentially squandering a shot at playing basketball at the college level and earning a degree.

“I always told her to focus on basketball and that will get you into college,” he recalled. “When she was a junior, she asked ‘Dad, why can’t I start wrestling, because I want to do that?’ I just told her to just stay focused on basketball because she had scouts looking at her and I wanted her to get an education first. I worked the independent scene and not all the glamour like they have now… I didn’t have an education and I didn’t want that for her. I told her to get a college degree and if she still wanted to do it after that, then we could talk about it.”

With a deal done and her passion for the business at bay, Victoria would earn a basketball scholarship to Texas A&M Kingsville, where she spent two seasons and majored in communications.

“I loved Kingsville,” she said. “I’m a small-town girl, so I love small towns. It was a very close-knit family with the people who supported the basketball team. It was an eye-opening experience being away from home for the first time, even if I was just two hours away. I think we did pretty well during my first two seasons.

The former Lady Pirate made the most of her time there, leading the team in blocks and shooting percentage in two seasons and earned Lone Star Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors four times throughout her sophomore season in 2010-11.

Off the court, Victoria wrestled — figuratively — with what her major would be and even thought about her love of math and a career as an accountant as an option. She eventually settled on the arts, communications and theatre department, where she even participated in several school theatre productions, calling back to her One Act Play roots from high school. 

“I always knew I wanted to do something that I could use my personality with, whether it was sports broadcasting or newscasting or television or even acting,” she said. “That kept my creative juices flowing. I picked COMMS because it was a way to meet new people, It was a way to get out and see sports, which is something I love and am deeply passionate about. It was also a way to showcase my talents, which is talking and communicating with people.”

After her sophomore season, Victoria earned an opportunity at the Division I level and transferred to Sam Houston State University, where she redshirted during the 2011-12 season and played in 16 games in 2012-13.

Gonzalez graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in communications, thus holding up her end of the bargain and shifted her focus back to getting in the ring.

By her senior season at Sam Houston, Victoria was working a job at an apartment complex while interning at a College Station news station, making an early morning commute from Huntsville three times a week. 

Upon graduation, however, she knew she had done what her father asked and completed her education.

Since Victoria held up her end of the bargain, her father followed through much as he did as a support system for his daughter their entire lives — with everything he had.

“He talked to the Galvans in Corpus Christi and our friend Richard in San Antonio,” she recalled, “My dad has always been 100 percent the best in supporting me in a way that he would take off of work or sacrifice some of his time in order to take me to a basketball game or take me to a tournament and he wanted to do the same for me in wrestling.”

Rick began to make the sometimes four-hour drive from the RGV to San Antonio or the two-hour trek to Corpus Christi to help introduce his daughter to the business of professional wrestling along with the Galvans out of Corpus Christi’s Gulf Coast Wrestling Alliance and San Antonio’s Richard “Mr. Prestigious’ Aleman, a former pupil of her father Rick.

“She told me ‘Dad, you know I’m going to get my degree,” he said. “From there I was like ‘Oh no, I know what she wants.’ So I called some friends and we started teaching her a little bit and being a little rough. I told the guys ‘Don’t look at me, hit her if you’re gonna hit her.’ She had to learn that when she’s out there, people might not know me, so they’re not going to treat her nice. She got hit and she kind of liked it.”

In addition to Paul Galvan and company, Victoria also trained at George de la Isla’s Americas Academy of Pro Wrestling, Rudy Boy Gonzalez of the Texas Wrestling Academy and eventually debuted on the indie scene in 2014, where she worked a few shows, often wrestling smaller male talent due to her size.

As her time on the independent scene slowly began, Victoria knew she couldn’t juggle a potential career after college with her dreams of becoming a professional wrestler.

Wanting it all, the RGV native threw herself headfirst into her training.

“My dad, as well as Paul Galvan and everyone who was helping me from there, were with me 100 percent of the way as I worked those indie matches,” she said. “But that was just a way to dip my toes and see what it would be like and to see if it was something I could actually pull off. 

“I asked them to give me their real honesty because I didn’t want to be another woman who was trying to make it into the business. I want to be good and open eyes right away and make it with the first impression that they see of me.”

As Gonzalez and her training crews worked on her ring work, diet and overall way of life, an opportunity to get her name out fell into her lap via the world wide web and reality television casting calls in April 2015.

When the World Wrestling Entertainment resurrected “Tough Enough” — a show where people competed for an opportunity at a developmental contract — hopefuls began to send in videos cutting promos, showing off their athleticism or working on the indies.

Among them making rounds on the internet was a clip featuring the RGV’s former basketball star and second-generation wrestler training in the ring and working at small shows.

While Gonzalez got more attention on the independent scene and took a major step forward, she knew she wasn’t totally ready to devote herself to the grind of the circuit.

“The ‘Tough Enough’ video wonderfully connected me with a few people who wanted me to come and work on their shows,” she said. “But I wasn’t ready to do too much indie stuff and because  I was still dipping my toes into everything and I didn’t really know what I was getting into when it came to the independent circuit.”

Gonzalez decided to stay the course but learned of new avenues toward her goal of getting a shot in the big leagues by submitting photos, videos and utilizing social media.

The RGV hopeful began doing just that, submitting items and looking up tryout dates around the country in hopes of getting in front of the right set of eyes over the next year.

That would lead her to the Arnold Classic fitness expo in Ohio in early 2016, where she and her father would speak briefly to a recruiter. No tryout invitation was given, but the recruiter immediately saw potential.

“At the time, they weren’t taking people to have tryouts, but he did give me his card and he told me to submit some pictures and to tell them a little bit about me in the email,” she said. “Then he just looked at me and went, ‘Oh, you’re not wearing high heels,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ So I knew then I had a good shot.”

Upon returning home, Gonzalez sent over photos, background info and everything else that was asked of her, which resulted in a reply with a tryout date.

It was the break she needed, so she began to prepare, doing CrossFit, weight lifting and morning runs all while working her day job leading up to the tryout.

“I was so excited and I told my dad ‘This is it’ and I started doing everything in the gym,” Gonzalez said. “I was trying to stay positive but I was ready to go. It all happened very quickly for me after going to Arnold and taking a chance.”

The tryout was full of high-caliber athletes with size, but Gonzalez stood out as she was the only female competitor over 5-foot-10 and an athletic basketball body.

Over the three-day tryout, the RGV native was full of nerves and endured an intense, competitive scene, but despite trying to stick out to trainers and impress, she saw her and her competition bond under fire.

“You’re trying to focus on how far you can push yourself because it’s very exhausting and they want to see how far you can push yourself,” Gonzalez said. “The good thing about these tryouts also is that everybody becomes family in these tryouts. I still talk to pretty much half of the 30 people from the tryout. We were all going through this intense, physical exercise and all we could do is lean on each other.”

Despite being tired, broken and sore, Gonzalez got the chance to show off her athletic ability promo work (mic skills), her heritage and, most of all, her drive to succeed.

Following the tryout, she felt confident and wanted more, but the waiting game began.

However, it wouldn’t be too long following the tryout that Gonzalez would get THE call one afternoon while taking her truck for an oil change.

On the other end of the call would be Canyon Ceman, WWE performance Center Vice president of Talent Development to offer her a developmental deal.

“I’m sitting outside waiting for my oil change to be done when I get the phone call and I’m freaking out,” Gonzalez recalled. “It was a quick phone call to congratulate me and give me some information on what to expect next. After I hung up I called my dad and I broke down in Toyota with tears everywhere and excited. After that, I called the rest of my family.”

Gonzalez signed on with WWE and reported to the performance center by Oct. 2016 and would debut on an NXT live event under her birth name in early 2017.

While Gonzalez is opening eyes on NXT television as the imposing, hard-hitting Raquel, her early time with the company was full of ups and downs, and full of points trying to find a character that would appeal to the creative team.

She made her television debut as Reina Gonzalez for the inaugural Mae Young Classic in the summer of 2017, donning chaps and a half mask to highlight her Mexican heritage.

The Reina character stuck for the next couple of years, also appearing at the second Mae Young Classic in 2018, but in that time, Gonzalez would slowly continue her growth and evolve her character.

“There was a lot of competition and it was really hard to think of something that would just stick in creative’s mind and that they want to use on tv and put out there,” she said. “My style and character have evolved a lot. During Mae Young I, I tried to wear the half mask and tried to incorporate my Mexican heritage, be a little bit lucha and be Tejana. Then I kinda just dropped that because, at the end of the day, you have to be a well-rounded, not only athlete but a character and persona.”

It was a trying time for the RGV native as she continued to find herself creatively while being away from home.

That’s when, once again, Gonzalez leaned on her peers at the performance center who were in similar situations. Her performance center support system ranged from countries ranging from Brazil, Mexico and Australia.

In time, Gonzalez formed a bond with Rhea Ripley, another up and coming superstar who has now reached stardom by winning the NXT Women’s championship and wrestling Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania 36 over the past year.

The Australian superstar was the other tallest woman on the roster and had to clear hurdles similar to those that Gonzalez faced. The two would eventually come to tag together at live events off of television and became close friends, but early on, it was that friendship that helped the former RGV hoops star find herself coming up the ranks of NXT.

“We kind of evolved together,” Gonzalez said. “She came in blonde with the shorts, the long hair, thinking what was her idea of what a WWE women’s superstar would look like. It took us being in class with Scotty 2 Hotty to come up with something that was more me; this feels more comfortable to me.”

For Gonzalez, the answer was a callback to her childhood — to the days of getting looks entering the fourth-grade class and having to prove that she was more than a 6-foot frame to her pre-teen peers.

Only this time it wouldn’t be something to try and overcome socially, but something she embraced.

Gonzalez began to use her size as an advantage and decided to try and ditch her real-life smiling mood for a mean snarl and a bad, yet imposing temper of Raquel that viewers have now become accustomed to every week.

Though that proved to be easier said than done, as she struggled to kick the bubbly persona that was simply happy to be at the WWE performance center. Still, she knew it had to be done.

“Physically, how I look, I’m just a bigger girl than everyone in the women’s division and that’s okay because I know that I’m strong and that I’m built differently,” Gonzalez said. “But that bubbly persona doesn’t go along with the persona for the character I need to play. It took a lot of practicing with everything and everyone that the PC provides for us to get through to that character.”

Gonzalez once again turned to family for guidance — sort of.

“I had to channel my inner mean girl,” Gonzalez said.”I like to tease my sister. We’re two years apart and we had our bickering and our fighting and stuff, but she was the more aggressive one. I like to think when I’m channeling Raquel that I’m channeling my sister and I’m just finding that inner tough girl that every girl needs to have.”

The newly formed Raquel would find her way and be thrust into a top NXT storyline as Dakota Kai’s bodyguard Raquel, father Rick said the progression she made was impressive, but it was something only she could have figured things out for herself as what she has been able to do now as a character in the ring has more to do than just training. 

“She got a break and she proved that she could handle what they told her,” Rick said. “She has learned how to speak in front of the tv, but as far as wrestling, she’s learned to be stronger in the ring. That’s something we could’ve shown her. At one point I didn’t know if we could get that across to her because sometimes she’d hit a smaller girl and she’d feel bad. At WWE she learned that’s what she needed to do…sometimes you just have to be patient.”

Now, Raquel is trending upward as she and Kai make up arguably the most formidable heel (bad guy) duo on NXT television and is sharing success and working once again with good friend Rhea Ripley.

The RGV native has had a long road with many memories on her way to finally making her dream of becoming a sports entertainer a reality, but while she enjoys the spoils of labor, what she holds near and dear to her heart the most is being a role model to her fans with similar image struggles.

“I’m no longer trying to be this cookie-cutter; I’m trying to be me,” Gonzalez added. “I think that is something for me, too, that has changed a lot. Since I was little, I fought with my own mind about being a different kind of a girl because I’m tall and I’m bigger. It was more difficult for me to accept it then, but now, I have this platform where I can accept it. I know that there are other girls out there that are struggling with it and can accept it, too. They should know that they are accepted, that they are beautiful and that they are strong and they are bold and they should embrace everything that is different about them.”

You can catch Raquel Gonzalez weekly on WWE NXT, which airs weekly at 7 p.m. central on the USA Network.

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