SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Sonya Deville Spreads Message of Equality
Sonya Deville has a remarkably long list of goals to achieve in WWE, but none more significant than the one she has already started.
“I’m speaking for equality,” said Deville—who is Daria Berenato, the first openly gay female wrestler in WWE history. “I want to represent the minority of people that aren’t already represented in WWE. I worked my ass off to get here and I’m going to continue to do that. I have a lot to prove, and I’m grateful that I can share my journey inside and outside of the ring.”
Pro wrestling has not always had the strongest background in diversity of representation, but Deville is representing an audience that otherwise may not have a voice on WWE programming.
“I’m trying to be the voice for people who don’t have a voice, and I’ve been able to do that with WWE,” said Berenato. “They’ve been so great since day one, and they’ve given me this public social platform to work with super inspiring groups. I think of myself from 10 years ago, to my younger self, when I was dating guys and didn’t know I could be anything else, and now I ask myself, ‘What would I have wanted to hear? What did I need to hear?’ I needed to see inclusion and watch people set the example that it’s OK to be whoever you are.”
Berenato takes pride in the Sonya Deville character, who exemplifies the fighting spirit, displays versatility with her style in the ring, and can hold her own on the microphone.
“I am not defined by my sexuality,” said Berenato. “I’m me. I made it public to live my truth and to stand up for those who don’t have that voice, but it doesn’t define me or my in-ring ability. I have a martial arts background. I’ve been with WWE for four years and I’ve worked my ass off, and I have so much left to accomplish inside the ring.”
Berenato first came out while she was a contestant on Tough Enough in 2015.
“I remember my life four years ago before I came out on Tough Enough, and that was before I was even really openly gay with anyone other than my mom, my dad, and my closest friends,” said Berenato. “I remember being asked by Triple H on the season premiere of Tough Enough, ‘Are you in a relationship?’ I froze, not expecting that question. My thought bubble was, ‘I can’t lie. And my girlfriend will kill me if I say that I’m single on a reality TV show.’ But I wasn’t ready to say out loud, ‘Yes, I have a girlfriend.’ I hadn’t said it out loud by that point, but looking back at that moment, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“It forced me to tell the truth, which made me live my truth. Now, it’s a complete 360 from where I was four years ago. Not only am I comfortable with my sexual orientation and talking about it, but I also take pride in spreading the message that it’s OK to be whoever you want to be.”
The 25-year-old New Jersey native is also an entrepreneur, creating her own fashion line and weekly online video series with WWE tag partner Mandy Rose. She also makes her debut on WWE’s Total Divas show in October, where she had the chance to further interact with fighting and wrestling pioneer Ronda Rousey, another new addition to the Divas cast.
“I admire everything Ronda’s done in the mixed martial arts world and the wrestling world,” said Berenato. “It’s empowering and inspirational to see her have so much passion for what she does. We get along very well, but I want my chance to face her. If she decides to come back, I’d love to have that match.”
Berenato’s intense in-ring style is bolstered by her own background in mixed martial arts, where she has been training and competing since she was 17.
“I started fighting professionally at 17,” said Berenato. “I’d played basketball, lacrosse, and soccer, but I wanted to do something more extreme. I was talking to my mom, who is my best friend, and I asked her, ‘Mom, should I learn how to play an instrument? Or should I become a professional fighter?’ And my mom said, of course, ‘You should play an instrument, that would be a great outlet.’ And that’s when I said I wanted to be a professional fighter. She took me to the local gym, and I’ve been doing it ever since. That’s also when I got into acting, producing my first independent film when I was 19. So the two worlds I loved were fighting and acting.”
Deville teams with Mandy Rose to form Fire & Desire in WWE. Though they fell just short of their goal to win the women’s tag titles this past Sunday at Clash of Champions, they have combined to create the popular weekly donut show Damandyz Donuts.
“Mandy is my best friend, my tag team partner, and my road buddy,” said Berenato. “We started doing the Damandyz Donuts series because it’s important to treat yourself. I’m thrilled to announce that we’re opening an online merchandising site. We’ll have t-shirts, hats, and it will be super interactive, and eventually it will even lead to donut sales. We’re working really hard with a very talented pastry chef on perfecting and crafting the perfect donut that is tasty and health conscious.”
The show changes location each week in endless pursuit of the unrepentant delicacy, but Berenato is clear that the tag team titles will be visible in the videos once Fire & Desire claim the belts.
“Goal number one is still winning the tag team titles with Mandy,” said Berenato. “Mandy and I have the best chemistry out of any tag team out there. We live together, we travel together, we train together. That’s built a bond and a chemistry that transfers to inside the ring.”
Although Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross are the current tag champs, the standard for the division was set by inaugural title-holders Sasha Banks and Bayley.
“Sasha and Bayley have a complicated, unorthodox, terribly unstable relationship,” said Berenato, channeling her inner Sonya Deville. “But if they want to face Fire & Desire, the one consistent thread in the women’s tag team division, then we’d be more than happy for it. But Sasha just came off a four-month vacation, so I’m not sure she’s ready. Mandy and I haven’t stopped working, we’re at the peak of our game.”
Berenato is also designing her own clothing line, developing her own alternative tomboy style that no clothing line makes for women.
“I wanted to make a line for people that wanted to rock that vibe, and it will also have a sexy side, I call it a ‘Mandy vibe,’ with bodysuits and stuff like that,” said Berenato. “It’s still a work in progress, but that should be launching by the end of next year.”
Embedding pieces of her personality in her work is a key component of Berenato’s craft, including her on-air name of Sonya Deville.
“I originally planned to go by NJ Deville in WWE,” said Berenato. “That would have paid homage to my MMA nickname, ‘The Jersey Devil.’ Eventually we decided on Sonya Deville, and Deville still represents the New Jersey Devil. Not everyone knows that, but it’s a shout out to my home.”
Merging together her passions in life has created endless opportunities for Berenato, who is also grateful for the chance to offer her voice to those who need someone to speak up.
“I’m a huge reality TV junkie, and I remember being a teenager and watching Housewives, The Kardashians, and all my favorite shows, and wishing, ‘Wow, I wish there was a gay character so I could feel more included,’” said Berenato. “I’m hoping on Total Divas, when people watch, to hit that demographic and have people know who I’m representing. I hope it’s relatable, enjoyable, and inclusive.
“I’ve found the perfect world of performing, entertaining, and competing. I’m home here in WWE, it’s where I’m met to be.”
Adam Cole on NXT’s USA Network Debut
Adam Cole is ready to lead NXT onto weekly episodic television.
The NXT champion will appear on the USA Network later tonight as NXT moves to a live weekly show. Cole is one of the top wrestlers in the business, and has an incredible background with a portfolio that includes stardom in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling. He was a key member of Bullet Club, and even regained the ROH world title from Kyle O’Reilly at the Tokyo Dome.
“I’ve been in all kinds of wrestling situations across the world and I’ve come out in a good place,” said Cole, who spoke at length with Sports Illustrated about NXT’s new mission. “I have the experience, and that’s where a lot of my confidence stems from.”
Cole is also confident in the ability of the women and men who make up the NXT roster.
“There are so many people on our roster who have also traveled all over the world, on TV, and on pay per view,” said Cole. “There is a lot of pressure on us, but we’re ready to go live on the USA Network.”
The (Online) Week in Wrestling
• When used correctly, which WWE does, Brock Lesnar is one of the most valuable commodities in all of professional wrestling.
• There are a few different ways I can see the Luke Harper/Erick Rowan storyline progressing, but I would love to see Harper make a run at the world title.
• With the WWE Draft rapidly approaching, who would you take number one overall? My pick is Bray Wyatt.
• Kane’s “I still got it!” chant made the entire segment.
• Mike Kanellis’ storyline drama should end by reuniting with Matt Taven, ideally in NXT.
• AAA’s “Invading NY” show from Sunday at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater will air on AXS TV this Friday, providing a chance to see LAX-Lucha Bros., Taya Valkyrie-Tessa Blanchard, and the return of Cain Velasquez to the ring for only the second time.
• This is an incredible match for the preshow.
• In any language, this is a money matchup.
• So many indie talents work full-time jobs in addition to wrestling, and congratulations are in order for Evil Uno, who will now make a living full-time from pro wrestling.
• Big Cass suffered a setback this weekend, but hopefully he is able to make his return to wrestling when he is ready.
Chris Dickinson Standing Out as “The Gate Keeper to the Indies”
Outside of WWE, this past weekend featured big shows in Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport and AAA’s “Invading NY”—and one constant from both was a memorable performance from Chris Dickinson.
Dickinson wrestled in the main event this past weekend at Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport, then opened the AAA show on Sunday in a tag match with luchador Mascarita Dorada.
“Ever since I was 16, when I was falling in love with wrestling and tape trading to get as much Japanese wrestling as I could, all I ever wanted to be was an independent wrestler,” said Dickinson, whose body of work over the past year can challenge anyone else on the indie circuit. “My goal was to be who I am right now.”
Dickinson will be part of the “All Hands On Deck” show for Beyond Wrestling this Sunday in Westerly, Rhode Island against Kenn Doane.
The 32-year-old is an integral part of Beyond’s weekly online Uncharted Territory show, which returns on Thursday, October 3.
“My role in Beyond has been very organic,” said Dickinson, who wrestled Daisuke Sekimoto at Beyond’s signature “Americanrana” show in July. “I credit so much of the success to the booking of [Beyond founder] Drew Cordeiro.
“I loved that type of environment, where I could build a relationship with the audience from week to week. I knew I was ready to rise to the occasion, and I wanted to get out there and show everyone I was the best. I was looking forward to that every week, it was honestly some of the best times I’ve ever had in wrestling.”
Dickinson also honed his craft with two years of work in EVOLVE. He prides himself as the Staten Island version of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the influence of countless hours watching All Japan Pro Wrestling is clearly evident in his work.
His style in the ring parallels his personality: straightforward, vocal, and willing to bite, scratch, and claw to achieve his goals.
“Chris Dickinson is 100 percent me as a person,” said Dickinson. “I take no s---, I take no prisoners. If you ain’t on my team, you’re my enemy.”
As evidenced by his high-profile role in Bloodsport this past weekend, Dickinson continues to rise among the talent of Game Changer Wrestling.
“I’d love to represent GCW as their top guy,” said Dickinson. “That’s a company I look forward to building, just like I want to take Beyond Wrestling to even greater heights.”
Guaranteed money deals are an important piece of the business, but Dickinson has his own perspective of success.
“I tend to buck trends, I’m not really into the mainstream stuff, and I’m certainly not into compromising my integrity for the sake of making a buck,” said Dickinson, who works a physical, realistic style. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to put myself into a position where I can survive comfortably on what I do. I don’t have a contract, and I’m not particularly interested in obtaining one. I have the creative freedom to decide what I get to do, when I get to do it, and who I get to do it for.
“I like being an independent wrestler. I think that’s pretty badass.”
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