Q&A: Dakota Kai Reinvents Herself With Post-Injury Heel Turn

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WWE's Dakota Kai at NXT WarGames

Dakota Kai is quickly becoming an indispensable piece of NXT’s success.

The New Zealand-born NXT star is forging a new identity. She played the underdog babyface exceptionally well, but she just turned on longtime partner Tegan Nox and is now showing off her ability as an antagonist. The character change allows her to work a different style, which is especially important in NXT, which offers perhaps the most talented collection of female stars in all of wrestling.

Kai wrestles Mia Yim on Wednesday night’s episode of NXT on USA Network. She spoke with Sports Illustrated about the decision to work as a heel, her recovery from ACL surgery, and shared insight onto who she believes will be the next breakout stars in NXT.

Justin Barrasso: What went into the decision to unveil a more dangerous and vicious version of yourself on-screen? Wouldn’t it have been easier to remain the underdog character you were playing?

Dakota Kai: It would have been easy for me to keep playing that role. The start of my NXT career, up until I got injured, was very much playing that role. Deep down, I knew I had so much more to offer than that. When the opportunity came, I seized it.

I wanted to show a lot of people what I wanted them to see. I promised people that I would hit the ground running when I came back from injury, including a whole new aggressive side.

JB: The women’s division in NXT is full of stars. How do you continue to stand out in a division with such extraordinary depth?

DK: We take a lot of pride in the women’s division here. A lot of us have the same goals and we want to focus on wrestling ability.

In order to stand out, I took my own opportunity. A lot of people here may wait for the opportunity, but when I came back from injury, I knew I had to do something in order to stand out.

We’re so proud of all the women here. There is a lot of new talent coming in, and they have big goals, too, especially once they get onto NXT, which is now a part of the main roster. Basically I just created my own opportunity and I think it’s worked.

JB: You are third person in the Shayna Baszler-Rhea Ripley feud. Does that give you an advantage with increased flexibility in the storyline?

DK: Totally. With Mia as well, we have our own thing to focus on, too. That gives me a lot of flexibility. I know that Rhea and Shayna are the focus. I feel like I’m on the outskirts looking in right now, and I’m trying to seize my moment.

JB: What do you envision happening in your story with Tegan Nox? Is there a modern day parallel to the split between The Rockers, or, more recently, Johnny Gargano-Tommaso Ciampa?

DK: A lot of people have seen some parallels between myself and Tegan to Gargano and Ciampa, but we’re going to create something completely different. She hasn’t been on TV since War Games. A lot of people will be anticipating her coming back.

JB: Considering that Michaels was in a very similar spot when he turned on Marty Jannetty, has he offered you advice?

DK: Shawn and Triple H have given a lot of feedback and things they want to see, but at the same time, I also want to make it my own. I’m taking this feedback from legends that we work with, but we also want to make it very unique. A mix of the two will really allow us to tell a great story.

JB: It must have been incredibly nerve-wracking when you were backstage before your heel turn. How did you prepare yourself for a moment of such magnitude?

DK: Whenever I have a match, I’m always nervous, but this was weird.

I was nervous, but there was almost a clarity behind it. In the back of my mind, I knew this was my moment to finally make an impact and finally show everyone what they hadn’t seen before. My mind was very clear going into it.

JB: It’s only natural to compare the NXT product against AEW since you both air at the same time on Wednesday nights. Do you think of NXT as a weekly competition against AEW, and do the weekly ratings matter? Or are ratings more indicative of the “wrestling war” from the 1990s?

DK: Whatever the ratings are, we really don’t pay much attention to it. The chips will fall wherever and whatever happens, happens. The strength we have is focusing on our own stuff. They focus on their own stuff, we focus on our own stuff.

At the end of the day, we just want to elevate wrestling for everyone. So it’s good for everyone to have that competition. It only elevates everyone, and we’re going to keep bringing the best professional wrestling we have to offer.

JB: Who are the best women, from either NXT or around the world, who we haven’t had the chance to see on television just yet?

Kai: Well, damn. There is a lot of talent within NXT at the moment that aren’t getting a lot of limelight. There is so much talent here that has yet to be seen. You have Deonna Purrazzo, who I think is amazing, and so is Chelsea Green. And you have all these girls that have just been signed, like Shotzi Blackheart. It’s only a matter before you will see all this talent. Those girls came from the independent scenes, so I’ve known them before, and they are waiting for their moment to make an impact.

JB: Your background is really interesting, too. I remember a discussion with New Japan star Jay White, who like you is also from Auckland, New Zealand, and he mentioned how just the idea of wrestling in America seemed so unbelievably foreign to him. Auckland is a long way from Orlando. Can you believe you’re here now, taking your place as a rising star in WWE?

DK: No way. I’ve been wrestling since 2007, which is weird to even say, and when I started watching wrestling, the focus wasn’t really on the women. Not in the way it is now. And New Zealand is so far away from the rest of the world that this never really seemed like a realistic goal.

We all have dreams to make it, but it wasn’t until I had my tryout in 2014 that I kind of, maybe, thought that there was a chance I could do this. It was still not until 2016 that I got offered a contract. I think just enjoying wrestling on the indies, and living my passion out that way, that seemed enough for me at the time. I just kept doing it, and I was pleasantly surprised that I was offered this opportunity. And Jay White is doing his thing over in New Japan. It’s crazy.

JB: What do you miss most about New Zealand?

DK: New Zealand is so small, and I’m literally on the other side of the world. But everything is so convenient here in the states. My mom used to make a lot of island food, and I can’t seem to find that anywhere here. But there is a lot of great food here, too.

JB: The match with Mia Yim is another chance for you to show off your ability in the ring, which you were unable to do after last December’s injury. What was the biggest takeaway you took from your nine months away from the ring after tearing your ACL?

DK: I had never had a serious injury like that before, ever. I think the main takeaway for me was that it was something new for me to focus on. Before I got hurt, the focus was on training and wrestling. When I got injured, the focus was rehabbing and putting in the hours with that.

The main thing for me was that when I came back, I wanted to show everyone, and myself, another side of me. I wanted people to see Dakota Kai in a new light. That was the driving force for me.

JB: Physically, do you feel like yourself again?

DK: Yes. It’s weird. Going through the rehab process over nine months, you have to start walking again and running again, and that was when I could never see myself in the ring again. So there were a lot of doubts. But now I do feel totally like myself. I thought that it would take a while to get used to the knee brace, but that was easy, too. If anything, I feel a lot stronger than I did before.

JB: There is no doubt that you are back and chasing your dreams in NXT. On the subject of a long-term goal, what makes you the right person to take the title from Shayna Baszler?

DK: Shayna hasn’t seen this side of me. I know she’s got Rhea in her crosshairs right now, and we’ve had many matches before, but no one now knows what to expect from me. And that works in my favor. I’ll be watching her match next week, but not before I beat up Mia.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.