Q&A: Dakota Kai Hitting Her Stride After ‘Creatively Fulfilling’ Heel Turn

NXT’s Dakota Kai admits it was “terrifying” to abandon her squeaky clean character, but the risk has paid off.
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One of the most impressive villains in NXT, Dakota Kai is looking to elevate herself even further in 2020. And the way to establish yourself as a bona fide star in NXT is by winning the Women’s Championship, which is Kai’s primary objective.

When she last spoke with Sports Illustrated in December, she discussed her heel turn on Tegan Nox and her plans to stand out in the division. She’s following through on that plan, and her cage match victory against Nox in March was as intense as it was creative.

Though Kai (real name Cheree Crowley, 31) is not scheduled for a program with NXT Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair, her work is placing her in a position where she is bound for a run at the title. Her confidence, delivery, and presence continue to improve, and she has had instant chemistry beside Raquel Gonzalez.

Kai teams with Gonzalez Wednesday night on NXT against Nox and Shotzi Blackheart. Before the match, she spoke with Sports Illustrated about the NXT women’s division, the potential of adding a secondary title, and whether she would spend her entire career in NXT.

Justin Barrasso: Ever since your heel turn in November, you have displayed some tremendous character development. How have you been able to elevate your work, and what has been Raquel’s role in your success?

Dakota Kai: After WarGames, there was a lot of pressure for me to perform. I needed another element to take it to the next level, and Raquel was that piece. She’s the muscle, and that gave me so much more to play with inside the ring.

Initially, this was such a big change for me. Being a babyface came so naturally to me, and it’s what I’d done in NXT and on the independent scene. It was terrifying to me to completely change, but it was also the best for me. I didn’t want to become stagnant—this has allowed me to let my creativity flow. And adding Raquel has been such a huge help. I wouldn’t say it has been easy, but it’s been creatively fulfilling.

JB: The best moment you’ve shared with Raquel thus far took place in the cage match against Tegan Nox in March. You narrowly escaped defeat when Raquel used the cage door to trap Tegan, preventing her from climbing down the cage and giving you time to escape. Was the finish planned out that day?

DK: We didn’t have any of that ironed out. There was just an idea of what was going to happen. We really went back and forth with Hunter [Paul “Triple H” Levesque] and Shawn Michaels and Sara D’Amato. It was very much a collaboration of ideas.

JB: Looking at the women’s number one contender ladder match from two weeks ago, it featured six of NXT’s stars from the women’s division. There is a legitimate argument that, considering there is only one title, it is the most competitive division in all of mainstream pro wrestling. What’s it like to be part of that division?

DK: It is so humbling to be part of it. It’s one of the best in the world, and I think why it’s so successful is because everyone in the NXT women’s division is pushing each other and bringing out the best in one another. It’s a healthy competition, which is amazing, and all the girls want to support each other. The end goal for everyone in the division is to put out the best product.

No one is trying to do anything for selfish gain. We’re working to put out the best story possible. For any of us to put on a great match or tell a great story, we all need to be on the same page. That is the key to the NXT women’s division.

JB: With a division that has so much depth, is one title enough for the NXT women’s division?

DK: Having another title within the women’s division would be so feasible for us. There are so many talented women. There are storylines outside of the title picture, and with another title, those would be fighting for something.

Last summer at TakeOver: Toronto, Io Shirai and Candice LeRae had a match on the card—and this year at TakeOver in Portland, Tegan and I had a match, so another title would be used well. There are so many talented women, so a secondary title isn’t a crazy idea.

JB: Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano have both discussed the idea of spending the rest of their careers in NXT. Is it necessary to go to Raw or SmackDown? Or is it possible that the best career for you, long-term, is in NXT?

DK: I would absolutely love that. My heart is with the NXT brand. Ever since we went live on USA last year, it’s now more realistic than we can stay in NXT.

That’s not to say that, in the future, Raw or SmackDown are completely off the table to me, but there is a certain family element in NXT that you can’t get anywhere else. That comes back to what I was saying about the NXT women’s division. We all want the best for the brand, and that’s hard to come by. I would love to stay here.

JB: Has it difficult or stressful to go to work during the coronavirus, or have you enjoyed a break from being home?

DK: I have been so grateful to still be able to go to work. The WWE is doing everything they can, taking every precaution to make sure we’re all safe. And if people don’t want to work, they don’t have to. No one is being forced to do that. There are a lot of precautions being taken. We have closed sets, it’s only essential personnel, and everyone has to wear a mask. I honestly can’t wait for things to go back to normal, but I feel comfortable and safe when we film.

JD: Tonight’s tag match is a chance to work with Shotzi Blackheart, highlight Raquel and further your story with Tegan. What excites you most about the match?

DK: We’ve never had a tag match with this combination of people, even on the road at our shows. I know have chemistry in the ring with Tegan, and we’ll keep finding creative ways to keep going back to our story without it being overdone. This match is a way to keep telling our story. I’m excited to see what Raquel can do, and I’m excited to see the creativeness we can play with.

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