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After Leaving WWE, Mercedes Moné Embraces a New Challenge in Japan

‘I wanted to make new history, and the place to do it is here in Japan,’ the former Sasha Banks says.

Mercedes Moné will make her next defense of the IWGP women’s championship Sunday, wrestling the incredibly talented Mayu Iwatani at Stardom’s All Star Grand Queendom.

In Yokohama, Japan, Moné plans on again displaying why she is the industry’s most distinct standard-setter. Only 31, she has embarked on an extraordinarily difficult journey, leaving the powerful reach of WWE to challenge herself in ways that are simply not yet possible in North America.

“The ultimate goal for a lot of professional wrestlers is to make it to WWE,” says Moné, who set the industry aflame in WWE as Sasha Banks. “That’s what I thought was the big time. But I did that. I wanted to make new history, and the place to do it is here in Japan. Japan has the highest standards for women’s wrestling, and I want to set the standard in New Japan.”

Moné (whose name is Mercedes Varnado) has exceeded expectations since signing with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Following her Tokyo Dome debut in January at Wrestle Kingdom 17, she delivered two spectacular matches. First was her IWGP women’s championship victory against Kairi in February at Battle in the Valley in San José in February, then a successful title defense in a triple threat against AZM and Hazuki a week and a half ago at Sakura Genesis inside the hallowed walls of Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Kokugikan.

The investment in Moné quickly paid off. New Japan executives celebrated when Wrestle Kingdom 17 achieved its highest-ever international viewership, as well as 40,000 new subscribers to the New Japan streaming service. Moné boosted international ticket sales for Sakura Genesis, and she now continues to cement herself as a global draw.

“This isn’t just for me,” says Moné. “This is for the future. It’s for every girl that has a dream. I’m showing the world you can achieve feats that no one else has done before.

“I want to set the same example. There are so many places where you can wrestle and make your voice heard.”

Moné is well accustomed to globetrotting. Yet this expedition is different, as she intends to wrestle primarily in Japan.

She is testing her skills while spotlighting performers like AZM and Hazuki, who are less known in North America but every bit as talented as their peers.

“I’m not just the best in North America. I’m the best in the world,” says Moné. “I am making that statement in Japan. Women belong in this sport. I grew up watching bra-and-panties matches, but Japan had these hard-hitting, physical, violent women’s matches.”

Despite word spreading that Moné’s deal could be expiring after this match, she brushed it off as merely rumor. To the contrary, she stated that she is learning Japanese and seeking a more permanent residence.

“The rumors are so far from the truth,” says Moné. “If it’s not coming from me or my voice, then how does anyone else know my business? None of it is true unless it is coming from me. It’s just a reminder that I’m a conversation starter.”

Fully immersing herself in Japanese culture and the way of life is another goal for Moné.

“This is my new home,” says Moné. “I’m embracing the way of life. I’m riding the train, I’m eating the food. I’m not here for a quick second. I have a kitchen in my apartment, but when I go out, I’m eating yakiniku. It’s this amazing barbecue. I’ve been enjoying everything. The pancakes are amazing, too.

“This has become my second home. And I’m committed to staying here to make history.”

Fans of great wrestling are in for a treat whenever Moné steps in the ring. Perhaps jaded by watching WWE rush through women’s segments, time is dedicated to her programs in Japan.

The matches have purpose, which unfortunately is not always the way women’s wrestling is presented in the United States.

“In the United States, you’re told what to do, what to say and how to say it,” says Moné, who has reached a higher level of fame from her work in The Mandalorian. “Here, I’m creating every single moment. I feel so free. I’ve never been this confident. And it is significant to me because I’m inspiring people to follow their dreams. I don’t take that responsibility.

“I’m not even in my prime yet. I’m just getting started. I’m finally getting to create the magic I’ve always wanted to create. My ideas aren’t being limited and I’m not constantly hearing no or that matches are being cut short. I’m not going to hold back.”

This particular bout against Iwatani at All Star Grand Queendom has match-of-the-year potential. Stardom is synonymous with elite wrestling, and Iwatani is a star possessing a real explosiveness in her work. Unsurprisingly, Moné is hungry for the challenge.

“I am so looking forward to this,” says Moné. “Mayu has won every major championship in this company, except for my IWGP women’s championship. And I’m going to make sure that remains the same. Mayu is an icon, but she’s not me.”

Moné has had time to build a backstory to this match, which makes a monumental difference when building anticipation and intrigue. She has attacked Iwatani, as well as created her own single—singing “Mayu Sucks”—a fun wrinkle to the angle that is reminiscent of Kurt Angle mocking Shawn Michaels.

“My family has history in music,” says Moné, who is cousins with the legendary Snoop Dogg. “I bought that guitar in Japan and I’m a rock star, so I knew I’d do something creative with it.”

Though her time in Japan has been fairly short, watching Moné bring a story to life in the ring remains a joy. Given her elite level, it remains maddening that WWE could allow the relationship with Moné to deteriorate in the manner that it did. But her departure further highlighted her true motivation: She is here to spotlight the very best women in wrestling. And with such a rich history, Japan is a perfect place to accomplish that feat.

While it would be phenomenal to have the chance to watch Moné perform each Monday, Wednesday or Friday night, she is instead dedicating herself to creating new art during this historic expedition to Japan.

“I’m not the greatest women’s wrestler—I am the greatest wrestler,” says Moné. “When you think of John Cena, The Rock or Kenny Omega, I won’t stop until people are thinking of Mercedes Moné in that same light.”

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