Rhea Ripley Talks Dakota Kai, Charlotte Flair's NXT Return, and Growing As A Performer

Rhea Ripley, one of WWE's breakout stars this year, will try to get back into the NXT Women's Championship picture when she takes on Dakota Kai tonight on the USA Network. This year has been a tale of two halves for the 23 year old from Australia. Ripley ended 2019 on a high note, defeating Shayna Baszler for the NXT Women's Championship, and she carried that title all the way up until WrestleMania 36. That night, Ripley lost the title to Charlotte Flair.

Since WrestleMania, Ripley has still been a mainstay on NXT television, but she's only wrestled on television five times since WrestleMania. As she told ComicBook.com during an interview on Tuesday, now it's time to get back to business and cement her place among NXT's elite.

"The momentum that I had before winning the NXT Women's Championship was incredible," Ripley said. "I was doing absolutely everything and anything. And then once I became NXT Women's Champion, I was on top of the world. I got to celebrate in the ring with all the fans in attendance, and a lot of people come backstage and it was a really magical moment. And it honestly felt like my own little mosh pit. From then to go into WrestleMania against Charlotte Flair, that's incredible as it is, that is just a huge bucket list thing, right there ticked off. First of all, I wanted to wrestle Charlotte for a long, long time. Second of all, it was the first time that a NXT Championship had been defended at WrestleMania, so that was amazing as it is. That's in the history books forever.

"After that, losing my NXT Women's Championship and then losing the match after that. I've been in the storyline with Robert Stone and his brand, and I've been having a lot of fun as it is, even though I'm not in the title picture, I'm still on TV every, pretty much every week. And I'm having a lot of fun doing my job. And the one thing that I love doing, which is wrestling. But now I really got to start building myself back up and try and go back for my NXT Women's Championship because my waist is a bit bare right now. You know, like I'm not used to it. I would love to have a title around my waist, but I guess we'll see where it goes. I got to get through Dakota first."

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(Photo: WWE)

Surprisingly, Ripley and Kai have not wrestled each other in singles competition all that often. By Ripley's recollection, the pair have only shared the ring together five times in a one on one situation.

"Yeah, we've had, I want to say like five single matches together," Ripley recalled. "So we had one in Australia when I was 17 years old. The second one was the first Mae Young Classic. The third one was the NXT UK Women's Championship Tournament. The fourth one was the Evolution (dark match). And now this year, this will be the fifth one. Every time we step in the ring, we absolutely kill it. And just go as hard as we can, pretty much.

"This one is going to be different to the other ones because it's a different Dakota Kai. I've never faced Dakota when she's been the person that she is now, she's grown so much as a competitor and just the character in general. She doesn't really care anymore, and I know how that feels because that's how I was when I was in NXT UK. I was done with everything and I didn't care what anyone thought or what anyone said about me. And that's the phase that she's in now. So it's a very dangerous phase.

"So stepping in the ring with her, this coming Wednesday, it's going to be a challenge and it's a different Dakota Kai than I've faced before, at all. I'm excited to step in the ring with her. I'm a little bit nervous, but I think we're going to kill it."

Since that first match with Kai when she was 17 years old, Ripley has come a long way as a performer (and moved continents a few times in the process). While training at the WWE Performance Center, Ripley credits two coaches in particular for helping her hone her craft.

"I always give credit to Scotty 2 Hotty," Ripley said when asked to list her most influential coaches. "He is an amazing teacher. I was in his class for, I want to say three months and I learned so much and he helped me grow, not only as a performer, but as a person. He was always there for me. He was honestly more like a dad to me within those three months and still after, I still really, really look up to him and he helped me through a lot. So Scotty 2 Hotty is definitely one of them. I love him and he's great.

"Apart from him, Sara Amato has helped me incredibly. I've been in her class for a long time now and she's so smart and she's just taught me so much. So those are the two that I'd probably name drop there."

Ripley credits her participation in both the 2017 and 2018 Mae Young Classics as turning points in her career.

"The first Mae Young Classic, I was so new to the big crowds and just wrestling in general," Ripley explained. "I was only 20 years old. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was just trying to please everyone and do a good job. Where the second Mae Classic, I had gone through a lot in that year and I wanted to be the true me and I honestly didn't care at all. So I had a lot of growth in that year between the two.

"So I think it was very, very important to me if I didn't have that year of growth, I wouldn't be the Rhea Ripley that you see today. If I didn't have all those problems and all those struggles and all the mental struggles to overcome, I wouldn't be the person that you see today. So I wouldn't change it at all. And I'm glad that it happened. But the two Mae Young Classics, I was a completely different person."

That growth as a performer took Ripley right up to December of 2019 when she unseated Shayna Baszler as NXT Women's Champion, a huge moment that ranks up there with some of the best title changes in NXT history. Ripley entered 2020 as perhaps the hottest name in the WWE's women division, NXT or otherwise.

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(Photo: WWE)

Finding herself across the ring from Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania, Ripley lost the NXT title and some of the momentum that she had during the first three months of 2020. Flair's return to the NXT brand was brief, losing the title to Io Shirai in a triple threat match that also involved Ripley at NXT TakeOver: In Your House in early June. What did Ripley think of Flair's brief return to NXT?

"To be completely honest, I didn't mind it," Ripley said. "I thought it was something different and something new, which is always good to have. I think a lot of people learnt from Charlotte and, we're still learning each and every time we step in the ring.

"I believe that it did bring a lot of different eyes to NXT because there's a lot of people that only watch Raw and SmackDown and they don't really watch NXT. So to see Charlotte Flair go out on Raw and SmackDown with the NXT Women's Championship, I think people were very intrigued by that and they're like, 'Oh, we got to tune into NXT' and it brang different eyes to our product, which we're always trying to do because we are trying to prove that NXT is the main roster and that's one way to help prove it. And I think it did help. As much as I wish that I was still NXT Women's Champion, I guess it just wasn't my time, at that time."

We're guessing that's not the last time that Rhea Ripley will have WWE gold around her waist. Whether or not she gets a chance to make that happen once again at the end of this month remains to be seen.

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Ripley takes on Dakota Kai tonight on WWE NXT. The show airs at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on the USA Network. The winner of the match will move on to face NXT Women's Champion Io Shirai at NXT TakeOver XXX on Saturday, August 22nd on the WWE Network.

Check back with ComicBook.com in the coming days as we will bring you more from our discussion with Rhea Ripley. Until then, give me a follow on Twitter @ryandroste for all things WWE and NXT.