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‘She is the No. 1 star right now’: Rhea Ripley’s ready for her coronation at homecoming

LAS VEGAS - Rhea Ripley's luggage was loaded into a black SUV before she jumped in and sat behind the driver. Ripley had a flight to catch later that evening, but first, she was set to take in the boxing match down The Strip. Big E sat to her right as the pair headed to Michelob Ultra Arena at The Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino for the Teofimo Lopez-Jamaine Ortiz junior welterweight title fight.

She had just whipped the crowd into a frenzy at the WrestleMania XL kick-off -- a free fan event where Big E and CM Punk provided commentary while WWE capitalized on Super Bowl week with its top stars -- earlier in the day at T-Mobile Arena as she stood face-to-face with Becky Lynch. Never mind that Ripley plays the heel out of this pair. Fans showered her with "Ma-mi" chants as she brooded around the stage, her muscular frame and larger-than-life personality cutting an imposing figure.

Joining the Judgment Day, working alongside Dominik Mysterio and creating that "Mami" character helped launch Ripley to stardom in WWE. And at an event headlined by WWE Hall of Famer and box office superstar actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Roman Reigns and Cody Rhodes, Ripley received a pop on par with the trio, proof that her stardom has outgrown even her status as women's World champion.

Ripley, 27, has been on the winning side of squash matches with men, like when she wrestled Akira Tozawa on "Raw." She's one of the marquee faces of WWE, called on to perform in high-profile matches while also starring as the leader of one of wrestling's top factions.

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So, it was no surprise that as Ripley pulled out of the arena parking lot, a couple of her adoring fans waving a "Mami" cardboard sign, spotted her vehicle. Ripley was happy to accommodate them by signing a belt and photos.

The drive to Mandalay Bay was a quick one, but Ripley was preparing for a far longer and more important journey, one that began more than 10 years ago as a shy wrestling fan growing up in Australia. Ripley returns to her home country this week for Saturday's Elimination Chamber in Perth (5 a.m. ET, Peacock) as the face of the event. She's the singular wrestler on the official promotional poster, and really, Ripley is one of the major motivators in why WWE is returning to Australia for its first Premium Live Event since 2018.

"It's literally her pay-per-view, and I couldn't be prouder," Mysterio told ESPN. "It's such a special moment for her, and I hope everything works out because obviously, I know Mami's going to go in there and handle business, but more than anyone, I think she deserves this.

"She is the No. 1 star right now. It doesn't compete -- the fact that we beat the s--- out of people, we are bad guys and she continues to get cheered. We're all getting booed, but then when it comes to her, she gets cheered and it's just because she's awesome, man. She's so good at what she does. There's no female right now in WWE that can touch her. ... It's kind of cool to see that we're in this era right now where she's just so dominant."

Rhea Ripley has held the WWE Women's World Championship since defeating Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 39 back in April 2023. WWE

WWE's return to Australia for one of its monthly marquee events continues to be a growing initiative for the company -- to travel around the world showcasing their product. Damian Priest, another member of The Judgment Day, headlined Backlash last May in San Juan, Puerto Rico, against music superstar Bad Bunny. Priest is a Puerto Rican American.

In May, WWE will hold Backlash in France. And then, in August, the company will stage Bash in Berlin in Germany, where another faction, Imperium, will likely be heavily featured. WWE Intercontinental champion Gunther, who is from the neighboring country Austria, will likely headline and be flanked by Ludwig Kaiser of Germany and Giovanni Vinci of Italy

And when Ripley, a native of Adelaide, South Australia, defends her championship vs. Nia Jax on Saturday, she'll do so at the 65,000-plus capacity Optus Stadium in Perth, Western Australia. Perth is just a three-hour flight from her hometown.

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"I consider that the greatest thing I've ever done in my career because representation was the most important thing, and that's bigger than any win or loss or any championship," said Priest of headlining in WWE's event in Puerto Rico. "Being friends with Rhea and knowing that this is about to be the same feeling for her and she's more than earned it, I see her face everywhere with the billboards.

"This show is really about her and I couldn't be prouder. I'm so happy that she gets to really have that special moment in front of her family and friends and show off her culture and her country to the world."

Ripley has shown the wrestling world, week after week for three years since getting promoted from WWE's developmental brand, NXT, to the main roster full-time, that she's one of the best talents in the business. Her in-ring work is top-notch, as are all the subtle touches she applies to her character.

The way she wryly smiles after planting someone with her signature move, Riptide. Or how she menacingly laughs as she wraps someone in a headscissors submission move. Whether she's mixing it up with the girls or boys, Ripley's work stands out. And it's been that way since she transitioned from the independent circuit in Australia to NXT, in 2017.

Her dark, gothic style is uniquely Ripley. And her theme, played by her favorite band, "Motionless in White," ties the whole package together neatly. When the Pennsylvania-based metalcore band's opening rift sounds off in Perth -- the familiar scream of "This is my brutality" -- Ripley knows it will be an emotional moment, one she couldn't have possibly imagined growing up on the indie scene in Australia.

"I'm definitely going to get emotional," said Ripley. "I don't know if I'm going to show it. I'm not entirely sure. I think that's going to be a very organic moment for me because, at the end of the day, I'm still working. I'm going to war with Nia.

"So, I still have to be real and I still have to remember the story behind it, but at the same time, I am not sure exactly how I'm going to react knowing that it's Australia and just hearing everyone hopefully cheering for me and backing me up, being home, knowing my family's going to be there, my friends are going to be there. I'm not sure how I'm going to react. I'm nervous, I don't want to cry. So, I'm hoping I can keep it all together."

Americans make up the majority of WWE's roster -- it is a United States-based company, after all. But much of the globe is represented by the WWE roster. The other two members of The Judgment Day, Finn Balor and JD McDonagh, were born and trained in Ireland. Mysterio, the son of WWE Hall of Famer Rey Mysterio Jr., is Mexican-American. Current champions Iyo Sky, Asuka and Kairi Sane are from Japan, along with former WWE champion Shinsuke Nakamura. As of Feb. 2024, there are 76 wrestlers across WWE's three brands -- Raw, SmackDown and NXT -- that were born outside the U.S.

"Global is our focus," WWE Chief Content Officer, Paul "Triple H" Levesque, said Wednesday on SEN Radio in Perth, while flanked by Ripley. "You'll see us do more and more around the world as time goes on."

Rhea Ripley was one of the marquee faces representing WWE during WrestleMania XL kickoff event in Las Vegas in February. WWE

Ripley is entrenched as arguably the biggest star in WWE's women's division, but she's positioned to do far more than that.

Besides her singles matches where she defends her championship -- a reign that began when she defeated Charlotte Flair at last year's WrestleMania -- Ripley is involved in WWE's top storylines weekly.

The Judgment Day headlined Survivor Series in November in the War Games match, and Raw's main events consistently feature the quintet. That means Ripley is regularly featured in segments on WWE's flagship program -- whether she's pinning foes or aiding her teammates with outside interference.

The next feat for Ripley to conquer just might be the men's division. From 1997 to 2001, Chyna starred as a member of the legendary faction Degeneration X, alongside Shawn Michaels and Triple H, a female enforcer in a similar mold as Ripley.

Chyna was the first woman to ever participate in the Royal Rumble, 19 years before WWE debuted a Rumble match composed exclusively of women. She also participated in the men's King of the Ring tournament. Most impressively, she is the only woman to hold the prestigious Intercontinental Championship, a title currently held by Gunther.

"It's just a matter of what she wants, whatever Mami wants," Mysterio said. "She can end up with the IC title if she really wants to."

"To win a men's title would be absolutely incredible," Ripley said. "Because of my position in The Judgment Day, I get to mingle with the guys a lot more. Obviously, there are so many females in our division that are capable of doing what I'm doing. They just don't have the opportunities to do it where I get to be the only female in a group of men, which is so wild.

"And to be the muscle for that group as well, it's absolutely insane. It's cool to be a part of what Chyna was doing for the women's division as well. So, I'm glad I can be the Chyna of this generation while still being Rhea Ripley."

Ripley's carved out a lane that's uniquely her own. As a result, she's been rewarded with areturn home that could help her take another step toward the top of the wrestling industry, regardless of gender.

"I want to try and create as much history as I physically can within this company and within this business," said Ripley. "And then I'll be happy. I just want to leave an amazing legacy, and I want to leave doors open for the women that come after me so they can keep smashing through boundaries and growing this women's division.

"Because at the end of the day, that's the end goal. We just want everything to be better for the generation after us, while also leaving a legacy that is undeniable that people can talk about forever."

    

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