Bianca Belair ready to welcome back WWE audiences to Detroit
World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Women's Champion is having a career-best year, and she's ready to celebrate with fans Sunday night at LCA.
Bianca Belair is just as skilled with a sewing machine as she is with a suplex.
The World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar, the current Women's Champion of the WWE's Smackdown brand, makes and wrestles in her own in-ring gear. She can often be found in the locker room before matches working her Singer, making last minute adjustments to her apparel, which she creates specially for each show, often drawing inspiration from her surroundings or from her fashion hero, hip-hop queen Missy Elliott. For her match at last weekend's Rolling Loud event in Miami, she incorporated palm trees and the city skyline into her attire.
"It's a way for me to express myself," says Belair, whose mother taught her to sew when she was a child growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee. She also helps others with any last second tailoring and adjustments they may need before they hit the ring, showing the camaraderie that exists between the performers backstage. "I'm like the seamstress in the locker room. If a girl is struggling last minute, I'll help them out and stitch some things up. I always have a needle and thread in my suitcase whenever somebody's in need for it."
Belair and her sewing kit are now on the road for the first time in more than a year; WWE returned to performing in front of live audiences earlier this month, and the company stages its first Detroit show since the pandemic began on Sunday night at Little Caesars Arena. (A planned WWE show at LCA on March 13, 2020 was one of the first major events to be canceled when COVID-19 shut down the live entertainment world.)
After performing for the better part of the last 16 months inside WWE's Thunderdome, an empty arena in Tampa, Florida, comprised of a virtual audience beamed in on screens that surround the ring, the return to live audiences has been thrilling for the 32-year-old.
"Having our fans back is everything," says Belair, born Bianca Blair, on the phone from her home in Orlando earlier this week. "We always say our job is to put smiles on fans faces, but the fans put a smile on my face. If you see me walk out now in front of the crowd, I'm smiling, and I feel like I'm in my element. It just makes me so happy to be able to hold the title up in front of our fans and to be able to celebrate with them."
Belair didn't grow up longing to perform in front of WWE audiences.
She was a track and field athlete who grew up idolizing Florence "Flo-Jo" Joyner, and she went on to become an All-American in hurdling at the University of Tennessee. (She made her own gear back then, too.) She later graduated to powerlifting and competing in CrossFit, until injury forced her out of the sport.
At the encouragement of WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry, who spotted one of her videos on YouTube, she decided to give pro wrestling a shot.
She's been learning the ropes, from in between the ropes, ever since.
Belair joined WWE's developmental brand, NXT, in 2016 and has been growing in her role and developing her character — she calls herself "the EST of WWE," as in the strongest, fastest, toughest and all-around best Superstar in the WWE's ranks — all while still learning the history of professional wrestling. She's married to fellow WWE star Kenneth Crawford, known to fans as Montez Ford, one-half of the Street Profits tag team. He has been encouraging her to watch all the WrestleManias, a homework assignment she's still plowing through. "It's an ongoing process!" she says.
That didn't stop her from headlining this year's WrestleMania. In April, Belair wrestled Sasha Banks for the Smackdown Women's Championship at the WWE's flagship annual event, a right she earned after winning January's Women's Royal Rumble match. It marked the first time two women — let alone two Black women — competed in the WrestleMania main event, and their match stole the show, winning an ESPY earlier this month for the year's Best WWE Moment.
WrestleMania marked the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that WWE welcomed back live audiences, and the show unfolded in front of a socially distant crowd of 25,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The opening of the show saw all of the company's performers come out at the top of the entrance ramp to greet the fans, a moment that is still emotional for Belair.
"We were standing up there on the stage and the crowd was just going crazy, and I feel like in that moment every single Superstar on that stage had chill bumps. I have chill bumps just thinking about it," she says. "It's been a very tough year, but our fans have stuck with us. And now I just want to celebrate with them, because they deserve it."
Dave LaGreca, host of the daily pro wrestling talk show "Busted Open" on SiriusXM's Fight Nation channel, says the key to Belair's success is the love and the passion that she puts into her work. He cites her winning the Royal Rumble match in January, and the way she addressed the crowd with tears in her eyes, saying it was a dream come true for her.
"She’s honest and genuine. You can tell, she just has this infectious grin and infectious passion for the business that shows in her work each and every time you see her on TV," he says. "I think that’s why she’s somebody that’s really going to be a fan favorite for years to come."
Belair is in the midst of a career-best year, and she calls her 2021 a "wild, amazing blessing" full of high after high.
"I'm just grateful to be the person in this position," she says. "I always want to pay tribute to those who came before me and paved the road so I can walk on it now. I've had an amazing year, and I plan on making it last as long as possible, even into next year."
Even as she looks down the road into the future, there are pressing matters in her immediate future: specifically, what sort of ring attire she's going to put together for Detroit on Sunday night. Bell time is at 7 p.m., and she may be making adjustments until the moment she hits the ring.
"I'm still trying to figure it out!" she says, but she's not sweating the details. "Every time you see Bianca Belair in the ring I'm showing up, showing out, physically and fashionably."
Spoken like a true champion.
WWE Live Supershow
7 p.m. Sunday
Little Caesars Arena
Available via Ticketmaster channels and the LCA box office