Thanks to a sporting career that began at the age of 5, Bianca Belair is excelling in the larger-than-life world of WWE.

Now at age 31, Belair (real name, Bianca Crawford) has punched her ticket to a championship match at WrestleMania 37, by winning the women’s Royal Rumble after drawing No. 3, and setting a record by lasting more than 56 minutes in the over-the-top contest.

Muscle & Fitness caught up with the “EST” of WWE to find out how life in the ring compares to other sporting fields, how Belair feels about her more experienced opponent, “The Boss” Sasha Banks, and how on earth she managed to lift Otis over her shoulders on live television.

With Belair’s sporting life beginning at such a tender age, the powerhouse from Knoxville, TN, was always destined to be fiercely competitive. “I’ve played almost every sport in the book,” she says. Indeed, she excelled in tumbling and track and field, often facing off against girls that were much older than herself. Belair set high school records in both the 100- and 300-meter hurdles and won the Tennessee state championship during her senior year.

CROSSING OVER TO CROSSFIT

Not surprisingly, Belair became a sought-after recruit and earned a full scholarship on the back of her athletic prowess. But a mixture of youth and homesickness threatened to derail her sporting potential. Finding herself in need of a competitive edge, Belair’s passion for being the best was cemented when she fell in love with CrossFit. Here, she found her “Eye of the Tiger,” serving as a precursor to the confident Bianca Belair that now dominates the spotlight as the in WWE.

“I really loved powerlifting, and all the skills that are needed to do CrossFit,” Belair says. “A lot of what we do in WWE is difficult, and it requires athleticism. But I’ve been able to pick up on things here very quickly, and physically, just from my athletic background.” Still, as other elite athletes that enter the high-impact WWE universe have found out, mastering sports entertainment is tougher than it looks. “I didn’t really watch wrestling, when I was growing up,” says Belair. “So, I had to play catch-up. I learned, and did my research, about the history of WWE. There’s so much that goes into WWE that’s not just physical. It’s an art. I completely threw myself into it.”

Belair’s pedigree as an All-America athlete gave her all the tools to succeed, but there was no way to prepare for the rigors of a 20-by-20-foot pro wrestling ring. “I remember my first WWE tryout, learning to run the ropes,” she says. “Afterward, my back was black and blue, and I couldn’t figure out where that had come from. It’s the little things, like the ropes, learning how to hit them correctly so you don’t bruise yourself, learning how to safely do things. You might still get hurt, but there’s a difference between being hurt and being injured.

Fortunately, Belair has been a quick learner. “I’ve been an athlete my whole life, so I am very coachable, and I am able to take criticism,” she says.

WRESTLING WITH A NEW CAREER PATH

Signing her first developmental contract with WWE in 2016, Bianca appeared at NXT live events just a few months later and clocked up an undefeated streak that lasted an incredible 367 days during her run with the black-and-yellow brand. After her WrestleMania appearance last year, she was immediately brought to Monday Night RAW, but after being drafted across to “SmackDown” last October, she has really come into her own.

Bianca’s first Royal Rumble appearance (as part of NXT in 2020) had shown flashes of brilliance, and the experience certainly paid off. She went on to win the match outright the following year, becoming the first African-American woman to do so. “I live by the motto, ‘You stay ready so you never have to get ready’” she says. “When you are walking into something like a Royal Rumble match, it’s grueling and it takes endurance. I love to do circuits, and I lift very heavy. It was amazing to get to the end, to be the last woman standing, and point to the WrestleMania sign!”

For Bianca, WrestleMania, will be a chance to put her money where her mouth is, and finally back up her claim of being “the strongEST, fastEST and toughest” superstar on the roster. But to do that, she will have to dethrone one of the greatest of all time in Sasha Banks. It is, no doubt, a battle that will pit two of the companies’ biggest stars.

Fittingly, WWE recently announced the welcome return of fans to the two-night extravaganza, taking place at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on April 10 and 11 (and will air live on Peacock). “It’s going to be magical,” says Belair. “It’s going to be like a family reunion. It will be the first time that an African-American female has had a world title match at WrestleMania, so it’s going to be a historic night.”

The magnitude of the challenge is not lost on Bianca, who holds a great deal of respect for the women that helped to evolve the exciting division that stands today. “Sasha is the SmackDown women’s champion, and she helped pave the way”, says Belair. “I’m the new kid on the block. She wants to keep her championship, and I want to take it away from her.” Some observers may say that Belair isn’t yet ready to carry the title, but it would be unwise to underestimate someone who once deadlifted 415 pounds at the WWE Performance Center. She’s also given a fireman’s carry to all 320 pounds of Otis.

Speaking of those amazing feats of strength, which was tougher? “Ha! I would say deadlifting was tougher,” she says. “Only because carrying Otis on live TV gave me so much adrenaline. I call myself the EST or WWE, and go around saying that I’m the strongest, so I had to show that I was. I didn’t want to fail, so the adrenaline made Otis feel a whole lot lighter in that moment!”

No doubt, the adrenaline will be off the charts when Bianca Belair steps through the curtain to face “The Boss.” “Being in WWE, what you live for is to get to WrestleMania,” says Belair. “It’s the Super Bowl of wrestling.”

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