A professional female wrestler who grew up in Northern Ireland will return to these shores in her wrestling attire for the first time this Sunday.
Rhia O’Reilly, 32, grew up in Londonderry before moving to the Newtownards Road in Belfast. It was as a pupil at Hunterhouse College that she fell in love with wrestling.
She said: “I had a friend at school who introduced me to wrestling, I was hooked from the first time I saw it.
“After I finished university I was in a job I didn’t really want to be in. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a friend who said, ‘didn’t you used to want to be a wrestler?’
“It’s like saying you want to be a movie star or a rock star. People look at you like, ‘as if’.
“It had been treated as a bit of a running joke, but then I thought ... why shouldn’t I?
“I went online to look up wrestling schools and found one in Canada, applied, got in, handed in my notice and away I went.”
Rhia, now based in London, is now part of one of the fastest growing women’s wrestling company in Europe – Pro Wrestling EVE.
As a professional wrestler on the independent circuits she has come up against the likes of Bayley, Peyton Royce, Ruby Riot and Paige – all of whom have gone on to become superstars in the WWE.
In the build up to professional wrestling’s annual showcase event – Wrestlemania – Rhia appeared at her biggest event to date – Shimmer 100 in New Orleans.
Not only have female wrestlers grown in number and stature within the WWE – the world’s best known wrestling federation – but opportunity have also increased for would-be wrestlers in the Province.
Rhia said: “Before I went away at the age of 19 the wrestling scene in Northern Ireland was pretty much non-existant. Now there’s two companies who are regularly running shows in Northern Ireland and a couple of other promotions are coming and doing the odd show. It’s flourishing. If someone in Northern Ireland wants to become a professional wrestler, either male or female it is within their grasp.
Of the boom in women’s wrestling she said: “When I started watching wrestler the women were there for their looks rather than their wrestling skills.
“People like Trish Stratus and Lita came along and opened the door for all of us. They were actually having high quality matches.
“When I started out I was the only women in my training school. You had the token women’s matches on a show. Now you have multiple women’s matches on shows. I run a training school in London every Sunday and we have 20+ students who are all female. It has changed dramatically.”
She continued: “I’m so happy where I am. I’ve wrestled for every big promotion in the UK which is amazing. I’ve wrestled across Europe, America and Canada. I’d quite like to go to Japan which is my next big target.
“On May 5 Pro Wrestling EVE are doing Wrestle Queendom which is going to be the largest ever female wrestling show in Europe. I’m going to be doing my first cage match.”
Discussing the theatrical nature of wrestling she said: “Growing up as a wrestling fan you kind of know that matches are fixed and there is a certain amount of acting, but you don’t admit it.
“It’s sports entertainment – a live stunt show with storylines. We train really hard for it, but we’re not trying to kill each other.
“Although we try to be as safe as possible we’re constantly battered and bruised. It can go wrong. I broke my ankle and was out for nine months. It’s my full time job so it completely changed my life not being able to wrestle for that time.
“I’ve torn my shoulder, fractured some ribs, a few stress fractures. I’m one of the lucky ones.
“I’ve had a couple of concussions. To me that’s more serious than the break. You have to be so careful with concussion.”
Rhia’s nickname is the Fighting Irish and her finishing move is a double underhook DDT known as ‘The Rhia-justment’.
She said: “Of course wrestling is a huge part but your character is so important, how you look, how you cut promos. To gain fans you have to perfect an image which may or may not be anything like your actual personality. Especially for kids – they want a larger than life character.”
Ahead of her appearance as part of Pro Wrestling Ulster’s Know Your Enemy event in the Europa Hotel on Sunday at 6pm, she said: “This will be the first time back on home turf as a professional wrestler.
“I grew up in Derry until I was 11, then moved to the Newtownards Road in Belfast.
“I’ve never lost my Derry accent. When (the comedy programme) Derry Girls came out, loads of ones over here in England were saying to me, ‘that’s you!’”