WWE's secret weapon: How Sara Amato is changing the Divas division
“To me, [Sara Amato] is the best American female professional wrestler I've ever seen. And I'm talking about ever — including people who’ve been on national television, who wrestled in any era,” Dave Prazak, a producer of Illinois-based all-women's league Shimmer Women Athletes, told WWE.com. “Sara is that good.”
This claim may come as a surprise — if not sound like complete hyperbole — to fans unfamiliar with the onetime Sara Del Rey. But those who have seen her trade forearms with Kharma in New York City or relentlessly headbutt Manami Toyota in the dojos of Japan know that the fierce “Death Rey” — who unabashedly prioritized striking ability over sex appeal — spent a decade pursuing perfection in her chosen craft of wrestling.
Now, Amato is helping shape the look and feel of NXT’s women’s division and, in turn, WWE’s Divas division, for years to come. It just so happens she’s making history doing it, as the first female coach at the WWE Performance Center.
For the self-described tomboy — a protégé of Daniel Bryan who has an affinity for “manipulating people with holds” and considers training her favorite aspect of the game — there couldn’t be a more perfect scenario. When she was approached with the idea of joining the training staff in mid-2012, Amato knew she had knowledge to impart, especially to young women entering an arena dominated by men.
“It’s just not the same for men and women to learn, and I thought I’d love to share what I learned along the way with anyone who’s listening,” she said. “It was a very natural fit. It felt like the ultimate dream.”
Amato was raised on Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior, and she learned the ropes at the Hayward, Calif.-based All Pro Wrestling Boot Camp, the same program that produced former WWE Superstars Spike Dudley and Crash Holly. Several months into her training — around the time Amato says she was “just starting to put it together” — APW’s coaching staff changed, and a new head instructor arrived. Enter the man who would irreversibly alter her outlook on wrestling: “The American Dragon,” Daniel Bryan.
Bryan recognized Amato’s strong work ethic right off the bat. He recalled the day her class was learning to perform back body drops.
“The person who was giving them to her collapsed underneath her, and when she landed, she separated her shoulder,” Bryan said. “She rolled out of the ring, popped her shoulder back in and rolled into the ring.”
Another collapsed backdrop, another separated shoulder. Amato again rolled out of the ring, popped her shoulder back in place, and wanted to continue. Although Bryan admired her tenacity, he couldn’t let her go on. “At that point, we had to say stop,” he said.
Bryan soon took her under his wing, working with her in one-on-one sessions. Amato credited him with teaching her how to watch wrestling with an analytical eye. He also exposed her to different styles, sharing his VHS tape collection and introducing her to everything from Battlearts in Japan to European catch wrestling. Before long, Amato was competing not only on the U.S. independent circuit, but also in Japan, a nation where women’s wrestling once flourished on the backs of the aforementioned Toyota, Bull Nakano, and Amato’s all-time favorite, Aja Kong. She called Kong her “ultimate wrestling inspiration.”
“WWE had gorgeous women, but I never saw myself as that,” Amato said. “I knew they were beautiful women. I just couldn’t relate to them. But once I saw Aja, I thought, ‘Whoa. She’s not worried about what her hair looks like or what she’s wearing. She’s just in this.’”
The name Sara Del Rey grew in popularity abroad, as well as stateside in the mid-2000s, at a time when all-women’s organizations were just sprouting in the U.S. independent scene. When Shimmer Women Athletes opened its doors in 2005 with the stated mission of giving women’s wrestling a serious and competition-based platform, she instantly became their ace, appearing on the first 48 events without missing a show. Amato also grew into a locker room leader, somebody who less experienced talent would ask to critique their matches.
“Young wrestlers looked up to her as someone to aspire to be like because she proved that gender doesn’t have to hold one back from being a top-flight pro wrestler,” said Prazak. “She is a huge benefit to the future of Divas in WWE.”
Amato turned into a star personality for groups like Ring of Honor and Chikara Pro, too. She’d regularly steal shows with her rugged matches, some of which were against men. Cesaro witnessed Amato’s fighting spirit up-close when he teamed alongside her in the indies. The Real American extolled her technique.
“She doesn’t wrestle like a girl, she wrestles like a man, and I mean that in the best way possible,” he said. “She has a very physical ring style; she’s technically very gifted and is probably technically better than a lot of the guys I’ve been in the ring with.
“She also kicks harder than a mule,” he added.
Bryan takes pride in having witnessed Amato transform from a student into a locker room peer, and he finds it rewarding that fans compare her to men.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, she’s good for a girl.’ And Sara wasn’t good for a girl,” he said. “She was good.”
Amato’s polish can be owed, in part, to her willingness to travel the globe in search of diverse opponents and new techniques and styles. Bryan said she made sacrifices that many men wouldn’t make.
“She lived in Japan for nine months and slept on dojo floors. She went and lived in Mexico in some scary places to go live by yourself if you’re a woman,” he said. “She was going places that most guys wouldn’t to become a better wrestler.”
With her wrestling-driven wanderlust and tireless work ethic — combined with inspirations like Bryan and Kong — Amato developed a style that was, in many ways, a stark departure from the once-ubiquitous lingerie matches of The Attitude Era. She’s a big fan of WWE’s current family-friendly direction because it allows women and men to be treated more comparably, with an eye toward competition in the ring.
Yet, Amato’s adamant she’s not at the Performance Center to churn out a bunch of Sara Del Rey clones. If anything, her goal is just the opposite. Remarking that she’s “blown away daily” by the level of talent working out in Orlando, Amato observed that each woman in NXT brings something unique to the table.
“Diversity is really entertaining to me, and I hope other people feel that, too,” she said. “All of these girls were signed for a special talent or a specific reason, and that’s awesome. Let’s go with that. If you want to be sexy, I’m not going to tell you not to be. The important thing is to give the best that you have to offer and to feel comfortable doing it. I think when you’re genuinely happy and good at what you’re doing, it’s going to show, and it’s going to make you a better performer.”
That emphasis on individuality isn’t lost on the women she works with, both at the Performance Center and on the road at Raw and SmackDown. Divas like Aksana and Summer Rae note the influence Amato has had on their growth, whether in regard to refining their in-ring mechanics, helping them break out of their shell or just giving women a voice in coaches’ meetings.
“She listens to you,” said Aksana, who has received tips from Amato. “She lets you be yourself, and she listens to what you’d love to do, and if she corrects you, you will be happy she did.”
The fact that she was chosen as the Performance Center’s first female trainer signifies the high level of trust the company has in Amato, Summer Rae explained. When Amato began training NXT Divas, her first order of business was to revisit the fundamentals. The ballroom brawler said “Death Rey” instilled in her an understanding that women can be both beautiful and strong fighters inside the ring.
“It’s great to have a woman in our corner,” Summer Rae said. “She can relate to us, and she empowers us. She tells us that we can do the same stuff as the guys and do it just as well. Sara’s been a really positive role model to all of us at the Performance Center. We’re really lucky to have her.”
Whether her current role as a coach will lead Amato to ring time in WWE’s Divas division remains to be seen. She recently looked for her ring gear but came up empty-handed. Misplaced singlets aside, Amato is more than content continuing what she’s doing now: training in the ring and sharing her passion for sports-entertainment with the next generation of Divas.
Cesaro already sees a difference in the way the women of NXT compete since Amato’s arrival, and he believes it won’t be long before the entire WWE Universe gets a better sense of what to expect from the Divas of tomorrow.
“The women’s division is going to be under an even closer microscope with WWE Network,” Cesaro said, calling attention to NXT’s newest platform. “The division is just going to get more and more competitive, and I think people will be surprised by how competitive it will get. It’s just going to be more enjoyable for the viewer and it’s going to be great wrestling, great entertainment, because of it.”
For now, Amato’s concentration is squarely on the WWE Performance Center, not attaining WWE Superstardom. Still, she’s quick to explain that she wouldn’t rule out a run in WWE.
“If the opportunity comes up, I definitely wouldn’t say no,” she conceded, before adding, fittingly, “After all, that’s why we train.”