Exclusive Q&A: Sara Amato on how the Mae Young Classic will disrupt WWE

Sara Amato

To get the lowdown on the competitors in the WWE Mae Young Classic, there’s one person you need to talk to: Sara Amato.

As NXT Assistant Head Coach, Amato has long been a major behind-the-scenes influence on WWE’s Women’s Evolution. The fingerprints of her coaching can be seen on virtually any female Superstar who has competed in NXT. Amato not only works hands-on with WWE Performance Center recruits, but she also observes the many talent tryouts that take place every year — tryouts that, for several women, led directly to the Mae Young Classic. And if Amato hasn’t trained them, there’s a good chance she’s wrestled them. Before becoming WWE’s first female coach, Amato was known as “Death Rey” Sara Del Rey, one of the independent circuit’s most respected competitors.

As the Mae Young Classic’s WWE Network debut on Aug. 28 approaches, WWE.com spoke with Amato to get a sense of what’s in store for the WWE Universe.

WWE.COM: Does it feel like this tournament has been a long time coming?

SARA AMATO: I don’t know if I’d say that. It feels like any other time before now, we and the viewing audience wouldn’t be ready. I think right now, all of the talent that we scoured the globe for and brought in have had years of independent training, whether it’s in Japan, America, Europe or Mexico, and it’s just the right time right now for all these ladies. Everyone’s bringing something different, something interesting, but along with that is seasoning that they wouldn’t have had any time prior.

WWE.COM: Coinciding with that is WWE’s ongoing Women’s Evolution. How significant is the Mae Young Classic to that movement?

AMATO: It’s huge. The women of WWE are breaking barriers monthly, it seems. I just think about when I was an active wrestler. There was an independent promoter, Dave Prazak of SHIMMER, that believed in women and put us all together and gave us our own events. That was so significant for me and my own development, to be around all these strong, competitive women who pushed each other. I’m blessed right now to have that at the WWE Performance Center with my group of ladies. It’s just so significant to bring them all here and put them on a platform like this, and for WWE and WWE Network to trust them to carry their own tournament TV show is huge.

WWE.COM: For a lot of WWE fans, the Classic will be their first chance to see these women. For people who aren’t familiar with the competitors, why is this event a must-see?

AMATO: It’s difficult to explain. I think a lot of people are going to surprise you. I have girls at the PC who went through the tryout process and who come from all different backgrounds. What WWE has done now is really highlighted women as athletes, so we’re drawing much stronger, more competitive women, whereas before there was a stronger focus on sex appeal, right? Speaking from my experience coaching at the PC, you have these super high-level athletes, and now they’re going to be in the ring with other women who have tremendous experience, like the girls who’ve wrestled in Japan, or Princesa Sugehit from Mexico, or Mercedes Martinez. It’s hard to put into words, but I think it’s going to be very compelling.

Meet the competitors in the WWE Mae Young Classic

Hear from the 32 women who are vying to win this summer's inaugural and historic Mae Young Classic tournament, which features competitors from all around the globe.

WWE.COM: When you spoke to WWE.com a few years ago, you said that one of the things that entertains you most about sports-entertainment is diversity. Looking at this lineup, it seems like there was a concerted effort to make it as diverse as possible.

AMATO: There definitely was. We wanted to portray a variety of women, all women. But it wasn’t just, “Oh, I need someone to fill this role.” Everyone really has a unique position in this tournament, whether it’s their experience level or the country they’re fighting out of. But they have all fought for years and they all deserve the opportunity to have this stage.

WWE.COM: One of the things that stands out, and perhaps it was in homage to the tournament’s namesake, Mae Young, is the grit and toughness of the competitors. At least two of the women have pro MMA experience, and there are women with high-level martial arts backgrounds. How will that affect the complexion of the tournament?

AMATO: It for sure makes it interesting. A lot of women in this tournament have amateur combat-sport backgrounds, like [judoka] Taynara Conti from Brazil or [wushu player] Xia Li from China. It’s going to be interesting to see what develops. But it’s all the same at the end of the day. Regardless of their backgrounds, they all have the same fighting instincts as traditional wrestlers.

WWE.COM: Another example is former UFC fighter Shayna Baszler, who continues the lineage of catch wrestlers, having trained under Billy Robinson. What do you think about her progress and the transition she has made from MMA to sports-entertainment?

AMATO: She’s such a cool case because she helped lead the charge for women in MMA. She’s just top notch, right? She’s amazing. She has close ties to Ronda Rousey and the other Four Horsewomen of MMA. Then she started to train for pro wrestling, and I know she’s very good friends with Nattie, who helped her out and I think showed her some stuff in the ring. It’s going to be a tough struggle for anyone who’s in the ring with her. 

WWE.COM: Who are some of your favorites, not only to go far in the tournament, but also to look out for in terms of stealing the show?

AMATO: Well, I have a very special place in my heart for Mercedes Martinez because she was my first rival in SHIMMER, and I’m just so fond of her and her work. She’s been doing this for so long, and so she’s come a long way to be in this environment. I know from training with Bianca Belair and Lacey Evans that they’re going to surprise a few people, too. They’re probably my top three picks that I’m pulling for and watching for. I’m also curious to see Piper Niven. She just has great conditioning and is unique. She moves well and is very unpredictable, very agile for her size and strength.

Mae Young Classic competitor Mercedes Martinez talks about Sara Amato's influence on women's wrestling

Sixteen-year ring veteran Mercedes Martinez reflects on her history with former rival and current NXT Assistant Coach Sara Amato, as well as comments on Amato's influence on WWE's Women's Evolution.

WWE.COM: You mentioned Mercedes Martinez. As we saw with the CWC and the U.K. Championship Tournament, these events can be so meaningful for veterans to make an impression for the first time on a WWE audience. For competitors like Martinez, this has probably been long overdue, right?

It's so empowering and motivating for young girls to have these strong women to look up to.

- Sara Amato

AMATO: Completely, and I love them finally getting that opportunity. I love the mentality of NXT and what WWE is doing with women now. When I started training 15 years ago, I didn’t fit the mold of what WWE was looking for in their women at the time, so it never seemed like an attainable dream, but I just loved what I did. It’s awesome to see all these similarly minded women who just love wrestling and love performing to get the opportunity to compete on the grandest stage, WWE, as cliché as it sounds.

WWE.COM: What kind of message does it send to the world, or specifically, to young girls watching at home, to see this all-women’s platform?

AMATO: It’s so empowering and motivating for young girls to have these strong women to look up to, to know that anything’s possible and that you can shoot for the moon. That’s one of the things that I love so much about Bayley, for example. It’s so important for the little girl watching at home to see that sort of thing.

WWE.COM: Events like this are disruptive, in a good way, to the ecosystem of WWE. How do you think the Mae Young Classic will shake things up for women in WWE?

AMATO: It’s going to be a challenge for the girls on Raw and SmackDown LIVE. The women of NXT already continue to push and challenge them, too, and force them to raise the bar. The Classic is going to be very disruptive. It’s going to show that there’s a lot of competition out there and that everyone’s gunning for a spot.

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