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Inside Nia Jax's meteoric rise to the top of WWE's women's division

WWE superstar Nia Jax holds the Raw women’s championship on an episode of “Monday Night Raw.” (Photo courtesy of WWE)

On the April 7, 2014 episode of “Monday Night Raw,” Paige made her debut on the WWE’s main roster. The then 21-year-old wrestler captured the WWE Divas championship in her first contest and essentially set into motion what would become known in the company as the “Women’s Revolution.”

More than four years have passed since the “Anti-Diva’s” debut, and if Paige helped usher in a new era in women’s wrestling, Nia Jax in many ways is the complete realization of it.

Jax, whose real name is Lina Fanene, has arguably become the most important female wrestler in the WWE today. Billed as the “Irresistible Force,” Jax’s combination of in-ring ability and charisma has led to her rapid ascension to the top of the “Raw” women’s division and in position to have perhaps the most important match in WWE women’s history.

After spending more than a year toiling away in myriad mid-card storylines and matches, Jax seemingly put it all together at the start of 2018, feuding with then-unbeaten Asuka and eventually Alexa Bliss – an angle that culminated in Jax capturing the Raw women’s championship at “WrestleMania 34” this past April.

“It’s been pretty surreal because in this business everybody is constantly grinding and working hard,” Jax told Yahoo Sports. “Winning the championship at “WrestleMania” was a dream come true because not only had it more than a decade since there had been a women’s singles match at “WrestleMania,” but the fact that I got to win it against my best friend in a storyline that was so close to my heart, it was just all kinds of emotional.”

In a division that has grown exponentially over the past several years, there’s no other female star like Jax, and that adds to the attraction she brings each and every night. While it would be easy to simply book Jax as a “monster heel,” WWE has allowed the 34-year-old star to flourish as one of the most unique talents – male or female – on the roster.

“Nia Jax is bringing a whole different message to the ‘Women’s Evolution,” Jax said. “Yes, we are athletic. Yes, we can go just as hard as the men, but women come in all different shapes and sizes. We all have a different story and a different look and everything should be celebrated.”

That different look is something Jax embraces, in fact, it’s arguably the foundation of her character. While every male wrestler’s billed weight is announced prior to a match, the women’s weight has always remained a mystery. Jax, when approached with the idea of having her weight announced before her contests, took pride in breaking down that barrier.

“It’s something [WWE senior producer] Johnny Ace [Laurinaitis] mentioned to me and we went to Vince [McMahon] and we talked about it,” Jax said. “That’s something that’s tough for a woman, sharing their weight. Me sharing my weight and me being the person I am, Vince agreed with me on this, it’s embracing who you are.

“[Someone who is] 272 pounds is a very heavy person and it’s a lot of force that these women are taking. It incorporated not only the message that I’m sending about my body, but also a character thing. It was really cool because when we talked about it and I saw his vision behind it, I realized I would be the only one in this division where you’d be able to see this force.”

WWE superstar Nia Jax competes against Alexa Bliss for the Raw women’s championship at WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans, La. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Since her victory at “WrestleMania 34,” Jax has become one of the most recognizable and marketable faces of the company. Her status as Raw women’s champion has helped to grow her status as a role model and allowed her to continue to be an advocate for her – and the WWE’s – anti-bullying and body positivity campaigns.

“There’s a huge respect that you get from being the women’s champion,” Jax said. “Everybody gives it, in the locker room and everywhere I go. It’s cool to be able whenever I’m doing media to be able to share that message which is near and dear to my heart. That respect that I’m given is very humbling and it allows me to continue to share my message.”

In addition to her appearances on WWE television and at live events, Jax made a public appearance on WWE’s behalf at the NBC Universal upfront presentation last month, setting the stage for perhaps the biggest moment of her career.

At the event, which was also attended by fellow WWE stars Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey, Jax took center stage when she challenged the former UFC bantamweight champion to a title match at the upcoming pay-per-view event “Money in the Bank.”

The match, which takes place Sunday, marks Rousey’s first singles match since joining WWE earlier this year and is not just one of the most anticipated moments of the night, it arguably could be one of the most important moments in the history of women’s wrestling.

“I know it sounds so cheesy, but I am honored I get this opportunity to step into the ring with a woman who has pioneered so much for women in sports,” Jax said. “Ronda has gone out there and been unapologetically herself. She is who she is.”

In reality, this moment is huge for both Rousey, who is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the company due to her massive celebrity and athletic accomplishments, and Jax, who has been tasked with helping to create a true main-event feel during the weeks leading up to the match.

“I am so excited and nervous,” Jax admitted. “I’m using those nerves to fuel me as well. It’s going to be such an amazing match and I can’t wait for people to see what Ronda Rousey is capable of and what we’re capable of doing together. It’s such a powerhouse match.”

WWE superstar Nia Jax appears on an episode on “Monday Night Raw” prior to her match with Ronda Rousey at the “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

The stakes are so high that every move the pair has made on “Raw” has been dissected by wrestling fans and media outlets alike. Since Rousey is still a newcomer, more of the burden of building up this match has fallen on Jax’s shoulders and many have taken notice of her quick transition from on-screen hero to villain in just a few short weeks.

“It’s funny because everyone is asking ‘Oh my God, is she heel or is she face?’” Jax said. “Nia Jax is Nia Jax. That’s something that I have been trying to get across. I am who I am in the moment. I’m not a heel, I’m not a babyface, I’m Nia Jax.

“In this setting with Ronda, the competition is high. She’s coming into our house and everybody is already so in love with her, she’s so established. I worked hard too. It comes off as being heel and cocky, but at the end of the day I’m pretty darn good myself.”

Jax’s ability to forego those traditional pro wrestling roles is simply another way in which she separates herself from the pack. While some WWE stars still operate in kayfabe – the idea of protecting the characters and storylines in professional wrestling – Jax manages to keep her on-screen persona separate from her social media and real life.

“That’s what we do in the WWE, we tell stories, we’re characters,” Jax said. “We go into the ring and my character is telling a story in the ring against another character. Nia Jax, who’s also Lina Fanene, is a very happy, positive person who loves to spread messages, but when she’s in the ring, at the end of the day she’s a bad ass competitive girl who is going to prove a point.”

While she is forced to balance a hectic travel schedule, performing, filming a reality TV show and making public appearances, Jax doesn’t forget the position she’s in and the opportunities she’s been afforded. It’s one lesson she says her cousin (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) taught her.

“Every single day I wake up with gratitude in my heart that we get to do what we do because there are so many people out there that wish they could,” Jax said. “I’m very appreciative.”