WWE: Career-defining character change for Kiwi Dakota Kai

The year 2020 will live in infamy, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for Kiwi pro wrestler Dakota Kai, it could prove the most defining of her 13-year career - certainly her most successful.

Kai - real name Cheree Crowley - grew up a big wrestling fan in New Zealand, watching WWE with her brother.

That love of sports entertainment turned into a career when, at age 19, she made her debut in a high school gym for New Zealand's Impact Wrestling.

A little less than a decade later, the now 32-year-old fulfilled a lifelong dream when she inked a WWE development contract, after making a name for herself throughout Australasia, Europe and Asia. 

Kai made her first WWE appearance on the NXT brand in October 2015 against Nia Jax - Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's niece - and although she lost quickly, she made an impression on new boss Paul 'Triple H' Levesque 

WWE great Pau 'Triple H' Levesque
WWE great Pau 'Triple H' Levesque Photo credit: WWE.com

Over the next four years, the Kiwi pocket rocket developed her skills and became a valued member of the excellent NXT women's division.

A WrestleMania debut followed in 2018 in front of more than 60,000 fans at New Orleans Superdome, but the path to superstardom really began in November last year.

After 13 years as a fun-loving babyface (fan favourite), NXT brass felt it was time for a character shift and turned Kai heel (bad guy).

And while she had her doubts, Kai agrees it was the most significant moment of her career.

"I was really hesitant when they pitched it to me," Kai tells Newshub. "But they were right. 

"It's been so much fun to dive into something I haven't really done before. I mean, I've never been a bad guy, but it's helped me grow as a character and, more importantly, shown the fans an edgier Dakota Kai. 

"I'm no longer that fun-loving cool chick," she laughs. "Now I'm a bad-ass cool chick."

In January, Kai became the first NZ pro wrestler since 1995 to appear at WWE's Royal Rumble event - one of the marquee matches on a jam-packed calendar.

Wrestling in front of more than 42,000 fans at Houston's Minute Maid Park was as surreal as it gets, given 24 hours earlier, Kai had no clue she was in the creative plans for just the third women's Royal Rumble match ever.

"Oh my God, I can't actually believe that that was this year. It feels like two years ago. 

"I found out the night before and, for me, it was surreal. I stood there pretty stunned and then to have that moment in front of such a huge crowd - it was very special and I still can't really believe that it happened."

That started a stellar nine months for the Aucklander. Featuring predominantly on NXT's weekly television show, Kai has often stolen the show and, by August, her star had risen high enough that she was trusted with a major match at NXT's Takeover event in Florida.

While she didn't win the women's title, falling short in a five-star match against champion Io Shirai, Levesque labeled her performance as star-making.

"It continues to amaze me how these girls keep performing at the level they do and Dakota is no different," Leveque told Newshub last month.

"Tonight she made herself a star. The show those two put on, on a night when everyone brought it, left me speechless.

"I'm so proud of Dakota - she earned that spot and the sky's the limit for her.

"She knows who she wants to be as a performer and she is really connecting with the audience, both in the ring and on the microphone,'

"Amazing job by her."

Dakota Kai
Dakota Kai Photo credit: WWE.com

Dakota Kai features on WWE NXT Saturday mornings, 11am on SKYNZ 5.

 WWE: Career-defining character change for Kiwi Dakota Kai
Photo credit: WWE.com

That type of compliment from one of the larger-than-life stars Kai used to watch every Friday night in her Auckland home is mind-boggling.

She admits she still has to pinch herself when she walks into work every day, and crosses paths with Levesque or WWE Hall of Fame legend Shawn Michaels.

"It's hard sometimes not to be a fangirl and buzz out, and to be honest, I do sometimes. I mean, that's frickin Shawn Michaels - he's the greatest of all time, right?

"But once work starts, that kinda fades and then to receive advice from them on what they think I can do better - who wouldn't take that on board from two of the biggest names in the industry."

Outside of her wrestling exploits, Kai is an obsessed gamer and recently re-launched a Twitch account, so fans could follow her video game adventures.

Kai tells Newshub the best thing about Twitch is she can be herself and allow fans a little peek behind her on-screen character.

"I did Twitch before I got to WWE. I've always loved video games and given the current climate of empty arena events, I think it's really important we have a platform to connect with our fans.

"Playing games is a cool way to achieve that and I really enjoy allowing people to see me away from the ring."

One trippy experience for 'charliegirl' is looking at herself in a video game.

Kai is a character in the latest two editions of WWE's 2K game, a series she played when back at home.

"I used to thrash the WWE games with my brother, so it's crazy that I'm in the game. I remember when I found out, I'm pretty sure I nearly cried. 

"It's cool that fans have that platform to play as their favourite characters. It was a big part of my wrestling fandom and hopefully it can inspire others to explore the business beyond a video game."

Kai's latest eye-opening experience in a crazy year of firsts? She recently found out she would feature in the next line of WWE action figures.

"How cool is that right? I'll have to get one for Mum and Dad."