Kanji is one of the talents on the rise in the UK’s independent wrestling scene. With only two years in the business, she’s already made her name in various UK promotions, and impressed in an incredibly entertaining series of matches with Charli Evans. And her impact has certainly been felt as she was given a tryout by WWE for their NXT UK brand earlier this year.
Back in October, Kanji spoke with SteelChair Magazine in an exclusive interview that looks back at her journey to wrestling, recent UK promotions shutting their doors, and her thoughts on NXT UK. Another topic of conversation was a scheduled match with Tessa Blanchard on a RevPro show on November 24th. Unfortunately, not long after this interview, Kanji suffered an injury that took her out of her match with Tessa. However, despite that match no longer taking place, our interview with Kanji is here, and her story is here for fans to read about.
I guess this is the age-old question people like myself ask, but when did you decide that you wanted to become a pro wrestler? Were you always a fan?
Yeah, I watched it when I was a young girl with my family, and we’ve always grown up saying, “That’s the dream. I want to be a wrestler when I’m older.” But it wasn’t until the second year of my degree that I realised this could actually happen because that’s when I discovered the actual independent wrestling scene in England. So that’s when I thought, oh my god, this could actually happen.
Do you recall a moment where you were watching wrestling and it hooked you?
I can’t remember the first time I watched it, but I remember certain stories that stuck out to me when I was watching it. Storylines like the Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero feud (in 2005), and the Edge and Lita storyline they had. It was things like that, that really captured me, and they’re the ones that I really remember. So when I’m getting involved in storylines now, I love it because that’s what really captured me when I was younger.
On your Instagram, there is a picture of your graduation. What did you graduate in and was there ever a plan to not pursue wrestling?
I studied drama because I wanted to be an actor, and I’m still really into acting. I miss it so much. I worked through college, doing acting at college. Then I went onto study drama at uni for three years, hoping to go out into the acting industry. And then, by the time I had finished uni, I realised that school was almost phasing out drama from the curriculum, and I was not too happy about that. So I kind of took an activist role to support and stand up for drama at school, so that’s when I went on to do my teaching degree.
Oh, so you had a plan to be involved in drama and be a teacher, and not pursue wrestling?
And it was in your second year of university where you discovered independent wrestling? You didn’t know about it prior to that?
Yeah, I had no idea about it. I didn’t know anything. I mean, I had seen posters around my area, but I never knew it was actually a serious thing at all.
I was actually in a similar state of mind when I was younger. It was just WWE, nothing else really existed.
Yeah, that’s all I thought was out there. I thought if you wanted to become a wrestler, you had to move to America (laughs).
(Laughs) yeah, that was always the thought. You’re from an Indian background, correct?
What was your parent’s reaction to you becoming a wrestler because coming from a similar culture as yourself; I know how Asian parents can react when you want to try something that’s a little different?
Yeah. Well, it was my Dad, Granddad, and my Great Grandma, who have always been into wrestling. But I think when we used to say we wanted to be wrestlers when we’re older, they didn’t see it as something serious. I think they saw it as some childish dream that we had in our heads. I don’t think they thought we’d ever actually go along with it. But when we were at home, wrestling around in the living room, we always got told off. But, no, I don’t think they really thought it would happen.
I remember when I started training, they thought it was funny and didn’t think anything would come from it. They just thought it was funny. But now they can see how serious this is for me and how much I’m succeeding in this. They’re so happy and proud, and love watching my matches on YouTube. So it’s amazing because I never thought my Grandma would be into it, but she loves it. So it’s amazing.
Was there ever a moment when you were training that they tried to talk you out of wrestling?
No. They’ve never actually said they don’t want me to do it. Obviously, they’ve always said keep safe and things like that. But they’ve never once said they don’t want me to do it. That’s why I was so surprised, especially with my Grandma, because I didn’t think she’d be a fan. And I’ve always wondered that because there are not many Indian girls that wrestle at all.
When I first came across Jinny, she was the first Indian female wrestler that I knew in England anyway. So when I first heard about her, I was really inspired to see that not only is she an Indian female wrestling in the UK, but she’s actually one of the top girls we have, and she’s really winning. It meant a lot to come across her.
Was that a moment where you thought you could do this because there was an example right in front of you?
Yeah, definitely. I always questioned why there aren’t many Indian girls wrestling. I’ve always wondered that. I always thought, maybe England doesn’t want to see Indian girls wrestling, I don’t know. Because I’ve never had a negative response, from my family not wanting me to wrestle, so I don’t know. But then I discovered Jinny and realised that’s obviously not the case. I’m just creating my own limitations and a self barrier, I guess.
You can get a little paranoid, I guess?
Yeah, that’s it. To see her (Jinny) winning and signed to NXT, it really makes you think that you can do it, and there is no stopping me.
How did the name Kanji come about?
My surname is Makanji. So I wanted to use my surname in wrestling. I don’t know if it’s with every culture, but especially with Asian culture, the surname is a big deal to carry through the family. My Dad used to always say that when I got married, I should try keeping Makanji and not lose it. And he was obviously the one that got me into wrestling and everything, so I just wanted to keep a part of my surname and carry it through.
That makes sense, and I think it works. Was there ever a consideration to use the name Winona or did it have to be connected to Makanji?
I never thought about keeping my first name. I didn’t think it would be a good idea because I felt like I wouldn’t be Winona in the ring. I would be someone else. Almost like an alter ego. So I didn’t want to be Winona in the ring. But speaking to other people, they’ve always said I think you should have kept Winona because it’s an interesting name. I just did not want to be myself when I was in the ring; I wanted to be someone else.
Yeah, and especially with your drama background, you probably wanted to play a character.
That’s it, yeah.
You made a pretty quick impact in various promotions like Defiant, Wrestling Resurgence, and Southside. Was there a point where you felt like you had finally found a home as far as a wrestling company goes?
It wasn’t until I debuted for Southside, and that’s when I started getting recognised. So for me, I feel like I owe a lot to Southside because they’ve put so much into me, and they have given me so much to stand on, and so many opportunities. Just the way they treat me, the way they look after me, it’s everything.
It’s really unfortunate that Southside will be no more after the 26th of October, but their family will still be working with RevPro, so I’ll still be close with the family, and that’s all that matters really.
Is it through Southside that you got booked for RevPro’s upcoming shows in November?
I’ve never worked for RevPro before. The women’s division was not very big (at RevPro). It was rare that they would have women matches on, which is strange because obviously, they’ve got a women’s championship. But ever since they’ve been working with Southside management, it’s stepped up because Southside has such a strong women’s division, and they always have done. I think Southside has had a massive impact on their women’s division, which is great. It kind of modernizes it, I think.
You’re obviously still growing as an in-ring performer, but is there anyone that you’ve wrestled where you felt like you stepped up to a whole new level?
Yeah, I feel like that all the time when I wrestle Charli Evans. Even the first time I worked with her at Wrestling Resurgence, I had never even met her before, and I feel like we clicked so easily and so quickly that I felt so comfortable in the ring, and ever since, I just feel like I’ve learned so much from her. So I love, love working with her so much.
Also, I worked with Jinny a while ago at Attack, but unfortunately, I had a knee injury, and I had to play it safe. But I worked with her at EVE, and it was amazing. Just amazing to be in the ring with her, learn from her, and I feel like I did, I learned from her so much. And I think we have great chemistry in the ring, so yeah, I loved that.
Is there anything in those matches with say Charli, where they say or do something that you never thought of before?
Yeah, little things like ring positioning and timing of certain things. I’ve worked with Charli quite a few times, so I’ve picked up more things. With her, we’d be doing something, and she’ll change something in the match just by reacting to how the audience is responding. So if the audience is really loud and loving what we’re doing, she’ll tell me to stick with this until they’ve had enough. And it’s little things like that, that make you realise how experienced she is.
That’s pretty amazing because she’s very young as well. Even younger than you?
Yeah. I think she’s only like 23, 22.
She carries herself really well. And what I will say about your match at Wrestling Resurgence, where I think you went fifteen minutes, and she was dominating throughout, and you made a comeback at the end only for her to escape with the win. I thought that was a fantastic match with you being the underdog, and the crowd was on their feet the entire match. That was brilliant.
Thank you (laughs).
You’re very welcome (laughs). Again, that’s a simple story, but great storytelling.
That’s it, storytelling, I love it.
Of course, some of the promotions I’ve mentioned, Defiant and Southside, have closed their doors. How big of a blow is that to the UK wrestling scene, especially for someone like yourself who had close ties to those companies?
I think it’s a massive impact on the wrestlers that got so many opportunities from those promotions that are closing down. So, for Defiant, I know that for the likes of Gabriel Kidd, Joseph Conners, and even Bea Priestley, Defiant was such a huge platform for them. They learnt so much, and they almost made themselves and found themselves in that promotion. So for them to see that company close down, I think it’s had a massive impact on them.
So with Southside closing down, it’s obviously impacted me a lot because of how much they’ve done for me, and that’s the place I feel at home. But with Defiant, I hadn’t worked there for very long. But it is a big thing, and obviously, we’ve got so many more opportunities. There are so many other companies out there that are able to give such a huge platform for everyone.
I think when people keep saying Brit’ Wrestling is dead, it really isn’t. It’s far from it.
With some of these recent closures, do you look at say NXT UK as a reason why this is happening, and what are your thoughts on NXT UK?
I think the opportunity to have NXT UK here is incredible. I think the fact that WWE has come here and given the UK such a huge platform is amazing. I think it’s only helping our indie scene and independent wrestlers get more recognised by the whole world and not just the UK. You don’t have NXT India or NXT Germany. So I think it’s incredible that they’ve given us this opportunity.
WWE sees something in the UK that no one else has. So for them to take on some of our talents here and put them on a massive platform for the world to see, that’s something special. And I think with the people they’ve taken on, especially Kay Lee Ray, Jinny, Tyler Bate, they really deserve that platform. They worked so hard. They did so much for the independent scene, and they deserve this huge opportunity.
Speaking of WWE, you recently had an NXT UK tryout in June, what was that experience like?
It was incredible. Never in my life did I think I’d be in a WWE ring. Just to be around people like William Regal, and even Shawn Michaels was there towards the end. Never in my life did I believe that I was going to be in that position at that time. It was an incredible experience.
Did you get an opportunity to maybe speak with them or get any feedback?
It wasn’t run by William Regal, but he was the one that was there all the time with us. So he spoke to us so much, and gave us so much feedback, and shared his knowledge, experience, and wisdom of wrestling. Even the opportunity to sit there and listen to him talk about his experiences, and learn from that was invaluable in itself. So it was really incredible. I’d live it over and over again if I could.
That’s good. Even though you didn’t get in at that time, the experience was still valuable.
That’s it, yeah.
Is WWE still the end goal for you?
Yeah, I think it definitely is. I feel like I’ve got so much to learn beforehand, so I’m in no rush. Now having NXT UK here, I think everyone sees it as a huge goal for us to achieve. But then again, there is no rush because it’s here. And although we are competing against everything that is around us, everyone is still supporting each other to gain that experience. So eventually, if an opportunity like that comes up, we can grab it and be there.
Right now, though, I’m just in a position where I wanna get so much more experience. I want to learn from so many more people in the ring, trainers in different countries. I’m desperate to go to Japan and train there before I actually settle down to a huge career opportunity with NXT UK. But if it comes, I’m ready, I reckon.
To keep up to date with Kanji and her upcoming appearances and matches, follow @KanjiDuku.