2019 was a tough year for Sasha Banks. Since debuting in the WWE in July 2015, she has wrestled in over 400 matches in 20 different countries, from the U.S. and Canada to Singapore and Japan, winning multiple championships and becoming one of the biggest stars in all of professional wrestling. That doesn’t even take into account her time spent in NXT, where she first established herself as one of the best wrestlers in the world, or the years spent training and hustling on pro wrestling’s independent scene. But by that spring, in the wake of WrestleMania 35, Banks had hit a wall.
“I really, really lost myself,” Banks recently revealed during an appearance on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Sessions. “For a good seven years, I didn’t even hear my real name. I didn’t hear Mercedes anymore. All I heard was Sasha Banks…. Depression was taking over. My mind was taking over. My thoughts were taking over.”
Banks wanted out. Vince McMahon told her to take 30 days to think things over. She took four months.
Upon her return, things started off well enough. She hit the ground running with a feud against Becky Lynch, culminating in a particularly memorable Hell in a Cell match. However it wasn’t until the world shut down in the wake of the pandemic that things really started to pick up.
Live crowds are a central makeup of wrestling’s DNA. Segments on TV are structured around the fans in attendance; storylines can shift week to week depending on the reactions performers elicit. In a sense, those in attendance become their own collective character who get to interact with every aspect of the show. No one knew what WWE would look or feel like without them, and the prospect of performing for weeks on end without a crowd to bounce off of was certainly daunting for the performers. But from the start, Sasha Banks was able to lay down the blueprint for how to succeed in this new reality. She dialed her on-screen persona up, taking advantage of the quiet moments previously filled by the white noise of the crowd to give those watching from home more of the Sasha Banks character. Her in-ring work, already highly acclaimed, became crisper and more purposeful.
Refreshed and refocused, Banks proved to be a ratings draw and was awarded with multiple championship titles throughout the year. Then in October, she followed in the footsteps of The Rock and John Cena by crossing over into Hollywood, making her acting debut as Koska Reeves in the second season of The Mandalorian. To cap things off, Sports Illustrated named Banks their Wrestler of the Year. She has carried that momentum into 2021, where she’ll be headlining night one of WrestleMania 37—the first WWE event to have fans in attendance in 393 days—defending the SmackDown women’s championship against Bianca Belair. We caught up with the champ to discuss her foray into Hollywood, how she found healing in Japan during her time away from the WWE, and what’s motivating her to once again steal the show at this year’s WrestleMania.
GQ: Last year was incredibly difficult for so many of us, but professionally, you had one of the best years of your life. How are you feeling right now, both mentally and physically?
Sasha Banks: It’s crazy what the universe continues to give me. I get shocked every single day. I mean, I’m walking into WrestleMania 37 as the SmackDown women’s champion, about to main event the damn pay-per-view. So I guess you can say I’m doing pretty well. I feel incredible.
The last time we spoke back in 2016 we tossed around the idea of you expanding into the acting world. I think you said then that the dream was to be in a Korean horror film…
Any kind of Korean movie, yeah. Or a thriller.
And then you end up as part of the biggest Hollywood franchise of all time, starring in season two of The Mandalorian.
When I got that phone call, I was just in such disbelief that I didn’t let it hit me until I actually went to L.A. to start filming. And then I was like, Oh, I have to keep this all a secret. So when it finally was announced, it was like, Wait, was this all real? It’s still such a mind shock.
It’s hard to overstate how much of an influence your younger brother, Joshua [who suffers from Tuberous sclerosis complex and autism], has had on your life. I know he’s a huge fan of WWE, but what did he think about seeing you on screen with Pedro Pascal and Baby Yoda?
Him getting to watch Star Wars—he was looking at me from the couch and then looking at the TV and just kind of in disbelief. He was like, “That’s you? Whoa.” He became the biggest fan of The Mandalorian. Just to see his eyes spark up the same way he does when he watches wrestling, it was the most amazing feeling ever.
We’re a few days away from another WrestleMania. You versus Bianca Belair on night one. It’s the first time two Black women will compete for a championship at WrestleMania. Can we just take a moment to reflect on how impactful it is to see two Black women highlighted in this way?
You just have to look at the times. That we can have two African-American women potentially main-event is huge, not just for the world of wrestling but for the world all over. For young women and people of every single color to know that nobody can hold them back from their destination and their purpose in life. To make things happen and grow. Because one day we’re not going to [have to say] “first time ever” for anything. It’s just beautiful people, these beautiful human beings, living life and getting to fulfil their dreams like everybody else. Sometimes in this world, people make you hate yourself. People make you question yourself. People feel like they don’t deserve the world when they need to translate that and know that you deserve everything.
When you were growing up as a huge fan of professional wrestling, there probably weren’t many moments for you to see someone who looks like you on this sort of platform. I have to imagine that it makes this present moment feel even more powerful?
It is, but I’m so thankful that I had the people I looked up to, like Jacqueline, Jazz, Eddie Guerrero. There was always a little representation here and there of different people of color, and people of different stories and backgrounds, showing me that they can make their dreams happen.
Foot Locker recently launched a collection of tees and hoodies designed by Wale, celebrating Black WWE champions. Names like Booker T, Mark Henry, Kofi Kingston, and, naturally, Sasha Banks.
I just got my package last night and seeing my shirt—I’m not just holding up one championship, I’m holding two! It was a straight-up surprise, but I’m so thankful for his support. Wale has given so much love to the Black community in professional wrestling and has really played a huge role in getting a lot of people noticed around here.
The last 12 months of your career have been great, but 2019 was a particularly challenging year for you. You took some time away from WWE, and one of the things you did during your hiatus was travel to Japan and train at Meiko Satomura’s dojo. In a sense, was that a form of therapy for you?
Everything during that time was all for me, for a therapeutic feeling. Japan was one of my biggest dreams when I first discovered wrestling. I loved Japanese women’s wrestling and that was the style that I really wanted to do. I understood that women can do it exactly the same way as the men. So at that time, I was like, I still have this itch for wrestling but I never got to go to Japan and accomplish that one dream of training there. This is the time. And getting to train with Satomura was so awesome. She is incredible. And now that she is signed with NXT UK, we’re even closer to getting that match. Hopefully the universe can make that one happen.
Manifest it! Satomura is such a legend, that match would be insane. There’s really no shortage of great matchups for you right now. I don’t think this is a controversial take, but is the current WWE roster perhaps the most talented roster of all time?
Oh, I feel like this is the best division we’ve ever had. I can’t believe the growth within just the five years of where I’ve been in this company. Top to bottom, every woman is so hungry to be number one, but also wants to work together as a unit. For me, I really love Kay Lee Ray in NXT UK. I’ve heard a lot about her and from the stuff I have seen, I really love her style. You can just tell when someone is good beyond their time, and she is. And there’s a lot of women here on SmackDown that I still haven’t had the chance to have a program or singles match with. Whether that’s Liv Morgan or Ruby Riott or Billie Kay. Natalya is someone I still really want to sink my teeth in with and have a real long, good match with, because I know she and I can go. But the potential is just endless. Down in NXT, we have so many incredible women from all over the world. I’m like a kid in a candy store, I could choose so many that I would want to perform with, because I still have a long time here.
When you have had your level of success at your age, is it ever hard at times to keep moving forward and stay motivated?
No, because there’s still so much to be done. There’s always work to be done. And it’s more internal than external. I love to put in the work to help it grow within itself. I mean, I beat Drew McIntyre last year, so I would love a singles match against Roman Reigns. Just to show that I really am the number one, number one, number one in the company.
The ultimate goal for pretty much everyone who becomes a pro wrestler is main-eventing WrestleMania. You’re on the brink of accomplishing that as we speak, but I also know a huge dream of yours is to main-event that show with your best friend, Bayley. Is it bittersweet at all being in this position but not being able to share that moment with her quite yet?
Anything I do, I’m always so supported by her love. This match going into WrestleMania, she’s made me feel so good and ready for it. Yes, we still have hopes and dreams of our own singles match one day. If not that, then a Four Horsewomen fatal-fourway match. We would love to have that against Becky and Charlotte main-eventing WrestleMania one day. But we’re good. We’ve gotten to accomplish so much together.
The two of you together on weekly TV at the start of the pandemic really helped prove that the show could go on, even without fans in attendance.
I still wake up in the middle of the night, just thinking about their screams and energy. It’s super hard to perform without them. It’s hard to get that adrenaline rush. It was more nerve wracking that I couldn’t warm up like I normally do, though. I usually scream behind the curtain right before I go out, but because it was silent and live television, I couldn’t make a single noise before I went out for my entrance. And taking that first bump without the rush of the crowd, it was hard. I had to try to channel that energy through the camera lens—try to feel the energy from the people watching at home.
WrestleMania will be the first WWE show with fans back in attendance, but there is also a new built-in audience for the show with it streaming on Peacock this year. Give us the 15-second Sasha Banks promo to sell ‘Mania this year to those who have never checked out a WWE show before.
There’s no selling or convincing needed! WWE and wrestling is larger than life. You are not going to see anything bigger or better. It’s entertainment, it’s theater, it’s sports. It’s like a soap-drama nighttime telenovela.
Aside from your own, obviously, is there a WrestleMania match that you’re particularly excited for or interested in checking out?
I’m looking forward to seeing Bad Bunny. I want to see what his finisher is going to be and what his match with the Miz is like. I’m interested in how he performs inside a WWE ring. But I’m really excited for the main event on the second night with Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, and Edge. That’s my competition! I need to make sure that my match is better than the whole card.