(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) — Dakota Kai is 8,000 miles from home, living in a foreign country, and having to fight with her best friend at work. Any semblance of the daily routine that she had grown accustomed to has been erased by the global disruption of a deadly pandemic.
Life as an NXT Superstar is almost always chaotic, but the current circumstances are taking it to next level insanity.
“Everything’s just turned upside down, and I don’t like it,” Kai said. “I want things to go back to how they were.”
Don’t we all?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, WWE and its talent have become the flag bearers for the “whatever it takes” and “the show must go on” mentalities. Pushing through has meant abandoning packed arenas and instead broadcasting on closed sets with only essential personnel allowed in the building.
It has also meant adhering to safety measures put in place to limit the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Talent and crew are required to wear masks at all times except for when they are performing on camera. Superstars must also be examined and cleared to wrestle by the medical staff each night. Anyone exhibiting symptoms of an illness will be sent home.
Despite the precautions, an alleged employee anonymously levied a public complaint against WWE with the Orange County, Florida Board of County Commissioners this week. The employee, known as “John,” claims it is impossible for talent and crew to maintain social distancing even with the sanitary precautions. The employee further stated that he feared he would be fired if he expressed his concerns with “higher-ups” and requested the county shut down production despite the company being deemed an essential business last week. The essential designation enables WWE to continue taping shows while a statewide stay-at-home order is in effect.
The wrestling giant responded by saying there was no truth to the allegations.
“These accusations aren’t true. Employees know they can confidentially go to Human Resources, not the public,” a statement from the company read. “Notwithstanding the appropriate protocol, no one would be fired if they were uncomfortable with their surroundings. We’ve made accommodations for individuals upon request.”
As for Kai? She feels confident that the steps being taken by WWE provide adequate protection.
The massive changes and empty stands are forcing Kai to completely rethink the way she performs. She is still playing to the audience, but it’s one watching at home. It’s all very strange to focus on something so invisible when you’re used to having the instant feedback of crowd reaction.
Normally fans will cheer if they like something and boo if they don’t. In most cases, wrestlers are good with either response. It’s silence that they dread because it means they’re not connecting with the crowd. But for more than a month, silence is all there has been. Every match is a guessing game and all Kai and others can do is hope they’re on the right track. The soonest any of them can get feedback now is by checking Twitter after a match.
Kai is currently in the midst of an in-ring feud with former bestie, Tegan Nox. Some fans believe with the chemistry they display their battles could potentially grow into a long-running classic akin to the Johnny Gargano-Tommaso Ciampa saga.
The two will write the next chapter in their feud on Wednesday night’s live NXT broadcast when Kai teams up with Raquel Gonzalez to face Nox and Shotzi Blackheart.
I had an opportunity to catch up with Kai as she prepares for the match to get her thoughts on the rivalry, their real-life friendship, and safety measures put in place by WWE and wrestling during a global pandemic.
This whole situation is incredibly weird. Your schedule must be really off from what it typically is.
It’s insane. From going to just shooting on a closed set, just the fact that we’re not in front of an audience anymore really makes you appreciate them so much more than before. It’s so difficult to do that. Yeah, it’s so strange, not traveling to do the live shows that we did anymore, or for now. Everything’s just turned upside down, and I don’t like it. I want things to go back to how they were. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss fans.
What is the biggest adjustment that you’ve had to make in terms of just being in the ring and still performing when you don’t have any of the fans there?
Focusing on the at-home audience more so than ever before. Obviously for TV, that’s already such a key thing to realize, that there’s just so many more people watching at home. But now that’s all we have. So, it’s very strange to just focus on that. It’s been quite a challenge, but we’re doing the best. I just really would like things to go back to they were, and I hope it’s not too far off.
NXT TakeOver: Tampa didn’t get a chance to happen because of the pandemic. Would you be open to the idea of having a fan-less TakeOver, or is that something you feel like should be reserved for when you can get that packed arena again?
Honestly, it all depends on how much longer things will be the way that they are now. I’m not against it, obviously giving the fans at home forms of entertainment is key right now. I would obviously love, love, love for us to be able to do TakeOvers with the packed arenas again, but who knows how long this is going to be going on. I would not be against that idea at all, doing a crowd-less TakeOver at some point. … [It is] very feasible during this time, very doable what they did with two days of WrestleMania. I think it’s definitely achievable.
Talk a little bit about the chemistry that you and Tegan have. There are certain people that get put in the ring together and just work so well.
We started in WWE at the same time. We literally landed upon moving here at the airport at the same time, and she had the same rental car. So, I sort of knew her before I did Shimmer, and she did a Shimmer show, and that’s the only time I ever met her. I never worked her before or anything. So we were kind of still strangers to one another per moving here, but we became fast friends. It was crazy. We did everything together.
I think that the chemistry stems from a lot of trust. You have to have that in the ring, and we definitely have that. So yeah, I think if you have a connection with someone outside the ring, it just really does carry over to in the ring where you have to put your life basically in the other person’s hands a lot. So yeah, I think that has a lot to do with it.
Being such close friends, were you disappointed then when the storylines shifted and you turned on her?
It was a little sad. I think that our tag team could’ve gone a lot further than it did because it just felt like we were able to work together as a tag team for such a short time before WarGames happened and then that storyline began.
But in saying that, being able to be with one of your best friends in the ring as opponents is one of the greatest things, because you’re able to tell this amazing story and really, really trust the other person. So, we were so into all of the stories, and we wanted to be able to put out some of the best wrestling we could. So yeah, it’s a double-edged sword.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the safety measures that have been put in place. I believe Drew McIntyre told TMZ that he basically has a locker room to himself and maybe the talent has to wear masks. Are you feeling comfortable when you’re taping the shows?
I feel so comfortable taping all the shows that there have been a lot of measures being taken during this time. So yeah, all of us have to wear masks, besides from when we’re actually taping the matches, that’s definitely a need. Before we do anything, we have to check in with medical to make sure that we’re able to perform.
If anyone’s unable to, they get sent home. They can’t be involved or at the set at all. They film with only essential personnel. So, anyone that doesn’t need to be there isn’t, and they make sure that there’s only a certain number of people in the area where we film or the makeup area at any one time, so yeah.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.