Tessa Blanchard carries the weight of a wrestling dynasty family name to Mae Young
Last names can be a central part of our identity. Sometimes that's a blessing, sometimes that's a curse. For Tessa Blanchard, it had the potential to be both.
Tessa is the daughter of WWE Hall of Famer Tully Blanchard, a member of the Four Horsemen stable that included Ric Flair. She's also the stepdaughter of Terry Allen, another star in the National Wrestling Alliance in the mid-1980s who wrestled as Magnum T.A. and even feuded with the Four Horsemen, and the granddaughter of Joe Blanchard, another former wrestler and promoter.
A family history that richly steeped in professional wrestling carries the type of weight that can either make or break the career of the next person who enters the squared circle. And for the Blanchards, that next person is Tessa.
The 22-year-old continues to blaze down the path she's created for herself as one of the 32 women competing in the WWE's inaugural Mae Young Classic. Of course, when you share a last name with a Hall of Famer, some doors in wrestling are already open to you. But the last name alone isn't enough to make sure they don't close. And, at least through four years of training, Blanchard has proven herself enough to keep them open.
"It's a burden to carry a last name like that and not be able to live up to it," said Michael Bochicchio, owner the wrestling school Highspots in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Blanchard began training. "People look at other people who have instant credibility due to their family name and say, 'Well they don't live up to that.' But I don't think anyone has ever said she doesn't live up to it."
Blanchard didn't grow up wanting to follow in her family's footsteps. It wasn't until her father was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012 that she even considered the possibility of pursuing it. Then, shortly after moving out on her own at 18 years old, she began training at Highspots -- a gym that's produced talent who's gone on to WWE, Ring of Honor and other wrestling promotions around the world. At the time, she didn't even tell her family she had started training.
It was at Highspots where she met and began training with Cedric Alexander, who currently wrestles on Raw.
Alexander got his start with the WWE as a participant in last year's Cruiserweight Classic, a standalone tournament similar to Mae Young that led to the formation of 205 Live and the reintroduction of the Cruiserweight division, in which competitors need to weigh less than 205 pounds. He's been there since Day 1 of Blanchard's training, working together in the ring for upwards of three to four hours and as late as 2 in the morning. It's been the most formative relationship inside the ring for Blanchard, who compares Alexander to an older brother.
As Blanchard continued to train and gain more experience over her first few months, her family still didn't know.
"I remember Michael [Bochicchio] pulling me out of training one day and saying, 'Hey Tessa, I need to talk to you.' And I was like, 'What's wrong? What's going on?' because it was that vibe," she said of the Highspots owner, who knew Tully before Blanchard began training at his gym. "[Michael] told me, 'You can't train here anymore unless you tell your family that you're wrestling.'"
So she started with her stepfather, who at the time lived close enough to Highspots to come watch. He didn't show up the week they spoke. But another week passed, and finally, with her little brother in tow, Allen, who had been paralyzed in a 1986 car accident, rolled into the gym, prompting Blanchard and Alexander to wrestle in an impromptu match.
"Afterwards I remember going down by the turnbuckle and him rolling up to the ring and he was like, 'Tessa you're not good. But you've got it. You have a long way to go, but you have to go out there and become undeniable,'" she said. "That stuck with me."
Those final two words -- "become undeniable" -- not only function as a source of motivation when she's feeling down, but double as one of her mantras. It's sprinkled throughout her social media feeds, sometimes as a hashtag, sometimes as a caption on a photo of her at the gym or her in the ring. But always written in a way that, if you read it just right, you can imagine taking on a new life with wrestling fans, who are notorious for buying into quippy lines just like that.
"Nobody is really good when they're just starting because it's a pretty steep learning curve," Bochicchio said of when Blanchard first started training. "But you can't teach the charisma and you can't teach the natural ability to be drawn to a performer. [There are lots of] great wrestlers who just aren't very interesting to watch, but people take to her right away."
When you watch her in the ring, it's obvious -- even to an untrained eye -- that Blanchard is athletic. Her personality in one-on-one conversations is engaging and there's something uniquely vulnerable about her presence. Maybe it's the green of being a young wrestler still wearing off. But the "it" factor -- the most undefinable, yet simultaneously defining quality of a wrestler -- is definitely there.
That's a description that, at some point not too long ago, probably fit the likes of Charlotte Flair. As another heir to professional wrestling royalty, Blanchard said Charlotte (and the success she's had) is a significant reason she decided to try her hand at the family trade.
"She told me to seize every opportunity, good or bad," Blanchard said of the advice Charlotte offered to her, one daughter of a Four Horseman to another. "Take it and do the best you can."
Blanchard's wrestled on the independent circuit and with various promotions since 2014, but she'll face her biggest test -- and the biggest opportunity to prove she can in fact live up to the Blanchard name -- when she steps into the ring with Kairi Sane in their first-round matchup, which airs Monday.
"It's been a long time since they've seen a Blanchard in the WWE, in the ring," she said. "And I'm so grateful to have that family name and continue my family's legacy, but I'm also very excited to create my own."