Shadia Bseiso determined to be first Arab woman to become a WWE Superstar
It was one of the biggest days of Shadia Bseiso's professional journey. She was standing in front of talent development heads and coaches. It was Day 1 of the WWE tryouts at the Dubai Opera. The 31-year-old was among 40 athletes from the Middle East and India trying out to be a part of the professional wrestling universe.
She felt a sudden calmness spread across her body. Her hands were steady. "You've got this," she thought to herself.
She was given a choreographed routine of drills to perform -- floor rolls, running the rope, getting out of a headlock.
Ready, set, go.
In a gracious sweeping motion like a ballet dancer, she executed the drills. A scout put her in a headlock, and as though in a trance, she untangled herself from the headlock. In a split-second motion, she locked his arm and placed him in an armbar -- her signature move as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion.
She stood up, breathing deeply, a smile playing on her face, her long, dark hair flowing down her back. She knew she'd done a good job.
Canyon Ceman, WWE's senior director of talent development, saw this with eyes wide open. He smiled softly.
"Oh, yes, this is exactly what we are looking for," he thought.
This was in April.
In October, Shadia Bseiso became the first-ever female wrestler from the Middle East to sign with the WWE.
"It was an easy decision to sign her," Ceman said. "She is well-spoken, she is smart, she is beautiful, she presents as a strong and empowered woman -- all the attributes we were looking for in a sports entertainer."
Bseiso's aim now is to be a WWE women's champion. But that was not what she set out to do when she started on her journey 15 years ago.
When Bseiso was 16 years old, she wanted to be a radio and TV broadcaster. She loved talking about sports, politics and social issues, and she loved informing people. She walked into a local radio station in Jordan where she grew up and convinced them to hire her as an intern. "She could convince even the cynics to believe in her," her older sister Jehan Bseiso said.
The internship turned into a full-time job and, two years later, she was offered her own radio show. She was just 18 years old. A few months after that, she moved to Lebanon to pursue her undergraduate degree at the American University of Beirut, where she majored in business.
She had one goal in mind: to move to Dubai and launch her own business in the field of television.
"It's not easy for a woman to relocate to a new country and start her own business, but Shadia always had this thing about her -- whatever she wanted to achieve, she had a way of achieving it," Jehan said.
Shadia was a huge success in Dubai. She always had a way of drawing the attention of people.
When she thought her career was set, she came across a poster -- a Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar was scheduled to take place at her gym. "This sounds cool, let me check it out," she thought.
She attended the seminar and a week later she was back there, signing up for regular classes.
"I fell in love with jiu-jitsu," she said. The techniques and nuances involved, it's endless and it's just like art that you do with your body. It's beautiful."
Casual training sessions turned into full-blown professional sessions, and three months later, she participated in her first championship -- the Asian Open Cup -- and took home the bronze medal. There she submitted her opponent with an armbar and earned the nickname, "Armbar Girl." She launched a blog under the same name (that eventually became popular) detailing her journey in jiu-jitsu.
There was an eagerness to her that was contagious. Her coach, Eric Ramsey, noticed this as soon as she began training; her hand was always up in the air.
"She was always the first person to ask a question and was probably the last person to ask a question as well," Ramsey said.
It was not just the questions. Bseiso also never shied away from sparring. Jiu-jitsu involves grappling with stronger and bigger opponents, and Bseiso was always up for the challenge. She also started training in CrossFit to help with her strength and conditioning.
One day, Ramsey was teaching her the technique involved in a box jump. She went home, tried the same technique over a 100 times, and when she finally got it, recorded a video of herself doing it and sent it to Ramsey. "Her excitement was palpable even via the texts," Ramsey recollected.
"Her persistence is staggering. If I tell her to do an armbar a hundred times, she is going to do an armbar a hundred times and she's going to ask me what she has to do next," Ramsey said.
Over the course of three and a half years, Bseiso won the Abu Dhabi World Pro in 2015 and 2016 and also participated in the the IVJJF world championships in Los Angeles during the same time period. She obtained her blue belt rank and is one stripe away from a purple belt, which is the second-highest ranking behind black belt.
Bseiso is always optimistic -- she sets new goals and works to achieve them.
"If I ever needed to change my mindset about something, I go talk to her, even though I am the older sister," Jehan said. "Her optimism is contagious and she always sees the best in any situation."
In 2016, the WWE started looking for TV talent in Dubai for the launch of their first Arabic language WWE channel. Bseiso was one of the first people they invited for a casting tryout.
She thought to herself, "This is perfect. I am obsessed with jiu-jitsu and I work as a TV presenter. This is a perfect show that combines sport and entertainment."
Though the WWE did not sign her for the TV role, Ceman, the talent development vice president, took note of her martial arts background and her ability to be compelling on camera. WWE is always looking for athletes from non-wrestling backgrounds, and her jiu-jitsu background showed commitment and persistence. He knew she'd make for an interesting candidate. He convinced her to attend the tryouts in Dubai in April.
It doesn't matter where you are from, if you have a goal -- the crazier the better -- then you go after it and don't stop until you achieve it.Shadia Bseiso
Bseiso is not a trained wrestler -- she didn't know the nuances of wrestling -- but jiu-jitsu gave her the confidence to stand her ground in the ring and finish the drills.
"Often those tryouts are a canvas on which a charismatic athlete can demonstrate their skill and natural attributes, and we are watching. And Shadia proved to me that she was perfect in every way," Ceman said.
She aced the drills then walked out of the ring and put on her TV presenter face for the interview rounds. The brand name Shadia Bseiso was magnetic, and the WWE knew it right away.
When she signed the contract in October, she realized that she found her dream job.
"It feels like this was built just for me -- sports and entertainment -- and I still can't believe this is happening to me," Bseiso said.
Even then, Bseiso knew that this step was more than just about her. It was for women across the Middle East. It is a step toward progress -- to show them that anything is possible.
Growing up, Bseiso did not have an Arab woman role model in the field of sports. That changed during the London Olympics in 2012 when all 200 countries participating sent female athletes. She watched strong Arab women competing at the highest level.
"And now, I am the first Arab woman to sign with the WWE -- this is so out of the box for the region that I think for everything in between now, the door has officially opened," Bseiso said.
Her plan for 2018 includes moving to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando to master the fundamentals of wrestling. Her long-term goal is to be the first Arabic woman to become a WWE Superstar and to continue training to achieve the black belt in jiu-jitsu.
Her message for women in the Middle East and women in the world: "It doesn't matter where you are from, if you have a goal -- the crazier the better -- then you go after it and don't stop until you achieve it."