Nor 'Phoenix' Diana, the first hijab-wearing pro wrestler, is ready to face the world
Nor "Phoenix" Diana was armed for war. For every pro wrestling match, including her tryout in 2015, she'd worn an orange and purple mask that's embellished with dramatic waves of flame. Minutes before a match between her and her long-term training partner, Luna, at the start of the year, Diana realized she didn't need to hide her face anymore.
"No disrespect to people wrestling in masks, but I was tired of hiding my face. It was time for one journey to end and the next one to begin," she said.
The loser of the match had to remove her mask. Diana was prepared to peel it off.
The reveal left her gobsmacked. That was the first time Diana cried in the ring. She saw herself, not a character, as the wrestler. A year later, she'd cry again -- this time in joy after lifting her first championship title belt in the air.
This was her way of addressing the naysayers, the people who whispered behind her back and to her face the day she decided to walk into Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MyPW) for training.
"How are you going to do that? You're Muslim," they said. And, "You shouldn't be wrestling, because it's not what a Muslim girl would do." This was how -- by wearing a hijab, being brown and being a woman while entering the ring.
In early July, Diana became the first hijabi woman pro wrestler in the world and the first Malaysian woman champion (defeating both male and female opponents), winning Wrestlecon, the region's biggest wrestling tournament. She also became a viral sensation that night. WWE wrestler Adeel Alam, ring name Ali, tweeted out a video of Diana lifting the belt with the caption, "You're changing the game." News organizations across the globe picked up the video of her pinning her opponent with titles like "Malaysia's hijab-wearing wrestler pinning down men" and "19-year-old hijabi woman beat four men to earn her championship title."
On July 27, she will make her international debut, fighting against a Filipina wrestler at the Manila Wrestling Federation in the Philippines. And in August, she will be back in her home court in Malaysia to defend her championship title.
"Diana is a born path creator, a leader," said her coach, Ayez Shaukat Fonseka Farid.
Diana wanted to wrestle. She remembers play-fighting with her brothers in her family's backyard and playing WWE video games into the wee hours of the morning. "I wasn't good at anything else in school anyway," she joked. "I was an ordinary student, so I thought, 'Why not become a wrestler?'"
In 2015, at age 16, Diana took the first step. She'd heard about MyPW via Facebook, and she decided to go to its pro wrestling show, Komik-Con.
Coach Farid had a reputation for acclimating athletes to the wrestling world. When Diana walked up to him at the event, she was so nervous that she could barely string two sentences together. "She was shy and quiet," Farid said. But he'd seen the glimmer in her eyes as she watched the matches. Farid asked her to come for a tryout the following week.
There were exactly two other girls in the gym when she walked in for her tryout: another pro-wrestler Poppy and Luna. When Luna watched Diana walk in, her first thought was, "Yes, we have another girl -- we could do a triple-threat match and make women's wrestling more interesting in Malaysia."
It was Diana's first tryout, but it took only a few minutes for Farid to realize he was witnessing something special. Diana was shy, sometimes painfully so, but she morphed into a completely different person when she jumped into the ring. Her eyes gleamed, her body snapped into focus. Her moves were both elegant and lethal. It looked as if she knew what she was doing.
When Diana made it onto MyPW's roster, she felt like phoenix rising from the ashes. It was only right that she'd go with Phoenix as her ring name.
As Diana was getting comfortable being called a wrestler, her mom, Syirin Syafina Binti Mohd Said, needed more time to get there. She was worried about the physicality of the sport and wondered what the community would think of her daughter. But when she watched Diana make her debut -- just two months into training -- she recognized that her daughter was trying to accomplish something no woman in Malaysia had done.
Diana instantly had the support of the rest of her family. Her siblings and extended family were thrilled to see her pursue her passion. "Nor has a great spirit, and we know she wouldn't sign up for something unless she set her mind to it," her older sister Syafreera said. "So early on, our family decided not to pay attention to what society said and support her unconditionally."
While Diana imbibed everything from WWE matches to local indie fights, Phoenix combined moves and came up with some of MyPW's most exciting and original fight sequences. Diana was fine with just watching her coach hold a fighter's head and flip him, Phoenix pushed the move a bit further on her opponents -- adding flip-like leg pins and hair tugs.
"When you're thinking of things to do, you will come up with these ideas that will seem amazing to you at the time, and then [Diana] will come and say, 'Wait, I have a better idea,' and somehow makes it way better," says Luna, whose Facebook page suggests she's the youngest wrestler on the MyPW roster.
Three years after her ring debut, Diana could already see the change in the way people approached her. The way they spoke about her, both on the internet and in person. Sure, people were questioning her religion, her culture and her beliefs, but most of them were congratulating her, telling her they have her back and encouraging her greatness.
Phoenix tapped on her direct messages on Instagram and read the message out loud: "You were an inspiration today. I have never seen somebody who looked like me -- wearing a hijab -- wrestle before today. Thank you for showing me we can be whoever we want to be." As she read it, she received several other messages, from young women in Malaysia and all corners of the globe.
"There are so many negative things out there, and these girls told me that my journey had helped them so much and they said things like they are with me, and they asked me not to give up -- and it really helps," Diana said. "I want to work harder for them and me."
Wrestling organizations around Asia began to take notice of Nor "Phoenix" Diana. She has international contests set up. And outside of wrestling, Diana graduated high school and decided to take a gap period before college. She is a clinical assistant at a private hospital in Malaysia.
But Farid wants this to be the beginning of her story. He wants for fans and wrestlers in Europe and the U.S. to see the fire and passion that Phoenix carries. Wrestling in Malaysia is still in its early stages, and the international experience would help both Phoenix and the wrestling community, he said.
"I hope to fight a lot more people, not just women but all people," Diana said. "I want people to know my talents -- I don't want them to know me just because I am a girl wearing a hijab wrestling, you know?"