When Toni Rossall was growing up in Gold Coast, Australia, she found herself to be a bit of an outcast among her peers. While her classmates shared interests in pop culture or Top 40 charts, Rossall's interests leaned in another direction: Mickie James, John Cena and Motley Crue.
"I would run around pretending I was a rock star and a wrestler," said Rossall, a fan of 1980s glam metal.
Rossall wanted to be a wrestler by the time she was 10 years old after watching episodes of the WWE and being electrified by the big personalities and "over-the-top craziness" from talent like The Hardy Boyz. It became wrestling-or-bust for Rossall before she reached secondary school.
"As soon as I saw it and how exciting it was for me, I was like, one day I want to make people as excited as I was when I was first seeing it," Rossall said.
But at the time, the popularity of wrestling in the U.S. hadn't quite extended across to Australia -- the idea of women in wrestling even less so. The phrase "WWE Diva" was still relatively in its infancy.
"I was always known in school as the wrestling girl, and I would kind of get teased for it a little bit because to them it was a little different, no one was really into it," Rossall said. "I was just running around pretending to be Cena. So, yeah, I got a few strange looks."
But now Rossall is knocking on the door of the WWE. At just 21, Rossall, who goes by the ring name Toni Storm, is one of the youngest of the 32 competitors in the inaugural Mae Young Classic. In the opening round, released on Aug. 28 on the WWE Network, Storm defeated independent wrestler Ayesha Raymond to advance to the round of 16. She'll take on NXT member Lacey Evans on the network's next release today.
For Rossall, it's a career that's spanned eight years and 13 countries to date, all the while flipping once-disapproving stares to cheers and chants for one of the brightest young stars on the independent world circuit.
Rossall began her wrestling career at just 13 years old, after convincing her mom to let her move to Liverpool, England, with her grandmother so that she could attend school and pursue wrestling simultaneously. There, she started training and performing, quickly getting a taste of what it was like to start from the ground up in the wrestling industry -- no audiences, no money, just wrestling. Rossall would spend the first two years of her career performing in front of an industrial shed in front of an audience that averaged single digits, most of whom were relatives of the those in the ring.
"It's tough for every wrestler," Rossall said. "The biggest thing we all face is we have to start from the ground up and just work our way. That was how it all began. I look back on that now with so much pride because I came from that."
While in England, Rossall was trained by Dean Allmark, who Rossall describes as one of her biggest influences. Allmark took the young wrestler under his wing and helped build the foundation that's largely propelled her career to date.
"He's an absolute magician," said Rossall, adding that her decision to move to England was the best thing she ever did. "Without that experience I got from England, I wouldn't be where I am today."
From that point on, Rossall increasingly began to make noise on the international circuit. Wrestling has brought her to Germany, Finland, Spain, France, Japan (where she currently holds the SWA World Championship for World Wonder Ring Stardom) and London, where she is the current and first-ever Progress Wrestling women's champion.
As Rossall navigated her burgeoning career, she hit the same roadblock that many aspiring wrestlers come to: the trial and error of selecting the right ring persona. Rossall cycled through a handful of different personas, including one that she described as "bubbly," a stark contrast to her present-day persona. Instead of reaching for a brand that was inauthentic to her outside-the-ring characteristics, she kept her persona close to home and recalled her 10-year-old self.
"I thought, 'You know what, I'm still that kid who would run around just pretending I'm a wrestling rock star,' so, I'm just going to be that kid."
But the character's personality is just one aspect of a wrestler's image, an image that isn't complete without a repertoire of finishing moves inside the ring. For Toni Storm, it's the Strong Zero, Rossall's adaptation of a pile driver.
In her opening match against Raymond in the Mae Young Classic, it was easy to see how Rossall has captivated audiences over the course of her career. Her in-ring rocker-like personality is bold and brash, characteristics of a typical heel, but she's balanced by a heightened level of charisma that compels the crowd to get behind her. Between the ropes, her unique movement shows influence from the various countries she's trained in, and her athleticism helps separate Rossall from the field.
The Mae Young Classic isn't Rossall's first taste of the WWE brand. She recently wrestled as a representative of Progress Wrestling during WrestleMania Axxess in late March. Before that, she auditioned for the WWE when she was 18, an experience she described as "terrifying." Rossall she was still very much in her awkward stage of her career at the time.
"I probably still am now," she laughed. "It was very crazy for me. I've always been the shy kid, so going in and doing something that big was outrageous. But I loved every second. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect."
Rossall left the tryout motivated; it was the first time she got to witness what it was going to take to make that leap to the WWE. She wasn't ready for the opportunity at the time, which she'd be the first to tell you, but the experience reignited her drive in the sport, a flame that can easily be put out by the rigor of the independent circuit.
"We all have our days," said Rossall, who is one of 22 independent wrestlers in the Mae Young Classic. "There have been times that I've been so tired, so exhausted, broke, haven't' seen my family in months or years. Sometimes, it's just easier to just say, 'You know what, I'm going home and living a normal life.'"
As Rossall reflects on the opportunity in front of her -- and the potential life-changing contract that could be waiting on the other end of the Classic -- she knows she's come a long way from green beginnings and empty England sheds. While it could be easy to get caught up in looking too far ahead, Rossall remembers to look back at the wealth of progress she's already made on her own.
"This means everything because this is what I've worked my whole life just tirelessly to get to. This is the furthest I've gone, and I'm hoping that it takes me further," Rossall says. "I can say that I've really worked hard and I've started from the bottom and there have been no shortcuts. I can take a step back and go, 'Yeah, I did this all myself, and I'm incredibly proud.'"