2020 Oct 07

Ember Moon talks WWE NXT return: ‘I didn’t know if I still belonged on Raw or SmackDown’

Over one year removed from her last appearance on WWE TV, Ember Moon returned to WWE NXT at TakeOver 31 on Sunday night and immediately made her presence felt by interrupting NXT Women’s champion, Io Shirai.

Moon suffered a ruptured Achilles in the fall of 2019 and had a long road to recovery due to the current conditions. However, she’s finally back and better than before as a member of the NXT roster for the first time in two and a half years.

The former NXT Women’s champion was a big part of the women’s division on the black-and-gold brand from August 2016 through April 2018 when she was called up to the Raw roster. In that time, she had many memorable matches with the likes of Asuka and Shayna Baszler but failed to make as much of an impact on Raw and SmackDown in the years that followed.

Being back at TakeOver 31 was nothing short of a thrilling experience for Moon, especially after going to great lengths to keep it a secret in the weeks leading up to the event.

“I’m still buzzing, man. I’m just super excited and I haven’t stopped smiling,” Moon told Daily DDT in an exclusive interview conducted over the phone on Tuesday. “I would say it’s like the class reunion, but you don’t know anyone there. You’re all excited like, ‘I can’t wait to tell everyone what I did,’ but then you’re like, ‘Oh wait, I don’t know none of y’all. Am I in the wrong year?’ I’m so happy, I’m so excited.” (Aliyah is one of her best friends, surprised when she came back)

Of everyone in NXT, Aliyah was who Moon was most excited to be reunited with backstage on Sunday night. The two came up in WWE’s developmental ranks together and formed a bond in the few years Moon spent there.

That said, not even Aliyah was aware that Moon was back in NXT until she popped up after the NXT Women’s Championship bout between Io Shirai and Candice LeRae. In fact, the decision for her to return to NXT was only made official a few weeks ago, right before the vignettes promoting her comeback started to air on NXT TV.

“I found out I was going back to NXT maybe a couple of weeks ago,” she revealed. “I threw out the feelers in January. It was one of those things where I was like, ‘I don’t know if they want me back, I don’t know how I fit in, I just don’t know.’ I talked to Hunter and asked, ‘How would you feel about me coming back to NXT?’”

During her time away from the squared circle, Moon made multiple appearances on WWE Backstage on FS1 as an analyst. For the role, she was required to consume more wrestling than she ever had before, including watching for potential prospects on WWE’s radar.

It was while she was doing her WWE homework that she fell in love with NXT all over again. She hadn’t been there in years but felt she would be a better fit there than anywhere else in the company once she returned.

“I was like, ‘Man, I’m really digging this NXT vibe right now,’” Moon said. “Raw and SmackDown are doing great, but I’m sitting here thinking, ‘I don’t know if I fit in there anymore.’ I didn’t know if Ember Moon still belonged on Raw and SmackDown. I was looking at NXT and all my friends from the indies were there killing it. Not that any of the other girls weren’t, I’m just saying that when you’ve traveled the road for a hot dog and a handshake, you have a different friendship and admiration for those people than you do with coworkers.”

Although she’s missed a year of in-ring action, Moon mentioned that she likely would have been cleared to compete a lot earlier had the pandemic not closed everything that was essential to her road to recovery. It was undoubtedly a serious injury that could have been easier to bounce back from under better circumstances.

Fans started speculating that The War Goddess may never wrestle again after she got emotional on an episode of WWE Backstage in May, where she said that she didn’t know what her in-ring future held. She clarified that was because, at the time that was taped, she had just heard some less-than-stellar news from her doctor.

“January was when COVID really started to affect everything,” Moon said. “Originally, I was on par to be okay, but then March came around and my therapy center shut down. The gyms shut down and I didn’t have the adequate equipment or massage access to stimulize my foot, if that makes sense. Then the complications started happening because I was doing the same PT workouts I was doing there and I probably should have been progressing. We just didn’t have any way to safely progress. That was before Zoom became the most viral thing in the world. My foot started clenching and getting wonky and stiff, it started clicking, and then I was in pain just walking. The complications started happening around March or April.

“In May or June, I found out I’d have to have a second surgery because the scar tissue had built up so much into the joints that it was preventing movement,” she continued. “I’m such an introvert and I hate showing real people emotions because I’m a crazy werewolf, vampire thing. I was crying because I just found out the day before I might have to have that second surgery. On Backstage, they were like, ‘What do you want to change in my career?’ And I was like, ‘My foot.’ I was crying and I think that was the most real I’ve ever been on TV. Not saying I haven’t been real, but that was the first time I allowed myself to be vulnerable as my real self.”

Coming back from an Achilles tear is no small feat. Edge, who returned to the ring after spending almost a decade in retirement, was able to recover from an Achilles tear in the span of six months in 2009. Others aren’t as fortunate, and Moon fell into that category.

Thankfully, The Rated-R Superstar reached out to Moon to offer some advice as far as maintaining a positive mindset while out injured. Her case was especially bad because of how it happened, but hearing from someone who made a full recovery from it reassured her that she’d be back eventually.

“I was so distraught in my own feelings and Edge reached out to me. I didn’t think it was Edge, I thought it was Braun playing a trick on me. I was like, ‘What? How did you get my number?’ He goes, ‘No, this is Edge.’ I said, ‘Oh! Hi, sir. How are you doing today?’ Honestly, because of him and Triple H, that’s how it started turning around. Edge was basically like, ‘Do this, get a sauna, get a bike, you have to do this.’ He basically sent me a Cliff-noted version of what he was doing because he had such a bad Achilles rupture, too, that they said he would never come back. When the complications started happening, that’s when they told me I might not be coming back.

“The surgeon was top five in the country, but he hadn’t seen that ever,” she admitted. “Part of me is a little proud that if I did it I did it all the way. It was just insane. Edge helped me out so much with telling me what type of therapy to do and routines that would help. I sent that to my therapist and everything started to turn around. It was slow, but it started turning around. I remember the surgeon telling me in July, ‘Your foot’s actually looking a lot better now. This is what we’re going to do. We’re either going to clear you in six weeks to do in-ring procedure or you’re going to have the second surgery. That’s what it came down to, so it was one of the most nerve-wracking appointments I’ve ever had in my life. If I had that second surgery, I probably wouldn’t have come back.”

The two vignettes that aired in the weeks preceding TakeOver 31 were purposely vague so viewers couldn’t pick up on whether it was a male or female. When the mystery person (who obviously turned out to be Moon) indicated that this would be their grand return to NXT, the former NXT women’s champion and Bo Dallas were fans’ top two choices.

Despite that, there were zero signs that it would be her because of how debilitating her injury was. Dallas’ tweets playing up how he was the “original” NXT champion threw a portion of the audience off the Ember Moon scent just a bit, along with how only an elite few knew about it ahead of time.

“I was in Orlando for most of September and then I flew home for three days. I was in a beanie, a hoodie, sweatpants, and I was sweating bullets for a month in Orlando. People needed to know my dedication. The thing is they were going to do something with me leaving because I was injured, but then someone leaked I was injured. So, I was like, ‘Oh, come on!’ I didn’t tell anyone [about this return], so I’m very certain the only people who knew were me, Hunter, and Vince because Hunter had to talk to Vince about me coming to NXT.

“I’m assuming that’s the only group that knew and the people that made the video packages and stuff. It was probably less than 10 people to the point where people from Backstage were like, ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ I go, ‘No, I think it’s Bo Dallas.’ Thank goodness for Bo throwing out the sleeper tweets,” she continued. “Thank you, Bo, the original NXT champion. I will always Bo-lieve, which is mostly why I tweeted that out. I was saying thank you to Bo, so I don’t even know if he thought it was me or if he suspected it, but thank you to Bo Dallas. I like how everyone likes to chalk it up as a negative, but it was me saying thank you.”

The time Moon spent in Orlando preparing for her in-ring return was anxiety-inducing, to say the least. She constantly dressed in multiple layers out in public to ensure no one knew she was there and that her identity was never revealed.

She went so far as to tell people she was training with at the Performance Center that she didn’t think she was close to coming back, just to convince them that she wasn’t behind the TakeOver 31 vignettes. It was all in an effort to deliver the biggest surprise possible, something she’s enjoyed immensely about wrestling dating back to when grew up watching the product.

“I can’t stress to you how paranoid I was being in Orlando for three weeks being like, ‘No one has to know I’m here.’ Kudos to the entire WWE staff. Thank you so much for keeping that a secret because the one thing I miss nowadays are organic surprises. When I was a kid, we didn’t have the wrestling news, the internet, or fans at the airport taking pictures and posting them online. It just didn’t exist then. You found out by tuning in on a Thursday night for SmackDown. You’re like, ‘Oh, snap! The Hurricane’s back!’ There’s no organic surprises and I think people forget how important that is. This was so organic that I didn’t even tell my parents.

“People need to remember that surprises are an emotional response to things as well. It was literally either second surgery and probably done with wrestling or cleared and return to wrestling. That’s what I was thrown with. That’s what I walked into in August. It could have been that I was still out for six, seven months, or never come back at all. It was a surprise that I wanted to give to my fans and the WWE Universe and just remind them that wrestling can be fun and spontaneous.”

Moon’s shocking appearance at TakeOver 31 came moments after Toni Storm showed up in video form on the big screen where she put Shirai on notice. The War Goddess wasted no time in establishing that her sights are set on becoming NXT Women’s champion for a second time.

She wants to work with everyone in the NXT women’s division at some point or another, but Shirai leads the list of stars she’s looking forward to facing the most. Moon revealed that she’s been pushing to step in the ring with her since Shirai initially arrived as part of the Mae Young Classic in 2018.

“When I was on the independent scene, I thought she was the best female wrestler in the entire world. To what she did to how she wrestled with the other person in the ring, it’s just magic. It really is magic.” (I wanted to work with her at the Mae Young Classic) “It’s crazy how things work out. I just might get to wrestle someone on my wrestling bucket list and that’s Io Shirai. There’s plenty of other women, too, like Rhea Ripley and Dakota Kai. Dakota’s someone I traveled with for years on the independent scene and we’ve never gotten to wrestle each other, not once.

“Candice LeRae, who I’ve gotten to share a ring with many times. I love that child like a sister,” she said about her longtime friend. “Raquel Gonzalez who is an absolute beautiful monster of a human being. Just chaos and destruction, I love it. You have Kayden Carter and Kacy Catanzaro. You have such a variety. Xia Li, too. You have all these women I’m just yearning for the opportunity to, one, enjoy and have fun with them, but also prove that I’m better than them because that’s what I do. I’m playing in all respects, but yeah, just looking to have fun with all of them in the ring and sharing that experience with new friends and future competitors.”

Between capturing the NXT Women’s Championship and taking the then-undefeated Asuka to the limit on two different occasions, Moon’s NXT run perfectly prepared her for the main roster. She made her Raw debut on the post-WrestleMania Raw in 2018 and remained undefeated in one-on-one competition for several months.

Her early success didn’t last, and by the close of 2018, she was positioned as just another member of the Raw roster. She didn’t receive many shots at championship gold, and despite being moved to SmackDown in the spring of 2019, she still floundered up until her injury that September.

“My time on Raw and SmackDown, I thoroughly enjoyed. I learned a lot of stuff, I learned that anything can change at the drop of a dime. It’s crazy because Ronda Rousey was coming in and your stint is all about Ronda and Becky and Charlotte at that time because that’s what the match was at ‘Mania. If you look around at that time, there really wasn’t much time for anyone else. It didn’t matter if you were a good guy or a bad guy, there just wasn’t time because we needed to make sure the people Ronda was bringing in, the fan base Becky was accumulating and the fan base that Charlotte had made this masterful concoction and that they were going to stay and support us once Ronda was gone.

“It’s crazy because I got lost in the shuffle. I’m not afraid to admit that. I did,” she said. “I can at least say every time I got in that ring and got an opportunity in that ring, the one person you remembered at the end of that match was [me]. ‘Oh, Ember Moon did that cool thing,’ or ‘Man, I sure do like that crazy Ember Moon.’ That was kind of what my time was on Raw and SmackDown. How can I make the people remember me? It sucks because I got traded to SmackDown and I was so happy with being on SmackDown. It started building up with Mandy [Rose] and Sonya [Deville]. Love them both, they deserve so much as well. And then coming into the match with Bayley at SummerSlam and then kind of losing that momentum a little bit. I really do feel like it was about to rev back up again. Then I’m gone.”

Going forward, Moon is determined to use her setback as motivation and continue to improve in every way imaginable. She was told more than once by doctors that returning to the ring was virtually out of the question, but having to overcome the odds never stopped her in the past and it wasn’t going to stop her this time around, either.

It’s an entirely different and more dangerous Ember Moon now that she’s back on NXT, and at a time when the brand’s women’s division is arguably stronger than it’s ever been before, she has high hopes this run will be better than her last.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. This is one of those things that I feel like was meant for me to grow and realize that I truly do love what I do in the ring. I still have so much more to prove. Not just to myself, but my fan base and the people out there in the world. I don’t mean to get sappy, but I don’t want to be that person that quit. I’m never going to be that person. That’s just not in my bones. I’ve been told all my life, ‘You can’t wrestle, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ and every time I prove people wrong. When the surgeon said, ‘You might not come back,’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to prove you wrong, dude.’ This isn’t going to take me out like that. It took a lot of tears and I’m adult enough to say where I said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can.’

“Every day was different and every day was me just pushing forward and trying to be the best me possible,” she said. “As far as what you’re going to see from me on NXT, you’re going to see a new Ember Moon. This is going to be something completely different. You’re not going to see the crazy, red-headed step-child, werewolf vampire, drip creature thing. You’re going to see something new. Maybe a little chaos, maybe a little bit of fun, but you’re definitely going to have to tune in to watch because it’s a whole new experience for all of us.”