Natalya Neidhart: Assembling the BOAT (2024)

In the deep, dark recesses of the boundless ocean that is World Wrestling Entertainment, numerous ideas for artistic innovation get floated by the company’s in-ring talent on a daily basis. During the cataclysmic era of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, one of the members of the Raw writing team drifted over to perennial women’s wrestling star Natalya Neidhart with an idea that had recently sailed through the creative team’s approval process.

“He was like, ‘Tonight, we’re gonna say that you’re the BOAT, or you’re gonna announce that you’re the BOAT,’” recalled Neidhart. “And I was like, ‘Oh? What’s that mean?’ And he’s like, ‘The best of all time. You’re just gonna declare that you’re the best of all time. Self-proclaimed. Nattie is the BOAT.’”

In a lesser wrestling vessel than Natalya Neidhart, the idea of embracing a nautical appellation steeped in such braggadocio might have resulted in the entire concept being left in Davy Jones’s locker. However, in the case of this particular BOAT, Neidhart would soon discover that she was displaying all of the right credentials on her manifest to competently endure the daunting weight imposed by such a self-aggrandizing title.

“What’s funny is people just tell you stuff on Twitter, and you’re like, ‘Wait, what?’ And I had learned on Twitter that I had the most wins of any woman in WWE history,” said Neidhart. “I said, ‘Well, we just need to fact-check it, because if this is the case, I can brag about this on television.’ So, WWE of course, they were like, ‘Yeah, we got a fact-checker. We’ll check it right now.’ And of course, they were like, ‘Yeah, you have the most wins by quite a bit.’ And it’s really just because I’ve had the most matches. I’ve had this extensive body of work. Booker T said to me, ‘You’re the last mothereffer breathing. Just like that 2Pac song. That’s why you’re the best; because you are the last mothereffer breathing.’”

I AM THE #BOAT!
BEST OF ALL TIME!!!!!
✔️ MOST MATCHES
✔️ MOST WINS
(... of any WOMAN in @WWE history!) See you next week, @MickieJames! pic.twitter.com/P0SaX5D2uK

— Nattie (@NatbyNature) August 11, 2020

With all due respect to both Booker T and 2Pac, a different hip-hop reference consistent with our maritime theme might be more appropriate. “When I retire, I’ll get worshiped like an old battleship”—one of LL Cool J’s standout bars from his 1987 classic “I’m Bad”—appears to be far more representative of the uncharted waters that the metaphorical watercraft from Calgary is steadily cruising toward at a speed 30 knots and climbing.

Yet, as WrestleMania 39 approached, Neidhart’s attention was focused on guiding more recently launched careers—like that of Shotzi Blackheart—into the locks so that they could be elevated to a higher plane of visibility.

“She has never ever gone to WrestleMania. This is her first time at WrestleMania,” explained Neidhart. “Last year she lost both her dad and her stepdad. Her sister was diagnosed with cancer. I know just from sharing a locker room with her what a terrible and hard year this has been for her. When WWE paired me up with her, I was excited because I couldn’t wait to help somebody else get to WrestleMania. That’s what I love doing. It’s how you grow a division. We need women that want to help grow this division.”

This is typical of WWE’s BOAT, who makes it a point to guide her young contemporaries through life’s proverbial storms and into calm conditions. In a family that already boasts its fair share of ring generals—with her uncle Bret “Hitman” Hart establishing the blueprint for this archetype—Natalya has slowly but surely staked her claim to being professional wrestling’s grand admiral. In a manner more representative of an aircraft carrier than a standard oceangoing vessel, she is simultaneously imposing, inspiring, and reassuring to those around her.

Also, despite possessing a lineage that might lend credence to the belief that Neidhart was just another grade-A product churned out by the production line of the famous professional wrestling factory in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the assembly of the BOAT was anything but assured. At least not if her father Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart had anything to say about it.

“Bret was always super supportive, as were my grandfather, my mom, and my uncles,” remembered Neidhart. “I remember Davey Boy being really, really supportive of it, but my dad—because he’s my dad—he was just kind of, like, apprehensive about it, because I think at the end of the day, my dad just realized like how hard the industry was, not just for a woman but how hard it could be for the men as well. And my dad was probably the only person that gave me pushback on it. And I actually really appreciate that now more than ever because he really cared about me. He didn’t want to see me get hurt, physically or emotionally.”

Despite her father’s initial desire for her to stay free from the often perilous waters of the professional wrestling industry, the BOAT received her semi-official launch in 2001 at the urging of her close friends and family members.

“Harry Smith and my husband now, TJ Wilson—a.k.a. Tyson Kidd—they were in the Dungeon training, and we were getting ready for a kids’ television show that was produced and run by Eric Bischoff and Jason Hervey,” remembered Neidhart. “They asked me if I would host the show, and in asking me to host the show, I needed to learn like one wrestling move or one wrestling spot, because they wanted me to do a run-in during the show. So my cousins and my husband invited me down to the Dungeon. It was a place that no girls were really allowed in before. But when I stepped foot in the Dungeon, I was just hooked from the very first practice I had.”

And when the time came for Neidhart to make her dramatic debut, her peers pushed her to display the agility of a MasterCraft XStar right from the outset.

“The very first move that I learned was a dragonrana, which was taught to me by Jack Evans, Harry Smith, TJ Wilson, and my cousin Teddy Hart,” laughed Neidhart. “So they wanted me to learn this crazy move because they wanted me to have this really impressive debut on the show called Mat Rats. So I didn’t learn a headlock takeover. I didn’t learn a tackle. I didn’t learn a hip toss. I learned a front flip onto somebody’s shoulders into a backflip into a turnbuckle.”

Impressive dragonranas notwithstanding, Neidhart subsequently spent years learning and applying the foundational components of wrestling in her family’s revamped version of Stampede Wrestling. It was only after several years of training that the future BOAT made her maiden voyage to Japan, where she was field tested by several of the most battle-hardened and accomplished wrestlers in history, irrespective of gender.

“I have so much respect for the women over there, but GAEA and All Japan Women’s had just shut down. I went there a month after they shut down,” lamented Neidhart. “So a lot of those women ended up going over to Next Entertainment Organization, NEO. They took over. So when I went to Japan, it was literally a month after GAEA shut down. I got to work with some amazing people. Somebody that was hugely influential to me was Kyoko Inoue. I remember being so nervous working with her. She and I had a singles match and she just took such good care of me. Lioness Asuka was one of the women who worked with me. Manami Toyota was on one of our shows. I got to watch her work but I didn’t get to work with her, but I did team up with Aja Kong one night. I have so much respect for Aja Kong. She’s incredible.”

Once she had been hardened by the intense in-ring battles she endured in Japan, Neidhart began to notice a surprising softening of the Anvil.

“My dad really became like my biggest supporter and my biggest cheerleader,” said Neidhart. “Even up until the day that he died, he had our action figures and things all over his office and pictures of us together and posters of me wrestling. And he just became such a huge support system for me after I got back from Japan. The best advice I’ve ever been given by anyone was by my dad. And he said, ‘The most important thing that you can do in this industry is make sure that you’re having fun.’ And I always keep that with me.”

However, fun and unqualified success don’t always walk hand-in-hand. Even after returning from her first excursion to Japan with a performance upgrade, it would still be years before Neidhart would power her way past the frontier and into WWE territory. Moreover, once she was detected by WWE’s radar display, the future BOAT had lingering concerns that she might have been heavy on armaments but light on aesthetics.

“I always knew that I wasn’t what WWE wanted but I was gonna make my way to WWE, and I just knew somehow I’d have to meet them halfway,” insisted Neidhart. “I’d have to kind of conform to a little bit of what they wanted. Because remember, we’re talking about the Attitude Era. We’re talking about bra-and-panties matches. We’re talking about the Diva Search and things like that. And I just knew I loved wrestling. I loved the Japanese women’s wrestling. I did jujitsu. I did amateur wrestling. I trained with only men. I trained in the Dungeon. I was an exception to the rule, and I knew that it was gonna be really hard for me to get hired.”

Specifically, Neidhart was concerned that the abundance of lingering flotsam and jetsam from her family’s past dealings with WWE would hinder her progress, if not outright create an impermeable boundary restricting her entry.

“I had an extremely challenging entry just getting into WWE, with Vince McMahon and his conflict with Bret,” declared Neidhart. “My dad was fired—probably about five times he was fired. I laugh about it now. It wasn’t easy when you think about the Screwjob. I mean, the Harts weren’t really accepted for a long time in WWE. When somebody punches out the owner of the company, there was a huge conflict there. I don’t blame Bret. I’m not like, ‘Oh, it’s Bret’s fault that I had a hard time getting hired.’ It just made it more challenging to open up those pathways. I look at that and I think it hasn’t really even gotten easier since then, but I don’t expect it to. I love the challenge. I love the battle. And I knew in my heart—even though I was 180 pounds, I didn’t wear makeup, and I wasn’t very polished—I knew if I was a great wrestler that somehow, someway, I’d make it to WWE. And I did. I was relentless.”

That relentlessness is the bedrock behind a run that is rapidly approaching two decades and that has rewritten WWE’s record books. However, statistical claims to greatness aside, one of the hallmarks of the BOAT that speaks to her value has been her capacity to carry her passengers through potentially choppy waters.

“In 2014, people didn’t really know Charlotte Flair. They didn’t know what she was capable of,” stated Neidhart. “She was kind of an awkward girl at NXT that was trying to get out of her father’s shadow. And when Triple H gave me the challenge of taking on Charlotte in that match, I was so excited. He said, ‘You don’t have a time limit. Just go out there and tell a great story and take control.’ And it was the first time in my career that I could really be me. I could take control and be the leader and be the wrestler that I knew I could be. That I had fought my entire career to be, from my early training in the Dungeon, and what I did in Japan, the wrestling in England for Brian Dixon, to making it to WWE, and everything led up to that moment in 2014 with Charlotte. And that’s why I’m still so proud of that match, because it was just a match that opened everybody’s eyes. I look at it now, and I’m the most consistent and durable female competitor who’s ever worked for WWE: most matches, most wins, most losses, most pay-per-views, most WrestleMania matches, most submission wins. I’ve outlasted everyone.”

One of the critical drivers to Neidhart’s unmatched continuity on the WWE roster is the initiative she has taken through preemptive measures to ensure that the BOAT has never been dry-docked. With her longest length of absence from the ring sitting at 11 weeks over the course of 16 years, Neidhart has set a legendary standard for unsinkability eclipsing that of even Molly Brown.

“Thank God I’ve always been super on top of the maintenance of my body,” proclaimed Neidhart. “It’s great because now that I’m 40, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I’ve lost 21 pounds in the last five months. I work with multiple people. I do active release therapy. I work with an adrenal specialist. I do a lot of different massage therapy, and I work with a professional stretcher. Take Tom Brady, for example: He didn’t play as long as he did by just waking up and feeling good. You have to put the work in, and I’ve always put that work in.”

“I’ve also been very self-aware of protecting and preserving my body in the ring,” continued Neidhart. “Some people may say, ‘Oh, Nattie’s boring; she doesn’t take high risks.’ I’m really calculated about it and I don’t care what anybody says. I think about my husband, and I think about the career-ending injury that he had, and how one thing can go wrong in a ring and it can cost you your career, or it could potentially cost you your life. I think about how my family has lived and died for this industry. So I don’t take any of that for granted, but I also have a responsibility to myself to stay as safe as I can and just to keep the women that I work with as safe as they can be.”

Neidhart’s penchant for absorbing punishment while remaining afloat and collecting battle stars without the battle scars calls to mind the USS Intrepid—upon the deck of which Lex Luger famously slammed Yokozuna to kick off the march to SummerSlam ’93. However, the comparison ends there, as Neidhart is in no hurry to join the Intrepid in retirement among the floating museum ships. Even as she enters her 40s, Neidhart still craves a lengthy run with the Raw Women’s Championship—the sole hole lingering in her résumé that prevents her from claiming membership alongside Bayley, Asuka, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte Flair as Women’s Grand Slam champions. While this final accomplishment would enable Neidhart to make an unqualified declaration that she has conquered the industry from stem to stern, she remains utterly dismissive of any age-related concerns.

“The thing is, I don’t think people are even talking about age anymore,” said Neidhart. “When I look at Trish [Stratus] and I look at Lita, or I look at Edge and Rey Mysterio, or I look at Brock Lesner, AJ Styles, or Bobby Lashley—and the list goes on and on—these people are in the best shape of their lives. The world has changed so much and so dramatically. Every time I sit down in a makeup chair—and this is no lie–I tell the makeup artist, ‘Just make me look like J.Lo.’ I mean, she’s in her 50s! I just want to look like J.Lo! ‘I don’t care what you do, just make me look like J.Lo!’ And so when I think 40s, back in the old days, maybe age was kind of a thing. But now I think about my age and I’m like, this is the best shape that I’ve ever been in.”

As far as the grand admiral of the ring is concerned, she can lean on the lessons taught to her by the original ring general of her family as she enters what she will strive to mold into her most productive decade yet, come hell or high water.

“Bret said to me that he finally hit his stride when he turned 40, and he’s not wrong about that,” affirmed Neidhart. “He really started doing his best work when he turned 40. But for me, winning a championship, whether I’m 40, 41, 42, 43, I’m all for it because I don’t get ready; I stay ready. And that’s BOAT mentality right there!”

And in parting, the BOAT fired one final broadside to anyone that might wish to one day challenge her for her hard-won moniker: You can’t be the BOAT if you fail to provide a stable surface from which others can be taught to fish for success within the broader pro wrestling ecosystem. With that in mind, Neidhart has continued the teaching legacy of her grandfather Stu Hart, albeit in the far warmer and more inviting climate of the greater Tampa area.

“I’m still standing, I’m still thriving, I’m still growing, I’m still learning, and above all else, I’m always giving back,” professed Neidhart. “I love to give back. And that’s why I have my Dungeon. I have my own ring. People come in from all over the world every week and train with me so that I can still give back. You can’t build a house by putting in the windows first. You have to lay down a foundation, and I’m one of those women that helped lay down a foundation for women to come. Women many generations from now will appreciate the foundation that I’ve laid down, that Beth Phoenix has laid down, that Mickie James has laid down, that Sasha Banks has laid down, that Becky Lynch has laid down. I can continue to name names, but there’s so many incredible women that have helped lay down that foundation. I’m one of them, and I’m really proud of that. And that to me is a huge part of my legacy.”

And with Neidhart’s legacy buoyed by the fact that she amasses in-ring accomplishments and mentors protégés with equal alacrity, it is impossible to fathom that the reputation of this particular BOAT could ever be capsized.

Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@StreamGlass) and read more of his work at iandouglass.net.

Natalya Neidhart: Assembling the BOAT (2024)
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