Becky Lynch's improbable journey to WWE superstardom

Becky Lynch has become a popular character with fans since moving up to the main WWE roster from NXT. Nick Laham for ESPN

For every professional wrestler who gets to fulfill their dreams of becoming a top champion in WWE, there are far more who toil for years without that particular reward and ultimately fall by the wayside.

Perhaps that's why Becky Lynch is so humble.

"The hard work starts now," Lynch repeated several times during a conference call to promote WWE's upcoming November European tour. It has clearly become a mantra for her.

A strong work ethic is all the 29-year-old Irishwoman has ever known since deciding to quit a party lifestyle at 15 years old. Rebecca Quin's foray into the wrestling industry began in June 2002 at St. Andrew's National School in Bray County Wicklow, Ireland. It was an hour train ride for her from Dublin, and then a half-hour walk. There she was trained by none other than her compatriot Fergal Devitt -- who would go on to become Finn Bálor in WWE.

Five months later she had her first match. It would take almost 14 more years before she reached the pinnacle of the wrestling business by becoming the first Smackdown women's champion at WWE's Backlash pay-per-view on Sept. 11.

As she put it to ESPN, quoting the popular Drake song with a laugh: "We started from the bottom, now we're here."

Lynch was visibly emotional after emerging victorious over five other women -- Carmella, Naomi, Nikki Bella, Alexa Bliss and Natalya -- in their Six-Pack elimination match to determine the first SmackDown women's champion.

"It was hard to believe," she said. "But it was the culmination of everything that I've worked for. Not just this year but since I was 15 years old and first stepped into that little school hall where we had six blue mats instead of a wrestling ring, and just started training with Finn Bálor."

There is a touching symbolism in Lynch and Bálor each making their breakthroughs in WWE by winning new titles; Bálor became the inaugural Universal champion at SummerSlam, before having to relinquish the title the next night on Raw due to a shoulder injury.

Each sacrificed a lot to reach this point of their careers.

"It was the culmination of half my life's work -- just personified in a white and blue and gold championship," said Lynch. "It's hard to describe. But everything comes flashing back to me.

"You can be going through hardships sometimes, and you're struggling, and then you're wondering if you're ever gonna make it," she continued. "[Wondering] if things are gonna work out, and you just keep pushing forward. And then getting this symbol, this trophy, you just realize that all the struggle, all the hard times they were all worth it -- and you wouldn't give any of them back, because that's what makes the journey even better."

Born in Dublin, Lynch cut her teeth regularly wrestling for France-based independent promotion Queens of Chaos, winning their world title in 2006; she also appeared for England's One Pro Wrestling and German Stampede Wrestling at that stage of her career. She then traveled to North America to continue to sharpen her skills and gain experience, competing in SuperGirls Wrestling where she became the inaugural SuperGirls champion. In 2006 Lynch debuted for the Shimmer Women Athletes promotion -- one of the premier women's wrestling brands in the world, and a company that carries on to this day.

Just as her professional wrestling career was starting to hit its stride, it nearly came crashing down with a vengeance. In September 2006, Lynch was diagnosed with possible damage to her eighth cranial nerve after a match in Germany. After nearly two years of rest and recovery she was set to return to the ring in 2008, but changed her plans at the last minute as thoughts of health issues caused her to reconsider her career. Thinking it may be time to do something else with her life, she went on an even longer extended hiatus from wrestling, taking a job as a flight attendant for Irish airline Aer Lingus.

Her love for wrestling simply couldn't be extinguished.

"The whole time I was working as a flight attendant, I knew that this [wrestling] was what I wanted to do," she said. "Because I'd given it up, and it kept haunting me that I wasn't doing what I was meant to be doing. There was always part of me that knew I had to come back, I just didn't know how."

Lynch quit her job and returned to the wrestling world as a manager for Britani Knight -- now known as WWE superstar Paige -- in Shimmer in 2011. She also completed a degree in drama at the Dublin Institute of Technology, got herself cast in numerous plays, and tried her hand as a stuntwoman. Lynch even attended clown college, a fact that should come as little surprise given her penchant for making puns and her fun-loving nature, which is certainly evident on her social media accounts.

Wrestling just kept calling out for her, and eventually Lynch could not ignore the urge to scratch that itch. Having pressed pause on her dreams for seven years, Lynch signed with WWE in 2013 and became a part of the NXT roster and developmental brand for the next two years. Lynch eventually got a main roster call-up in 2015, and by 2016 she had a stand-out Wrestlemania performance in a triple threat match with Charlotte and Sasha Banks.

As Lynch noted, she has gone from serving people on planes to being served on planes all the time, as part of WWE's hectic travel schedule.

"My life changed completely. It's crazy now," she said. "It's kind of gone from striving and wondering and being confused and being lost to just feeling like the most blessed person in the world -- just happy to wake up every day, happy to get on a plane every time. Just couldn't be happier with life, really."

It is remarkable to think how far Lynch has come in such a short time in WWE -- even moreso when you consider just how far she's come from a forgettable and at times painful gimmick she was saddled with upon her on-screen debut on NXT. Before each of her matches, she would dance a jig to the ring accompanied by whimsical Irish music, harkening back to an era where almost anyone who came into the WWE from anywhere outside of North America was immediately tied to a stereotypical character trait.

"Let us never talk about that again," Lynch told ESPN, laughing. "You know what, you can't get worse than that. Sometimes you've just gotta fricking make a fool out of yourself and then you become little bit untouchable. So, I tell ya, it's gonna make one hell of a biography one day, I hope. That was terrible, and we all know it was terrible. Let nobody else say anything different."

It speaks to the self-confidence of Lynch that she sought out then-NXT head trainer Bill DeMott for an honest chat regarding the direction of her persona.

"I remember just seeing, 'You've gotta find a character, you've gotta find a character,' was the whole thing [in NXT], and I just remember going to Bill DeMott at the time and just going, 'I know that I need a character, but I AM a character'. So I said that. And from then on it was just fine tuning. I just developed my look, which is obviously very different, and steam punk. But the character is just me amped up a bit more.

"It's so important just to be true to yourself and to own your own character and take responsibility for it, and speak up and say, 'This isn't right, this isn't me'," she continued. "It's a great lesson, not just in wrestling but in life. If you're not feeling something that's true to your heart... everybody's gotta be true. If you're not gonna be able to commit to it 100 percent, it's just gonna seep through your pores. And the crowd picks up on that. They have a way of picking up on energy sometimes. They won't be sure why they don't watch something, or why something is off to them, but they'll tell you. And that's the great thing about the WWE Universe. If they don't like something they'll let you know. You won't be wondering."

After dropping the bright green ring gear and the jig on her way to the ring, Lynch slowly won over the Full Sail University crowd in Orlando, Florida by proving she could hang with fellow NXT female upstarts Charlotte, Banks and Bayley. The four of them put on what is considered one of the matches that prompted the 'Divas (later women's) Revolution' in WWE -- a Fatal Four-way match for the NXT women's championship at NXT Takeover: Rival in February 2015.

That match made such an impact that the four participants became colloquially known as the 'Four Horsewomen'. It was quite the compliment, given it was a nod to the famous NWA/WCW 'Four Horsemen' stable that consisted of wrestling legends including Charlotte's father (and 16-time world champion) Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, alongside some other heavy hitters in wrestling history.

Five months later Lynch, Banks and Charlotte were called up to the main roster, with Bayley remaining in NXT where she won the women's championship and helping to carry the brand before finally joining Raw last month. All four played a pivotal role expanding the perception of what women could do in a wrestling ring.

As that revolution evolved, the oft-panned "butterfly belt" Divas title was scrapped and the division was entirely rebranded. The women are now simply referred to as superstars, like their male counterparts. Charlotte won the new Women's Championship in a triple threat match against Banks and Lynch at Wrestlemania 32, and Lynch only sees and looks forward to even bigger things in their future.

"Next I wanna main event Wrestlemania," Lynch said. "But also it's one thing to get to the top, it's another thing to stay there. This is where the hard work starts, I didn't wanna just win the championship, I wanted to make the Smackdown women's division the one to watch. I want to get people emotionally invested, I want them to feel it more than anything else on the show. And that's the goal. To stay in this, to keep pushing the limits, and working harder, getting further, getting more of a following, because we're main-eventing Wrestlemania and everybody knows we deserve to."

It is no surprise to hear the matchup Lynch thinks could finally get the women on last at a Wrestlemania -- another fatal fourway with the Four Horsewomen. But could she ever see herself, Banks, Charlotte and Bayley teaming up as a formidable faction?

"Ooh, that's a good question. I think we're better fighting each other, to be honest with you," she said, laughing. "That's where magic happens. But who knows? I could see it happening very easily, especially with the talent we're gonna have coming up from NXT soon, with Asuka, and Billie Kay and Peyton Royce, to name just a few. I don't know if we will be reunited as a group, as a unit. But we will be reunited to main event Wrestlemania."

For now, Lynch is relishing the responsibility of being the face of the women's division on SmackDown Live. Along with Nikki Bella, she is an experienced figurehead trusted to help nurture the younger talents like Alexa Bliss, Carmella and Eva Marie. Lynch sees herself much like AJ Styles, the WWE world champion on SmackDown who proclaims he is 'the face that runs the place' and 'the champ that runs the champ' -- with one small difference.

"I'm the champ that puns the camp!" she said. "That's what I always wanted. I wanted to be seen as a main eventer, and it's a lot of responsibility now. I feel like I'm gonna deliver on this opportunity. I want to take it and make sure everybody knows that this is why I'm the champ. And that they know they've put the title on the right person. It means a lot to me, but it just means that the hard work's only starting now."

Lynch's fun-loving nature has quickly made her a fan favorite in WWE, and she embraces her newfound status as a role model for young female viewers.

"Oh that means everything. That means everything," she said. "When I see pictures of little girls with the goggles on their heads and Lass Kicker t-shirts and everything like that, that's what it's all about. Little girls saying they want to grow up to be just like you, it's a very big responsibility. It's one thing that I always wanna instill in kids and everybody, is just being true to yourself, not feeling like you have to conform to whatever it is. Just shine on and be straight fire. That means everything to me.

"I find it very hard to say no to any kid that comes up to me looking for anything. I always wanna give them my goggles or my t-shirt or something. They just melt my heart. And it's always a reminder for me to keep my integrity about me and not let anything ever get to your head, and just keep working hard."

Much like Bret Hart used to pick out a child in the aisle on his way to the ring, and place his signature pink reflective glasses on their head, Lynch has started gifting the goggles she wears as part of her entrance costume to one young fan, as well as tossing a personally signed hat into the crowd.

"I feel like if I was a kid, that would make my life," she said. "To get that thing from one of your favorite superstars, and you've got that for life. I think that's something you'll always hold dear. And it will just make a really good memory for them."