Nhooph Al-Areebi wasn’t always sure if her dream of becoming a professional wrestler would come true. Born and raised in Toronto, Al-Areebi, 27, who is half Syrian and half Iraqi, is from what she describes as a “conservative” family.
However, it was also because of family that her interest in wrestling began. Her brother was a huge WWE fan and would play its video games, something she eventually joined him in doing. Soon after that, her interest grew and she began watching wrestling shows as well.
“I instantly fell in love with the larger-than-life characters and the storytelling,” she says. She cites John Cena, Edge, Jeff Hardy, Mickie James and fellow Canadian Trish Stratus as some of her favourite wrestlers.
When Al-Areebi was 16, she got the chance to train as a wrestler at a local warehouse but didn’t initially tell her parents about it. In the beginning, she says she would lie that she was doing a shift at work, until one day they showed up at her job wondering where she was.
“My parents immigrated to Canada so they grew up completely different. And they didn't really know what to expect,” she says. However, she says that over time, they grew to be more supportive of her choice of a wrestling career.
And it seems her hard work has paid off.
These days, Al-Areebi goes by the ring name Aliyah and wrestles on SmackDown, one of the WWE’s two flagship television programmes. She’s already made history by recording the fastest victory when she pinned Natalya in only 3.17 seconds in her debut match on January 14.
“I think breaking the world record for fastest victory in WWE history will forever be my proudest moment ever, second to signing with the WWE,” she says with a laugh.
However, her path towards getting to SmackDown was quite a journey. Al-Areebi signed with WWE in 2015, after two years on the independent wrestling circuit. She then spent the next six years in NXT, another WWE show known for helping develop wrestlers' skills before having them appear on one of the flagship programmes.
Although her time in NXT may be considered a bit longer than others', she believes that it’s helped her get to where she needs to be in the WWE, especially considering that she is to appear in the coming women’s match at the Royal Rumble on Sunday.
“I'm so excited,” she says. “I was in NXT for like six years and every year I was in there I would think ‘Okay, maybe this is the year. Is [this] the year I'm going to be the Royal Rumble?’ I would pray and hope and it's finally happening. I'm so happy and I'm so grateful.”
She may also get a chance to step into the ring with James, the current Impact Knockouts World Champion. Although James wrestles for another promotion now called Impact Wrestling, she has been announced as a special participant in this year’s Royal Rumble.
“I'm so excited. I've always wanted to get into the ring with her and it's finally happening, so it's very cool to see. I grew up watching her and idolising her. I’m super looking forward to it,” says Al-Areebi.
Looking past the Royal Rumble, the WWE’s next big pay-per-view is Elimination Chamber in Jeddah on Saturday, February 19. While no matches have been officially announced yet, Al-Areebi does admit that it would be great to not only revisit her Middle Eastern roots, but also help inspire a future generation of wrestlers in the region.
“It is my biggest dream to be the first Arab female superstar to perform in the Middle East,” she says. “It's very important to me that I’d be that representation for little girls or boys who are watching and want to do this one day. I was in their shoes at one point and if I could be that representation for them, I'd be honoured.”
Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from WWE's Crown Jewel event in Riyadh: