Kay Lee Ray is NXT UK's longest reigning women's champion, but reaching that milestone wasn't always her plan. Although Ray has been on the wrestling scene for more than a decade, at first she didn't have much interest in sports entertainment.
"I don't have the usual story. A lot of the people I know watched wrestling when they were really young, and I don't have any big brothers so I didn't really have anyone that watched wrestling," says the Scot. "My earliest memory was probably when I was about 11 or 12 and my little cousins were watching it. I was like, 'I'm not going to watch wrestling' and I feel like that was such a big mistake."
Her opinion changed when she was 15. She met her now fiance Stevie Xavier, who told her he was training to be a professional wrestler.
Despite feeling a little confused about his decision, she decided to join him at a training session to learn more. From then on, she says, she was hooked.
“I started watching [pro wrestling] all the time from that point on. I was training all the time and I just wished I had watched it since I was young. There’s just so much wrestling I have not seen and I need to catch up on. I’ve tried to watch a lot of that but it did become a passion for me when I turned 15 and jumped into training.”
She made her debut on the independent circuit in May, 2009, when she was 17. Throughout the past decade, she's travelled around the world performing for wrestling organisations – including a couple of stints in the WWE. She had a one-off WWE match in 2015 and then competed in the Mae Young Classic in 2017. However, it wasn't until January 2019 that Ray signed a contract with the company, making her debut at NXT UK Takeover: Blackpool.
Last week, NXT UK returned to the WWE Network after shutting down production in March due to the pandemic. The programming also found a different home in the BT Sports studio in London, offering wrestlers a top-notch new facility. Had the show been around when Ray was younger, would it have accelerated her career?
"I feel like that's a double-edged sword because I don't know if I would have necessarily been ready for [NXT UK] when I was younger, but the training and everything they give you here is beyond anything you'd receive anywhere.
“For young people now, I think it’s unique for them that they have this here and to be able to train right straight on their doorstep. But you do have to work hard to be here – it’s not just a walk in the park.”
While Ray, 28, loves what she does, she says there are some things she's had to give up in the process of chasing her dream, including time with family and friends as well as missing birthdays, weddings and even funerals.
“It’s very hard to do this job and be there for everything and it takes a long time to really get your craft to where it should be. I have been lucky."
She credits her experience in the independent wrestling circuit as helping shape her career to become the record-setting champion that she is today.
“It’s been 10 years since I’ve been doing this and I have had a wonderful career on the independent scene and I wouldn’t change that for the world,” she says.
“I’ve seen some amazing places but I’m glad I had that experience before coming to WWE. I think if I had been younger, I would have been too young or too naive, whereas now I feel I’ve really honed my craft and I’m in the place where I need to be.”
So, does Ray have any words for those who'd follow a similar path?
“I’ve said this for a few years, but if you want to do this, don’t let anyone tell you ‘no’ and go and find a reputable training school and stick with it. If you want this to be your goal, make this your goal.”
NXT UK can be streamed on the WWE Network at wwenetwork.com