When WWE talent relations exec Marc Carrano told Maria Kanellis he saw her being in the business for a very long time, the Diva didn’t believe him.
Now, more than 10 years in, she is still thriving as the “First Lady of Ring of Honor.” Kanellis attributes her longevity in this competitive profession to being able to redefine her onscreen character and to constantly evolve.
“I think I’ve always had a passion for the pro wrestling business,”Kanellis said. “In Ring of Honor, I was able to find something that inspired me and challenged me. I have been able to have a lot of fun with it. I think with this character and being the ‘First Lady of Ring of Honor,’ I’m having so much fun with it.”
The 2008 Playboy covergirl has proven more than a pretty face on ROH, which airs Wednesday nights on Destination America. With only a handful of women on the roster, the manager and wrestler is completely at ease in a male-dominated world.
“I’ve always had a lot more guy friends than girlfriends, so it has never intimidated me being in a locker room full of guys,” she said. “The Ring of Honor locker room is one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been in. The guys are just so sweet and so wonderful. A lot of them came to my wedding. It’s great to be surrounded by all my big brothers and little brothers.”
Kanellis can see women’s wrestling division on ROH TV somewhere down the line.
“Currently, we only have a one-hour show,” she said, “so it’s really difficult to highlight female wrestlers the way Ring of Honor would want to do it. Ring of Honor never does things half-speed. Whenever Ring of Honor decides to do something, it’s always going to be full-force. When we start that division, it will be when we can give adequate time to female wrestling because what we don’t want is to diminish how great these women truly are.”
The entertainer is happy to see that women’s wrestling as a whole is on the upswing. However, she believes there is much more that can be done.
“I think we are going in the right direction,” Kanellis said. “We still have a long way to go. We have to be very careful right now, because we can’t become complacent that we are getting a few more nuggets of hope with time on television. It’s not enough. You look at women as a whole. Yes, there are more females that are going be on the cover of Fortune 500. You are going to see more females take bigger roles in these sitcoms and television shows. That doesn’t mean it is equal. Just because the girls get one main event every six months at NXT, that’s not equal. Yes, we are moving in the right direction. No, it’s not enough.”
Kanellis has been a popular personality on ROH in The Kingdom, a faction including her husband Mike Bennett, plus Matt Taven and Adam Cole. Through the company’s partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling, she has also gone to Japan for events.
“It is definitely incredible,” she said. “They remember me from WWE…I think it’s a whole lot of fun to go back and forth and to really play a character. It’s just so fun working with Bullet Club. They are some of the toughest men I’ve ever seen work out in that ring. The Kingdom really came into its stride. I think there is this incredible dynamic to go back-and-forth from the Bullet Club and The Kingdom because The Kingdom is now taking over where the Bullet Club left off.”
The on-air vixen enjoys working with Bennett, as the two are tag team partners in the ring and in real life. They bounce ideas off with each providing a unique perspective.
“We separate church and state,” Kanellis said. “There is ‘work’ us and ‘relationship’ us. We are a couple that just happens to be professional wrestlers. Our professional wrestling careers don’t define us as human beings. We have a lot of outside passions that we are able to experience as a couple. We love to cook together. We have three long-haired Chihuahuas together. We are big into our families. Even though we are wrestlers, it’s just one piece of our delicious soup.
“…I don’t think there have ever been a couple truly like Mike and I.” she continues. “You could kind of equate us to Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. You can kind of equate us to other people. That doesn’t necessarily get the whole picture. We’ve never really been seen before in the fact there isn’t one dominant person in our onscreen relationship. It depends on what the match calls for. If I need to be involved more, I’m involved more. If I need to sit on the outside and do nothing, that’s what I do. When it comes to the dynamic of Mike and I, there is nobody like us.”
Through the last four years the star has been able to witness the growth of ROH firsthand. Kanellis was excited when she got the news the company had signed a TV deal with Destination America.
“We are enthusiastic about building a new fan base and having different types of fans,” she said. “We are excited to be right there with TNA, so hopefully there is some crossover, and we can continue to build Wednesday nights for wrestling. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
Besides ROH and WWE, Kanellis is no stranger to television. She was a contestant on Outback Jack in 2004, which is the same year she competed in the WWE “Diva Search.” Her biggest reality show opportunity was in 2010 as a cast member on Celebrity Apprentice. Finishing fifth that season, she got to work with host Donald Trump for a good amount of time.
“He was a funny man and had a lot more humor than what I expected him to have,” she said. “At the same time, it was a working relationship. Yes, he gave me an incredible opportunity being on Celebrity Apprentice. No, I don’t agree with a lot of his beliefs and comments he has made in the news. I am excited to see how this presidential election plays out. I hope we continue to move in the direction that we are moving in this country. We’ve had so many exciting things happen, even in the last week. I’m hoping that whoever our next president is will hold those same values as I believe most of this country now has.”
Kanellis ‘s main project outside of wrestling these days is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in sports, entertainment and event management at Johnson & Wales University. WWE gave her a scholarship to cover part of her tuition. She hopes to finish in the next year-and-a-half. For Kanellis, her occupation and school commitments is a juggling act.
“This last term I did one midterm in a locker room at Preston City Wrestling show,” she said. “I was finishing papers when we were over in Japan at one point. It’s crazy, but it is also very challenging, so it’s inspiring. I like when things are difficult. I like when I’m challenged and when I have to work for something. So it’s exciting to me.”