Many professional wrestlers' athletic careers began in other sports.
A number of former football players, including former Maryland defensive lineman Dean Muhtadi (now WWE's "Mojo Rawley"), have made the jump. Former amateur wrestlers, combat fighters, weightlifters and bodybuilders have made the transition, as well as some basketball players.
But current Major League Wrestling (MLW) talent and Baltimore native Kaci Lennox has come to the pro wrestling world from a less traditional background. Lennox, whose real name is Meagan Venable, actually played three years of tennis at Mervo before beginning her pro wrestling training.
There was never a doubt in her mind which sport was going to be a part of her future.
"When I was 10 -- so 16 years ago -- my brother started me on [pro wrestling]," Venable, 26, said during an interview on "Jobbing Out" Oct. 31. "And ever since then I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with it more than he did. We watched it together and then I think he just kinda grew out of it.
"We went to our first show at First Mariner Arena [now Royal Farms Arena] and we had the nosebleed section seats. You had to have binoculars to see anything in the ring. From then, I just knew. I was like, ‘I gotta do this.'"
For what it's worth, Venable said she was a pretty good tennis player and that her participation in the sport -- which she chose to switch to after playing volleyball because she wanted to try something new -- has helped her with her footwork and agility in the wrestling ring.
Even as friends playfully chided her regarding wrestling being "fake," Venable was undeterred. Immediately after high school she enrolled at Gillberg's Pro Wrestling Academy in Severn, Md., run by Baltimore native and former WWE star Duane Gill.
From there, she shifted her focus to Florida, with a plan to move to Tampa to train at Florida Championship Wrestling, then a feeder program for WWE. Serendipitously, she'd end up moving instead with her entire family to Orlando, where WWE would open their state-of-the-art Performance Center and create their new "NXT" brand to train new talent.
"We love Baltimore but we kinda got tired of it," Venable said. "It's December and there's this white stuff that comes from the sky. Florida doesn't have that. I love snow every once in awhile, but once it turns to ice I'm done."
With her family in tow, Venable had a support system in place that included her mother Marti, who is undoubtedly her biggest fan -- even when she's a "heel," which is what storyline villains are known as in wrestling.
"She comes to like everything," Venable said. "Sometimes when I'm at shows and she's the loudest I'm like, ‘Yeah, she's kinda embarrassing.' But she's not that embarrassing. But when I'm supposed to be a bad person and she cheers me I gotta make sure she boos me."
The move to Florida led to Venable's first big break. Venable applied for WWE's reality show-style competition "Tough Enough" in 2015. While she wasn't chosen for the show, the company gave her an official tryout, which made her realize she needed to refocus her training efforts to get to the highest level of the sport.
Her opportunity with MLW came at the right time as she worked her way back from an injury. MLW had a new national television deal with beIN Sports and needed an interviewer. After ensuring the opportunity would still allow her to pursue her in-ring dreams and help make her a more versatile performer, Venable signed up. "Kaci Lennox" started getting the opportunities she had always dreamed of.
"I think that's when it really sunk in for me that this is a huge deal," Venable said. "I'm representing a company on TV. That's crazy. It's so crazy that I'm on TV around the world and we're about to go international."
Venable's rise comes at a time when a number of performers from Baltimore have had major opportunities in pro wrestling. Fellow Baltimore natives James Ellsworth and Rich Swann have had success in WWE lately, which has provided inspiration.
"When I first started wrestling, Stacy Keibler was pretty much the only wrestler that I knew of that was from Baltimore," Venable said. "So every time I said I was going to wrestle I was like, ‘I'm gonna be better than Stacy' or ‘I'm gonna be as good as Stacy.' And now there's so many people from Baltimore that are on the rise, that have made it."
And as she finds her way in her desired career, Venable hasn't forgetten that her tennis coach at Mervo was supportive of her pro wrestling aspirations. She even fondly remembers a valuable piece of advice -- even if she ignored it.
"She told me to have a backup plan," Venable said. "I still don't."
Issue 249: November 2018
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Meagan Venable