Dakota Kai on Winning Dusty Classic, Tag Title Shot and WrestleMania
By Ryan Satin
FOX Sports WWE Analyst
NXT held the first women’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament this year, and Dakota Kai, one half of the winning team, is ready for her shot at gold.
For anyone unfamiliar with the tournament, the Dusty Classic was established in 2015 as a way of paying tribute to the man who was a central figure to the brand when it launched — not just as an on-screen presence but from all of the work "The American Dream" did behind the scenes in NXT to develop many of the characters you see on WWE today.
The tournament has since become an opportunity for Superstars to stand out from the rest of the roster and hopefully earn a future tag team title shot to elevate their brand.
Then, when the WWE Women’s Tag Team titles were introduced in 2018 as belts that could be defended across all three brands, the gradual next step felt like a female version of the tournament.
That came to fruition this year, when eight teams were announced for the first Women’s Dusty Classic, which culminated in a match at "TakeOver: Vengeance Day" on Sunday that saw Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez defeat Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart in the finals.
Just days later, Dakota joined me for a conversation about what it meant to win the tournament, her ideal stage to challenge for the Women’s Tag Team titles, why she’d like Shayna Baszler and Nia Jax to still be champions when she gets that opportunity and more.
R.S.: Let’s talk about the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic.
Before we discuss your win in the tournament, can you tell me what it meant for you and the other women in NXT to have your own version of the tournament this year?
DAKOTA: Oh, gosh. We were all so stoked when it was announced. I think a lot of us only found out, like, a couple of days before that NXT episode where the trophy was presented and Beth announced it.
I feel like it’s definitely another step in the evolution that started a few years ago. This is definitely another huge, huge milestone for that. We were all so stoked to just be a part of it.
I know a lot of the talent that we have at NXT in the women’s locker room right now, we didn’t necessarily have interactions, unfortunately, with Dusty because a lot of us came after his passing.
But, gosh, he’s such a legend, and just to have the first Women’s Dusty Classic be announced, it was definitely an emotional, overwhelming experience.
R.S.: You mentioned Dusty Rhodes and how a lot of the women in the tournament this year didn’t have any interaction with him, but do you think his presence is still felt at the Performance Center and in NXT?
DAKOTA: 100 percent. That beautiful, beautiful trophy that you see, that’s always on display at the Performance Center.
So whenever we go into the PC, whether it be gym or class or anything like that, it was always so proudly on display in the middle of where all the rooms were. So his presence was still very much alive there.
Just hearing the stories of those who interacted with him before and, you know, the hilarious stories and his involvement, especially with the promo class side of things. Yeah, his spirit is very much kept alive.
RS: Did you feel like this was yours and Raquel’s tournament to win since you were the team that had been together for the most significant amount of time going into it?
DAKOTA: I mean, I don’t want to, like, put it that way … but, yeah.
We were confident from the start in terms of winning this whole thing. Even just being a part of it, I was so grateful to have the opportunity. But we were confident from the get-go that we were going to win it all.
It’s almost one year, I think, to the day, that we’ve been together.
While we’ve had each other’s back here or there, when I went after Io [Shirai], she was there for me. When she went after Rhea and through War Games, we were both there for each other. We had each other’s backs. But this is the first opportunity we’ve had to work together for something as a team. So yeah, it meant a lot to us.
R.S.: How do you feel about your progression as a team in that time?
DAKOTA: Gosh, when she was first paired with me, I was so, so happy. Because Raquel is one of the hardest working but also one of the loveliest people in the locker room.
She was at the Performance Center longer than I was, and a lot of us were just super happy for her that she finally got this opportunity to present herself on the main stage.
Throughout the past year, her confidence has grown so much. Like, the competitor she was back then to now is night and day.
Not only her confidence, but she looks amazing. Her physique is just ridiculously insane. She’s got delts for days. Delts for days! Put that on a shirt.
She tells me that with my experience in wrestling, I’ve really helped her, but she’s helped me, too. We’ve sort of lifted each other up, and our confidence has just grown, and the dynamic that we have works well for us. We get compared to HBK and Diesel a lot. So, yeah. It’s really working out for us.
R.S.: You, obviously, had a little more experience than Raquel when you started teaming together, but I’ve noticed your confidence level has also seemed to grow over the past year.
The two of you together just exude confidence now when you walk out to the ring. It’s really cool to see because, to be honest, when you first turned heel, I thought, "Man, she’s like the nicest person ever. How is that gonna work?"
Similar to Bayley, though, you kind of found yourself with this version of the character.
DAKOTA: Yeah. I mean, it’s a surprise to me, too.
When it was first told to me that the heel turn was happening at War Games in 2019, I was welcome to the challenge but also a bit apprehensive because most of my independent career was done as babyface. It was the most natural thing for me to portray.
When that happened, I was a little bit apprehensive because it was new to me, but I think being paired with Raquel just opened up so many more opportunities for not only me but us as a team to work the heel side of things, you know? So it’s only been good.
R.S.: Yeah. As nervous as you probably were, I feel like stepping out of your comfort zone might have been one of the best things to happen to your career, in retrospect.
DAKOTA: Oh, 100 percent. As uncomfortable as that was for me, I had to be that way for me to come out of my shell and really do some new things.
R.S.: Can you put into words what it felt like to be the first female winners of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament over the weekend at Takeover?
DAKOTA: I feel like it still hasn’t really sunk in yet.
I’ve done a few interviews so far, but every time I say it, it just feels weird. I understand that it happened, but it just hasn’t really set in.
I was talking to Raquel earlier today. At the end of that match, when we finally got to breathe a little bit because that whole day was crazy and stepping up onto the podium with Regal and the millions and millions of streamers — so much confetti — I feel like, at that point, it finally sort’ve sunk in.
We had a moment where we looked at each other, and gosh, it was crazy. I think I’m still trying to absorb everything that happened, but [I'm] absolutely grateful and so, so thankful for that opportunity.
Especially to work with Raquel to achieve that goal.
R.S.: I just rewatched the match, and you can see it in your faces. The two of you have been so focused for the past month or so, every time you came out — so serious, game faces on. After the match as all the streamers are going, though, there’s just pure happiness from the both of you.
DAKOTA: Yeah, it was crazy, and God, so much confetti, but yeah. It was awesome. It was such a good feeling.
R.S.: How did you feel about your opponents, Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart, after the match? I know you guys are all close in the locker room, but how did you feel about the match as a whole and your opponents when it was all said and done?
DAKOTA: We were super happy with that.
That’s the thing about our locker room — we are all so selfless. There’s so much talent in there, and with Ember and Shotzi, too, such talented ladies.
I think the reason we do as well as we do is because we’re all so selfless, and at the end of the day, we just want to tell the best story possible. Whatever that is, we want to make sure we put our all into it.
But they were super happy with it, which makes me happy, too. Regardless of the result, as long as your opponents are safe, and as long as they’re happy with everything, that’s really important, too, you know?
R.S.: Totally. I know we’re still in a pandemic, but were you able to do anything to celebrate after the show?
DAKOTA: Not really. Even though we were first and it was kind of go, go, go, we had a bunch of things lined up for us to do. I had, like, a brownie, but …
R.S.: There we go! That’s what I want to hear. That counts. Ronda Rousey, I remember, when she was an MMA fighter, her celebration was always chicken wings. She’d get chicken wings after to treat herself. So, yeah, a brownie counts.
What was your reaction when you found out the winners of the tournament would receive a shot at the Women’s Tag Team Titles?
DAKOTA: Oh, gosh. So, I think the Women’s tag team titles have only been defended on NXT one other time, and that was when Tegan and I were a team as Team Kick against Kairi and Asuka.
I feel like bringing those titles back to NXT would really help elevate not only the brand but Raquel and I as competitors, too.
Obviously, Elimination Chamber is happening Sunday, and we don’t know when we’re going to be facing whoever the champs will be, but if it is Nia and Shayna, I have history with both of them.
A lot of people do remember my and Shayna’s rivalry throughout NXT. Also, I was Nia’s first NXT match when I was still on the independent scene as Evie. So there is history there, and honestly, we’re both ready to face whoever would be holding the titles whenever we would be going up for them.
I think that would be such a cool moment, too: To bring those titles back to NXT or wherever we defend them.
R.S.: I would love to see you continue your rivalry with Shayna Baszler. I’m one of those people who remember everything between you guys in NXT. So I’m personally excited for the prospect of another chapter in your story.
I know you said that with Elimination Chamber this weekend, you don’t know when you’re going to challenge, but let’s say it was up to you. In your ideal scenario, where would you like to challenge for the tag team titles?
DAKOTA: "Where" as in what brand?
R.S.: Yeah, or what show — do you want it at WrestleMania? Do you not want it sooner than that on Raw or SmackDown or NXT?
DAKOTA: Yeah, WrestleMania! You know I would never turn down a WrestleMania moment. I think that would be the absolute — that would be my No. 1 pick.
If I got to choose, having a match at WrestleMania would DEFINITELY be No. 1.
But then the more I think about it, if we still had that crazy NXT crowd, I think it would be super dope if they were brought to NXT and we did challenge for them there because that crowd would go nuts, and I do miss it. But I think WrestleMania would definitely be the top choice.
R.S.: I also miss that crowd. Even watching TakeOvers, I’m like, "Man, it’s just not the same." Not that I hate watching it or anything, but there are just so many times where I can hear the crowd pop that would’ve happened in my head.
DAKOTA: I completely agree. With TakeOvers, all the pay-per-views, WrestleMania, it just goes to show how much the fans do play a part in the atmosphere.
We draw a lot of energy from them, and it has been hard the past year to rely more on ourselves and try to get as much adrenaline as we can from our opponents or within ourselves. But, yeah, I miss those crowds like crazy.
R.S.: I can’t imagine the mental difficulty you have to go through in figuring out, "Well, there’s no one cheering right here. There’s no crowd pop. Did that work? Should I keep doing that?" I imagine it’s gotta be tough.
DAKOTA: It is. And it’s a lot better now because we have the screens and because NXT has about 45-to-50 people ringside, and there is a lot of crowd interaction there.
But last year, it was really hard when everything started shutting down, and we had to compete. I remember we had a six-woman ladder match, which I think was meant to be on the WrestleMania Takeover weekend, but we did it in front of no one, and it was dead silent.
Doing a ladder match to silence is one of the most painful experiences. You feel everything. If it was a TakeOver — especially a WrestleMania weekend TakeOver crowd — oh gosh! The adrenaline would basically make you fearless. It would make you invincible to everything.
Even though I was happy with how that match came out, and all the girls were safe and happy with it, I couldn’t help but think about how a WrestleMania weekend TakeOver crowd would have reacted. Yeah … I miss the people.
R.S.: I actually think over the past year, though, I gotta give every single wrestler who’s still performing credit for how they’ve been able to make it work.
I imagine it was tough at first, but I feel like now when you watch the shows, to the normal eye, to the untrained eye, it feels close to the same product. My dad watches wrestling and is a very casual fan, and he tells me that he feels like the ThunderDome properly replicated the live experience and that he loves how it looks.
DAKOTA: Oh, yeah. I feel like everyone’s sort of gotten past it, for the most part. And the Thunderdome does look really cool. When they first announced it, I was like, "Oh, this is super cool." But I still miss people, which is a lot for me to say, since I’m an introvert.
I think we’ve really managed to find our own path through this and still put on amazing matches and shows.
R.S.: As an introvert, do you think when this is all over that you’re going to go out more now?
R.S.: I’ve been wondering that myself. I’m the same way. I never liked to go out before. So I’ve been wondering if, when I’m allowed to go out again, whether I’ll do it … or if that’s something that will last for two weeks before I go back to staying at home.
DAKOTA: Yeah. I mean, I might go out for, like, one night.
I feel like, for the most part, I really only miss people with the fans and the fan interactions in the crowd. But I think I’d probably still stay home, unfortunately. I’m an introvert at heart, so yeah. But I do miss fans.
R.S.: Of course. I miss them so much.
So if you win the Women’s Tag Team titles, you kind of already mentioned before that you’d like to bring them back to NXT.
Is that your personal goal, or do you think you’d like to move to RAW or Smackdown and start defending them there?
DAKOTA: I definitely think bringing them to NXT.
If we were to win them, I feel like it would be a combination of both. I think there’s a lot that could be done with those championships at NXT, just because the locker room is crammed with so many talented ladies, and I think there could be a lot of cool options for storytelling there.
But at the same time, taking them to Smackdown or to RAW or, dare I say, to NXT UK, the options open up so much more for matches that we’ve never had before or stories that have never happened before.
R.S.: Lastly, Edge recently made a visit to NXT while scouting possible WrestleMania opponents. If you could have a match with one legend like that at TakeOver, what legend that you’ve looked up to would you want to have a match with?
DAKOTA: When I started watching, Trish was at the top of her game. So it’d either be Trish or, I think, Beth.
I feel like Beth Phoenix has still got a lot left in the tank, and I think if she was still wrestling now, with the locker room that we have at NXT, there’s so many options for amazing matches and stories. And she’s so nice, too.
R.S.: If she became like William Regal before he fully retired, where he used to be the final boss in NXT, I would love it.
Because you’re right, she’s not fully retired anymore.
DAKOTA: Yeah. She’s still got it. She definitely does. She’s still jacked.
Watch Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez LIVE on USA Network at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.