Credit: James Musselwhite/AEW

Nyla Rose owes a lot to video games. She’s a professional wrestler, not a professional gamer, but the alternate realities of Intelligent Qube, Tetris, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have provided Rose with an instructive metaphor. 

“If video games have taught me anything,” Rose says, “it’s that if you are constantly encountering enemies, then you are heading in the right direction.” 

Rose’s enemies are never far. They live in her pocket, polluting her cell phone and cluttering her Twitter mentions with a steady stream of verbal abuse. But Rose lets trolls troll. She gets to work, and in February, she became the first out transgender woman signed by a major United States wrestling promotion when she joined All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the nascent league filled with wrestlers from the independent scene and billed as an alternative to the old-guard, global juggernaut WWE.

The Northwest D.C. native is a featured act for AEW, and she’ll challenge Riho in the company’s first women’s championship match Oct. 2 at Capital One Arena on the first edition of AEW’s weekly live TNT show, Dynamite.

The opportunity is more than a homecoming for Rose. It’s validation of who she is. 

“On the playing field of being a competitor, I’m just like everyone else,” Rose says. “And that’s incredible.”

She earned the storyline opportunity to compete for the title by eliminating Dr. Britt Baker in a 21-woman battle royale on Aug. 31 in Chicago during the preshow for AEW’s “All Out” event. After the match, Rose dropped to her knees, spread her arms wide, and gnawed on the wrestling ring’s middle rope with her teeth.

In the world of professional wrestling, the biggest stars are often the biggest personalities. And Rose is a star.

She has spent much of her adult life trapped in a paradox. Rose long wanted to be treated like everyone else and to fit into society, while also chasing success in an industry where it pays to stand out. 

There’s no fading into the background for Rose, who has more than 20,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram. Her crowning moment could come Oct. 2 in front of friends and family.

D.C. is often overshadowed in the wrestling community by fellow East Coast cities New York and Philadelphia. But D.C. has a rich wrestling history, from its current crop of independent promotions to serving as a homebase for WWE in the 1950s.

Rafael Morffi, AEW’s live events director, says the company polled data from its first four shows, which were streamed on B/R Live, the service owned by Bleacher Report and Turner Sports. A color-coded heat map indicated a high percentage of viewers in D.C.

“It’s a market that appeals to many, many socioeconomic backgrounds,” Morfi says. 

AEW choosing D.C. is validation of the city’s indie scene, says Lolo McGrath, the chief brand officer of Prime Time Pro Wrestling, a new local promotion. McGrath met Rose at a happy hour for local wrestling fans shortly after Rose signed with AEW.

“The fact that more people from the DMV aren’t paying attention to her, to me, is borderline offensive,” McGrath says, chuckling. “You have this incredible person who embodies everything about what it means to be an independent wrestler, with the biggest problems thrown at you, and challenges. And she just stomps all over them.”

McGrath says LGBTQ wrestlers are among the hardest workers on the national independent scene: They have to grind through the rigors of life on wrestling’s fringes, often working 9-to-5 jobs to make ends meet—in addition to potentially performing in front of fans who disapprove of their existence. 

“Anybody who does it is just a total superhero to me,” McGrath says. “When we think of who in our larger society gets some of the most hate and the most violence, in both physical violence and rhetoric directed towards them, it’s transgender women of color. And that’s Nyla.”

Chris Lewis, who performs under the alias Mr. Grim on the independent circuit, was unfamiliar with that reality in early 2014, when he first met Rose. Searching for a mentor, he shot her a Facebook message. She agreed to let him tag along on a road trip to North Carolina, where she had been booked in an independent show. 

The day of the trip, Lewis arrived at Rose’s home and was taken aback when Rose asked to snap a photo of his driver’s license. He handed it over anyway, and after Rose texted the image to some friends, she climbed into the car and turned to Lewis. 

She had one request: “Please don’t kill me.”

“I’m like, ‘Is she joking?’” Lewis says. 

In the years since, as the two have developed into close friends, Lewis has learned more about the transgender community and the daily threats of violence its members face. In 2018, the Human Rights Campaign tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S., many of whom were transgender women of color. (Rose is black, white, and Native American.)

Rose says she has been on the receiving end of insults and glass bottles flung from cars while walking down the street.

She feels most comfortable in the wrestling ring. That’s resonated with audiences, including in Japan, where Rose rose to prominence competing for promotions Marvelous and Sendai Girls from 2016-18. 

She earned the attention of AEW, whose braintrust consists of four wrestlers—Kenny Omega, [former WWE performer] Cody Rhodes, and the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson)—who achieved unprecedented stardom for performers outside of WWE before teaming up with Tony Khan, son of the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars Shahid Khan, to form AEW.

Omega, Rhodes, and the Jacksons—none of whom are older than 35—are all signed wrestlers for the company, in addition to serving as executive vice presidents. The group has stressed the importance of inclusivity, both in the company’s roster and in its fan base. In May, a man at AEW’s “Double or Nothing” show tweeted a picture of himself next to another fan.

“So this fucking nerd next to me asked me to leave #DoubleOrNothing if I was gonna be transphobic. I thought #AEW is for everyone? #AEWDoN.”

The Young Bucks responded to a tweet requesting for that fan to be banned from coming events: “We just banned him. Thank you.”

AEW was formed in early January as an experiment. It remains to be seen if the best of the indie scene can compete with WWE, but regardless of what happens, Rose will likely be at the forefront. She is featured prominently in the company’s promotional material.

And while Rose’s social media is full of hateful comments, she has received plenty of positive messages, too. In addressing Rose, admirers often channel inspiration and hope. 

“To have someone from this community win the biggest possible title that she could possibly win on cable television, in her hometown. I…” McGrath says, voice trailing off. “That’s a movie.” 

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