Back in high school, I had a friend named Tori. As I remember her, she was a somewhat shy, wickedly funny, strikingly beautiful member of our school’s dance team. We went to the same parties, hung in the same circles. But after high school, we lost touch.

A few years later—and I don’t quite remember how or why—but I happened across a video of a professional wrestler nestling her head into her opponent’s armpit and locking her hands behind the opponent’s back before flipping her, head over heels, while carrying the grip all the way to the ground, contorting herself into a kind of back bend, long enough for the referee to slam his hand against the mat three times. As the crowd roared and the ref went to raise the hand of the woman who’d just executed this absurdly acrobatic maneuver, I realized this suplex-ing, backbending wild child was my high school friend, Tori. Only, the television audience and thousands fans in attendance knew her as Alicia Fox, aka The Foxxy One.

Victoria Crawford grew up in Northeast Florida. After high school, she did some modeling and was discovered by WWE talent scout, who invited her to give wrestling a shot.

“I thought it might be a good way to pay my way through college,” Crawford told me recently. More than a dozen years later, Crawford’s the longest tenured superstar on the WWE roster. In 2010 she became the first African American to hold the Women’s championship. She’s done cage matches and ladder matches. She starred on a popular reality television show. She’s got more than a million followers on Instagram. And she’s traveled the world as an ambassador for the WWE, an enormously popular, globally loved brand.

Yeah, she’s a big deal.

Crawford’s been spending more time in her hometown lately. She was off the road recovering from a broken tailbone she suffered at the beginning of 2018. She’s back in action now, though, again on the road and looking to reclaim her women’s title. On Monday, Crawford (or Fox, rather) will join the entire cast of WWE superstars as Raw comes to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Before she headed out on the road, however, Crawford stopped by the Void office, where we asked her to reflect on her career and also look ahead to what’s next for the Foxy One. She also put me in a headlock (see photo above).

I remember when I first found out you were a professional wrestler. I was surprised. I knew you were athletic, but I’d be lying if I said I saw wrestling in your future. How’d you get into it?

I was in school at FSCJ. I really thought I’d be an Optomologist because of what I went through with my eye [during high school, Crawford contracted an infection that led her to be blind, temporarily, in her left eye]. I had done a little bit of modeling for Venus and WWE was looking for girls with no wrestling experience between the ages of 17,18, or 19. I went for a tryout in Orlando with Kelly Kelly [Barbara Blank, also from Northeast Florida, also a successful professional wrestler]. I thought it’d be an opportunity to help pay for school. We watched some tape of a wrestling show. I was impressed. Then we just did some interviews. The next phase was like a week tryout. Taking falls. Hitting the ropes. Body slamming. They wanted to see if we had any athleticism, at all. We signed a developmental deal and moved to Louisville. Kelly moved on pretty quick, but I stayed in developmental training. I was still trying to figure out what wrestling was. I‘m grateful fore that time because I got to home my craft.

What was the most challenging aspect for you when you were learning how to be a wrestler?

The first challenge is learning how to fall on your back. My first day of practice I almost fainted. I was nervous and not breathing properly [laughs]. Then, it was learning how to work with other people and listen. Then you have to learn how to put a story together in the ring. After that it’s developing a character and how to feed off the crowd. And that’s so huge because the crowd really dictates the flow of a match.

Now, I’ve been there so long, I’ve played baby faces [good guys] and heels [bad guys] and I can really work with anybody and have a decent match. I feel privileged to be able to help some of the younger wrestlers come up.

Photo: Wesley Parsons

What things felt natural about wrestling?

I think just working with other people. A lot of the times you’ll hear wrestling compared to a dance. I came from a dance background and I agree, just in the ways that the wrestlers lead each other around the ring and execute certain moves together. There’s another wrestler, Natalya [Neidhart], who I’ve worked with so much, we’ve been in the ring together so many times that we don’t even have to talk. The art becomes improv and theatrics. I know her moves so well. We’re to a point where we’ll be just joking with each other in the ring.

But, really the creation part of the match is my favorite. You plan something, like ‘I’ll do this and you do that.’ Then, you do it and the crowd reacts. It’s an amazing feeling. It took me a long time to get there. I was trying to piece together what wrestling was and then trying to perform it. It was like learning to juggle.

Was it intimidating to you when you started? Just working with other wrestlers? It seems like wrestling is so full of big personalities and egos.

It was, for sure. Everyone from [Northeast Florida] where I grew up is just so chill. And there are some big personalities in wrestling. But you spend a lot of time we this people and you find out they’re chill, too. At the same time, you spend enough time with anyone and it can wear on you. There are so many moving parts, too. Some people come in and go straight to the top. So you can get caught up in, ‘Well, why am I not moving up?’ I’ve seen people come and go. Once you realize the landscape is constantly changing, once you accept that change is inevitable, you can really enjoy yourself and enjoy the ride.

Can you talk about the toll wrestling takes on your body? You’re on the road a lot, slamming and getting slammed. What’s that like?

It varies, but I’d say anywhere between 120 days and 220 days we’re on the road. And most of those days we’re wrestling. There’s so many factors that dictate how you feel after a match. Just from this last injury, though, I’ve taken on some new techniques to make sure my body holds up. I’m doing pilates. Not really lifting weights anymore, mostly body weight stuff. I need flexibility and endurance more than bulky muscle mass.

Then, in the ring, I don’t feel pressure to put my body at risk as much. I don’t need to jump off the top rope, really. Nobody is telling me to do that. I think that’s going to help my body hold up over the long run.

You’re the longest tenured superstar on the WWE roster. You’ve had a ridiculous amount of success over a long period of time. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Definitely having such a long career is a great accomplishment in this business. But being the first African American divas champion, I’m really proud of that. Really though, being a brand ambassador and going around the world, working with the UN and visiting the military. We went to Africa and visited a refugee camp with the UN and met with women who’d witnessed genocide. Being able to come back and share those experiences with friends and family and fans, as a job, has been really rewarding. Lastly, I’m proud of not losing my mind [laughs].

The WWE is this huge, global brand. And maybe people who don’t know much about wrestling don’t know that. But the spotlight has got to be intense.

Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve grown a lot. A few years ago, after 10 years of wrestling, I was like ‘what am I doing? Am I still interested in this?’ It’s really hard to be in the public eye while you’re trying to grow up and become a woman. We did the show on E!. And that was something where I learned a lot of lessons in the public eye. It was really challenging. I cringe looking back on it. There were certain encounters, notably captured by TMZ, that I’m not all that proud of. The reality show was a window into our lives. It’s funny looking back on who that little girl was. She was growing, living her life, going out. Now, I’m not that same person any more.

Most people get to learn those lessons without the camera on them.

Yeah, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for everything. For me, I’m just looking to grow and move forward in a positive way. I’m really inspired right now by all these powerful women in my life. And just being back here in Jacksonville, I’m really inspired by all the cool people doing cool stuff here. I really think this place is on the rise and I’m happy to be from here and now living here again.

You were out of action for a time, due to a tailbone injury?

It was a really humbling moment. Three months recovery time. I was here for that whole time. The first half was rehab and sitting on a donut [laughs]. It was interesting though, it was the first time where I could take a moment to step outside of my character. Not that I like, embody Alicia Fox, but when you’re on the road nonstop, performing all the time, you don’t really get to take inventory of your life. As I was looking back at my journey, it was like the volume turned down a bit. Learning how to be Victoria Crawford was a little uncomfortable. I had to learn a routine. A bed time. Getting up and going for a run. I missed out on developing routines when I was on the road.

Photo: Wesley Parsons

It reminds me of the stories you hear of method actors who embody a character for a film and then forget who they are after the shoot. But you’re acting something like 200 nights a year.

Yeah, totally. It’s interesting too because when I finally came home, I was reflecting and thinking, ‘Wow, what other little things did I not learn while I was living this life on the road?’ I was coming up on 30. How many things did I let slip. I mean, ultimately, I realized I’m fine. But that was little scary.

You’re back from injury now. Who are you feuding with? What’s going on with Alicia Fox?

My character, well, she’s I guess kind of sassy. Her thing is like, “fancy as a fox.” [laughs]. I’ve developed into this like off the wall, firecracker. The word ‘crazy’ might not capture it. But I came back from injury and turned into a heel [bad guy]. We’ve been reintroducing the character. I’ve been bullying people. It’s really fun to play the bad guy, the coward. I get the crowd riled up, throw drinks at them [laughs]. It started in one match, where they told me just to throw a fit. [WWE Executive] Vince [McMahon] told me to just go crazy, tear things up, knock the announcer’s hat off his head. Throw iPads in water. So after my match, I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I just did it. And the crowd really reacted. It was this whole mood swing. It really worked.

But currently, there’s a lot of great, talented girls. I’m loving working with everyone. Ronda Rousey is on the roster now, too, which is really cool.

Right, the Women’s Division has really blown up, huh? It must be cool to have been there to help it explode in popularity.

It’s so amazing. Even like looking back, 2006, when I got started, females were used as like enhancement to the male talent—walk them to the ring and whatever. Or if they had matches, they were short. Or, they had like Bra and Panty Matches [Ed Note: exactly what it sounds like] Then we started getting more TV time for our women’s matches. But social media, the audience really played a big role in saying, “What’s up with the girls’ matches being only one minute?” [The audience] made it such a big deal that WWE had no choice but to respond and give us longer matches. It started to evolve quickly. I went from having matches that were literally 45 seconds to big main event cage matches. Now Evolution on October 28 will be the first all female pay-per-view.   

Thats amazing!

Yeah, I know. It’ll be cool to bring all the legends back. We’re going to bring the women back from back in the day. It’s just cool to see how much it’s grown and to be a part of it all.