Thursday, September 29, 2022

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Traveling the Thunder Road: The Rise of Thunder Rosa

Wednesday night was a special moment in a company that can often be hyperbolic and heavy on the ‘Tony Khan has another groundbreaking announcement.’ One event on this week’s episode of Dynamite felt truly special. After a year-long feud, Thunder Rosa finally triumphed and was crowned AEW Women’s Champion. A hard-fought victory in a bloody steel-cage match, Rosa got the W amongst a packed crowd in her new adoptive home of San Antonio, Texas. 

Wrestling is filled with hustlers, who are constantly grinding away at making a name for themselves and always pushing for more, to be bigger and better. Thunder Rosa is a step above the rest, a woman who, when she isn’t training in MMA or wrestling, is making her own action figures or runs her own promotion. By her own accounts, Thunder is someone who ‘lives the gimmick brother’ we often get caught up in her ring gear, grand entrances, and pop culture references. Rarely do we see the woman behind the face paint, Melissa Cervantes. Behind the intricate lines and colors of her Día de Los Muertos mask is a woman with a story built on pain, death, and determination. 

From the Graveyards of Tijuana 

Born and raised in Tijuana, Mexico, Melissa Cervantes was the middle child of four sisters. She and her family had very little. Her life was spent working and earning her keep to help her mother and father pay for food and rent. She did not have the luxury of trying out for the soccer team. Her time was dedicated to helping her family and eventually moving out of the house and becoming independent. 

She reflects on her formative years as being tough, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. The hardship she faced, the grind of struggling hardened her, made her strong, and built her for a life in the brutal world of pro wrestling. 

Yet wrestling wasn’t something that she naturally gravitated towards. She always thought WWE was silly and fake. That is until she caught a glimpse of 2007 TNA. During one of the hottest periods in the company’s history, 18-year-old Cervantes fell in love with the knockouts division. Women like Gail Kim, Awesome Kong, Victoria, Mickey James, and ODB all stood out. These women were cool and different. Most importantly to her, they could work.  

Queen of the Reptile Tribe

Rosa came to most people’s attention during season two of Lucha Underground. Not as the face-painted fighter from the graveyards of Tijuana, Mexico, but as Kobra Moon, leader of the Reptile Tribe. A group of lizard-based wrestlers, including Drago, Luchasaurus, and Sami Kalliganhan.  

The experience was a massive learning curve for her. She took part in intergender trios matches, which pushed her to her limit. She was amongst top-notch wrestling talent like Rey Mysterio, Ricochet, Taya Valkyrie, and Ivelisse.  

By her own accounts, Thunder sucked. She struggled to pick up the Lucha Libre, an entirely new language to learn wrestling-wise. Rosa now looks back on her matches there and finds it hard not to cringe. 

Her relationship with the company ended on somewhat of a sour note. Season 4 of the show had its budget stripped. The conditions became unbearable, working in a condemned building, Cervantes caught strep throat. Wanting out of her contract, she was unwilling to pay the $5000 buy-out clause. Eventually, a group of other wrestlers, including Cervantes, filed a lawsuit against the El Ray Network and Baba-G Productions, the show’s producers. 

It was declared that the exclusivity deals in their contracts went against California Law. Not only that but wrestlers were only paid per appearance and unable to make money elsewhere from competing in other companies. The lawsuit was settled on March 26th, 2019, with Rosa being released from her Lucha Underground Contract. This willingness to stand up in the face of exploration and recognize the value of yourself as a wrestler isn’t something you see every day in wrestling. Neither is the little man winning against a big company. 

The event has undoubtedly left a mark on Thunder Rosa. Knowing your value as a performer and how to negotiate contracts is something that she looks to teach any of the new recruits that come to her promotion, Mission Pro Wrestling. 

On the Thunder Road 

Like all ideas in wrestling, the name Thunder Rosa came on the road. Traveling home from a show with her husband and friend Donovan Troy, the group was spitballing ideas. Drawing inspiration from Thunder Road, the rehabilitation center Cervantes and her husband worked for. The collaborative effort settled on Thunder Rosa.

 The name was powerful, striking, and memorable. It appealed to both an American and Latino/Latin X audience. With Rosa, meaning rose or flower, in Spanish, whether intentional or a stroke of luck, Thunder Rose is very apt for the hard-hitting and beautiful Cervantes.  

There was one more important test that the name needed to pass. An impromptu chant was started, Thun-der Ro-sa (clap,clap,clap,clap,clap). The name passed with flying colors, and Thunder Rosa was born. 

The face paint came a little later. While wrestling for Lucha Xtreme, Rosa was asked to paint her face in the style of a day of the dead mask as an attempt to draw in more Latinos. 

It was initially going to be a complete paint job until wrestler Manny Fernandez said it would be a crime to hide her beautiful face. So a compromise was reached. Cervantes painted half her face in what is now her signature Calavera. 

With that came a duality to Cervantes’ new persona. Cervantes was happy to wear her paint for Lucha Xtreme, but nowhere else. She shied away from the face-paint, not wanting to be typecast as the luchador/luchadora. Her style wasn’t the high flying flips, and elaborate arm drags associated with Lucha Libre; it was hard-hitting, aggressive, more akin to Strong Style. 

Rosa’s reluctance highlights the issues that many wrestlers face. Wrestling is built on stereotypes. Anyone with an ethnic background has a difficult choice to make, do they use their heritage as a way to inform their character or try to break away from it. It is a perilous balancing act. The line between homage and parody is thin. At that point in time, the newly crowned Thunder Rosa held off on fully embracing her heritage when working in the United States. 

Between Life and Death

After sustaining a concussion while in Japan, Cervantes had a come to Jesus moment. Sidelined for a month, Cervantes thought that perhaps life as a Gaijin (foreigner) wasn’t working. Offering another token of wisdom, her husband suggested that she put the face paint on again. The paint had a new meaning, rebirth coming ‘back to life after her concussion. Cervantes found new life in her role. 

There also lies a much more meaningful meaning behind the Calavera that didn’t materialize right away. . Both Cervantes’ grandfather and uncle were huge wrestling fans. That all changed one fateful day when Cervantes’ grandfather died of a heart attack during a Lucha Libre show, her uncle in his lap. 

The profound loss forged a burning hatred for wrestling in her uncle’s heart. He had sworn off the sport. That is until he saw Thunder Rosa. Seeing his niece in the ring rekindled his love. Now her face-paint embodies the Dead of The Dead Festival’s true meaning, honoring family heritage and paying homage to those we have lost.    

Life on The Indies

Free from her Lucha Underground contract, Rosa hit the indies working for ROH, WOW, and eventually settled in the NWA. 

With her adventures came several firsts. She became the first gaijin to capture Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling’s Intercontinental Princess Championship in Japan, drafting Maki Itoh. Her win over Allysin Kay made her NWA’s first Mexican-born woman’s champion. 

With all this came the grind of an independent contractor. Her hard-working ethos from growing up poor kicked in and can still be seen in all of her work: her YouTube channel, her merch, action figures, posters, stickers, Patreon content, and photoshoots. 

When previous generations just had to worry about making towns and selling shirts at the gimmick table, Rosa was going the extra mile. She is an example of the hustle amongst the current crop of independent wrestlers, diversifying their revenue streams and giving fans an unparalleled level of access to their favorite wrestlers. 

This time in the indies, Thunder found her stride and settled into the face-paint-wearing badass that we know and love today.  

Thunder Rosa is All Elite

Thunder Rosa made her debut on AEW television as the NWA champion, one of the women at the forefront of the forbidden door movement. On the 2nd September episode of Dynamite, she faced off against Serena Deeb for the NWA title. It was a moment I remember vividly. As Rosa made her way down the ramp, I instantly fell in love with the face-paint, the metal edge to her entrance music, the half-America half-Mexican flag. This was a fully formed character in need of no polish. 

But it wasn’t me that Rosa and Deeb impressed. Their match gained the on-air praise of Jim Ross and helped to raise the bar for in-ring competition in AEW. Eventually, after a few months in November 2020, Rosa signed to AEW. She officially declared her retirement from MMA, having lost one fight by unanimous decision for Combate Americas. Rosa decided to double down on pro-wrestling. 

From there, Rosa was kept strong. She was a regular and AEW Dark and Dark Elevation, winning numerous squash matches and helping develop younger talent. 

Lights Out

If all of this was not enough to win you over, the most significant turning point was St Patrick’s day 2021. A Light’s Out that quite possibly forever changed women’s wrestling. Rosa faced off against Britt Baker in a bloody war that won Pro Wrestling’s Illustrated Match of the Year. The two women put each other through hell. They had something to prove. That women’s wrestling was just as important as the men’s. If you weren’t one board with Thunder Rosa before then, you certainly were now.

The Lights Out match sowed the seeds for a year-long journey. One that included helping get Jade Cargill over in a TBS Title Tournament, a feud with long-time rival Mercedes Martinez, multiple championship matches that saw Britt Baker eke out victories at the last second. 

Their long-standing rivalry has been the lynchpin of the women’s division and has helped bolster its profile. It has been an iron sharpens iron to deal with both women have brought the best out of each other. 

 But all that was put to rest this Wednesday when Rosa won the AEW Women’s Championship.  

What’s Next For Thunder Rosa? 

The future is bright. Rosa has come a long way. Coming from humble beginnings, she embodies grit and determination and has the hustle of someone who grew up fighting for everything. But that hasn’t made her complacent. Oh no, Rosa still has a lot to prove. If anything, she has a chip on her shoulder to prove she can hold a women’s division on her shoulders and build it into something bigger and better than it already was. Whatever the future holds for Thunder Rosa, she is on top now and ready to prove why she is La Mera Mera. 

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