KUALA LUMPUR: At first glance, the petite, demure 19-year-old Nor Diana Kamarulzaman may seem like an ordinary Malaysian youth. Donning her pale grey hijab, round-rimmed glasses, and an all-black sports outfit, it would be hard to believe that she is the country’s first hijabi pro wrestler, who fights both men and women in the ring.
She went viral when she became the first ever female Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MyPW) Wrestlecon Champion at MyPW Fightback earlier this month. She fought tooth and nail against four men, unexpectedly triumphing against them.
Professional wrestling is considered performance art combined with wrestling and showmanship, and is a popular form of entertainment in many countries. However, the sport is traditionally dominated by men, while women are depicted as little more than window dressing.
As the only hijabi in pro wrestling in the world, Nor Diana is breaking down barriers and pushing expectations.
Her signature move involves jumping from the ring with her arms spread wide like a phoenix rising from the ashes, hence the nickname “Phoenix.” Standing at 5 foot 1 inch, her body is agile, leveraging speed and cunning.
The nickname was given to her by her trainer when she first started the sport, and is deeply embedded into her identity and persona. She even bought a phoenix mask and costume from Mexico, and explained that wearing was a source of pride.
“Before, I only wrestled with my mask because it was part of my identity, and I was afraid of societal judgment against me as a hijabi, but I decided to unmask last year in December,” she said. “It felt like a new identity.”
Her love for the sport is rooted in her childhood, where she credits her younger brother who introduced her to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) video games when she was 14 years old.
“I was hooked on wrestling because we always played the video games, and during weekends we would watch WWE shows on television with our dad,” she added.
She first joined wrestling professionally when she was still in high school at 16, but she had a reserved personality.
“When I first wrestled I was shy and awkward. Because I wear a hijab and am female, I was afraid that people might treat me differently. But they have been very welcoming,” she said.
As the only female wrestler at her wrestling academy, she trained with other male wrestlers. “We are very close like a family. They never treat me differently just because I am a woman, in fact we do the same training together.”
She told Arab News that wrestling is a different from other sports because of the athleticism and theatrical elements. “I like the characters of pro wrestlers, and the way they tell the story between the fights.
“Some people may think wrestling shows are fake because it is scripted, but the punches and kicks are real. Also, what makes it more interesting is the way wrestlers connect to their fans, as well as the fans rallying behind them.
“Pro wrestling requires wrestlers to do early preparation for matches, they cannot just fight spontaneously like a mixed martial arts fight,” said Nor Diana. “Wrestlers need to be constantly alert and communicate with their opponent. The match is scripted ‘live’ like a stuntman, and it can be fatal if one is not aware of each other’s moves.”
“I receive a lot of positive support from fans, who say I am very brave because I am wearing the headscarf and can wrestle. Women in hijabs are expected to have certain behaviors, and what they can do is limited. Many hijabis are not allowed to do a lot of things.
“Most of the promoters outside Malaysia tend to book female wrestlers who are ‘sexy’ and wear skimpy outfits. I was a bit sidelined because I am hijabi. Since I went viral, I get more bookings. However, I want to be chosen for my talent and not looks.”
She is currently juggling work and wrestling, although she hopes to become a full-time pro wrestler. Despite the increase in popularity in Southeast Asia, pro wrestling is still considered a small enterprise, with MyPW hosting just four to five shows per year.
Nor Diana wants to slowly build her strength and reputation in wrestling. She draws her inspirations from female professional wrestlers such as Sasha Banks and Tegan Nox.
“I still need to learn a lot more and improve my skills. I need to gain more experience and be exposed to different overseas wrestling shows, and work with other international wrestlers,” she concluded.