Friday, February 23

Laredo’s Carla Gonzalez makes dreams come true at World Wrestling Entertainment as Roxanne Perez

All around the world, children watch their sports heroes on TV and dream the impossible dream. Those dreams, however, usually remain just that. Breaking through to the highest level of athletics is just so difficult.

However, one Laredoan wouldn’t take no for an answer, regardless of the odds. And because of her passion and her drive, she’s now on her way to making every bit of her childhood dream a reality.

Laredo’s Carla Gonzalez – ring name Roxanne Perez – signed with World Wrestling Entertainment in March after making quite the name for herself on the independent scene. And only two weeks after making her debut on NXT 2.0 – WWE’s developmental brand which broadcasts live to the world Tuesday nights on USA Network – she already found her way into the show’s main event in a match against the NXT Women’s Champion.

It’s clear now the future is extremely bright for the Alexander High School alumna, who at just 20 years old is making an impact already in the WWE as a major blue-chip prospect.

It’s been quite the ride to get to this point. A childhood fandom developed into very real experiences, but a short career in independent organizations included eight-hour bus rides, sleeping on a couch and working full-time in fast food. But unwavering determination led to Gonzalez grabbing the brass ring, as she not only has made her dream come true but now has her sights set on helping to continue pushing women’s wrestling to new heights.

Former WWE Superstar AJ Lee pictured next to 13-year-old Carla Gonzalez outside of Laredo Energy Arena in 2015. Gonzalez, ring name Roxanne Perez, signed with WWE in March 2022 and credits AJ Lee for being her inspiration.

Courtesy/Carla Gonzalez

A dream is born

Wrestling may have become Gonzalez’s passion early in her life, but interestingly enough, at one point she was a fan of one of the most famous WWE Superstars of all-time in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson through his movies without even knowing of his in-ring accomplishments.

One day while her father was flipping through TV stations, Gonzalez was surprised to see The Rock upon one of his returns to wrestling from Hollywood as he was in the middle of the ring cutting a promo. She watched the segment with great interest as her passion in wrestling was born.

Gonzalez started dreaming of what could be, having a journal around the age of 10 where she scribbled out things like what her future wrestling gear would look like. And she also started to ask what her in-ring name would be.

Inspired by The Rock, she jumbled the letters of his name and landed on Rok-C – pronounced like “Roxy,” with the “C” standing for her name, Carla.

“I’m a fan at heart,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t think anything of it, I was just a 10-year-old kid playing around.”

As Gonzalez’s childhood love of wrestling developed, she began to be inspired by the women’s wrestlers on her TV. Her initial favorite was Kelly Kelly, but she later found it hard to connect with the former professional model who is more widely known as part of WWE’s era of “divas” – which previously saw women on top who typically had better looks than wrestling ability.

However, times were changing in WWE, and Gonzalez watched firsthand as a women’s revolution led to women stealing the show in the ring. And soon it would be the arrival of AJ Lee — a major figure in the change — who would become a prominent figure in Gonzalez’s life.

“AJ came out and she was this tomboy, and she was small and Latina. I connected so much with that,” Gonzalez said. “She was out there about being a fan of wrestling when she was younger and (talked about) how much she fought to get to WWE. That really inspired me.

“I looked like her. I had the same story of I wanted to be a wrestler so bad, and she made it happen. That meant I could make it happen too.”

Gonzalez said she also connected with others who pushed women’s wrestling forward including Paige and Bayley. But AJ Lee was her inspiration, and she made sure to tell her just that.

At around the age of 13, WWE came to then-named Laredo Energy Arena for a show. And Gonzalez was fortunate enough to meet AJ outside as she told her she planned to be just like her when she was older.

“I literally bawled,” Gonzalez said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you inspired me and I want to be a wrestler when I grow up.’”

As fate would have it, on her way to WWE last year, a 19-year-old Gonzalez went to a meet-and-greet with fans. And sure enough, AJ – who retired in 2015 – was also present at the same event. They spoke and AJ remembered the young girl from Laredo who had sky-high aspirations.

“It was just so crazy,” Gonzalez said. “I met her years ago when I was just telling her that I have a dream to do what you did, and it’s because you inspired me. And fast-forward a few years later and it’s like look I’m doing it! That’s really cool. It was full circle.”

Rok-C debuted at LWA’s first all-women’s show back in 2016. Since then, she has competed all over South Texas.

Rok-C debuted at LWA’s first all-women’s show back in 2016. Since then, she has competed all over South Texas.

Courtesy/Carla Gonzalez

Learning the ropes

There’s a big difference between being a diehard fan and actually getting in on the action. And at an early age, Gonzalez would have to find that out for herself.

Gonzalez first made her way to the ring through Laredo Wrestling Alliance. But interestingly enough, the promotion rejected young Carla at the time. This wasn’t due to talent but because she was only 11 years old. LWA did, however, give her mother some advice on how to proceed, including recommending her to take lessons in tumbling and gymnastics.

At 13, Carla’s mother was able to talk LWA into seeing what she could do. And once her foot was in the door, there were new challenges as the promotion didn’t exactly have a lot of teenage girls running around for her to compete against.

“I walked into my first training session and there were a bunch of grown men,” Gonzalez said. “Especially in Laredo, there were not many wrestlers, and then there weren’t many women’s wrestlers. I was the only girl training with all these guys for like a few years.”

Despite her immense passion, fear can be difficult to overcome. And for many wrestlers, taking their first “back bump” – landing at a high velocity directly on their back – is a major moment.

Many that don’t follow wrestling aren’t aware of just how much it hurts. Most professional mixed-martial artists who find their way to WWE will say that wrestling is much harder on their body.

While some believe a wrestling ring is more or less a trampoline covered in heavy padded mats, in reality, it is comprised of wooden planks placed on steel beams with a layer of foam on top. And that foam padding is just a thin layer, because otherwise you’d see wrestlers’ feet sinking when they stood up.

So it’s understandable that a 13-year-old girl wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to fall full speed on her back into that situation. That fear was almost too much to overcome, but fortunately it was mom to the rescue as she gave Gonzalez just the push she needed.

“My mom pulled me aside,” Gonzalez said. “She was like, ‘Listen, you really want to do this right? If you really want to do this then you better go in there and take that back bump or I’m going to take you home and we won’t come back.’”

While she took the bump, there was no escaping the pain as Gonzalez got her first taste of what being a professional wrestler would be like — especially the next morning. She said she woke up feeling like her body was “broken” and that she had never felt pain like that before in her life.

Still, in a strange way it solidified something for her. It proved she could do it, and in a way it only grew her passion for the business.

“I was so in love with wrestling, but I fell even more in love with it when I started physically doing it,” she said.

Laredo wrestler Rok-C competed against AAW women’s champion Kylie Rae via submission in Dec. 2018 at Laredo Wrestling Alliance’s “Who Run This Motha” all-women’s wrestling event.

Laredo wrestler Rok-C competed against AAW women’s champion Kylie Rae via submission in Dec. 2018 at Laredo Wrestling Alliance’s “Who Run This Motha” all-women’s wrestling event.

Christian Alejandro Ocampo /Laredo Morning Times

A budding career

While LWA was a major tool to help Gonzalez grow, she started to look beyond it to see if she could reach the next level. It was then that she found Reality of Wrestling.

ROW is Houston-based, created by two-time WWE Hall of Famer Booker T in his hometown. And it was there that Gonzalez started to really make a name for herself nationally as Rok-C while honing her skills at a promotion guided by one of the best wrestlers to ever lace up his boots.

“(ROW) was a lot more (professional) with like production, that’s what separates it from places like LWA,” Gonzalez said. “(Booker T) has the cameras and the lights and the whole setup and arena, but he also has the training rings in the back and the workout area. That was really cool. I loved being at Reality of Wrestling, and I miss it so much.”

While ROW was a major step forward, simply getting there was a challenge in itself.

Gonzalez would ride a Greyhound bus to the area on weekends and was fortunate enough to have an aunt and uncle living in the city she would stay with on their couch.

As she was still very young — around a junior in high school at the time she started — she needed to do schoolwork on the drives. She said she got home Monday mornings at around 3-4 a.m., and mom’s orders were for her to be up by 7 a.m. for school.

The bus itself made stops all along the route, making the trip from Laredo to Houston last around eight hours. And once she arrived, the areas downtown weren’t always the most comfortable for a child alone in the city.

“It was a little scary,” Gonzalez said. “I was like 16-17 and by myself. These stations downtown weren’t exactly in the greatest areas, but I did what I had to do.”

Upon graduating high school, Gonzalez started taking online classes at Laredo College. And she took a more serious schedule in Houston, moving in with her aunt and uncle while getting a full-time job at Chick-fil-A to pay her bills while wrestling on the weekends.

“That was a pretty hard time,” Gonzalez said. “I was away from my family. I was living on a couch, and I didn’t have a lot of money. That was my first time with a full-time job and also going out to wrestle on the weekends. That was pretty tough, but I just knew that no matter how tough things got, everything was eventually going to work out. I just pulled through.”

Laredoan Carla Gonzalez, who wrestles as Rok-C, won the Reality of Wrestling Diamonds Championship in 2019.

Laredoan Carla Gonzalez, who wrestles as Rok-C, won the Reality of Wrestling Diamonds Championship in 2019.

Courtesy of Monica Lester

Taking the next step

Gonzalez’s hard work and determination started to pay off in ROW as her career began to take off.

At the age of 18, Rok-C captured the ROW Diamond Division Championship, becoming the youngest winner in the promotion’s history. She won the championship against Hyan in a match Booker T praised at the time as one that could “literally be the main event anywhere, in any company in the world.”

Gonzalez, who hadn’t even graduated high school yet at the time of the victory, said that match “leveled me up.” She credited two-time Booker T’s tutelage for helping her take the next step. She also took on the nickname “The Prodigy” during her time in ROW, given to her by fans who chanted it at her during a match.

Rok-C’s success only snowballed from there. At 19, she made her way to Ring of Honor — a major wrestling promotion which has seen countless WWE stars come through its doors including Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Adam Cole, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe and Seth Rollins, just to name a few. 

Rok-C made her way to the company as the first entrant of ROH’s Women’s World Title Tournament, where she would truly make her presence known to the world.

In the tournament, she defeated former Women of Honor World Champion Sumie Sakai, former ECWA Women’s Champion Quinn McKay and seven-time former world champion Angelina Love to get all the way to the finals. That led to the crowning achievement in the young star’s independent career as she bested Miranda Alize to become the first ROH Women’s World Champion in the company’s history.

“It meant so much to me,” Gonzalez said. “I always knew deep down that it’s going to happen, (I was) going to be in WWE one day. I never expected all these little moments to happen in between — becoming Booker T’s youngest Diamonds champion, becoming the inaugural women’s world champion — all this stuff was just so crazy to me.

“All these little moments were what was so important to get to here. The journey is what’s important. There’s no jewel at the end of the journey, the journey is the jewel.”

Rok-C’s star was clearly on the rise. In fact, AEW – the second-biggest wrestling company in the United States – contacted her shortly after she landed with ROH. She had to inform them that they were too late, as she had already signed an ROH contract.

But regardless of other interests, Gonzalez’s childhood dream was always to get to WWE, and she had her first opportunity after becoming a free agent in 2021. But similar to her first experience as an 11-year-old in Laredo, she was initially turned away.

In December of 2021, WWE held a three-day tryout. Rok-C was invited, but she wasn’t able to do enough to earn a contract. At that point, her dream took a major hit.

But Gonzalez kept fighting for what she wanted. She was fortunate enough to get another tryout — this one lasting three weeks in February 2022. She said they would be at the Performance Center from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day training, working out, doing promo classes and training some more. 

In the end, Gonzalez rose to the challenge and showed she was meant to be there. And she was grateful for the initial hurdle of being turned down, as the experience competing and upping her game at the extended tryout helped her grow not only in the ring but outside of it. 

“That (tryout) was pretty brutal,” Gonzalez said. “That was the hardest three weeks of my life. There were literally moments I would go back to my hotel and cry because it was like ‘this is pretty tough.’ But … it really changed my life. The character development — I got to train with some of the best pro wrestling coaches in the world, and then I made it! They said, ‘You’re a WWE Superstar’ and I just cried.”

Laredo's Roxanne Perez soaks in the moment prior to her debut match in WWE at NXT's Level Up on April 15, 2022.

Laredo’s Roxanne Perez soaks in the moment prior to her debut match in WWE at NXT’s Level Up on April 15, 2022.

Screencap/WWE NXT

A star is born

After making a name for herself on the independent scene, Gonzalez came to WWE in March. And not long after arriving, she experienced what many others do: the repackaging of her character.

That meant saying goodbye to the moniker Rok-C, as she officially became Roxanne Perez.

The new name ultimately was fairly similar, as both allow fans to chant a form of “Roxy.” As she used to dream of hearing those chants from the crowd while she was a child, being able to keep that was special.

“It’s cool because I kind of have that origin of like I came up with this name when I was 10 years old,” Gonzalez said. “That makes me happy.”

And now that she’s arrived, it’s been made crystal clear that WWE has big plans for “The Prodigy” as Roxanne Perez has been given a major push to start her career.

Making her live TV debut around a month after her signing, Gonzalez’s introduction as Perez to the WWE NXT 2.0 audience was in an interview format where she was confronted by all three women’s champions in NXT at once. If that didn’t set the tone right away that she would be a big deal going forward, Perez defeated one of them — NXT Tag Team Champion Jacy Jayne — later that night.

Then in just her second-ever appearance on NXT 2.0, she found herself in a place some work years to get to: the main event of the episode. And if that wasn’t enough, Perez was featured in a one-on-one match with the NXT Women’s Champion Mandy Rose – a well-known veteran from her run in previous years on WWE’s main roster.

“It’s a mix of emotions honestly. I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet,” Gonzalez said. “Before that match with Mandy Rose, I was like I am main eventing NXT 2.0 with Mandy Rose right now! What is going on?! I would have never expected in my second match to be main eventing against the women’s champion. That’s so crazy.”

Perhaps most impressive early is the trust that WWE seems to be putting in a girl who still isn’t even old enough to buy alcohol. Not only are WWE leaders putting their faith in her to be in the main event in just her second week, but they also are counting on her to work safely with the most high profile woman on the roster.

“I got here and I’m surrounded by freaking Shawn Michaels and all these amazing coaches. They have this faith in me that they can put me out there in the main event,” Gonzalez said. “That means so, so much to me because I’ve tried so hard these past seven years to perfect my craft and think outside the box, and now it’s paid off.”

Perez may have lost the match to Rose, but it’s clear through her early presentation that she is being positioned to be a major force in the company sooner rather than later. And WWE may have just the way to catapult her to the next level this week.

NXT plans to hold its first-ever NXT Women’s Breakout Tournament beginning Tuesday. And Perez was announced this past week to be in the field of young talents including Arianna Grace, Fallon Henley, Sloane Jacobs, Kianna James, Lash Legend, Nikkita Lyons and Tatum Paxley.

The winner of the event will receive a huge prize: a title match of their choosing. As Gonzalez’s star previously arrived after winning the ROH tournament, she’s excited to try and prove herself once again.

“I know a little something about winning tournaments,” she said.

Laredoan Roxanne Perez makes her WWE NXT 2.0 debut on April 19, 2022. She won the match against Jacy Jayne, one half of the NXT Women's Tag Team Champions. 

Laredoan Roxanne Perez makes her WWE NXT 2.0 debut on April 19, 2022. She won the match against Jacy Jayne, one half of the NXT Women’s Tag Team Champions. 


A new dream

Now officially a WWE Superstar, Gonzalez has her sights set on continuing to raise the bar for the women’s division in WWE. It has accomplished many feats over the past few years, as female matches like the Royal Rumble, Hell in a Cell and Elimination Chamber are now commonplace. WWE even held a women’s exclusive pay-per-view called Evolution in 2018.

Perhaps no recent moment has been bigger for women than doing what was previously unthinkable not too long ago: being in the main event at WrestleMania. In fact, it’s now happened twice in the past three years with Becky Lynch defeating Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey in 2019 and Bianca Belair besting Sasha Banks in 2021.

“When I first started watching wrestling, the women had two-minute matches, three maybe. Now women are main eventing WrestleMania. That’s crazy,” Gonzalez said. “Now it’s like, that definitely can happen. I can main event WrestleMania one day.”

While fighting at WrestleMania would be the pinnacle, Gonzalez also hopes someday she can be back in Laredo at Sames Auto Arena.

Gonzalez said she keeps with her a picture of when she was at a WWE show in Laredo, standing way up high in the building looking down at the ring. She said she always looks back at that picture and says, “One day I’m going to be there in that wrestling ring.”

If Gonzalez has proven anything, it’s just a matter of time until that happens. And when she does make it, and after she stands in the middle of that ring with the lights shining bright and with her home crowd at her back, maybe this time after the show outside the arena it will be another little girl from Laredo who hugs her and calls her an inspiration, the same way she did with AJ Lee nearly a decade ago.

“That’s what I want to do for younger girls and boys,” Gonzalez said. “If you have this dream, it’s not too big or too crazy. It can truly happen if you put your all into it and truly dedicate yourself to it.”

Source link