Thunder Rosa takes to the mat in Japan

Melissa Cervantes started training to become a professional wrestler two years ago.

Despite a late start in the business, the rising independent star has quickly capitalized on the opportunities she has received in such a short period of time.

She started off as a valet and ring card girl for local Bay Area independent wrestling promotions Big Time Wrestling (BTW) and All Pro Wrestling (APW). But she recently transitioned into an in-ring performer this past fall, making her debut wrestling for Pro Championship Wrestling in November.

Along the way, the Oakland native always dreamt of one day wrestling in Japan, a country well-known for its appreciation of the sport and responsible for breeding cultural icons such as Antonio Inoki, Keiji Mutoh (best known as the Great Muta) and Kenta Kobashi.

But never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she would realize that dream as quickly as she did.

Just eight months removed from her debut match, Cervantes – known by her ring name Thunder Rosa – recently returned to the United States following a three-month tour of Japan, where she wrestled for World Wonder Ring Stardom, or simply, Stardom.

Cervantes told SFBay that wrestling in a country that served as a proving ground for decorated wrestling sensations like Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko, Finn Bálor (the former Prince Devitt) and Hideo Itami (formerly known as Kenta Kobayashi) was simply surreal:

“The first time that I was in Korakuen Hall, I wanted to cry because I was so full of different emotions. Just the fact that there had been so many famous people that were in that same place, it just made it so much more special.”

Throughout her stay, Cervantes competed against some of Stardom’s best young female talent, including Mayu Iwatani, Reo Hazuki and Momo Watanabe.

She also got to wrestle alongside the likes of Kris Wolf, Nikki Storm and fellow Mexican countrywoman Starfire, a masked luchadora (Spanish for female wrestler) with whom she formed an immediate friendship.

Both women had never met prior to wrestling for Stardom in April. But as soon as they met, they talked to each other like sisters for hours.

Starfire also took Cervantes under her wing, teaching her their country’s tradition of lucha libre (which means “free fight” in Spanish) as well as the importance of hard work and perseverance.

Their sisterly bond outside the ring was evident by their partnership inside the ring:

“In our first match, we weren’t as good as in our last match because we were still getting to know each other. But I think because we had a connection outside of the ring, when we got in the ring we were able to work and do different things that other people wouldn’t do. You can’t fake a real connection in the ring when you have a tag team partner.”

In addition to adding lucha to her arsenal, Cervantes also became familiar with joshi puroresu – the Japanese style of women’s wrestling – and strong style, which is commonly associated with puroresu and implements martial arts strikes and shoot submission holds.

 Unlike traditional American wrestling, puroresu focuses more on the psychology and presentation of the sport, treating every match as a legitimate fight. With fewer theatrics, the stories told in Japanese matches emphasize a fighter’s spirit and perseverance.

Cervantes also had to adapt to Stardom’s style, which is heavily influenced by mixed martial arts and requires its performers to use kicks as a main weapon in their offense.

Since she is still a newcomer to the sport, Cervantes had trouble adapting to the style at first. But as she told SFBay:

“I was able to take up the challenge and do different things. Now that I’m here, I’m going to start doing some of the stuff that they asked me (to do in Stardom) so that if I return, now I can kick properly and safely because everything has to be safe. At the end of the day, we have another show the next day and we don’t want to hurt our opponent.”

Even with three diverse styles under her belt, Cervantes said she wants to become more adept as a wrestler, citing inspiration from wrestlers like Jericho, Malenko and Eddie Guerrero – all of whom honed their craft abroad for many years:

“It’s not about what style defines me. I want to be able to work with any person and be able to put on a good show at the end of the day.”

Her ability to have standout matches against Iwatani and Hazuki is the product of both her time training at the Gold Mine in Pacifica and the guidance she received from her late mentor – and the founder of APW – Roland Alexander.

Alexander didn’t train Cervantes at his APW boot camps from July 2013 until his unexpected passing at age 59 that November. But he did join her and other APW hopefuls on road trips and shared with them his experiences in the business.

He also stressed the importance of mastering the basics of wrestling, which Cervantes believes ultimately separated her from her fellow competitors during her time in Japan.

Even though her wrestling career faced uncertainty following Alexander’s passing, Cervantes is grateful for the opportunity to do what she does, including the blessing of wrestling in the Land of the Rising Sun:

“Being humble and keeping your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open can help you earn the respect of people in this business. I can honestly say my Japan experience made me believe more in myself and I feel more confident about the things I can achieve in this business.”

As amazing as her Japan experience was these past three months, Cervantes now looks ahead to her future.

Since returning home July 7, she has remained busy, making radio appearances and competing for several independent promotions throughout California.

She even wrestled for Promo Lucha Azteca in Oakland on July 19 and squared off with Bay Area standout Nicole Savoy at Alternative Wrestling Show in South Gate, Calif., on July 25.

Despite a seemingly hectic schedule, she acknowledges the importance of keeping her momentum going and seizing every opportunity she is presented with, especially as an Indy wrestler.

She ultimately hopes to wrestle in Mexico, where she spent most of her childhood watching lucha libre in her birthplace of Tijuana, Baja California.

But like all aspiring professional wrestlers, she hopes to receive a tryout with pro wrestling titan World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) within the next year as well.

Cervantes can say that she has worked for WWE before as she served as one of superstar Adam Rose’s Rosebuds at a recent Sacramento house show back in January.

But of course, she hopes to get hired as a full-time performer and show off her craft in front of a worldwide WWE audience.

The WWE Divas are known for being – as their slogan states – smart, sexy and powerful. While Cervantes is both beautiful and athletic, she doesn’t consider herself a Diva and wants to be recognized as a professional athlete:

“I want people to say, ‘She can do this and she can wrestle.’ I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, she’s a Diva.’ I’m not a Diva. I’m a professional athlete. Yeah, I might dress up and put makeup on and try to look good because this is part of the business. But I’m also a professional wrestler and I want people to know me because I am a professional wrestler.”

While she doesn’t necessarily believe the term is negative, Cervantes understands that WWE is sports entertainment and uses catchy terms like “Diva” to connect with its target audiences:

“It is not the most empowering word, however, it is very marketable and it makes the (Divas) championship belt more aesthetically pleasant in comparison to the women’s championship.”

WWE has garnered criticism in recent years over mismanagement of its Divas division, including the infamous tag team match in which the Bella Twins (Brie and reigning Divas champion Nikki) defeated Paige and Emma in a measly 30 seconds on the Feb. 23 episode of WWE Monday Night Raw earlier this year.

The highly-criticized match sparked outrage from fans and resulted in #GiveDivasAChance trending worldwide on Twitter for nearly two days.

Former WWE Diva AJ Lee – who worked for WWE at the time the hashtag caught the attention of various media outlets – even publicly criticized chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon about the situation.

But fan interest in the division has resurged in recent weeks after Charlotte, Becky Lynch and women’s champion Sasha Banks – three of the best women’s wrestlers from WWE’s developmental brand, NXT – arrived on the main roster on the July 13 episode of Raw and kickstarted what’s being called the “Divas Revolution.”

While pro wrestling is male-dominated like other sports, female wrestlers like Banks, Charlotte and Lucha Underground starlets Ivelisse and Sexy Star have recently proven they can be just as influential as their male counterparts, raising the bar for their fellow female brethren by headlining marquee main events.

Ivelisse and Sexy Star have even set new standards for women’s wrestling by not only wrestling against each other, but also teaming with and competing against some of the best male talent on their roster:

“Those are the opportunities that people like Ivelisse, (Sexy Star), and even me can have if you put the time and effort in the ring. (Sexy Star)’s doing what is necessary and it’s paying off. She not only looks good, but she can wrestle. It will take you places, you just have to be patient.”

Cervantes believes things within the division can be better and what ultimately matters is that women are given a spot, whether it’s on television or a major wrestling card:

“Just by us being able to perform and give 100 percent in the ring, that’s what matters. We know the business focuses a lot on looks and some places they don’t focus on the wrestling. But women have a spot in there and people are talking about it, which is the most important thing that people talk about it and that people give a crap about it. Even if it’s a good thing to say or a bad thing to say, people are talking about women’s wrestling in general.”

As important as it is for her to always give her best whenever she wrestles, Cervantes also believes it is just as important to serve as a role model for all youth, including those she works with at Oakland’s Thunder Road treatment center, which was the inspiration behind her ring name.

She hopes that her hard work and accomplishments so far can simply show them that nothing is impossible:

“I’ve seen the struggle that they go through every day, but when they have a goal, they are able to move forward and change their lives. So that’s the same thing for me and I would like for them to know that if they can do something just like how I do it, they can achieve it.”

Cervantes has truly embodied her moniker “unstoppable” throughout her journey in the wrestling business thus far.

Even after suffering a concussion in Japan that prevented her from wrestling and training for two weeks, she returned to the ring determined to establish herself as a prominent young female performer.

Her transition over the past two years has also been quite influential, proving her critics wrong and dispelling the notion that she couldn’t be more than just a ring card girl.

It is simply a matter of respect and she hopes to not only continue earning the respect of her peers, but also be acknowledged for the respect she and her fellow wrestling sisters have for the business:

“We work really, really hard to make professional wrestling better, especially with women in the women’s division. We’re fighters just like any other men and we feel like we deserve the same respect and the same opportunities.”