Becky Lynch has completed a lot of “firsts” throughout her rise to stardom.
The red-headed fighter from Ireland claimed two belts in one night when she beat Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair at WWE’s WrestleMania 35 in New Jersey on April 7, making her both the Smackdown and Raw women’s champion.
It was the first time that an all-female main event had been billed for the annual gathering, leading to the second-highest grossing WrestleMania in history (only behind only WrestleMania 32 at AT&T Stadium in 2016).
While Rousey and Flair come from established backgrounds — Rousey is a former UFC champion, while Charlotte is the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair — Lynch made her way through the industry from her beginnings as a teenage wrestling fan who signed up for a clinic held by Irish wrestler Finn Bálor as soon as she got the chance.
“I went along the very first day and then that was it I fell in love with it, I was stoked,” Lynch, 32, tells PEOPLE. “I left home that year and went over to England and trained over there. Then I would do little tours all around and at 18 I moved off to Canada. I wrestled around America, Japan, around Europe, and that was how I got my start in this.”
While she had her heart set on making it to the WWE, the next few years would threaten to derail everything Lynch had worked to build. According to ESPN, Lynch suffered a concussion during a match that left her with headaches, buzzing in the ear, vision problems and potential nerve damage. The injury was enough to force her to take a break from wrestling and test a new path.
She took up gigs as a flight attendant, stunt woman and even earned a degree in acting. But in the end, the thrill of the ring — and a battle with depression — drew her back to her craft.
“When I stepped away from it I just, I suffered from depression and always felt like I turned my back on this thing that I loved and this thing that has given me a purpose,” she recalls. “I always felt like there was a part of me would fix it, and that part of me was this.”
“I’m really grateful for those years,” Lynch adds to PEOPLE. “At the time it was hard to see where it was going to go. Looking back I’m so grateful because I wouldn’t be where I am without having stepped away. And I also, want to have the appreciation that I do without it.”
After completing stunt work on a single episode of History’s Vikings in 2012, Lynch felt the rush for wrestling once again and contacted WWE for a tryout. She’d eventually sign with the company in 2013.
In the years since, Lynch has grown to become a defining force in the company’s Women’s Evolution movement, which has placed female wrestlers in high-stakes storylines and in prominent matches at WWE pay-per-view events.
Fans have also embraced Lynch’s trash-talking persona, and her tough attitude and charisma have earned her comparisons to Stone Cold Steve Austin and Conor McGregor, two of the biggest male superstars in their industries.
She’s even adopted a nickname that plays on those comparisons: “The Man.”
“When we look at different sports, we look at this in the industry here, any industry, you need a top person, the person of exceptional ability who is usually referred to as ‘The Man,’ ” she explains of the name. “They’re the man, and up until now, the man has usually been a man.”
“But when I rolled up, when I took that top spot, when I said, ‘I’m the top dog, I’m the top star, I’m the face of this company,’ I am now ‘The Man,’ and that’s how it came about,” she says.
For now, Lynch is a double champion and the biggest name in the WWE. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, and she knows it’s going to be even tougher to stay there.
“Now I have two giant targets on my back, and I know that everybody’s going to be trying to take me down and pay your due. The goal now is to make these titles the most talked about ones in all of WWE,” Lynch says. “It’s to make these [women’s titles] the most relevant titles in all of WWE. So that’s double duty, and it’s one thing to get to the mountain top, but it’s a whole another thing to stay there. And now I’m going to have a lot of people trying to knock me off.”
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Still, Lynch is ready for the challenge — and proud of what WrestleMania 35 meant for the bigger picture.
“I think now that we’ve proven that anything is possible, it just doesn’t matter about gender anymore, it just matters about ability, it matters about heart, it matters about caring about this business, and being passionate, and being good,” she says. “Now anyone can be the main event of WrestleMania it’s not necessarily just have to be a man. The main event is up for grabs by everybody now.”
“I think that gives you a lot of hope for not just the women we have here at WWE and the roster but also the fans and the future female stars of WWE.”