Smashing stereotypes on the wrestling mat: Why Malaysian hijabi Nor ‘Phoenix’ Diana’s star is burning bright

R. Loheswar
Nor ‘Phoenix’ Diana poses with her Wrestlecon Championship belt. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

KUALA LUMPUR, July 17 ― Study hard, go to university, get a degree and then find a job. This is a career path most youths would be familiar with.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, there is also a certain expectation from society especially if you are a woman and wear the hijab.

Which is precisely why 19-year-old hijabi Nor “Phoenix” Diana is turning heads and generating a global buzz both online and offline. At barely five feet and weighing in less than 50kg, she does not fit the archetypal image of a wrestler.

When we talk about wrestling, we think of muscled men on steroids, blood, sweat and grime and of athletes doing their utmost to deliver pain to their opponents for the maximum viewing pleasure of the fans.

Yes, wrestling is scripted but the conditioning one undergoes in order to become a wrestler is no easy feat. It requires years and years of training, and what makes Nor Diana’s entry in professional wrestling truly profound is that her rising stardom is an indication that viewers want more diversity and representation within the sport.

Even major wrestling companies like World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) have recognised this, and have in recent years attempted to deliver more realistic storylines and push athletes who are of different ethnicities.

At 19, Nor Diana already has almost four years of wrestling under her belt, training at the one and only wrestling promotion in Malaysia- the Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MYPW) school which has around 30 budding and established wrestlers to date.

“I remember being very scared and worried about what people will think about me competing in a male dominant sport, being tiny and with a hijab but the support has been incredible,” Nor Diana told Malay Mail during a recent interview.

Why wrestle?

She started falling in love with wrestling at 14 while playing a version of the game on her Play Station Portable. She was then introduced to the world of WWE, and their biggest stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, The Undertaker, Triple H, and John Cena.

Awestruck by the spectacle that is wrestling and the (scripted?) chaos that comes with it, she decided to search online to see whether there were any schools or promotions in Malaysia that offered classes.

She then found MYPW’s Facebook page and signed up. In just three months after her training started, opportunity came knocking. Nor Diana had to replace a colleague during a wrestling event.

Having not developed a stage persona or gimmick back then, she was told to get a costume and hurriedly went to purchase one, with a pair of pants with flames on it.

It was then that her coach and fellow wrestler Ayez Shaukat Fonseca Farid or better known as his stage name the “Prophet of Pain”, dubbed her “Phoenix”.

Still shy and unsure of how a Malaysian crowd would react to a hijab-wearing Muslim girl, Nor Diana decided to fight with a luchador mask on.

After doing so for several years and building her popularity as a wrestler, she took off her luchador mask and revealed who she was back in December last year at the MYPW Wrestlenation.

On social media, people started talking about how a petite Muslim girl was flying in the ring with a hijab on and had been doing so for several years!

“I think some knew I was Muslim some didn't but when I first unmasked the crowd were speechless,” recalled Nor Diana.

“Many were wondering if I was the Phoenix or someone else. I remember asking the guys backstage how was the crowd reaction when I unmasked and they said they saw people crying.

“You see, the unmasking of a wrestler is a big deal in Mexico. It's almost sacred. But for me to open the mask up and reveal myself was something I wanted to do and I knew I needed to have courage as not many would dare to do so,” she explained.

“In the end the crowd support was fantastic regardless of whether I wore the mask or not.”

The fourth child from a family of five, Nor Diana leads a simple life. Her dad works at a car workshop while her mom is a homemaker.

Her parents were initially hesitant of her wanting to pursue a wrestling career but soon changed their minds when they saw her at her first live show.

Nor Diana credits her style to her wrestling heroes Sasha Banks, Tegan Nox and Sami Zayn- all high-flying wrestlers who are small in stature but have some of the biggest and most daring moves in all of wrestling.

Being in the limelight

Since her popularity exploded, Nor Diana has been booked almost everyday of the week for interviews on radio stations, religious platforms, newspapers, online portals, social media websites.

She even got a shoutout on Twitter from WWE superstar Adeel Alam, an American-Muslim wrestler who goes by the stage name “Ali”.

 

“After Adeel's shout out my social media accounts blew up with requests and follows and that's necessary if I want people to know about our existence,” said Nor Diana.

But for Nor Diana, wrestling isn’t the end game as she plans to continue her studies in the future.

“I believe I can still study and wrestle if I wanted to. Xavier Woods did it,” Nor Diana said, referring to  WWE superstar Xavier Woods who pursued a degree at Furman University in South Carolina while training to be a wrestler. He is currently earning his PhD in educational psychology from Capella University

“I'm thinking of doing something in the media or maybe graphic design but for now I want to focus on my wrestling.”

She has seen her Instagram profile jump from a thousand followers to 35,800 followers in a matter of weeks, and partly due to the fact that she was declared the Wrestlecon Champion of MYPW just last week.

“I didn't expect this to happen so soon and I have trouble adjusting as it's kind of overwhelming.

“At work I just focus on my tasks even though strangers are coming up and saying 'Eh you ke that girl dalam tu?' (Are you that girl?)”

Nor Diana currently has a day job, and trains after work.

So, have there been requests from supplexes at the workplace?

“No, no so far I have not received requests for supplexes at work yet. But if it's in the ring I'll be glad to administer one,” she said with a laugh.

The future of the Phoenix

Nor Diana’s coach Shaukat told Malay Mail that Nor Diana’s passion and dedication for the sport is almost unrivalled. She has never missed one training session since she started wrestling.

“Training is always fun and never boring. It's my escape from reality and I hate missing training as I feel I'll miss out on vital tips,” said Nor Diana.

“If I want to make it in the WWE there's a long way to go. It has to start with me competing in more promotions here and abroad, improving my wrestling skills exponentially and growing my popularity and brand.”

Nor Diana speaks fluent English, which is something she credits to her love of music, in particular boy bands.

“Oh no I'm not a huge K-Pop boy band fan. I like who's the hottest group out there and I favour American-Canadian boy bands.

“My favourite now is 'PRETTYMUCH',” said Nor Diana of the Simon Cowell managed group formed in 2016 whose picture she uses as her smartphone screensaver.

“I also watch a lot of television, in particular wrestling as it doubles as revision. From there I can practise either dialogue or moves.”

The road ahead however, is a daunting one for Nor Diana.

Wrestling is not a popular sport in Malaysia and gaining traction here is difficult especially when football and badminton dominate most news headlines.

But Nor Diana believes that she can use her image to challenge stereotypes and break down social walls, and hopes that people will someday recognise her as a wrestler for her talent and not because she wears the hijab.

She wants to spread good vibes and inspire young people to be themselves and be courageous and fearless like her in-ring persona. 

And for Nor Diana, her Phoenix in-ring persona represents courage and fearlessness, which has helped her become a stronger person in real life.

“The Phoenix enters the ring with only one intention, to win. Not only that, the Phoenix doesn't cheat or take short cuts. She does it with honour and integrity.

“No matter the opponents size, gender or race the Phoenix will always stand on the path of righteousness,” she said.

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