As Alexa Bliss walked toward the ring enclosed by tall chain-link fencing, her theme song “Spiteful” blared as an announcer introduced her as the “Wicked Witch of the WWE.”
Professional wrestling’s newest female villain — more adored by fans, though, than hated — was about to take on Becky Lynch in a highflying, hair-pulling, flesh-to-metal cage match to defend her SmackDown Women’s Championship. (Bliss prevailed.)
Ignore her petite 5-foot frame and signature pigtails, Bliss is nothing like her name.
“I’m the most stubborn, mean girl ever,” she said.
At least in the ring.
Outside the cages, chokeholds and spectacle of World Wrestling Entertainment, the Columbus native has a much softer side.
A former cheerleader at Hilliard Davidson High School and the University of Akron, Alexis Kaufman (affectionately called Lexi) is usually the bubbly one cheering everyone up.
The 25-year-old acknowledges, however, that she’s always had a flair for the dramatic.
At a glance
• Alexa Bliss will defend her title at WrestleMania at 7 p.m. Sunday on WWE Network and pay-per-view outlets. For a list of streaming and cable-network services, visit http://www.wwe.com/shows/howtowatch/.
The Harley Quinn-esque villain will be at center stage of Sunday night’s WrestleMania — the WWE’s annual flagship event — in Orlando, Florida, where every available female wrestler on the SmackDown roster can challenge her title.
“That’s intimidating,” said Kaufman, who has lived in Orlando the past three years to train, “but so is being the first two-time SmackDown Women’s Champion.”
Plus, Kaufman has already battled for her life outside of wrestling to overcome bouts with anorexia, a journey she’s recently opened up about to spread awareness and hope.
“Now, I’m at a good point and there’s been enough time,” she said. “If one day I can help someone, it’s all worth it.”
The only child of Angela and Bob Kaufman, Lexi Kaufman often found herself the center of attention while growing up in Grove City and then, Hilliard.
“We were younger parents and none of our friends had kids,” said Angela Kaufman, who, with her husband lives in Orlando to be near their daughter. “She’d learn a new song to sing and perform for us. She was always a little drama queen.”
Also, from a young age, Lexi Kaufman excelled in athletics. The daughter of sports enthusiasts — the entire Kaufman clan is huge Ohio State football and Columbus Blue Jackets fans — began gymnastics at age 4, followed by softball, kickboxing and cheerleading.
Kaufman thrived on the competition but the constant demands eventually became too much, her mother said.
During her junior year at Hilliard Davidson, signs of an eating disorder appeared.
“It started as simple dieting, but then something in my brain changed,” Kaufman said. “I found myself losing 30 pounds in six weeks.
“I feel like a lot of girls can relate to this: I just didn’t feel confident in my body.”
Down to nearly 80 pounds, Kaufman’s parents told her they were going to church: Instead, they took her to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where she was immediately admitted.
“They told my parents … ‘She’s 24 hours away from dying,'” Kaufman said. “My heart rate was 28 when I was awake and they were afraid to let me go to sleep.”
Angela Kaufman said she and her husband felt their share of the blame for their daughter’s condition and they sought the best care for her, but ultimately found that letting Lexi live her own life was one of the best remedies.
Physically feeling better, Lexi Kaufman returned to cheerleading and garnered the cover of “American Cheerleader” in 2008 during her senior year.
She headed to the University of Akron to cheer. Body-fat checks, intense cardio exercises and strict diets became commonplace.
“The regimen would’ve been perfectly fine for any normal athlete,” she said. “But I was so hypersensitive.”
Her weight dropped from 118 to 84.
Her chest would hurt. She couldn’t sleep at night.
“I thought, ‘I’m probably going to die from this,'” she said.
Near the end of her freshman year in 2010 she quit the team, dropped out of school and again found herself at Nationwide Children’s.
After several weeks in the hospital, her body stabilized again. Lexi Kaufman and her parents turned to central Ohio personal trainers Mike Davies and Natalie Calland to help her gain weight and learn to eat healthfully.
Kaufman began lifting weights and created a meal plan with Calland; she also entered a bodybuilding show five weeks later.
“I remember (Calland) telling me, ‘You can either lift weights and go out there and look good or you can look like a starving stick figure,'” Kaufman said. “I took first place in my class and won four trophies.”
Calland saw Kaufman’s potential.
“I’ve trained a ton of different people, but you just know a star when you see someone,” said Calland, of Delaware County.
Kaufman received her “professional card” for the International Federation of Bodybuilders in 2011.
She credits bodybuilding with helping her develop a healthier outlook on life because of the healthful eating and sleeping habits it fosters and the strong women to whom it introduced her.
“An eating disorder is something you never entirely get over,” Kaufman said. “There are some foods that I still don’t like to eat, like high-sugary things, but sometimes I will force myself to eat them and think, ‘Oh, I’m OK.’
“I am stronger than that, stronger than the number on a scale.”
Eventually, one of her trainers mentioned that WWE was looking for new talent.
As a child, she had followed WWE closely. She and her cousins used an inflatable pool as their ring to act out moves of the Hardy Boyz (a tag team of real-life brothers Jeff and Matt Hardy).
Still, Kaufman acknowledges she had never considered becoming a pro wrestler before her trainer’s suggestion.
“These people were like superheroes to me.”
In 2012, Kaufman created an audition video showcasing her personality and athletic accomplishments.
The WWE was interested and flew her from Columbus to Los Angeles for a grueling tryout process.
“They pointed four cameras at me and started throwing questions at me,” she said. “It was very intimidating.”
Initially, Kaufman was told that she’d made it to the next round where she’d train with 20 or so women for a month. Then, a handful of them would be signed.
However, a week later she received a call that the company was signing her immediately and she moved to Orlando, where WWE’s developmental division (NXT) is based.
She officially joined professional wrestling in May 2013.
While Kaufman was caught up in the whirlwind, her parents were less enthused about her new gig.
“I was worried for her safety,” Angela Kaufman said. “Girls like Chyna (a nearly 6-foot female wrestler from the 1990s) were wrestlers. Not girls like my daughter at 5-foot and 100 pounds.”
However, she quickly saw her daughter’s passion and talent for the sport.
With NXT, she trained six days a week, usually with Sara Amato, WWE director of women’s wrestling.
“She was a quick study,” Amato said. Kaufman was drafted to the SmackDown brand in July 2016 and became its female champion in December.
At first, Angela Kaufman winced when her daughter sent her videos of new moves, such as her signature Twisted Bliss (jumping off the top rope while rotating horizontally to land on your opponent on the ground).
That fear has turned to pride and confidence that her daughter’s years of hard work have prepared her for a career in wrestling.
“I saw her get hurt and bleed in cheerleading,” Angela Kaufman said. “I was more scared back then. She has an air of awareness now and she’s built that background.”
Leading a new wave
Even more so than her athletic ability, Kaufman’s star power has impressed Amato and others at WWE.
“She lights up a room,” Amato said.
And while it’s sometimes strange to see the “mean girl” Bliss in the ring, those who know and love Kaufman couldn’t imagine her doing much else.
“Is it her? No way,” Calland laughed. “But she does it so well.”
Plus, all the glitter and diva-ness are familiar.
Angela Kaufman recalled how her daughter walked into training with NXT wearing a sequined backpack, boots and jacket.
“She saw nothing wrong with wearing sparkles head to toe for her first day of work,” said Angela Kaufman, who will be at WrestleMania along with her husband and both sets of grandparents.
The glitz aside, Amato said Sunday should showcase Kaufman’s toughness as a leader of WWE’s next wave of female wrestlers, who are changing how their gender is viewed in the sport.
“They’re just good wrestlers,” Amato said. “We’re taking the ‘woman’ out of it.”
Kaufman can’t wait to take center stage as Alexa Bliss to show the world — especially young girls — what she can do.
“It’s such an important time to be a woman role model in sports. I feel a responsibility to step it up time and time again.”