Paige's unique story

From Norfolk to Hollywood via WWE superstardom for British wrestling's favourite daughter

It all began in a London hotel room.

The Rock, bored at the end of a long day in early 2014, was channel surfing when he stumbled across a documentary which caught his eye.

The subject matter was an English wrestling family and the documentary was the original Fighting With My Family, the Channel 4 production which sowed the seeds for the film of the same name which was released in cinemas nationwide this week.

It is the story of Paige's arrival in NXT and, subsequently, WWE, but it is much more than that. It details the unique relationship between the much-loved British star and her very distinctive – and, it must be said, very English – family and the different paths she and her brother have taken in the sports entertainment world.

The Rock, better known of course as Dwayne Johnson these days, saw the aforementioned documentary and was enchanted by the story of the Knight family, the Norwich clan with their background firmly embedded in the grass roots of British wrestling.

It set into motion plans for a film to tell their story.

"There aren’t many stories about a working class British girl going to America and succeeding. There’s a snobbery about working-class people, and they think ‘Oh, this silly thing’. To me it’s no different to celebrating the success of a British actor who goes to the States and wins an Oscar."

Stephen Merchant, Fighting With My Family writer and director

Within the confines of WWE fandom, Paige's story is well known.

She was the pale kid with the black gear who was a star in NXT because she did not look and dress in the classic style of WWE divas. While the company would not shed that particular classification for its female athletes until 2015, Paige was at the forefront of the change which has come to be called the women's evolution.

She - and competitors such as AJ Lee, who Paige would beat for her first WWE championship - were true pioneers and played a crucial role in getting the women's division to the position of near-parity it enjoys today.

Her achievements, however, are perhaps not so well known to those outside of wrestling; a situation which is likely to change somewhat with her story now committed to the big screen.

For Florence Pugh, the 23-year-old actor selected to play Paige in Fighting With My Family, that represented a unique challenge.

"The whole thing was a challenge," she said. "Playing a wrestler is pretty mega in itself and not something I thought I’d be doing, especially not now.

"It’s tricky doing something as momentous as her career has been. She means so much to so many people and what she has done in wrestling means so much to so many people.

"A sliver of our storyline is that she is different and she is totally proud of it. That’s something that I clung onto."

Paige's response to the suggestion from The Rock that they make a film about her was a completely emotional one.

"I don't normally cry much, honestly," she says when recalling the tear-filled meetings with Dwayne Johnson at the very outset of the project.

In fairness to Paige, the announcement did come minutes before another fairly major one for her - the confirmation she was about to win the WWE Divas title.

"It was the WrestleMania before the Raw when I made my debut and Dwayne had texted me while I was sitting in catering," she recalls.

"He told me he’d stumbled across my documentary and he fell in love with it, he fell in love with the story, he fell in love with the family.

"And he told me he wanted to make a movie on it. I just started crying my eyes out and then he told me I was going to debut the next night and win the Divas championship.

"So I started crying aggressively even more. It was like all of my dreams coming true in the space of five minutes."

Like the documentary which preceded it, Fighting With My Family is not a film exclusively about Paige.

After making the decision to executive produce the project, Johnson got in touch with Stephen Merchant, who wrote and directed the whole thing.

The end result is a very British-feeling film - shooting locations include a council estate, a holiday camp, several pubs and even more panoramic views of Norwich - which is equal parts emotional involvement and comic relief.

Paige's father, Ricky Knight, takes full ownership of his criminal past - "I spent seven years in prison... mainly for violence" - and her mother, Julia, is similarly forthcoming about her substance abuse issues and homelessness. They make no secret of the fact that their salvation was each other and, by extension, their family.

Paige - whose real name is the same as her mother's ring name, Saraya - has two older brothers, Zak and a half-brother Roy, whose return home from prison takes place during the course of the film.

The central plot of the film revolves around Zak and Paige, who are in a similar place in terms of their wrestling careers when it begins, but find themselves in very different places when it concludes.

Zak does not make it to WWE but Merchant wanted to give equal weight to his importance to the story as a means of showing how anyone is able to make positive contributions to the world around them.

"The key line for me in the film is 'just because a million people aren't cheering your name doesn't make what you're doing any less important," he said.

"It chokes me up when I think about it because there are people in my life that aren't being venerated, including Zak, and we're in an age where, especially for young people, things like Instagram likes give them a sense of validation.

"It's only when you get older that you realise those things aren't important and that you can make a difference in other ways, in your own community or among the people you know or whatever else.

"So as much as it's a celebration of someone of extraordinary ability who went to the very heights of her career, it's also a celebration of Zak and the things he's done in his life, and the people he affects."

The film’s storyline reaches a climax in classic sports movie style with Paige winning the Divas title on her very first night with the company.

The beauty of professional wrestling is that it is scripted with the audience's enjoyment in mind and so this dead-on-accurate depiction of events did not feel like it had been subjected to the standard Hollywood clichés which infest films about sport.

It was also, Merchant recalls, the most difficult scene to film.

For complete authenticity, the crew headed to a live production of Monday Night Raw in November 2018 at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, where the arena crowd was kept back to form a group of 20,000 real-life extras for the re-enactment of the Paige-Lee match.

So far, so good. But director Merchant only had a one-hour window, and he was about to lose a fair chunk of that to the crowd-pleasing exploits of his executive producer.

"The hardest thing I’ve ever done was the scene at the end where we filmed the match on Raw where she wins the title," he said.

"We had one hour after it had finished, they kept the fans back and there was lots to shoot – it was the finale of the film.

"Dwayne came down to warm the crowd up and I asked him not to get carried away because we only had an hour. He did 20 minutes on the mic.

"He was doing selfies, he was talking to the fans and doing the catchphrases and I'm thinking 'okay, I can smell what you're cooking, let's get on with it'.

"But he played the crowd like an orchestra and then Florence had to walk out there in front of 20,000 fans.”

Such a request sounds pretty straightforward when framed in such simple terms. But Pugh, who despite being just 23 has already starred in some pretty major productions, was still nervous.

She was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance in Lady Macbeth in 2016 but walking out in front of 20,000 fired-up wrestling fans is an entirely different proposition.

Fortunately for Pugh, she had Paige to turn to. Among her many talents, Paige possesses an ability to both talk straight and inspire and those twin characteristics were fully entwined in her last-minute pep talk backstage at Raw.

"I was like, 'You're an actress, zone them out. It's like having a bunch of cameras on you, you just pretend they're not there'," she said.

"I said, 'walk out there and be a just be a total badass.'"

Pugh had been well prepared. She had spent hours in the gym with Thea Trinidad - better known as Zelina Vega on SmackDown - and former Mae Young Classic competitor Tessa Blanchard would handle all of the physical stuff as her stunt double.

What followed was a unique acting experience and provided Pugh with the perfect example of exactly why wrestlers become wrestlers.

"The majority of our wrestling prep was mainly just to get us ready for that scene," she said.

"I’d spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles training with Thea (Trinidad), who is just a fantastic wrestler. Her and Tessa Blanchard, who is my stunt double, basically prepped me before I went out.

"Then I went out at the end of Monday Night Raw and I remember the walls were shaking because Dwayne had got the fans so excited.

"There were many mixed emotions from the crowd because everybody loves Paige and when her music started some people were screaming with pleasure that it was her and then screams of utter terror that it wasn’t her.

"Kids were shouting at me and saying I sucked, it was totally manic but it was amazing. I understood in that moment why they do what they do because you are a superhero for about eight minutes and you can do anything.

“The adrenaline is coming off the crowd and it was the most fantastic feeling.”

This match was a crucial moment in the WWE women's journey which is likely to culminate in the biggest accolade, the WrestleMania main event, next month.

Two - or perhaps all three - of Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair will collide at WWE's biggest show of the year, at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

They each owe a debt of gratitude to Paige.

"It just happened, literally overnight," Paige recalls. "Before that, women were always the first to get cut if the show was short of time and it annoyed me so much.

"I remember one show our time got cut to two minutes and it was me and Emma against the Bella Twins so we said 'let's just go out and do thirty seconds'.

"Everyone was livid backstage and the crowd turned, people were tweeting 'give Divas a chance' for three days straight and that created something.

"Vince (McMahon) saw it and realised people did want to see the women wrestle and it just transcended from there.

"They started bringing more girls out, giving them longer matches and now we're main-eventing pay-per-views and main-eventing WrestleMania.

"The girls are killing it."

One of the most memorable quotes in the film comes from The Rock and although it was invented for dramatic effect it represents advice Paige took completely to heart.

"Don’t worry about being the next me," he says during a fictionalised early-days backstage interaction at SmackDown. "Concentrate on being the first you."

Paige absolutely was that. And there will never be another one like her.