When we walked into the dark warehouse-style building that houses Kalamazoo Elite Gymnastics Academy on Vine Street in Kalamazoo, it was very cold and smelled like stale sweat. Davison Sarai turned on the lights, and as the darkness lifted, I saw a huge open space filled with gymnastics equipment, aerial ropes, trampolines, and an old-looking yet intimidating wrestling ring. This is the space that Sarai trains in at least twice a week for her up-and-coming pro wrestling career.
A career Sarai became the champion of in her first year.
Sarai, who I have known for almost a decade, plopped herself right down on the padded floor and began to pull on her practice gear. She wanted to be raw for this interview, and that included her clothing. As an openly transgender person, Sarai is used to being scrutinized for her physical appearance every day, almost all the time, by almost everyone.
She made sure to mention that the pink tie-dye leggings, the scuffed knee pads, and the loosely fitting black crop top with a skull on the front are much less sparkly than her performance costume (which I got a glimpse of later). Because at the end of the day, that’s what pro wrestling is — a performance. Or as Sarai affectionately puts it, “A largely hetero focused version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show
I was interested in writing about Sarai because of the contrast between her two careers, and to find out how the wrestling community reacts to a male-to-female transgender person competing in the women’s arena. During the day Sarai practices clinical counseling as therapist Davison Sarai Nicholas, MA, LPC, CAADC, MST-PSB. If you don’t know what those acronyms mean off the top of your head, it's OK.
Psychologist and championship pro wrestler Davison Sarai.
In the evenings and on the weekends, Sarai describes herself as “the award-winning half of the Independence Pro Wrestling award-winning commentary team, chairwoman of IPW mental wellness task force, 2021 IPW Rookie of the Year, and IPW Champion.”
In our talk over Zoom and at a photo shoot at the gym she is quite the presence, fully tattooed, with a warm smile, and deeply scrutinizing but caring eyes. I asked her the same question I ask everyone at the beginning of each interview, “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
“I'm a 45-year-old trans femme person who is also a psychologist who is also now a professional wrestler who is intentionally avoiding romantic relationships for the foreseeable future,” Sarai says. “Avoiding because 1. A long string of bad luck or poor choices. And 2. I have become comfortable with being wildly codependent. So choosing to focus.” Speaking of focus, when I asked how she balances her day job and wrestling practice, Sarai laughs and says, “poorly.”
That said, Sarai is very serious when it comes to the well-being of those she provides therapy to. She sees her clients and does the necessary research to be on top of the issues they are walking through. Sarai “tries to form efficient habits with the therapy side, so she can devote time to the new sexy relationship of wrestling.”
As for how long this new relationship will last, neither she nor her trainer/coach Josh Raymond exactly know. She does not necessarily act or look like the typical 45-year-old wrestler.
“We don’t know what my shelf life is,” says Sarai with a grim smile, and Raymond agrees.
Davison Sarai at training practices a wrestling move.
Raymond and Sarai met through a 12-episode pro wrestling podcast she hosted with Mark Frankhouse of local West Michigan Radio station 103.3 WKFR called “Crucial Squared Circle,” and they hit it off right away. Without missing a beat, Raymond said, “I adore Davison, and she is one of my favorite people I have met in the last ten years.” Raymond's wife mentioned she heard a plug for one of his upcoming matches on the radio station, and this caused him to get in contact.
Raymond needed a commentator for his upcoming shows, and saw immediately that Sarai was passionate and knowledgeable about pro wrestling, not to mention incredibly quick-witted with one hell of a dry sense of humor. This led to Sarai working for IPW as commentator starting in January of 2020. It soon became clear to Raymond that Sarai wanted to “test the waters” with wrestling, when she asked to join a practice as a way to get back in shape.
“I am very picky with who I train,” says Raymond, who started pro wrestling in the early 2000s. His characters have evolved over the years. From, in his words —“Josh Abercrombie who was a preppy snob, but switched it up to the 80's pornstar thing, then got hired by MTV to play a white trash character for their promotion Wrestling Society X,” where he used his real name for legal reasons. “And that led to me dropping gimmicks altogether and just being myself. Since then I've just been a savvy, experienced, versatile pro wrestler/trainer and the community is aware of that.”
Raymond was serious about sharing this experience with Sarai and taking her on as a trainee. He shook his head when thinking about their first rigorous day of training. “She killed it, puked… but she killed it.”
This is probably a good time to say that I did not know a whole lot about pro wrestling before interviewing Sarai and Raymond. My entire knowledge of the sport was based on video games my friends played during our middle school years. I remember seeing a framed copy of Playboy magazine at my friend's house with American champion pro wrestler Chyna on the front cover, but I always found myself wondering what both the interviewees agreed is a common question.
Is the fighting real, or is it all just costumes and characters?
Davison Sarai takes her training very seriously.
Raymond responds, “When people think of Pro Wrestling they think of WWE. They say it is sports entertainment. It’s art. A physical form of visual entertainment where the outcome is predetermined. Some people are strikers, some are acrobats, there’s a broad range of different characters and moves. Good vs Evil, David vs Goliath.”
OK… but is it real?
The short answer is “yes.” Sarai and Raymond have both sustained injuries during their highly choreographed matches. Raymond even found out years later that he had broken his back in his early twenties. Before the matches air in front of a live audience, hours and hours of staging happens between the “rivals” to ensure the safety of the participants.
How does the wrestling community react to Sarai being “old and trans?” as she calls it.
She says that most folks are supportive and that being a part of the scene as a commentator for a year before her surprise debut in 2021 helped a lot. People knew her, and were excited the first night Sarai performed—smashing the other wrestler in the face with the championship belt after pretending to introduce a competitor when in reality the competitor was Sarai.
She says that although she is “waiting for someone to say something gross” and is “nervous about going on the road,” she believes, “if you’re connected, you’re going to be okay.” Sarai says she is “not living in fear, and walks around the house working on retorts” just in case someone mouths off.
Davison Sarai with her championship belt.
As part of the research for this article, I posted a Craigslist advertisement asking for opinions on male to female transgender folks competing in women's pro wrestling. The responses were largely unusable because of crude language, and the sexual fetishization of trans folks.
Raymond confirmed the overwhelming support in the IPW, commenting that there have been openly queer folks in wrestling since the 1950s.
As far as being the IPW 2021 Champion, Sarai was clear it is important to her that she does not say “women’s” champion. In the world of pro wrestling, everything is so gendered. The crowd thrives on ideas they can easily cling to, which is where the heavy usage of gimmicks and stereotypes come in. But Sarai throws a swerve into all of that, and is purely herself–a 45-year-old transgender woman who has spent a large part of her life building a career as a psychologist.
A couple more questions for Sarai
As a nonbinary person myself, I sometimes feel like society pushes me to be androgynous, so for the first several years after coming out I was trying to be as feminine or as androgynous as possible, do you feel this way with your transition? And do you feel like wrestling is a way to reclaim or flex a part of your personality that you may have softened to be more palpable for society as a trans person?
“Yes, I had a specific body type,” Sarai says. “I felt the need to counterbalance that to be clear markers of what I expected people to treat me as. As in how I want to be addressed (pronouns). I moved away from things I was interested in, stopped watching wrestling for a minute, stopped listening to different types of music I liked. But I feel the least dysphoric
I have ever felt right now. You like what you like.”
Davison Sarai plans to continue pursuing her pro wrestling career and hopes to be able to participate in traveling shows in the near future. She is happy to be part of something she has loved since childhood and is fully prepared to carve out another career if and when the opportunity presents itself.
If you want to show support for Davison Sarai and the other wrestlers at Independence Wrestling, please check out the links below.
Independence Wrestling Facebook
Davison Sarai next match
Crucial Squared Circle: State of Wrestling 2020 Podcast
What is gender dysphoria?