When Steph De Lander was released from her dream job in WWE last year, she had no intention of working on the independent scene. However, it was a blessing in disguise and she is now paving the way for a successful career on the outside that could result in a second stint for the company that fired her.
The Australian, who also calls herself the Indy Goddess, was hired by WWE in 2019 before COVID-19 took the whole world by storm. The pandemic delayed her momentum and constantly pushed back her first appearance, before finally debuting on the screens of NXT in 2021.
Although De Lander was in the midst of a storyline, she was released in early 2022 at a time where WWE were cutting numerous talent.
More than a year later, she is thriving on the independent scene with multiple championship victories, portraying a character she enjoys and working closely with one of the industry’s biggest performers in Matt Cardona.
Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, the Indy Goddess reflected on her WWE release and how she felt about the long-term prospects of her wrestling career.
“I saw it coming in a sense they were releasing so many people that at that point, we all kind of felt on edge and felt like we were all waiting for our phone to ring”, she said.
“At the same time, I was consistently on TV for three months. It was every single week until it led to me getting released, so it was in the middle of a storyline.
“So for me, it was weird timing. Like, we were in the middle of a story, but I wouldn’t say I was surprised, because as I said, they were releasing a lot of talented people for what seemed like no reason, so nothing was a shock at that point.
“When I first got released, I didn’t want to go back on the indies. You don’t get paid very well, the rings aren’t great, you are flying on poor flights.
“WWE has a whole travel department that books everything for you and looks after you, you’re always going to be at four-star hotels and good airlines, and being taken care of for the most part.
“On the independents, it’s a free for all in a lot of ways. I wasn’t looking forward to that side of it too, and I also saw myself as such a WWE-styled wrestler or a sports entertainment wrestler.
“I didn’t know where I would fit on the independent scene, because I’m not the super flashy, do a million moves, do a bunch of flips wrestler. I like telling stories and getting an emotional response from the crowd.”
However, De Lander changed her mindset and viewed the positives of working on the independent circuit. She realised she had much more creative freedom and was able to be in control of her own destiny without anyone instructing her on how to perform.
“I realised I am my own boss and I am in control,” she said.
“If I want to create these promos, I can create these promos. Whatever style I want to wrestle, I can do what I want.
“I don’t have someone telling me, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that’. I am leading my own career right now.
“I genuinely sit here now and say I’m glad I got released when I did, because I feel like now I have an opportunity to rewrite my path and recreate it in a way that I want to. I’m a firm believer that everything works out and everything ends when it’s supposed to, even if you can’t see it in the moment.
“There was a period of time where I felt really screwed, but now through a lot of really hard work and sacrifice, and just gritting my teeth and working through it, I have now gotten myself to a really good spot where I am having so much fun.
“I am earning a lot of money, I’m getting to do all the things that I want to do and if you told me when I got released that a year later I would be sitting here, saying all these things and genuinely meaning it, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
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A key to De Lander’s rise on the independent scene has been her connection with former WWE star, Matt Cardona which only kickstarted in March and has skyrocketed the pair to become a dynamic duo on-screen.
The Indy Goddess spoke about how the relationship initiated and the commitments being made to ensure they get the most out of it.
“We didn’t know each other at all, we only met each other once,” she said.
“But then, we were both on the World Series Wrestling tour in Australia in March, and he just came up to me and was like, ‘hey, do you want to work with me on the indies in America?’. Oh, 1000%.
“I couldn’t think of a better person I want to tag with, we started that weekend. There was a GCW show and we got back to America, and we did that and we hit the ground running.
“Every single show he did, I tried to do as well and we just tried to create this packaged deal where you think of him, you think of me and you think of me, you think him. I think we’ve done well with that with promos and photos.
“On every show we do, we try and get a whole bunch of content so we can solidify ourselves as a unit and as a team. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Despite her release from WWE and creating a name for herself outside, De Lander has left the door ajar for a return to the company. However, she declared she is in no hurry and wants to reach full satisfaction on the independent scene before even considering a potential offer.
“I think I will go back eventually, but there’s no rush,” she said.
“I’m 26, I am still very young and I still want to do a lot of things outside of WWE and now, after getting released, it made me realise you kind of have to protect yourself and look after yourself in a way and make sure you’re still happy in doing the things you want to do.
“I want to make sure I do the things I want to do before I go back there and have my fun, and create my own moments and memories and do all that stuff. I want to do that first and add more value to myself, create my own name and brand as big as it is, so I have more leeway.
“If that means I’m on the outside for a few more years, then I’m more than happy to do that. I’m having fun, so I would say at some point, I would like to go back.
“It has to be a situation that suits me. There’s so many things I still want to do on the indies, we have barely scratched the surface and that’s really exciting too.”
When De Lander was signed to WWE, she was involved in a storyline with current talent, fellow Australian and former NXT Women’s Champion, Indi Hartwell.
With Hartwell’s recent achievements of reaching the mountain top in the developmental brand and receiving a promotion to Raw, the Indy Goddess explained how proud she was of her close friend.
“We’re still close. Obviously I am not at WWE anymore and our schedules are completely opposite, so that makes it harder to see each other as often,” she said.
“We are definitely still close and I am proud of her for everything she has achieved, and winning the NXT (Women’s) Title was an awesome moment and her call up to Raw was such a long-time coming, so I am very happy for her.
“If one Australian does well, it’s just a great thing for all of us.”
De Lander then had a message for aspiring professional wrestlers who live in Australia, encouraging them to expose themselves with the limited opportunities there is back home.
“I don’t mean to be harsh, but you have to get out,” she said.
“For me, I was very lucky that I had family that always supported what I wanted to do. Financially, I worked really hard and I saved my money, so I could afford to go to America to wrestle.
“I would say the biggest thing you can do is work as hard as you can and get as good as you can in Australia, but you need to get yourself out whether it’s America, Europe, Japan, Mexico.
“You need to start travelling abroad, because you get so much more experience doing that, but that’s also how you get eyes on you. I think it’s kind of ridiculous to stay in Australia and expect that opportunities are going to come to you, that’s not the way it goes.
“It’s an island and you are your own brand, that’s what I have done and that’s why this run has been so successful.
“I don’t have AEW or WWE tweeting out my stuff to their millions of followers every week. I need to promote myself and whether you’re a rookie starting out, or a seasoned veteran, it’s the same deal.
“You need to be your own advocate and make sure everyone knows who you are.”
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