Maria Kanellis-Bennett on Returning to Ring of Honor Post-WWE Exit
When Maria Kanellis-Bennett was let go by WWE with her husband, Mike, in April 2020, she wasn’t sure what was next. Fast-forward to today and the star finds herself back in Ring of Honor after a five-year absence, this time focused on bringing the formerly branded Women of Honor to new heights.
Serving on the board of directors, Kanellis-Bennett announced at March’s 19th anniversary show that a tournament would be held to crown a new women’s champion. Participant names are slowly being released as the brackets take shape leading into the summer. Here Kanellis-Bennett opens up about her new role, being the female voice behind the scenes, and plans to jumpstart the ROH women’s division.
When you look back at the last year and after WWE, how has your perspective on the business changed?
Maria Kanellis-Bennett: I didn’t even know if I would be coming back to wrestling because nobody knew what this virus was going to be. So to be able to come back in such an important role is really a blessing. I feel incredibly grateful. Being a mother and having two young kids, it makes me feel like all these women coming into Ring of Honor are my children. I’m very protective of them and their careers and what they can become.
When it comes to the women’s division, there have been a number of starts and stops over the years. What are some steps you’re taking this time around to make it successful?
So many times in wrestling, the same people who are responsible for one part of a company are responsible for another. Here, we really started to build a team just around the women’s division in order to give as much time and attention to the women as to the men. Being part of the booking in that division, I have a lot of freedom to bring in different pieces of the puzzle. Ring of Honor management is full force into this women’s division. They want it to succeed. They’ve given me all the resources I need to make it happen.
What can you tell us about the recruiting process?
To just have one or two fantastic wrestlers in an entire division isn’t going to be enough. You have to have a team of them all well built with their own personalities, stories, technique, and mind. Each of these girls we’re bringing in is fighting for something different. I’m looking for those sparks in each individual.
What have you learned from past experience that you’re taking with you in this new opportunity?
The biggest thing for me is to not get in the way of great stories—to be a platform for these stories to play out and to remember each one of these women has her individual talents and to showcase that. We can’t give up because things didn’t go as planned. That is what I experienced so much while being part of WWE. You had these incredibly talented women who never got to show what they could do because they weren’t given that time. Time, a platform, and a microphone—that is the formula to get great stories out there.
You also can’t perform well if you are always thinking someone is going to stab you in the back. You have to go out there with the confidence that people want you to succeed. Everyone matters.
Chelsea Green reached out on social media expressing interest in wrestling in Ring of Honor. Have you had any conversations with her or other released WWE talent about coming on board?
They are all so incredibly talented. I’ve talked to each one of them. Mickie James and I talked on Mother’s Day. Chelsea and I talked this week. Billie Kay used to train at the ROH Dojo, which is not common knowledge. There are definitely connections to each one of these women. Mickie was one of the original Ring of Honor women. I have quite the history with Chelsea. Would I love to see them in Ring of Honor in some capacity? Of course. Timing is everything.
How important do you think it is to have an active female voice when it comes to creative and booking?
I’m still learning. I don’t know everything when it comes to booking—I probably never will. But to be able to be involved and look at things from a female perspective [is crucial]. You know what storylines make sense. It’s easy to get caught up on that one [way] of thinking: A lot of times women have been booked as just one thing. To show that you can be a girly-girl but also play sports is very important, especially to young girls watching. You can also be in the women’s division but not take the pronouns of she or her. These things matter.
Do you think your WWE exit affected you differently this time around?
I was released from WWE in 2010 right after I’d done Celebrity Apprentice. At that time, I took it incredibly hard. This time I took it differently. I had already experienced it. I was two months postpartum. There was this pandemic going on. It wasn’t like in the past where I was so concerned about what everyone else was doing because this time we knew that everyone had their own time frame of getting back into the industry. So watching other people succeed made me excited and happy for them. For myself, I knew I had to stick with my own path and think about what was best for my family.
What can you tell us about the next couple of months as this tournament takes shape?
It’s exciting to see all the different women showing up on Women’s Division Wednesday each week on YouTube. Fans are able to see some of these faces that have really stood out and had a spotlight on them during this pandemic. They’ve been able to build a name for themselves during this time unlike any other. This is a whole new type of women’s division. I think over time people are going to be really impressed with how athletic these women are. We’ve really tried to have a lot of diversity in our group. They bring a lot of heart.
Ring of Honor TV, Syndication and HonorClub