The air is bristling with tension and excitement. The 100-strong crowd gathered at the HM Fitness Centre in Al Quoz, Dubai, keep glancing at the tunnel waiting for the wrestlers to emerge. The seconds tick away, then a spotlight picks out one of the pro wrestlers clad in shorts and a T-shirt, his left arm in a mock sling. The crowd cheers as The Vigilante rips off the cast, declaring he’s ready to fight.
But he’s not the main attraction tonight. The crowds are here to watch another fighter – a Lebanese teenager who has been hitting the headlines as well as opponents since she became a wrestler just over a year ago.
Finally, the lights dim and a minute later, the applause grows thunderous as a pretty and petite girl in black shorts, camouflage-print T-shirt, fishnet stockings and black boots races down the tunnel. Screams of ‘Jo-elle Jo-elle’ ring through the arena. Meet Gheeda Chamasaddine – who goes by the stage name Joelle Hunter – the Arab world’s first and only female pro wrestler, who runs up the steps and bounces into the ring to face her opponent.
Standing at just 164cm tall, Joelle – who tips the scales at 61.5 kg – is about 18cm shorter than her 90kg rival. But she doesn’t seem perturbed. ‘I’ll finish him here,’ she says to the crowd, triggering another round of loud applause.
This match is the centrepiece of the night and Joelle’s biggest fight so far in her career. Her opponent – 20-year-old Lebanese wrestler and arch-rival Michel Nassif, aka The Vigilante – has already beaten her twice this year.
‘Your place is at home, cooking and cleaning, not in the ring,’ he shouts, pointing at her and trying to provoke a reaction. Joelle, who turns 18 on November 23, stares at him in mock disgust.
‘If you don’t win here, you will have to stop wrestling,’ warns The Vigilante. ‘This is your last match.’
Joelle, a final-year schoolgirl, laughs. ‘Nonsense, I’ll prove you wrong,’ she yells. ‘Just wait and see.’
Two minutes later, the bell rings and the pair lunge at each other, grappling and pushing, struggling to stay upright and not fall down.
They battle for their pride, they tussle for their egos. She neck-locks him and attempts to shove him on the mat but The Vigilante twists her arm and deftly lifts her high up in the air to slam her down. Another wrestler, Fayez Al Emarat, who has been watching from the sidelines, disputes The Vigilante’s tactics claiming that his action – of twisting her arm – is a foul and jumps into the ring, screaming ‘cheat, cheat’ to the referee. Previous rivalries surface and other popular wrestlers – the Trickster, Raj, Asero and Arabian Knight – enter the ring and soon it becomes free for all. The crowd is loving every moment.
‘Give it to him Jo-elle,’ shrieks a fan.
‘What are you waiting for Vigilante?’ screams another.
A momentary lapse in concentration and Joelle has her opponent on the black mat, face down, kicking him in his solar plexus. The Vigilante shrieks in pain. Joelle moves back then lunges again, elbowing him in the face.
‘One, two three,’ counts the referee and Joelle screams in triumph She has bagged her first win, making her opponent bite the dust in less than five minutes. She raises her hands in the air and grins. Rolling off the ring, she walks back to her changing room, slips into a pair of jeans and T-shirt and heads home to Dubai Marina, where she lives with her mother Nihaya Haimour. ‘It’s always great to be a winner,’ she says.
Gone is the tough-talking wrestler and in her place is a soft-spoken girl-next-door who is almost unrecognisable. Vindicated, an ecstatic Joelle says, ‘I’m so happy to have won. It’s like I received a badge of honour.’
Joelle, whose weight fluctuates between 59kg and 65kg, works out with a personal trainer for roughly 90 minutes, six days a week. ‘You have to be physically strong because guys are bigger than me.’
She wrestles men of all shapes and sizes. Bumps, bruises and injuries, then, are a part and parcel of her life. ‘When you come to the ring, you put your body on the line. It is a dangerous sport although it might look all fun. One wrong move and you could get seriously hurt.’ But, at the same time, she says, ‘If you’re always scared about getting injured, you might as well not be wrestling.’
Checking her phone, she grins – she’s just received a congratulatory Tweet from Daniel Bryan, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar who was in Dubai to promote his new game, WWE 2K16 at Games 15. ‘Good luck and keep working hard. You’re going to do a great job [in] wrestling. Everybody says you train really hard. Keep up the good work.’ Joelle’s reaction?
‘Isn’t that awesome? What more could I ask for?’
This is no ordinary triumph. It is the first time Joelle has won a bout in three appearances, as well as a momentous milestone for female wrestlers in the Middle East.
Joelle is neither the average Dubai teenager nor archetypal pro wrestler. An online student who aspires to be a psychologist, she is a trailblazer and rule-breaker, and sees herself as a role model for Arab women.
‘I want to make them brave, I want to make them stand up for themselves,’ she says.
An only child, Joelle was born in Jordan to Lebanese couple Hitham Chamasaddine and Nihaya, both 49. Her parents have divorced; Hitham is a sound engineer in Romania, while Nihaya is a nursing director in Dubai.
For somebody who grew up surrounded by female cousins, Barbies and mermaids, Joelle appears completely at ease in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling.
‘I came to know about this part-sport, part-entertainment form of wrestling some five years ago when I moved to Dubai with my Mum,’ says Joelle. She heard her friends discussing the stars of WWE, a multimillion-dollar entertainment brand, saw YouTube videos and ‘was instantly hooked!’
She wanted to start straightaway but couldn’t find a trainer. ‘I looked for a school that could teach me the sport but couldn’t find any,’ she says. However, for four years she continued pursuing her passion, watching videos on YouTube, reading up on the sport and following all that her heroes were doing in and out of the ring.
Then, a random online search last year led her to the Dubai Pro Wrestling Academy in Al Quoz where she promptly signed up.
‘I’d been dreaming of the sport for four years, watching so many videos... I didn’t just wake up one day and say I want to be a wrestler.’
Joelle’s mum did not take her seriously at first, but when she realised how passionate Joelle was about the sport and the time she spent in training, Nihaya backed her. ‘I’d spend hours building up stamina by running, doing light weight training and aerobics,’ says Joelle.
The gutsy teen is aware of people’s perceptions of a woman in this sport. ‘Not everybody is going to like what I do, but that’s their problem, not mine,’ she says. ‘I know I’m doing something different – it’s not easy, it takes a lot to bring a guy down.’
She attends biweekly sessions at the academy, founded by Caleb Hall, an accomplished pro wrestler from the US. Joelle is the first and only female member of the 20-member academy, and also the youngest.
Barely a year into the sport, Joelle is already making waves on the circuit. And she admits that her male colleagues ‘were initially amused but they didn’t make me feel odd or different’. She says they taught her new wrestling tricks and ‘accepted me straight away as part of their group. I’m grateful for that. I didn’t have to fight my way to fit in.’
However, her rival Michel or The Vigilante, who is also her colleague at the academy, doesn’t agree. ‘Joelle should not be wrestling. Period. It’s a predominantly male sport, it’s physical and violent. Women have plenty of other things to do,’ he says in mock seriousness. Joelle ignores that comment.
Her stage name, Joelle, was suggested by her mum a month or two before wrestling became her life. ‘I however added Hunter – again by fluke – so as not to be confused with another Joelle [Mardinian, the beauty expert and TV personality].’
The teenage wrestler revels in the double role. ‘A lot of wrestlers now go by their real names. That’s boring. I like something unique. Behind the curtain, I’m Gheeda – relaxed, laid-back and easygoing.
‘As soon as I am in the ring, I’m Joelle – extremely short-tempered, aggressive, rebellious, loud, dying to pick a fight and a synonym for absolute chaos. I believe wrestling is what separates people from who they really are. As a wrestler, I can get away with yelling and beating people up. Obviously, in real life, you can’t do this, and deal with things differently.’
Joelle’s mother took the news of her wanting to join the academy as most mums of wannabe wrestler daughters would: ‘Are you serious?’ But when Joelle told her how much she loved it and wanted to make a mark for herself in this sport, Nihaya relented. ‘She is my role model, she has always supported me in everything I’ve wanted to do,’ Joelle says. ‘And she is always there for my bouts, quietly encouraging me and pushing me to win.’
Pro wrestling, with its staged nature, pre-decided outcomes and partly determined storylines, is cynically labelled show wrestling and there is a never-ending real versus fake debate about the performances of its contestants. Caleb, who is also the academy’s trainer, admits that it is a show. ‘What we do is entertain,’ he says. ‘People know that it is not technically real, but when you go to a movie or theatre or watch a TV show, you’re not thinking it’s not real. You get emotionally involved with the characters and the story. We do the same thing.
‘The sports people are like stunt artists. They need to be able to land punches, kick someone, take a fall and get up and give it back. They learn how to really knock people off but in a way that is safe. That’s the No. 1 skill I teach. The outcome may be pre-decided, but the players still need skill.’
Caleb should know, having battled the likes of Canadians Tyson Kidd and Teddy Hart, and the American JTG, among others, in his heyday.
The term pro wrestling may be short for professional wrestling and its warriors are paid handsomely all over the world, but it is still early days here for them to get paid, an anomaly Caleb hopes will be corrected soon.
For Joelle, who adores the emotional high of the sport, ‘it’s like a school play. You have to be an entertainer, you have to hype up the crowd and keep them happy. You must get them to react as soon as you come out to wrestle.’
She trains for about two to three hours daily, and has six protein-rich meals everyday to make up for the calories lost in training and workouts.
Breakfast consists of two whole eggs, four whites, brown bread, peanut butter and a banana. Her mid-morning snack is a protein shake with nuts and peanut butter, while her post-workout meal is again protein-rich, with a sweet potato or banana.
Lunch is white rice and chicken breast, and she sips apple or blended juice in the evening, while dinner is mostly brown rice, chicken breast and boiled veggies.
‘I enjoy my diet and it can be really good,’ she says. ‘I don’t eat out because I have a proper diet to follow. The only thing I probably take from a restaurant is water. When I go out with friends, I carry my own food.’
Joelle has made a lot of sacrifices to get to where she is now. ‘On the weekends, I don’t really stay out late as I’m always up early. I’m not one of those teens who parties a lot.’
She gave up attending a regular school in favour of K-12 online learning, so she can spend more time on training and WWE.
But Joelle is practical as well, and as perseverant and ambitious as she is about becoming a full-time wrestler, she is also contemplating studying psychology next year ‘just in case my first dream does not work out’.
Joelle’s ambition is to turn professional and one day be a part of the US-based WWE, the largest wrestling company globally.
But for now, she knows she has only just begun. Caleb, in fact, cautions that she’s still in ‘wrestling infancy’. But, he adds that if somebody does have the passion and the drive to succeed, it is Joelle Hunter. ‘She really is in a league of her own.’
As Joelle gets ready to don her costume and leap into the ring, Caleb is optimistic that she may be among his first students to bag that so-far-elusive sponsorship.