'I'm always about that bag': AEW's Mercedes Moné ready for new opportunities

Mercedes Mone on why she chose AEW: 'You can do everything' (1:15)

Mercedes Mone details her decision to sign with AEW after a previous run with WWE and some recent time off. (1:15)

Mercedes Moné slipped off the top rope and fell to the outside of the ring. Hard.

The top women's wrestling star landed on her feet, which in most cases would be a positive thing. This was not most cases. Moné came down with all her weight on her right foot, breaking it.

This was May 21, 2023, in a match against Willow Nightingale at a New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) event in Long Beach, California. Moné, formerly known as Sasha Banks in WWE, was supposed to win the match and the inaugural NJPW Strong women's championship. Knowing she was hurt and would likely be out, Moné reportedly called an audible. Nightingale won the match and the title.

Moné nearly lost more than a possibility for a belt that night.

"I was told this was a career-ending injury," Moné told ESPN last week.

She would not accept that diagnosis, despite not being able to put weight on the foot for three months. After surgery, extensive rehab and months of pro wrestling training in multiple gyms, Moné returned last Wednesday, debuting for All-Elite Wrestling (AEW) on its Dynamite television program in her hometown of Boston. Her appearance was unannounced but strongly hinted at. That was enough to draw over 9,000 to TD Garden to welcome her back.

"I felt like 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin," Moné said. "I felt so cool. Like all the fans were on their feet, they threw up their signs. Fans were from all around. They came from all around the world. Just for this very moment, just to see me talk, just to see me debut. It was such a dream come true. It was unbelievable."

AEW announced that Moné had signed a multiyear contract with the promotion, making her the biggest name thus far in the five-year-old upstart's women's division. She joins former NJPW stars Kazuchika Okada and Will Ospreay as top AEW free-agent signings this year.

"Mercedes Moné is one of the best wrestlers on the planet, and signing Mercedes to AEW furthers our goal of being the premier destination for the world's top talent," AEW owner Tony Khan told ESPN.

Moné, 32, left WWE suddenly in 2022 after a decade there (and six title reigns) and resurfaced in NJPW with a surprise appearance at the Tokyo Dome in January 2023. The following month, she won the new IWGP women's championship from former WWE rival KAIRI. Moné spent the early part of 2023 having strong performances with NJPW and sister promotion Stardom.

After dropping the IWGP women's title to Mayu Iwatani, Moné entered a tournament for the NJPW Strong Women's championship. She beat Stephanie Vaquer in the semifinals before the injury against Nightingale in the finals.

"I can't watch that video back," Moné said. "It scares me. It makes me nervous. I don't know if I slipped. I don't know if it was a freak accident. I don't know if Willow pushed me on purpose. I really don't know."

It could not have come at a worse time. Moné (whose real last name is Varnado) was in the process of blazing a different trail for women's wrestling, choosing to leave WWE while still in her athletic prime to wrestle all over the world and pursue other ventures. Moné played a role in the popular Star Wars show "The Mandalorian" and continues getting acting gigs.

"It was the hardest time of my life," Moné said. "When the injury first happened, I was so in shock. I was so confused. I was like, 'Oh, wait, no,' because I was on a mission. I had so many goals of going to Mexico, the [United Kingdom], Japan, all over the United States. We were preparing for so much. But I think maybe my body and the universe was just like, 'Maybe you're just going a little too fast. Maybe you need to slow down. You're not done healing inside.'"

And that's what the last 10 months have been about for her -- healing mentally and physically. Moné wasn't cleared to wrestle by last August, but she was still in attendance -- and shown on screen -- at AEW's massive All In pay-per-view at Wembley Stadium. She was among more than 80,000 who filled the iconic London venue. Moné said she was not signed by AEW at that time, but watching that show in person is one of the reasons that drew her to the promotion.

"I'm all about creating history," Moné said. "I'm all about creating magic, and I'm all about creating so much more. And that's what AEW brings -- so much more, more opportunity, more chances and more chances just to stand out and to be seen and noticed."

Moné said she kept in touch with Khan, a lifelong pro wrestling fan whose father is Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, and he "just really spoke to my heart." Of course, AEW also presented a formidable financial offer, too.

"I mean, I'm not Mercedes Moné for no reason," she said with a smirk. "Money changes everything. I'm always about that bag. Absolutely."

More than anything, though, Moné said AEW's philosophy runs parallel to her own. Last year, before the injury, she wanted to travel the world, wrestle everywhere and cross over into the entertainment world. AEW, with a less demanding schedule than WWE, will give her the freedom to do all those things, including a budding music career. Moné's cousin is Snoop Dogg and her father was a musician. Moné rapped her new entrance theme, "CEO," titled after one of her wrestling nicknames.

"You can do so much more in AEW -- you can do everything," Moné said. "And for me, I want to do everything. So, this is the place for me to be, and this is the place that I call home."

Moné will be part of an improving AEW women's division, with her in-ring return yet to be announced. She said she is 100% healthy after last year's accident. The broken foot was just a setback.

"I love wrestling so much that I could not let the doctor tell me [I won't wrestle again], I couldn't let them say that was going to happen," Moné said. "I didn't take no for an answer. And I pushed hard every single day. Rehabbing, working out, getting my mind right, meditating. Because again, I wasn't sure when I was going to come back. I just knew that I was going to come back someday."