I was tall, and I was very muscular for my age. I didn’t think I was the prettiest girl growing up — I guess because I wasn’t one of those dainty girls who’d get all the attention. I learned to get over it, but I was always aware of it. Whenever the other kids were messing around, I’d try to stay out the way. I didn’t want anyone talking about my body, and I knew that when it was my turn to be the butt of the joke, that’s what they would resort to. Like, manly looking ass or whatever.
In middle school, my friends all started getting love letters and that kind of stuff, but I didn’t have that. I remember I would always complain to my grandmother, who I was really close with. Oh my gosh, nobody likes me. My grandma’s name was Bernice Salmon — like the fish. When I was growing up, she was my rock. My mom was as well, but my grandmother?? Our bond was different. We were very in tune. And when she would catch me getting down about boys and relationships, she’d say the same thing every time: “You don’t need all that.”
I mean, this was middle school, so everybody’s making a big deal about how they’re “in love.” Passing notes and stuff like that. And if you’re not getting any of those notes it can feel bad. My grandmother, though, she was just like, “Laugh at it.” She had a way of making it all seem so ridiculous. She’d tell me, “You have a place to go in life — and if these little boys don’t find you attractive then that’s their fault. You need to be in a relationship with basketball and school. That’s it.”
So that’s actually where this story starts.
Basketball was my whole life. It had been my thing since I was like six. And even when it was hard, I stuck with it because of my grandmother. She supported me so much in it. She made me believe that I could be great — that I could do anything I put my mind to. She always knew there was more in the world for me than Vero Beach, Florida.
After my sophomore year, I decided to start at a new high school. It was the school where everyone from my summer AAU team was at, and I didn’t really think much about it beyond “I’ll get to go to school with my teammates.” But it actually turned out to be a big deal. My old school filed a complaint to the state, claiming recruiting rules had been broken, and my family ended up having to go through this long, emotionally draining ordeal. My grandmother was in her fifties, and had been a scrub tech for over 10 years at an old surgery center — a great job with benefits. And she quit to work as a janitor at my new school, which at the time we thought would solve the issue and make it so I’d be allowed to play basketball there. But even after all that, they still didn’t let me play.
Things in my life started to change after that. I still hooped: After sitting out my junior year, I landed at another high school as a senior (and we actually won district). And I ended up playing in college as well. But I wasn’t the same person anymore. You didn’t see me with a basketball on my hip like you used to. You didn’t see me wearing basketball clothes every day anymore. Honestly that whole experience just made me love what I was doing a little less. I feel like basketball kind of broke my heart, you know what I mean?
And to make it worse, my grandma couldn’t get her old job back, so she ended up just going into retirement. That ate at me so much — because I feel like she made the biggest sacrifice of anyone, and then it ended up being for nothing. So that’s when I decided I had to find success. Because somehow, some way, I was going to make it up to her. It became like a mantra in my head at night. I’m going to make this up. I’m going to make this up. I’m going to make this up.
Want to go someplace where you can get away from everything, lay on the beach, not worry so much? That’s Vero Beach, Florida.
It’s a retirement haven — a small, old, rich community that used to be a spring training town for the Dodgers. When the Dodgers were there, it was thriving, basically a tourist town. There were polo clubs, there were golf clubs on golf clubs, you know? Lol. A lot of rich people from up north would travel down for the winter to vacation homes in Vero. We called them the Snowbirds. They’d have all these houses on the beach that were $20 million, $30 million, probably more. Beautiful. And these were all like CEOs of Maybelline and retired baseball players and famous authors. Money like that.
When the Dodgers left and went to Arizona, the town changed, too. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s not as much of a tourist destination as it used to be. Now it’s more of a hidden gem.
In Vero, you have the rich, the elite — and then you have everybody else. I’m from Gifford, which is the poor part of town. Basically, we worked for the rich. Everybody who lived in Gifford, for the most part, worked for people who lived in Vero. They worked for somebody on the beach.
I remember in first grade we had this “reading club,” where you’re partnered with these adult volunteers. Very, very wealthy people. You probably know the type. The club is their retirement thing. They’d almost, like, adopt us, and take us to these fancy events.
My volunteer happened to be this older white woman. She had me and this other girl named Shanette. And I remember she and her husband took us to a play — I had never been to a play in my life. This was just so far outside my world. Or like…. so far outside the way I understood the world, if that makes sense.
Everybody was super dressed up. And I remember smiling the whole way through it. It was a great play. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because I was so young, but there must have been over a thousand people in that theater (and my home wasn’t even 10 minutes away!) — and Shanette and I were the only Black people. That’s probably the first time that ever happened to me.
After the play, we went to this bookstore nearby, and they were like, “You can get whatever you want.” Keep in mind, this wasn’t like a Books-A-Million or a big department store or anything. It was one of these high-end boutique children’s stores, very, very nice. You could pick out a stuffed animal there and it’s like $50.
Me and Shanette looked at each other, and our eyes got big. We didn’t talk about it, but I think we were kinda thinking the same thing. Like, O.K., “whatever we want”…. but how much is that?? We didn’t really know the polite thing to do in this situation. So at first we were really shy about it. We were like, “We’ll just get this book. We’re fine.”
But the lady insisted. She told us, “No — here’s a cart. Enjoy yourselves.” Like I said…. a whole different world. It was one of those moments that’s weird and thrilling, all at once.
After that, Shanette and I became inseparable. We started going to all these plays and shows together and just learning this whole different way of life. We really didn’t think nothing about it. We just were like, “Are you having fun?” “I’m having fun.” “Are you going next time?” “Yeah. I’m going next time.” “Are you O.K.? Do you feel safe?” And I would tell her I’m safe, I’m fine.
I lived in one of those places where, when the last bell rang for school at the end of the day, it was like: Drop your bags off. Do your homework if you have any. And then enjoy yourself outside until the street lights come on. That was us. Everybody in my neighborhood watched each other. We had the old lady on the porch, making sure no one comes along that’s not supposed to be there. And she had every parent’s number in her phone.
If we weren’t outside, it’s because we were inside watching wrestling. We were all fans of Triple H, or Stone Cold Steve Austin, or The Rock, or Chyna — the big Attitude Era stars. Later, when we were back outside, we'd be trying to put these moves on. Everything we could do to each other, we did. I won’t lie, I left the craziest stuff to the boys.… but the punches and the suplexes, I was right there with them. And keep in mind — we’re not selling anything!! We’re kids, so we’re not missing lol, we’re hitting each other in the face for real. One time we found an abandoned house, and we were jumping off the roof doing moves. It was so reckless. We had this trampoline in our backyard, too, so everybody in the neighborhood came to it, and we would add in all kinds of flips and things.
And it was always some type of competition to be the fittest. Like, You can do two flips and hit this move? O.K., I’m going to bust out three. And of course everybody had their wrestler they wanted to be. For me, that wrestler was always Chyna. “The Ninth Wonder of the World.” The one-woman phenom. She was my idol.
And that was a big deal for me, discovering Chyna. Like I said, I always got picked on growing up because of my muscular body. So watching her go out and flex on everyone, and be as swole as the guys, and not try to hide the fact that she had these muscles — while also being sexy as hell?? It was everything to me, especially at that age. To see someone out there who was both strong and sexy. It’s hard to explain, but Chyna looked like she had a purpose. She just had this presence about her that stood out. And that was like a lightbulb going off: Oh, standing out is a GOOD thing. It made me love my body — and it made me realize the value of knowing your worth.
A woman who knows her worth, that’s a dangerous thing.
I met Brandon when I was 22 years old, in 2015. I’d started modeling, and my manager was actually a childhood friend of his. And one day, my manager and I were meeting at a Starbucks — and then directly after, I guess he was meeting up with Brandon. So I was walking out the door as Brandon was walking in, like a rom-com or something. And I guess he noticed me and asked about me. Like, “Who was that??”
It took four months for me to actually say, “Alright, fine.” I’m not big on athletes!! Lol. Being an athlete myself, I just know the operation. Plus, I was living in France at the time to model. But he was trying, trying, trying. And eventually I was like, “Alright. Give him my number. Let’s see where this goes.”
One thing that’s crazy is, at one point Brandon did spring training in Florida. And he’s 11 years older than me — so we always do the little math of where we were at different times in our life. My elementary school always went to the spring training games. So I’ll joke with him, like, “Wouldn’t it have been so funny if you were playing at Dodgertown, and we went to watch with the Little Dodgers?” I legit think I must have been at one of his games when I was in elementary! That’s pretty wild.
But the dynamic is sweet. Brandon is a goofy, fun-loving man, and I’m very similar, so we just mesh. He’s the person that calms me down, I guess you could say. He’s my peace.
And over those next few years — from that day I finally let him have my number — we started building a life together. We had a little plan we were following, and everything. And it was going great.
Until I undid all of that lol.
It started with a silly conversation between me and Kelsey.
Kelsey is a friend of mine, and one night we were just sitting around having a casual jokey joke situation. We were on Instagram — this is like the fall of 2019 — and I think we were going through comments and stuff like that. People would comment on my pics, like, “You look like a professional wrestler. You look like a superhero.” I was getting a lot of those comments at the time.
And as we’re laughing about how funny that is, Kelsey asks me, “You ever thought about wrestling?” I give her a look and I’m like, “No way.” We were really just joking with each other. Scrolling online. But then some minutes pass and she’s like, “Actually I’m serious — would you ever get into it for real? I have this friend who is a wrestler.….”
O.K.: Turns out he wasn’t just a wrestler. He was a WWE Hall of Fame wrestler.
Kelsey’s friend was Mark Henry.
That night, I brought the conversation up with Brandon. I told him that Kelsey might be able to get me an opportunity with WWE. His reaction was: “Why would you want to go out and hurt yourself?”
My mom said the same thing when I tried to talk to her about it. “You’re a beautiful girl, Jade, and you’re going to hurt yourself. Why would you want to do that? You don’t need to do that.”
But I think what they didn’t understand is that this had nothing to do with how I look. It was a lot deeper than that. Like…. I’ve had a coach tell me I wasn’t going to be “nothing but a housewife.” I’d watched my dreams as an athlete disappear right in front of me, at such an early age. And maybe I was better for it — I made new dreams, I got my master’s degree, started a family, I found work that I enjoyed. But those old wounds were still there. And those old dreams never died. Deep down, I felt like I’d never gotten to show the world what I was capable of.
Brandon is the most supportive partner I could ask for — but even when I explained it to him like that, he still didn’t quite get it. He was like, “You have everything you want here. Aren’t you comfortable? Is there something missing from your life?”
And I just said to him, “Brandon, as an athlete, you should understand more than anybody. I never got the chance to see what I can really do. This is my second chance.” I think he got it when I put it like that.
So we set up a meeting with Mark Henry.
Mark asked me, “Can you do a handstand for 10 seconds?”
I said yes.
He said, “You’ll be fine.”
Going into tryouts, I knew my weaknesses. I’d never had any gymnastics training, so some of the stuff we were doing wasn’t intuitive to me. For example, even something fundamental like rolling. In basketball, you slide — you get hit with a screen or something, and you’re taught to slide. In wrestling, you don’t slide. You roll. So I had to learn to do things like that very fast.
But one thing I knew — one thing I’ve always known — was that I’m strong. I’m strong as hell. And when we all sat around looking at each other before getting in those rings, I think that’s when I remembered, O.K., I’m here for a reason. I just looked around, and said to myself, Let’s be honest…. I have the best body here. For a fact, I have the best body here.
Being in the ring was intense. I did good for a rookie, but I’m not ashamed to admit I wasn’t the best. I had never hit the ropes before!! That was an experience. And as rough as I played as a kid, I’m not used to like…. throwing myself at the ground on purpose. So my body had to adjust and adjust very quickly. The first day or two, I’d go back to the hotel, and I’d go to the ice machines on the floors and get a bucket, and just started dumping buckets of ice in the hotel bathtub. I was in excruciating pain — my body had just never taken a beating like that. It was a total freaking shock.
The way the tryout works, there’s basically two kinds of people: the wrestlers and the athletes. By wrestlers, I’m talking like…. people who had been grinding on the indies for years, working their ass off to perfect their craft. But for one reason or another they hadn’t yet gotten that big chance. And by athletes, I’m talking more like me — people who maybe played in the NFL for a minute, or did competitive weightlifting, or were popular trainers on Instagram or that kind of thing. People who have a lot of raw talent, or a look that pops, but not the actual wrestling experience. And I’ll be honest, I was a little naïve going in. But I came out of it with a lot of respect for the men and women on both sides of the room. Whether it’s spending years on the indies, or it’s coming from a whole other background and learning to wrestle on the fly…. nothing about this journey is easy. It’s HARD.
When tryouts ended, they basically told me, “We want you…. but we want you to make sure you really know what you’re getting into.” I think I knew what they meant by that. When I cut my tryout promo, I’d really played up that I was rich and that Brandon played baseball and so on. And while I was doing it in character, there was obviously also truth to it. And I think that created some doubts about my level of commitment. Like, since I didn’t “need” wrestling, would I be willing to put in the work? They didn’t seem sure. So they asked me to find a good training school, and send them monthly updates about my progress — with the idea that after that, I’d be ready.
Mark recommended that I go to a school called Face 2 Face Wrestling, in Morrow, Georgia. At the time, I didn’t have one match under my belt — so a lot of my training at first was literally just getting my butt whooped by grown men who weighed like 250, 300 pounds. They were huge. Picture a montage of me getting suplexed every which way by these old dudes with meaty hands.
Brandon was always great about making room for my schedule. We’d work it out so he would stay home with our daughter, Bailey, during my training, then I would get home and he would go train. But while he was supportive in almost every way, the one thing that took some time for him to come around on was the idea of actually watching me in action. I’d ask him if he wanted to go to a practice and he’d be like, “I love you, and I support you in this 100%. But I don’t want to see nobody beating you up.” And he wasn’t even wrong: I was showing up at home with bruises, I’d landed on my neck at one point — it could get brutal. I understood where Brandon was coming from. But I still wanted to share that part of my journey with him.
And then one night he finally came to watch. We were doing a little practice match, and it had some of everything: I was hitting the ropes, taking suplexes, getting chopped to hell (those chops HURT!), doing all the moves and sequences I’d been working on.
After we finished, I looked over at Brandon and gave him one of those faces, kind of like, “Well — what did you think?”
My guy was beaming. He was like, “That was SO freaking cool!!”
He was proud of me, for real.
After training ended, there was a lot to think through. I hadn’t signed a contract yet, and WWE definitely wanted me. So it was time to figure out if that’s what I wanted.
And it’s crazy, because — right around this time, that’s when I started to become familiar with AEW. I’d been trying to study the wrestling business during training, and had watched some episodes of Dynamite on TV. I liked what I saw. And when I mentioned this to a friend of mine, he suggested that I meet Tony Khan.
The minute I talked with Tony, I just instantly was put at ease. He made me feel comfortable, and like I could be honest, about both my fears and my ambitions. I felt like Tony saw me as more than just a number. He understood my purpose.
A few days later, I was going down to Jacksonville for a tryout.
“Do you got to be so…. naked??”
That was the first thing my mom said when she came to see me wrestle for the first time. She was watching me cut a live promo before my match — I’d just signed with AEW, and my debut was going to be in a tag team with Shaq (a good friend of mine) against Cody and Red Velvet. What’s funny is, I was wearing long sleeves!! I had on this long-sleeve red outfit and I was like, “Mom — out of everybody, I think I have the most clothes on right now.”
My first official wrestling match was on national TV. That’s pretty rare. I can’t remember how many tickets I had to ask for, but I know it was some insane number. Must have been over 50 people who showed up. My mom was there obviously…. my friends were there…. my cousins from Orange Park in Jacksonville were all coming…. of course Brandon and Bailey weren’t going to miss it…. you get the picture. I was like, “I’m so sorry!! My family and friends are very proud!!”
I think on some level they also just wanted to see me in this new element. I’m usually such a chill person. And so for them to see this other side of me, this mean side of me, it was almost like — O.K., who IS this girl?! And how did she even get into wrestling?!
My family is Jamaican, and I’m a first generation American. They watched a little wrestling in the late ’90s and early 2000s — my mom can actually recall all the old-school wrestlers better than I can. But the new-age wrestling they’re not so into. My brother, Shawn, on the other hand, he’s obsessed with it: I’ll just be minding my business, and I’ll get a text from him.… and it’s some clip of a match he looked up and wanted to send to me. And of course he watches my stuff all the time.
My mom watches my stuff, too, but she didn’t really know what she was watching at first. So that’s why I think she didn’t love the costumes. I had to explain to her that the guys aren’t actually wearing underwear, and the women aren’t actually wearing bras and panties. It looks that way, but it’s wrestling gear. It’s the culture. But it’s pretty jarring if you’re not from that world.
Once she got it, though, she loved it. And she even tries her best to keep up with the storylines.
She’s really happy for me.
It’s a little crazy talking about your “life story” at 29, but it feels good to write this.
Even though I’m pretty young, in some ways I already feel as if I’ve lived like three lives. I have so many different sides to myself. There are so many different shades of who I am. High school Jade is totally different from college Jade. College Jade is totally different from when I became a mother. And then wrestling Jade is totally different from anything.
I think the experiences I’ve dealt with in my life — the people doubting me, the people judging me, the people telling me what I’m going to and not going to become? All these experiences have shaped me into the woman I am. And that’s a woman who, if she wants something, she’s going to go for it. It’s that simple. I’m going to go hard for it.
I know there will always be people who are going to talk their talk. People who think I wasn’t ready when I became TBS champ. People who think I haven’t paid my dues. And honestly I’m not even mad at those people. I appreciate that a lot of those opinions, they just come with the territory when your audience is as passionate as ours is. And at times I’ve felt many of those same doubts. Believe me, I was shocked and humbled to be the first TBS champ — and I had moments where I was questioning things. Like, How will this be perceived by our fan base? How will my coworkers feel? How am I going to feel? All of those thoughts were on my mind.
At the same time, though, I can promise you another thing: I would’ve never entered this sport if I didn’t think I had it in me to be great. Not good…. great. And I’m still growing, that’s just a fact. This is my second year as a wrestler. I debuted in front of the whole world. Half the time I feel like a lab experiment for TV viewers. And when I’m feeling doubts, I just remember that my daughter — she’s one of those viewers. And she’s seeing her mom be a champion. She’s seeing me grab life by the horns, and refuse to settle.
I come from a proud, Black family, and generations of proud, Black women. So I’ve always grown up with that special armor, that ability to be the only Black person in a room and keep my head up high — because I feel like I’m representing a lot of Black people who aren’t there. And I feel like I’m representing them even more in the role I’m in now. In everything I do, I want to be a pioneer for the next generation. I want to be proof.
And I especially want to be proof for one Black girl in particular. I want Bailey to enjoy every second of this. And when someone asks her, “What’s your mom do?” I want her eyes to light up as she tells that person everything she’s absorbed. She’s only four, so I won’t lie: She used to cry during some of the shows because she thought I was getting beat up. (I felt so bad!!) But now Bailey can’t get enough of it. She watches Dynamite, she watches Rampage, she watches every pay-per-view. She has her favorites: Ruby (loves her music), Rosa (every time we play she’s always like, “Thunderrr Rosaaa!!!!”), hopefully Jade Cargill. She’s starting to cut promos on me. She’s already a natural heel.
It’s funny, a lot of wrestlers have names they use to separate their character from what’s real. But I’ve always been grateful that I get to go by Jade Cargill. I’ve always felt that my character is just a version of who I am. Maybe a little less chill, a little more violent, a little larger than life. But still Jade. Still money. Still you-know-who. I actually am That Bitch.
It’s been over a decade since I swore I’d “make it up” to my grandmother — that I would find success to pay her back for all the sacrifices she made. And though she passed, and never got to see me wrestle…. I like to think she’d feel that I kept my word.
Because the thing about my grandma is: She made me feel loved and powerful. Like I could do anything I put my mind to.
And when I’m in that ring — the things she saw in me?
Now I see them in myself.