By Denny Burkholder
"I remember getting out of the hospital feeling like death, with a medical taper plan of meds and thinking "what have I done to myself?" I celebrated my 30th birthday 5 days later and I remember wanting to die". -- Celeste Bonin, Instagram, Oct. 24, 2017
There are zero distractions at the Main Event Training Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
You come here to learn, to improve, and to sweat. This is pro wrestling stripped bare, devoid of peripheral nonsense. Just two wrestling rings and a few training essentials inside of a mostly empty warehouse. There's a whiteboard near the door listing the dates of upcoming shows. Former WWE Superstar Al Snow will soon visit for a special seminar.
It's 6:15 p.m. on a Monday night. Class begins at 7 p.m. As usual, Celeste Bonin is one of the first people here.
As recently as six months ago, this might have been the last place anyone -- including Bonin -- would have expected to find the former WWE Divas Champion once known as Kaitlyn. Bonin left WWE on good terms in 2014 and for the most part, seemed content to leave pro wrestling in her past.
Bonin never had roots in wrestling beyond WWE. She's one of the lucky few to get hired by WWE without having to work a single indy show first, and without ever having to come to a place like this to learn the basics. Bonin dove head-first into the WWE world in 2010 as the greenest of rookies. She spent her entire four-year career there.
Yet here she is at the Main Event Training Center, eager to train. Nobody else in the room except Bonin, including owner/trainer Pablo Marquez (who appeared as "Babu" for the WWE in 1998), has experience working a one-on-one match on a WWE pay-per-view. But Bonin's taking the same class as every other student, completing the same drills, listening intently to Marquez's instructions. Zero ego. Complete respect for the structure of Marquez's training and for her classmates, some of whom are just starting out.
"Sometimes we'll go three hours and I won't look at my phone," Bonin said after class. "Then I pick up my phone and get a panic attack because I'm like 'Oh shit!' It's kind of like another world. You kind of forget where you are, you're so in the moment. It's very therapeutic."
For Bonin, her re-acquaintance with wrestling -- this time, starting at square one -- has been a healing experience after a series of personal crises left her in need of structure and support.
'Disgusted with myself'
Bonin's 2014 departure from WWE was essentially a retirement. She was about to get married and start her own fitness apparel company. As a new business owner, Bonin knew she'd need more time to focus on that endeavor than a WWE wrestling schedule would allow. So she left wrestling behind, got married, and Celestial Bodiez was born.
"I used to have this seam sewn into the butt of all of my wrestling gear," Bonin said. "Just like this super flattering seam. No one was doing it in fitness apparel, so I had this idea to take that and make it a signature of a fitness apparel line. So about six months after I left WWE, I launched Celestial Bodiez."
Bonin's leap of faith appears to have paid off. Celestial Bodiez has a customer base that includes familiar faces like Maryse Mizanin and Nikki Cross. Nonetheless, the whirlwind pace of her new life was a challenge.
"It was like a total 180 lifestyle change, which took a while to get used to," she said.
While her business was doing well, Bonin's personal life had become unmanageable in the years that followed. She developed an undisclosed drug addiction. In 2016, she eventually sought treatment for it. Bonin first revealed her battle with addiction on social media a few months ago, most notably in an Instagram post where she re-shared a photo from one of her lowest points.
"I took this picture in the airport bathroom after flying into LAX," Bonin wrote in a lengthy post accompanying the photo. "I felt so awful and disgusted with myself but I remember posting it on Instagram with some stupid caption about being happy. I was actually on the last days of the medicine to help me detox and was in a super fucked up place mentally and physically.
"Over the past few years I was in a terrible marriage, an addict and not true to myself. It took me so long to admit I had a problem... and then to admit how serious the problem was."
After class on Monday, Bonin reflected on her recovery and the difficult times that followed.
"I checked myself into a facility, a hospital, to go through the medical detox," she said. "But then what I didn't do was go through a rehab process. And I couldn't do inpatient rehab because I had a business and all this other stuff going on. I should have done an outpatient rehab, but I chose not to, and I didn't learn about addiction and triggers and, like, what made me turn to it originally. And then I was still going through really bad problems in my marriage."
Still in the early stages of addiction recovery, Bonin made the decision to end her marriage with husband PJ Braun in early 2017. Divorce is always hard, and in Bonin's case it also took a toll on her business operations.
"I went through a really shitty, tough, rocky divorce," she said. "I slept on my mom's couch for a few months. I had to move my whole warehouse. I lost all my employees. I had to find a new warehouse, a new place to live, new employees, and still deal with the emotional bullshit from the divorce."
Bonin's housing situation and business operations eventually stabilized, but there were additional hardships. In an effort to cope with her setbacks while avoiding her old bad habits, she turned to alcohol.
"I just started drinking," she said. "Really, like all of 2017 I was, like, heavily drinking. Then at the very end of , I completely stopped everything."
One by one, Bonin has dealt with her crises and corrected her course. She said there's still work to be done, but she’s on a much better path now.
"I'm functioning, but I'm not the best version of myself," she said.
"And actually, this match coming up, I was like 'Damn, I have to get my shit together.'"
'I know you'll be back'
Through all of her struggles, a wrestling comeback never crossed Celeste Bonin's mind. But her time as Kaitlyn was an inescapable part of her past, and a pretty remarkable chapter of her life story. That's why, in preparing to shoot a video for social media, it made sense to film footage of her in a wrestling ring.
Bonin was aware of Marquez's local wrestling school and reached out for permission to shoot video in one of his rings. Marquez agreed and helped out with the shoot.
"When I came in, we shot footage, got what we needed," Bonin said. "Pablo trained me a little bit. I was super rusty. First time stepping into the ring in four years."
Bonin filmed her social video and then left the Main Event Training Center. She also accidentally left behind her Chuck Taylors.
"I left these shoes, actually," she said, pointing to the sneakers she had just worn in class. "I left these shoes here. [Marquez] texted me, he's like 'Hey, you left your shoes here, but I know you'll be back.'"
Bonin hadn't mentioned a future visit to the school. Marquez just had a feeling that she would return.
"That ring has been known to be very therapeutic, you know, to all the people I've known throughout the years," Marquez said, gesturing at a ring full of students working on their footwork, headlock takeovers and leapfrogs. "It's almost like therapy for people, you know?"
Even though things were improving for Bonin, there was still something missing. It turns out that pro wrestling -- not the fame or the spotlight or being on TV, but the training itself -- was exactly what she needed.
The structure. The camaraderie with the coaches and other students. The accountability. The exercise. Kaitlyn might stay retired, but for Celeste Bonin, pro wrestling has been a godsend.
"You know what? I was just kind of lost," she said. "I had my entire way of life change when I got a divorce. I hadn't lived by myself in a long time and I just had nobody holding me accountable for anything. This definitely holds me accountable for something. Just showing up and then being able to learn and apply it the next time I'm here. It gave me accountability and just something to look forward to, instead of like 'Oh, well, let me just go to the gym and try to go through some workout I really don't feel like doing.'"
Bonin graced the cover of Iron Man magazine as recently as 2016. Working out had rarely been a problem for her. But her personal problems took a mental and physical toll in 2017. Now, with the help of Marquez, she's working to get back into shape.
"I used to kill myself in two-a-days," Bonin said. "Last year, I just didn't go to the gym. I was depressed. I was drinking. And here, it's like, I'm actually excited to come here. I have a fuckin' blast when I'm here, and I'm like dead when I leave, but I love it."
Bonin has shaken off some of the rust of four years away from the ring and continued healing the wounds from her personal issues. She'll wrestle her first match since 2014 on February 10th at Marquez's Coastal Championship Wrestling show in Coral Springs, Fla. Her opponent on the show -- titled "Breaking Chains" -- will be Rachael Ellering, daughter of current NXT manager Paul Ellering.
Not counting FCW -- WWE's former developmental territory -- this will be Bonin's first ever match on an independent show.
Time to get in ring shape.
'The wrestling business doesn't owe you a thing'
On this night, there are some beginners in Marquez's class training with more experienced workers. Tonight, there's special attention paid to movement, footwork and some of the basics. Running the ropes, ducking under leap frogs, headlock sequences, and variations of wristlocks and armbars.
"Speed is your enemy," one veteran reminded a younger worker as he tried to perfect his positioning on a spot while moving quickly. Learn the mechanics, he advised, before speeding it up.
Another established wrestler pulled one of the rookies aside to explain the basics of an arm drag -- one of tonight's main drills.
The acoustics in the large, barren room amplify the sound of plywood smacking into steel with every bump taken. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. If there was a botch, Marquez would step in and correct the student or show them the proper way to do it.
Marquez has 25 years of experience. He's best known for his time in the original ECW, both under his real name and as the masked El Puerto Riqueño. As a trainer, he keeps things good-natured. There's a comfortable vibe in the room. But, Marquez pointed out, he makes sure every student understands the reality of what they're getting into.
"I tell all these guys, the wrestling business doesn't owe you a thing," he said.
Sometimes wrestlers train for years, work indy shows, get a big break and become stars.
Sometimes, people who haven't taken a single bump make it to WWE anyway. That was Celeste Bonin in 2010. And sometimes, people train because it rewards them in ways that have nothing to do with getting a big break. That's Celeste Bonin in 2018.
Marquez named his show Breaking Chains in partial reference to Bonin's story, but also because of a recent personal situation of his own.
"I went through a whole bunch of names, then I saw that name Breaking Chains and I thought of her," Marquez said. "I thought of my situation that I went through -- not me personally, but someone in my family. That name captivated me."
"It makes me almost emotional when I'm posting about the show or talking about it," Bonin said. "It's kind of symbolic. It's like a metaphor for my life, all of the rollercoaster of 2017. Leaving my marriage. All of the mental roadblocks I had set in my own head, like 'Can I do it on my own? Is my business gonna succeed?' I just had so many things holding me back."
Bonin finished class on Monday night with a few specialized drills, guided by Marquez's instruction. Some spots looked perfect and others didn't. Sometimes, Marquez corrected her on the little things, like making sure the crowd gets to see your face.
"Every time he corrects me, I'm like 'Oh yeah, shit. Let me make sure my face is up and I'm facing hard cam, or wherever I'm supposed to be facing," Bonin said.
Overall, Marquez thinks Bonin is improving at a good pace.
"I'm very critical on footwork and timing, and that's what she needed most," he said. "I'm very pleased. She has a little ways to go, but we're gonna get there."
Bonin's not sure how she'd grade her level of ring-readiness at this point, on a scale of 1 to 10. But she certainly got a good workout.
"I got blown up. On a scale of 1 to dead, I'm totally dead right now," she joked.
"My cardio's not that good. I haven't been training as much in the gym as I normally do. I'm totally out of shape, like wrestling shape. I've been coming here for a few months, so it's getting better. I still need to pump it up for the next few weeks just to get better wind. But I think I've come pretty far away from the first day, when I first got in the ring with Pablo. I never really had a chance to learn the basics when I first got signed by WWE, because I debuted less than a month after going to the [WWE] training center."
'Who the f--- is this girl?'
In 2010, Bonin signed a WWE developmental contract with zero experience. WWE was getting ready for a third, all-female season of NXT. At the time, NXT was basically a reality show competition, with one winner earning a main roster spot.
There were eight women chosen for NXT. Bonin was not supposed to be one of them. She expected to spend plenty of time in FCW before even sniffing TV time, let alone a place on the main roster. She was ready to pay her dues like everyone else does.
Instead, WWE fired one of the scheduled NXT participants right before the season began and told Bonin to show up at TV to fill the vacant spot on the show. She had been in FCW less than a month and had never officially wrestled in a match.
"I literally had no money, and I was crying," Bonin recalled. "I went to the school and Dr. Tom Prichard gave me $1,000 petty cash and said 'Go buy some Diva clothes.' And I was like such a dude. All I wore was Chucks. I didn't own a dress. So I went to the mall and I bought a bunch of shit. They had wrestling boots made for me over the weekend in 48 hours and shipped it to TV. I literally had no experience. I was just like 'Well, no one expects anything from me, so fuck it.'"
Brand new to the wrestling business, adorned in her newly purchased "Diva clothes," Bonin showed up at TV, carefully navigating the intimidating backstage area, knowing very few people.
"They're like, 'Who the fuck is this girl?'" She recalled.
AJ Lee, one of the more experienced FCW women, quickly befriended Bonin (now to be known as Kaitlyn). Their friendship helped ease one another's nerves during NXT TV tapings.
"AJ and I became friends instantly down in FCW," Bonin said. "She kind of just felt really bad. She could have taken it two ways. She could have been like 'Oh, she didn't earn this.' But instead, she felt for me. She's like, 'Hey, I'm gonna help you not screw up backstage.'"
Bonin ended up winning that season of NXT. Just like she got fast-tracked to developmental, she was now being fast-tracked to the main roster. Not everyone accepted Bonin as readily as AJ did, which only added to the pressure.
"For a long time, people treated me like I didn't deserve to be there," she said. "To be honest, I didn't earn it. I just got put in a position where I had no choice but to try, and I did. So like, you can't fault me for that, you know what I mean? But in the business, which I've learned, people don't want to give you any credit unless you've earned it, you know. Unless you've put in the work.
"Trust me, I would have, if I'd had the chance to develop a character, a move set, an arsenal, I would have," she explained. "But my option was like 'Hey, go debut, or like, don't, and you're gonna be fired soon.'"
As Kaitlyn, Bonin would spend almost four years on the WWE main roster and win the Divas Championship. There were times when she had significant TV storylines. In 2013, she feuded with AJ, who enlisted Big E to humiliate her as a fake secret admirer. That led to an emotionally charged title match vs. AJ at the Payback PPV that year.
When it was over, AJ had won the title. Bonin fell to her knees and cried on her way back down the aisle. Her tears fit the scene, making Kaitlyn look distraught over losing to her bitter rival. But in reality, Bonin was legitimately overcome with pride from having a great PPV match with her best friend.
"It was supposed to be obviously emotional, but the tears just came," she recalled. "It was just so emotional, but in a different way than what the crowd perceived."
By early 2014, Celeste Bonin was ready to leave Kaitlyn behind. She had already been thinking about leaving pro wrestling for the reasons mentioned, but she admits she was also a little bit burned out on the WWE lifestyle and not entirely content with her position, particularly after the debut of Total Divas.
"I was just like in a rut," she said. "There's peaks and valleys in wrestling. Sometimes you're on top, sometimes you're not. It was during a time when Total Divas was getting momentum. Vince [McMahon] really loved that stuff and was pushing it into the storylines. I wasn't on that show. So I was like you know what, I've done a lot of cool shit. This is my time to step away."
While it may not have been a true final straw in her decision, Bonin noted she had a particularly frustrating experience on the day of the TV taping where she finally asked for her release.
"I had a really rough travel day," she remembered. "I flew out in the morning to Baltimore. It was snowy. It was literally the worst trip ever. Got there, wasn't booked at all. I was like 'Fuck this.' And it was like full circle for me. I just went in to talent relations, I sat down with Mark [Carrano] and I said 'I'm gonna ask for my release.' They told me to sleep on it. Then they let me and AJ have a match on Main Event the next day, before Smackdown, just to have one. And that was it."
That was it. Until February 10th, 2018.
The road ahead
Celeste Bonin is comfortable and happy being in the ring again. Right now, her time spent training is what she truly enjoys, but this match vs. Rachael Ellering on Feb. 10 has become a symbol of redemption for her. The fact that it's in a small venue for Pablo Marquez's local promotion almost makes it more special.
"I want it to be a big deal," she said. "I want there to be a lot of people there, and I think that there will be. But I also want it to be meaningful and I want to be able to enjoy it in the moment, and not be super nervous and like, just thinking about what's next, what's gonna happen, what am I gonna do? I just [want to] really enjoy it for what it is, and really make the fans, and the crowd feel everything that we're feeling. Because that's the point of it all. To make them feel an emotion and love you or hate you.
“If I walk through the curtain when the match is done and I feel like I connected with everyone in the audience, that would be a perfect scenario to me."
This is Celeste Bonin's only wrestling booking at the moment. Whether or not she ever wrestles another match after February 10th, she plans to keep training with Marquez regularly for as long as he'll have her. Marquez is all for it.
"In this business you never stop learning," Marquez said.
WWE will have its first women's Royal Rumble match this month. As with any Rumble, there are unannounced spots left open, presumably for one-time surprise entrants.
Bonin didn't completely dismiss the possibility of a surprise appearance, but she did note that as a business owner, a full-time return would be tough.
"I don't know," Bonin said, regarding the Rumble. "I don't even know when the Royal Rumble is. If I ever did go back, I would really want it to be something that was like commentary, or something like that. The schedule is crazy, and I run a business. So a lot of things would have to change for me to commit to that. But I don't know. Never say never."
There was a period of time after she left the company that Bonin couldn't watch WWE at all.
"I couldn't watch it," she recalled. "It was like a weird, sore subject for me. But recently I've been watching. All the girls that came up from NXT, like Charlotte and Bayley and all those girls, I had had a little bit of opportunity to work with them here and there, because I was already on the road. A few of them would come up and work live events. But I love all those girls."
Bonin had the chance to visit a few old friends when Smackdown came through Miami in 2017. In doing so, she got a glimpse at what the current WWE backstage climate is like, compared to her time in the company. She came away very impressed.
"I was sitting in the girls' locker room and it was so fucking cool," Bonin said. "It was like, no tension. Everybody was cool. And it was never like that... I mean, here and there, it was like that in my four years there. But it's cool to see the locker room like that, you know. No cattiness. I'm sure there is here and there, but it was like a good vibe."
The timing of Bonin's WWE departure in early 2014 meant that she missed out on a few major shifts in the way the company does business. She left right before the launch of the WWE Network, which fundamentally changed the way fans consume the product. She also missed the WWE "women's revolution," which has led to improvements in match quality and TV presence for WWE's women.
While it might have been cool to see the Kaitlyn character evolve into the current scene, Celeste Bonin doesn't regret the timing of her exit.
"I kind of live my life by not having any type of regrets," Bonin said. "If I didn't leave at that time to get married, I wouldn't have my business now, you know what I mean? So it's like a snowball effect. So I don't regret leaving when I did."
As it stands now, Bonin's immediate plans are to keep growing Celestial Bodiez, and to use the events of her recent past to keep herself accountable, and to help other people who are struggling. She started by sharing her experiences on social media. Somewhere along the way, she wandered back into the wrestling world, and it's been a huge source of strength.
"This year is all about just being real about shit," Bonin said. "It's normal that everyday people go through stuff like this, and it's OK to talk about."
So far, she said the response to her social media posts has been inspiring. It’s an additional form of reassurance for herself as well as the people who respond to her because they can relate.
"Not selfishly, but sort of selfishly, it feels good to just get it off your chest and say stuff to people, and have them be overwhelmingly accepting of it," Bonin said. "Because you know that everybody else is fucked up, too. Everybody has their shit. So talking about it and getting such a warm response from it is awesome."