Serena Deeb calls herself the Woman of a Thousand Holds and the Professor of Professional Wrestling because she’s especially adept at the form’s muscle-mangling maneuvers, which she’s mastered after more than 16 years in the business. Like almost all wrestling’s biggest names, she’s spent time with industry standard-bearer World Wrestling Entertainment, and even though she was hired and fired by the company twice, she takes it in stride.

“Honestly, I consider both of my releases from WWE two of the best things that have ever happened to me,” Deeb says.

Deeb can afford to look on the bright side, because — for the first time in decades — WWE is not the only game in pro wrestling. In 2020, she signed with All Elite Wrestling, a promotion founded in 2019 that has quickly distinguished itself from WWE with an old-school-meets-new-school approach and become a haven for ex-WWE stars who have tired of what they see as the company’s corporate culture and sanitized brand of what it calls “sports entertainment.”

Before she was one of those ex-WWE talents, Deeb, who grew up in Oakton, Va., was one of its superfans. A self-described “tomboy to the max,” Deeb recalls becoming obsessed with WWE as a preteen after watching her first pay-per-view event. Soon, she would attend live shows at what was then known as the MCI Center in downtown D.C.

“Every single person that signed my yearbook wrote, ‘I can’t wait to see you on [WWE], I can’t wait to see you become a pro wrestler,’ ” she says. “My entire school knew: I was a pro wrestling girl.”

After graduation in 2004, she relocated to Kentucky to start training in Louisville at Ohio Valley Wrestling, a promotion and school that served as a feeder league for WWE. While training and wrestling for OVW, she also attended Indiana University Southeast, just across the Ohio River.

It took Deeb a handful of years to work up through the training hierarchy before she finally received a developmental contract with WWE in 2009, which she signed the same month she graduated with her Bachelor’s degree. About six months later, she got another call from WWE bosses … asking her to shave her head on TV.

A few months prior, then-rising star CM Punk had taken a messianic turn and was inducting wrestlers (and fans planted in the audience) into his “Straight Edge Society” stable by shaving their heads in the middle of the ring. Deeb would be the first female member of the group, and her shocking WWE debut made an impression on fans.

But her time with the company didn’t go as anyone planned. On the road, she was having a difficult time, emotionally and mentally, and was coping with her father’s Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. She wasn’t dealing with things in a “healthy way,” she says, and after being given several chances to correct her behavior, she was released in August 2010.

“It was a devastating call, but I had this sense of relief,” about getting fired, she says. “That chapter had to close because I was heading in a really bad direction.”

Several months after her release, her father passed away, and soon after, a concussion forced her to take time off from wrestling. The triple whammy left her lost, and the next few years were tough. Eventually, she continued wrestling on the indies, but she started to doubt what had been her all-consuming passion for years. She either needed to take a break or move on, and decided that a match at the legendary Korakuen Hall in Tokyo would be her retirement match.

For the next few years, Deeb embraced yoga as a practitioner and teacher. But wrestling was still in her heart, and she felt that she had unfinished business; she was still only 30 years old. Out of nowhere, WWE reached out again: The company was about to run its first women’s tournament and wanted Deeb to compete in a few matches before transitioning to coaching.

“The caveat was, if you take this job, you have to be at peace with not wrestling. You’re out of the ring — there are no coach-players here,” Deeb says. “It was a great opportunity, and for me, it was like making peace with WWE, as well.”

After the tournament, she moved to Orlando and became a coach. She found the work rewarding, but for her entire tenure, the desire to wrestle nagged at her. Compounding things was the launch of AEW, which looked like an even better place to be than WWE.

“I was watching AEW thinking I want to wrestle there, I stand behind what they’re doing, I stand behind how different it is,” she says. “The things I had heard about the backstage atmosphere, everything planted that goal into my mind at that point.”

That goal seemed a little more realistic in April 2020, when Deeb — along with dozens of wrestlers and behind-the-scenes talent — was released by the WWE as part of cost-savings that the company blamed on the pandemic. She started getting back into ring shape and had new gear and new boots made.

The work paid off, and she got the call from AEW in September of that year. She wrestled for the company twice before being offered a contract, which she signed within a week. Since then, she’s enjoyed being part of the in-ring product, as well as coaching wrestlers and producing matches, but the biggest highlight is the company itself.

“A lot of us say this to each other every week, we literally work at the best company in the world,” she says, pointing to the wealth of resources — for physical or mental health, for personal needs — that AEW offers. “You never feel like, ‘I can’t go to anybody.’ There are other companies where that feeling is overwhelming.”

Case in point: Deeb needed knee surgery last year, and she says the company’s care was “next level” and that president and CEO Tony Khan even sent her to his personal doctor. She also noted how the company has helped Jon Moxley, a top star who entered an inpatient alcohol treatment program last year, and the family of Jon “Brodie Lee” Huber, who died of a rare disease in 2020. (Punk, Deeb’s former WWE colleague and current AEW one, has cited AEW’s handling of Huber’s untimely death as a reason for joining the company after stepping away from wrestling seven years ago.)

“They take care of people as human beings,” she says, “and I think that’s what makes them different.”

AEW Presents “Dynamite,” Jan. 19 at 7 p.m. and “Rampage” Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. at Entertainment & Sports Arena, 1100 Oak Dr. SE. eventsdc. $40 (“Dynamite”); $29-$65 (“Rampage”). Proof of vaccination is required for admittance to these events.

Note: “Dynamite” will be broadcast live on TBS starting at 8 p.m. on Jan. 19. Rampage will be broadcast on TNT starting at 10 p.m. on Jan. 21.