Two things sparked my interest in wrestling strangely late in life (that is, beyond year 8): a documentary about WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley, and the up-and-coming women’s division on NXT.
The former for obvious reasons: Foley gets thrown off the top of a Hell in a Cell and then chokeslammed onto the business end of a smear of thumbtacks – apparently Mankind had ignited in me some dormant love of sports entertainment and Sweet Chin Music – and the latter because something happened in 2012 that changed the attitudes of those booking, competing in and watching WWE. Women were wrestling more and really, really well.
In 2012 the WWE made one of its most important hires in years. They signed Sara Del Rey, former champion of independent women’s wrestling promotion SHIMMER, as the first female trainer ever. Del Rey, who was trained by technically brilliant smark favourite Daniel Bryan, believes men and women learn to wrestle differently, so their training should reflect that. She herself has trained and worked in Japan and Mexico, two places renowned for their tough female competitors; in Mexico, Luchadoras fight Luchadors and mixed tag teams are common, and Japanese Joshi (women’s) wrestling has produced some of the gnarliest matches I’ve ever seen. Check out Japanese promotion Stardom if you want to see a woman backflip into her opponent over a flight of stairs.
The wrestlers Del Rey has shaped over these past four years have been instrumental in what the WWE has been calling a ‘Diva’s Revolution’, particularly the Four Horsewomen, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch.
So what’s the difference between the most famous female wrestlers of all time – like Chyna, Trish Stratus and Lita – and the current roster across WWE’s three properties Raw, SmackDown Live and the relatively new developmental division, NXT?
In the Attitude Era, not only were the women’s matches mostly soft-core porn (mud wrestling, bikini contests and evening gown matches designed to end in torn dresses and exposed panties), but even more bizarre debasement was written into the storylines themselves. In 2000, for example, when Trish and Vince McMahon were having an affair while McMahon’s wife was institutionalised in a kayfabe asylum, Vince turns on Trish for an arbitrary reason, makes her strip down to her underwear, apologise to him, and bark like a dog. (Don’t watch it unless you want to see a middle-aged McMahon play out his kinks in front of a live audience.)
Though encounters like this were deeply humiliating, Trish was actually pretty well respected compared to lot of female wrestlers of her time, because she was one of few who had both great mat technique and ‘the right look’ for the company: she was tall, beautiful and a curvy 90s hardbody, not unlike an extra in a Poison video.
Similarly, Chyna, the only ever woman to hold a non-Women’s/Divas belt as Intercontinental Champion, toed the line between formidable female and one of the boys (she was so androgynous that Slate called her gender non-conforming). But she finally toppled when her sex tape meant she was too much woman for the WWE, and not worthy of a place in its Hall of Fame.
These wrestlers and their contemporaries (shoutouts to Kharma, Ivory and Mickie James) weren’t worse than the current women’s roster. They were greats, and their legacies will live on. It’s just that in 2016, a women’s match isn’t limited to a 3-minute grab-a-beer-and-take-a-piss break.
Women are receiving better training and more airtime in matches going for twenty-to-thirty minutes, proving that they too are capable of putting on entertaining, high-endurance matches.
The entertainment element is also infinitely more varied than the gimmicks of the 90s and 00s, when women had a choice between sexy/bitchy heel or a prudish babyface: now, characters like Bliss’ dominant cheerleader and Sasha Banks’ over-confident Boss come to ecstatic blows with Becky Lynch’s plucky steampunk and Bayley’s unflappable, childlike optimist. We’re seeing more diversity in terms of race and body shape, too, which is inspiring since kids make up some of the most high-profile NXT fans (Bayley’s superfan is a tween named Izzy).
In addition to the crucial hire of Del Rey, a lot of this change is down to Triple H’s booking decisions on NXT, which thanks to he and his partner-slash-WWE-heiress Stephanie McMahon, is the first of WWE’s promotions to have a female-headed main event on a pay-per-view (NXT Takeover). The formidable style of these matches – as compelling, if not more, than the men’s – has really put women over in the WWE and led to a more serious fighting style far and away from the beauty pageants of the 90s.
And what of the marks themselves? The WWE audience’s overwhelmingly positive response to the new era of female wrestlers (Paige’s debut on Raw is a good example of such an ovation) has led to even more opportunities. Since then, NXT landed Joshi legend Asuka, and we’ve seen the development of talents Alexa Bliss, Summer Rae, Nia Jax and more. We’re seeing more technically impressive women come over from overseas (the UK’s Paige and Australia’s own Emma are thrashing it) and from long-standing US indie promotions like SHIMMER.
Thankfully, the WWE Women’s Championship – active between 1956 and 2010 – has now been renewed, and the Divas title and its ridiculous-vajazzled-butterfly belt will hopefully remain in the bin forever.
It’s definitely a women’s revolution. Can we just ditch the word ‘Diva’ now?
WWE Live takes place in Sydney August 13 at Kudos Bank Arena and will feature a match for the Women’s Title between Sasha Banks and Charlotte.
Dijana Kumurdian aka Matka is a contributor