by Annabelle Paul
Until recently, when people thought about “women’s wrestling” one of the last things they actually thought about was women wrestling.
That’s because women have historically played a unique role in wrestling beyond simply being in the ring as wrestlers. One of the unique roles women have historically played within wrestling is the role of “managers”. Managers accompany wrestlers to the ring and create exposure for not only the wrestler, but for themselves as well.
From the mid 80’s to the early 2000’s Miss Elizabeth transcended manager and became one of the most recognizable faces in wrestling, connected to superstars from Macho Man Randy Savage to Lex Luger. Around the same time, Alundra Blayze was a great-in ring competitor but at the time, she was the only one. There wasn’t another woman who could serve as her rival and have compelling matches with. In the 90’s, Sunny, was the all-purpose woman. She managed the Bodydonnas to the Legion Of Doom. She also did backstage interviews, ring announcing because, much like Alundra Blayze, it was only her. She was the lone female attraction in wrestling and she was hardly wrestling.
Women bring so much to professional wrestling, yet WWE, the largest and most powerful professional wrestling organization, has long had a contentious relationship with women performers. You particularly see the company’s relationship with early “Divas” (the term WWE used to refer to its female performers from 1999-2016*) display that uncertainty.
Age of the Divas
The slow tension really started to build during the “Attitude Era” (1998-2001), where an influx of women really changed women’s wrestling. Sable, Jacqueline, Chyna, Trish Stratus, Lita, Stephanie McMahon, Ivory, and Molly Holly gave diversity to the women’s division with their in-ring styles and personalities. The storylines they were involved in were uniquely compelling and gave fans a reason to watch.
This was a turning point in women’s wrestling and you would think it would have skyrocketed into a roster of women getting the chance to display all of their skills but it didn’t. It all just seemed to regress.
Chyna, Ivory, Sable and Jacqueline all left WWE and the only staple women left that could really wrestle were Trish Stratus and Lita. The height of women’s wrestling came and left with these two. Their rivalry is by far the best women’s wrestling rivalry in history.
The storytelling between Trish and Lita was phenomenal and their wrestling matched the intensity of their rivalry.
They made history by having the first women’s wrestling match on the main event Raw. Once Trish and Lita retired the Divas division faltered. You still had great women wrestlers such as Michelle McCool, Melina, Beth Phoenix, and AJ Lee but it wasn’t the same. Once Trish and Lita retired, the concept of “women’s wrestling” faded.
The next crop of Divas were mostly eye candy material. They had some wrestling ability but nothing like the previous women had. At this point, women wrestling went from actual holds and physical prowess, to mostly serving as writhing bikini packaging between bouts between male wrestlers.”
The once-dubbed “bathroom break” desperately needed a makeover. It got a touch-up of sorts when Paige debuted and beat AJ Lee for the Divas title the night after Wrestlemania 30 which was a shocker. That was the most shocking thing that has happened in the Divas division for quite sometime because title changes don’t typically happen on Monday Night Raw, especially when the title has already been successfully defended the night before. However, WWE was in desperate need to shake things up because nothing relevant happening with the women. Then came NXT.
How NXT changed the game
NXT is WWE’s developmental territory. Major League Baseball has the minor leagues, NBA has the D-League, WWE has NXT. This is where you come to begin your journey as a WWE superstar. You have to work hard to stay here because you can get terminated if you’re not showing progress or just being lazy. NXT is the place where you if you need to, you take a beginners course in basic wrestling techniques and how to get around the ring. You get a sense of ring awareness and how to move in it.
Once you get that down, you begin to develop a character. A character or gimmick is what the WWE universe sees. You aren’t Paul Levesque, you are Triple H. You aren’t Dwayne Johnson, you are The Rock. Those are characters and usually the best characters are the ones that are closest to your personality, you just have to figure out how to make it work and translate that. Along with character development, you practice your microphone skills and how to be in front of an audience.
There are coaches there to help with everything. Some coaches are past WWE superstars and other coaches are very knowledgeable about wrestling general. They guide and give you the direction you need in order to be successful.
This is why NXT is so important because you are under the wing of coaches who know about the business. This was a big help for the women because WWE & NXT officials were able to foster an environment where they can put a primary focus on women and give them the time to fulfill everything that is needed to be quality superstars in the WWE.
We knew this was a glaring problem and the women of NXT came through and delivered. The Divas Revolution didn’t start with Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, or Bayley — the new women wrestlers of NXT, dubbed the Four Horsewomen. It started with Triple H having a vision and wanting to make women’s wrestling exciting again. Triple H has been in the wrestling business for over 20 years. He’s an 8 time WWE Champion, 5 time World Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion along with winning the King of the Ring 1997 and the 2002 Royal Rumble. He was inducted into the 2015 International Sports of Fame to cap things off his long list of accomplishments. Outside of the WWE ring, he’s the executive vice president of talent, live events and creative.
He’s different than the McMahons, the ruling family of WWE, who have owned, controlled, and shaped the destiny of wrestling for years, because he’s competed in the ring for a longer period than all of them. Unlike the McMahons, he’s able to coach these wrestlers and make them hone their craft because he knows what it takes to be a great superstar. Triple H knew exactly what it was going to take to make the four horsewomen, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Bayley great.
The Four Horsewomen brought an excitement to women’s wrestling we’ve never seen before.
We were able to see them evolve in their characters and actual wrestling moves. With them growing and learning together, they built a chemistry in the ring. Building this type of chemistry created compelling wrestling matches. From the crowd in Full Sail University cheering and genuinely loving their matches to the epic chants in Barclays center, it carried a long way. This little tidal wave turned into one of the best hurricanes of 2015. The entire WWE universe was invested in these women. No, not just the girls or the women but men couldn’t wait to see the physically superior Charlotte, the legit boss Sasha Banks, the Iass kickin Becky Lynch or the huggable Bayley.
The investment into these women was cultivated. One of Triple H’s focus with NXT was to give women a platform to wrestle and showcase their full talent. It was able to be done because NXT has great coaches who take the time to focus on every person. There’s a beginners class where you learn how to take bumps and be safe in the ring and then everything else is a ladder. You form your character and you work on the quirks. The test happens when you actually wrestle in an NXT event. You’re out in front of the fans this time and they’ll let you know how you’re doing. If you’re supposed to be a bad guy, you have to get them to boo you and vice versa for the good guy. You fans to react and invest into you because that’s who ultimately carries you in the business. The fans reacted to these women wrestling and it warped into this non-stop, can’t miss action.
The Impact on WWE Fans
Their impact shook up WWE. It’s no secret that wrestling is male dominated but they demanded the spotlight and the male audience gave them their undivided attention. It’s such a sight to see the WWE universe be truly inclusive on a segment of wrestling, especially women’s wrestling. Forget the evening gown/bra and panties matches. We can have women come into the ring and give an all out magical performance that you will enjoy. Their rise caught fire and we all jumped on the bandwagon. They set a new bar of expectations for female wrestlers. Older school wrestlers Trish and Lita never got the amount of pop or reaction Sasha and Bayley got at NXT Brooklyn. I went to NXT Brooklyn and when Sasha Banks and Bayley were wrestling, the crowd was electric. Right from the entrances to the when the match ended it was pandemonium. The “let’s go Bayley!!” to “let’s go Sasha!” chants were infectious. It was an incredible sight to see and most definitely wonderful match to witness.
Their came to a peak when the NXT women, Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch took over one of the main weekly wrestling events, Monday Night Raw as the “Divas Revolution” began.
These horsewomen were welcomed with thunderous cheers from the crowd. This was the moment women’s wrestling has been waiting for.
The crowd at its loudest chanting, “THIS IS AWESOME”, from the minute they are announced to when Sasha, Becky and Charlotte all hit their submission moves. The chants showed that the fans approved of what they’re seeing. Wrestling fans let you know how they feel during the match, so it’s best to get a reaction. If the crowd is silent then you know their disinterested and not engaged with what’s happening in the ring and that can make the match suffer. So when the crowd is overwhelmingly cheering or booing, it’s a great thing to hear.
The loud approval from the fans was a little surprising because NXT and Raw are two different beasts. People who watch Raw only may not watch NXT because NXT is exclusively on the WWE Network whereas Raw is on USA Network. If you subscribe to the WWE Network, then you are most likely a die-hard or close to one. If you don’t subscribe, that doesn’t mean you’re not a fan, you’re just a casual fan and you consume your wrestling casually. However, everybody in that building could have gone for an entire Divas Raw that night.
Another important impact this has is on the kids. Not only the girls, but the boys as well. WWE is kid friendly and when young boys see their older brothers or fathers cheering for a women’s match, it creates an important impression. It places value on women’s matches in their minds and it may have bigger impact on their views of women in general. It teaches young boys and girls that women can do and be anything if they work hard and are determined enough to do it. It creates such a positive image for women that can easily translate to society.
Now for young girls this is a whole new ball game – on many different levels. Now, they can come to wrestling shows with their fathers or brothers and have a true bonding experience because everyone is invested in the women now. Next and more importantly these girls have heroes. They can look up to so many of these women and say they want to be like that. There’s no generic-looking women’s wrestler now, so a diverse group of girls have someone they can relate to. Factoring all these things, this creates a better experience for girls and women in wrestling. This is a step to making wrestling inclusive to all groups of people.
The hard work the NXT women have put in has given level of a equality to wrestling that has never been seen before.
While these women were killing down in NXT, the main roster had to sharpen up. The level of competitiveness throughout the divas division has been put on full blast. Before there wasn’t a competitive aspect, it was more nonchalant and put on the back burner. No matter the amount of talent on the roster some women were allowed to wrestle and others were just there to look good. When there was Victoria or Gail Kim, excellent technical wrestlers, there was also Candice Michelle and Stacy Kiebler, who were Candice Michelle and Stacy Kiebler were more eye candy material. It seems like there always had to be a balance between the women. It could be a never be a full roster of women wanting to wrestle. The women of NXT changed that.
The legacy these new school woman wrestlers left behind in NXT is paramount. As these women are now on the WWE roster now, the next crop of NXT women have to live up to the hype and who knows if they can do that. We’ve seen what they can do and we know they can dominate when given the time to. They set the forest on fire and created a whole new world.
The four horsewomen have created an atmosphere to have raised expectations for women wrestlers.
[Editors note: On April 3, 2016, the term “Divas” was essentially retired by WWE with the announcement of the Women’s Championship during WrestleMania 32.]