With the talk of the upcoming Wrestlemania 35 centered around the Raw women’s title match, which has now been announced as the main event, the breakthrough of women’s wrestling back into the big time is almost complete. For those who have followed wrestling for decades, we all know what a big deal this is considering the roller coaster ride women’s wrestling has been for the past forty years. This editorial will explain why its a big deal that one of the main events of Wrestlemania is a women’s match.
Without going into an in-depth chronicle of the history of women’s wrestling, let’s go back to Wrestlemania 1 in 1985. Women’s wrestling had been a staple of the WWF/WWWF in New York with a lot of women coming in to work for Vince McMahon Sr and Vince Jr. The Fabulous Moolah had been the recognized women’s champion from the 1950’s up until 1984. Other territories had women’s wrestling but New York was the one to feature it most prominently. The AWA in Minnesota tried to keep pace, but New York blew right by it with a chance encounter on a plane ride. WWF manager Captain Lou Albano happened to catch a ride with Cyndi Lauper, the pop-queen that currently had the number 1 hit single Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The two struck up a friendship and Lou was actually cast to be in the music video on MTV. Vince Jr struck a deal with MTV to air specials on their network which jumpstarted the Rock N Wrestling Connection. The main event of Brawl To End It All would be Moolah defending her title against the upcoming Wendi Richter with Cyndi herself in her corner. Yes, the Rock N Wrestling era was started by a woman and the first special featured a main event of a women’s match. Richter defeated Moolah although Moolah would get her revenge when her protege Leilani Kai knocked Richter off later to become the new champion. This set the stage for the first Wrestlemania which featured the semi-main event featuring Richter with Lauper in her corner against Kai with Moolah in her corner. Richter won the match and the title and that was the height of that era. After Lauper left, Richter would fall out of favor with McMahon and the women’s division slowly dissipated. The women’s title match at Wrestlemania 2 lasted less than a minute and there was no match at Wrestlemania 3. The women were featured in a 10 woman tag match at the inaugural Survivor Series in 1987 and the main event of the first Royal Rumble in 1988 (depending on who you talk to) was a tag match between Kai and her partner Judy Martin against The Jumping Bomb Angels. The final featured women’s match of the 80’s would be Rockin Robin (the half-sister of Jake “The Snake” Roberts) defending the title against Martin at the 1989 Royal Rumble. For whatever reason, women’s wrestling died off in New York and the title laid dormant for 4 years.
As successful as the NWA/WCW was going back to the territory days, they never featured women’s matches apart from the occasional mixed tag match with valets. One of their famous valets was Debbie Miceli, known as Madusa (yes that’s how it was spelled). Madusa happened to be a good wrestler but rarely was allowed to showcase her skills in WCW. In 1993, Vince Jr decided to bring back the women’s title and Madusa jumped ship to the WWF. Now known as Alundra Blayze, Miceli defeated Heidi Lee Morgan in the finals of the women’s tournament to become to the new Women’s champion. For the next two years, Blayze defended the title against monsters such as Bull Nakano & Bertha Faye as well as other classically trained wrestlers such as Luna Vachon & Leilani Kai, the latter making a comeback at Wrestlemania 10. After Blayze defeated Kai at Wrestlemania 10, she defeated Nakano at Summerslam 94. After trading the title with Nakano and Bertha for most of 94 and 95, Blayze then got her wish when she convinced Vince Jr to import several Japanese women for an 8 women tag match at the 1995 Survivor Series. Blayze would team with Chapparita Asari, Sakie Hasegawa and Kyoko Inoue against Faye, legendary Japanese tag wrestler Lioness Aska, Tomoko Watanabe and the monster Aja Kong. The match was designed to get one woman over, Kong, who wiped out Blayze’s entire team to set up a one on one match at the upcoming 1996 Royal Rumble. Before the match could take place, Blayze (and Kong really) was released from the WWF due to budget cuts. She got her revenge by showing up in WCW under her old name of Madusa and threw the WWF belt in the trash, one of Eric Bischoff’s digs at WWF on an episode of WCW Nitro. When Madusa left the WWF, once again the title lay dormant for two years. Meanwhile in WCW, Madusa brought back her old foes as WCW finally featured women for the first time in its existence. She dispatched Luna Vachon at Slamboree 97 before getting locked in a feud with Akira Hokuto, the wife of Japanese star Kensuke Sasaki which ended with Madusa “retiring” in a loss to Akira for the WCW title. With Madusa retired, that ended women’s wrestling in WCW as they featured nothing but valets and Nitro girls until they dissolved in 2001.
Ironically, after Madusa/Blayze was cut, the WWF transitioned from women’s wrestling to valets themselves. Tammy Sytch, the heat magnet in Smoky Mountain Wrestling was re-packaged as Sunny and paired with her boyfriend Skip (Chris Candido) to become evil aerobics instructors. Yeah, that actually happened. “Wildman” Marc Mero brought his wife Rena onscreen as Sable, who eventually became more popular than Marc. Dustin “Goldust” Rhodes brought his wife Terri on-screen as Marlena to complete the trio that were showcased on TV from 96-98. In 1997 a difference maker emerged that shattered all the stereotypes of women being weak. Hunter Hearst Helmsley’s real life girlfriend Chyna became his on-screen bodyguard. The jacked up, 200 pound bodybuilder would beat the crap out of anyone that messed with Hunter, male or female. By late ’97, Chyna would be an integral part of Degeneration X along with Hunter, Shawn Michaels and Rick Rude. It wasn’t until Luna Vachon returned to replace Marlena as Dustin’s valet in late 97 that women got back in the ring. A now heel Marc Mero allied himself with Goldust although their valets didn’t get along. This led to a mixed tag match at Wrestlemania 14 in Boston pitting Mero and Sable against Luna and Goldust. Sable had been increasingly hostile toward the heel Mero leading up to the match so she was no longer a damsel in distress. Mero and Sable won the match and the following month it was Sable against Luna one on one. In May of 98 it was booked to be Sable vs Marc himself although the match turned out to be a sham with Mero getting the cheating pinfall. This was designed to get Sable away from Mero and Marc replaced her with Miss Jacqueline, a veteran of the independent circuit and had just spent the previous year managing Harlem Heat in WCW. With Luna regulated to hanging out with The Oddities (don’t ask), the focus shifted to Sable vs Jacqueline for the remainder of 1998. While the trio would do matches, Chyna wouldn’t get in the ring for matches apart from assisting DX in whoever they were against. This changed as the calendar turned to 1999 as Chyna became the first woman to enter the Royal Rumble and eliminated Mark Henry in the process. Also in 1999 the women’s ranks were bolstered with Lita, a veteran of Mexico, Tori, a fitness model and Ivory, a veteran of the long defunct LPWA and GLOW. The duo also had the first ever women’s hardcore match in September of 99 against each other. One of the main reasons women’s wrestling went from valets to wrestlers was Vince Russo jumped to WCW, I’ll get into why later. After Russo bit the dust, from 99 to 04 women’s wrestling was taken seriously in WWE.
One of the reasons women’s wrestling was held back was because Russo had no idea how to book wrestling. His storyline ideas involved evening gown matches, bikini contests and the women calling each other “skank” and “ho” with rock bottom being a storyline miscarriage involving Terri. WWE would later repeat their mistake with Lita in late 2004, but let’s not go there. Once Russo shuffled off to WCW and ruined the Nitro Girls, women’s wrestling in the WWF flourished for a period of 4 years. From 2000-04 even though there were storyline romances and other assorted moments to make people’s eyes roll, the wrestling itself was at least presentable. In 2000 fitness model Trish Stratus and indy veteran Molly Holly joined and Trish was ironically the prototype of the DOWNFALL of women’s wrestling in 2005, which I’ll get to in a moment. Also in late 2000 to the spring of 2001, Chyna had lost weight in order to transition to the women’s division. Between Chyna, Molly, Jacqueline, Ivory, Lita and the improving Trish, the women’s division was as strong as ever in 2001. WCW valets Torrie Wilson and Stacie Kiebler came over from the WCW buyout and were terrible in the ring, but thankfully Stacie drew a ton of heat as the manager of The Dudley Boys. From 2002-04 more competent women such as Gail Kim combined with another fitness model, Victoria, gave the division more stability. All good things must come to an end and beginning in November 2004, Gail Kim was released as a cost cutting move and was told that the women’s division was heading into a “new direction”. That direction was straight into the toilet as a huge change in the office ushered in one of the darkest eras in women’s history. On camera he was known as the voice of Raw, Good ol JR but behind the scenes Jim Ross was the head of talent relations for many years. He was the man responsible for hiring talent, male and female and getting them prepared for WWE style. With his good friend Jim Cornette running Ohio Valley Wrestling, Ross established a minor league trading system with Cornette. If someone in WWF/E got hurt and needed a rehab assignment before coming back, or if someone on the main roster was floundering or if a raw rookie needed experience, people would come up and down from OVW with Ross knowing what he was doing. Then it all went to hell when JR started having health problems and decided he had enough as head of talent. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon made a critical error when he promoted John Laurinaitis, formerly known as Johnny Ace in WCW, as the new head of talent. Right off the bat things went sour with OVW as he was bringing up people that weren’t ready or weren’t that good. The “new direction” Gail Kim was told, ended up being the dreaded “Diva Search”
As I mentioned earlier Trish was the prototype for the wrong reason. She was hired in November of 1999 and was put in the ring with no experience less than a year later. She flat out sucked as a rookie in 2000 and through unbelievable hard work and dedication, she more than deserved being crowned WWF Women’s Champion in late 2001. The problem was Laurinaitis saw Trish and thought that if she could turn into a star in just under two years, he could hire ANYONE and turn them into stars. In the wrestling world, that just doesn’t happen overnight. The Rock wrote in his autobiography that when he had his first professional tryout match in 1996, Pat Patterson came up to him after and said while he had good timing, his punches looked terrible. He was sent to the USWA down in Memphis for seasoning before coming up full time as Rocky Maivia. Jerry “The King” Lawler wrote in his book that he got knocked unconscious in his first match because he didn’t know how to protect himself. Mick Foley admitted he wasn’t very good in his rookie year either and these are some of the all-time greats. Expecting women to go out on TV with less than a year experience and work like Moolah or Madusa is flat out unfair. This all led to the “Diva Search”. Rather than bring in the top workers on the independent circuit, Laurinaitis decided they would run a reality based elimination angle not unlike Tough Enough (don’t ask) featuring any underwear model, dancer, fitness instructor and GoDaddy.Com actresses he could find. Anything less than a pornstar was brought in for the inaugural “Diva Search” in 2004. The winner Christy Hemme had been one of the “juggies” on Comedy Central’s The Man Show which were just women with big breasts jumping on trampolines. Yes, some of the best women’s wrestlers of 2004 such as Nikki Roxx, Violet Flame and Kacee Carlisle weren’t allowed in McMahon land but Man Show juggies were given outrageous money to pretty much not wrestle. Now before I continue I must put a disclaimer that while I can knock their in-ring work, I refuse to knock them as humans for simply accepting a job offer. When you look at it, if Christy Hemme sucked in the ring, blame the company instead of her. You can’t hire a non-wrestler, put her in training for 5 minutes then stick her in the ring and expect the fans to both accept and tolerate the lack of experience. Unfortunately the “Diva Search” ushered in the “divas” era where almost literally dime-a-dozen women were hired, showcased on TV and left without anyone really noticing. In 2004 it was Amy Weber, Joy Giovanni, Christy Hemme, Carmella, Michelle McCool and Maria Kanellis. 5 years later only Michelle and Maria remained. In 2009 it was Layla, Eve Torres, Mickey James, Kelly Kelly, Melina, Alicia Fox and Candace Michelle. 5 years later only Alicia remained. Many years ago when Candace was a rookie I posted on an old forum that she should just sashay to the ring, pick up a microphone and fart on it because she couldn’t stink up the ring worse than she already did. 4 years later Candace had become pretty good in the ring but that was through experience. With the revolving door of divas during Laurinaitis’ reign of terror, it was nearly impossible for these divas to improve their craft because the next wave was ready to take their jobs year after year. The in-ring work suffered as well because when you have two inexperienced workers in the ring, rarely will the match be good.
WWE came under fire during this time for having way too many non-wrestling gimmicks such a bikini contests, pillow fights, evening gown matches and musical chairs (Eugene as general manager ladies and gentlemen) but the simple fact was that was the way to hide the in-ring inexperience. The diva matches from 2005-2014 were considered the “bathroom break” matches of Raw, Smackdown or even on pay-per-view because of the in ring incompetence or lack of fan reaction. Why should a fan care about whatever bully is in the ring against the underdog when both are going to be replaced in short order anyway. That’s not to say there wasn’t a laundry list of men coming and going during this time period as well, but this is about the women. So not only were untrained women put in an impossible situation, the real talent on the indies such as Miss Deville, Mercedes Martinez, Sara Del Ray and Alison Danger never got their shot with WWE. Over in TNA/Impact, the division known as “Knockouts” were taken seriously up until 2009. Before it went to hell the big feud was The Amazing Kong, a classic Abdullah The Butcher style monster heel and the previously mentioned Gail Kim. Then guess who initiated a hostile takeover to become the head writer, oh yes, Vince Russo. When Jeff Jarrett got in hot water for getting in a relationship with Karen Angle behind Kurt’s back, incompetent owner Dixie Carter sent Jeff home. Russo then figured out Carter knew absolutely nothing about wrestling and used that to his advantage to get Jeff’s crew fired. Savio Vega, Brian Armstrong, Dutch Mantel and Jim Cornette were all shown the door as Russo took over. Not unlike his WWF and WCW runs, all of a sudden the Knockouts were gimmicked, calling each other “skank” and ho” and made into jokes. After Russo failed to compete with Vince when TNA went head to head with Raw, Carter brought in Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff to turn the company around. This led to the demise of the Knockouts as Hogan’s crony Bubba The Love Sponge (yeah, HIM) got into it with Amazing Kong and guess who Carter let go. Kong later resurfaced as Kharma in WWE and took out Michelle McCool but two surprise pregnancies kept her WWE run short. Still, she was booked better in WWE in a short time better than Russo could come up with. Once again, with Russo not having a clue how to book wrestling and the “Divas” era in full sewing in WWE, women’s wrestling suffered big time. So many talents on the indy circuit lost their prime years working in front of hundreds of people (or less) instead of thousands.
In the past few years women’s wrestling across the board has experienced a big turnaround. WWE has stocked itself with second generational talent such as Charlotte Flair & Tamina Snuka while pushing the monstrous Nia Jax as the second coming of Chyna and Rikishi rolled into one. Meanwhile Impact wrestling has third generation sensation Tessa Blanchard (daughter of Tully and grand-daughter of Joe) taking on “Scott Steiner’s protege” ‘Big Mama Pump’ Jordynne Grace in their current headline feud. Legitimate UFC badass Ronda Rousey is due to defend the Raw Women’s title at Wrestlemania against Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. Becky is in the midst of a Ricky Morton “Never say die” babyface push which coincides with Rousey’s heel turn which is why this is legitimately one of the most interesting matches at the upcoming Wrestlemania 35. Gone are the days of diva pillow fights, evening gown matches and bikini contests. Becky Lynch is looking to take Rousey’s head off and vice versa, add in Flair and you have a match people are willing to pay to see. Not only that but the entire indy circuit as well as Impact is going with Blanchard vs Grace to headline shows across America. Hopefully the trend of women being taken seriously continues and we can all make like Madusa and throw the “Divas” era in the trash right where it belongs.