Hello! It has been a hectic month for me, so I regret taking this long to post the fourth volume of a mini-series looking at the Women’s Revolution in wrestling. The end goal is to decide who deserves the utmost credit, but until then, let’s go over all the significant moments in women’s wrestling history.
So far, we have covered the Mildred Burke era, what came after, the eighties, and the early Attitude Era. In the last installment, we spanned a timeframe from the late Attitude Era to Trish Stratus & Lita wrestling in the main event of a 2006 episode of Raw. We also highlighted the birth of the TNA Knockouts Division in 2007. Did you miss all that? Don’t worry, you can check them out here:
Yes, we’re going to talk about the Divas’ era, and I’m not exactly pleased about that. Why? Because it was downright insulting. I’ve got some pent up frustration to let out here, so I’m warning you… this won’t be a pretty piece. Hopefully, I can balance any absurdities with examples of progress. Therefore, we’ll be getting an article of two halves. The first half will probably end up with me destroying WWE’s Divas Division. Women’s wrestling, notably those who paved the way for the current generation, will take up the bulk of the second half. I may also touch upon the controversial topic of intergender wrestling. Now, take a deep breath, as we dive head first in to a swimming pool of mediocrity.
One thing is for certain. When Trish Stratus & Lita departed from WWE in 2006, it left a formidable void for WWE to overcome. We like to talk about pillars these days, but Trish & Lita were more than that. They were the support structures keeping the building up. It’s like being an owner of a pub, and having your two biggest selling beverages taken away. This isn’t to be insulting to those who remained, because WWE hadn’t done enough to make them big deals. WWE knew Stratus was leaving, but they did not bet on Lita walking out not long after. With Lita, building the next generation was doable.
However, the pressure of having to perform as a slutty character, and be the target of fans’ blame in the middle of a real-life love triangle with Edge & Matt Hardy, was both unjustified and stressful. Lita did everything the company asked, but being exposed in the “Live Sex Celebration” was telling of how WWE felt about her as a performer. It wasn’t about women’s wrestling, it was about exposing her body and personal life, and doing so in a way which harmed her reputation. With no Trish or Lita around, the division, which had a title exclusive only to Raw from 2002 to 2008, struggled to find the same respect it once had.
In her last match, Lita passed the torch, and the title, in an incredible encounter with Mickie James. You’d assume, having been previously put over by Trish & Lita in big matches, that Mickie would be firmly on top of the mountain, right? Well, let’s look at what happened in the next 12 PPVs. Also, remember that ECW is a thing now. An “X” means no women-only matches occurred on the show. The numbers in brackets show the duration of the match:
- ECW December to Dismember – X
- Armageddon – X
- New Year’s Resolution – Mickie James retains title against Victoria (6:50)
- Royal Rumble – X
- No Way Out – Ashley Massaro defeated Jillian Hall, Kelly Kelly, Layla, Brooke Adams in a Diva Talent Invitational (9:40)
Mickie James lost the title to Melina on February 19th, the day after No Way Out. Their biggest title match happened on an episode of Raw (March 5th) in the first-ever women’s “Falls Count Anywhere” match. James failed to regain the title from Melina.
- WrestleMania 23 – Melina defeated Ashley in Lumberjill to retain the title (3:40)
- Backlash – Melina defeated Mickie James to retain the title (9:02)
- Judgment Day – X
- One Night Stand – Candice Michelle defeated Melina by submission in a (non-title) Pudding match (2:55)
- Vengeance: Night of Champions – Candice Michelle defeated Melina for the title (4:07)
- The Great American Bash – Candice Michelle retained the title against Melina (6:22)
- SummerSlam – Beth Phoenix won a 12-diva battle royal to become #1 contender (7:09)
In 12 PPVs, WWE’s Divas had 49 minutes and 45 seconds of match time. This is close to five minutes less than the men had in the 2007 Royal Rumble. Four of the PPVs saw no women’s matches at all (December had a mixed tag), while five included a title match. Mickie James had less than 7 minutes as champion. Candice Michelle is the most dominant diva of 2007. She not only defeated Melina many times, but also retained her title against Beth Pheonix at Unforgiven in 7 minutes. None of the matches ran longer than 10 minutes.
So let’s get this straight. WWE has Mickie James, Victoria, and Beth Phoenix, yet they push Candice Michelle, Melina and Ashley Massaro. All the while, Kelly Kelly is the new exhibitionistic face of ECW because she likes to strip. Layla & Brooke Adams would later join her as a teasing trio of dancers called Extreme Exposé. WWE introduced Michelle McCool, but she wasn’t quite ready yet. You might think, who is left over? I’ll tell you. Torrie Wilson, Maria, Fabulous Moolah & Mae Young, Sharmell, Jillian Hall, Cherry, Vickie Guerrero and Kristal.
This is what Trish Stratus & Lita left behind, and can you blame them? WWE did not know what it was doing with its women’s divisions. It had three brands to do something, and what did it do? Nothing. Many fans felt like WWE was trying to replace Trish & Lita with Ashley Massaro, but no one bought in to the hype. Melina wasn’t bad, but her entrance was the only thing remotely over. Candice Michelle was hot and beautiful, but that’s her only asset. Vince McMahon kept her around so his character could make out with her, like he previously had with Trish Stratus & Sable. She had very little charisma or wrestling skills.
Things were looking up after Beth Phoenix became the new champion at No Mercy. Finally, WWE had somebody who looked the part, and she wasn’t bad in the ring either. Yet, something unexpected blossomed, and it became known as the Divas Championship. Vickie Guerrero had the bright idea that, because SmackDown went without a title since 2002, it was about time it had its own counterpart to Raw. It makes sense, given that there were brand exclusive titles for the guys.
However, the belt design which WWE introduced was ridiculous. The ‘Butterfly’ belt looked like a cheap toy for little girls. WWE had clearly made it that way for merchandising reasons, but it devalued the meaning of being champion. Who seriously wants to carry that around? How can you draw respect with that around your waist? It’s laughable. Not only that, but it devalued Beth Phoenix’s title run. Instead of just making it so the women’s champion could appear on both shows, it made us question who the real #1 is by making Michelle McCool the new Divas Champion over Natalya. By the way, The Great American Bash match to crown the new champion was 4 minutes long. What does that tell you? And did having two titles bring more focus for women’s wrestling?
At the next PPV, which was SummerSlam, Santino & Beth Phoenix won the Intercontinental & Women’s titles in a mixed tag against Kofi Kingston & Mickie James. Michelle McCool retained against Maryse at Unforgiven in 6 minutes. No Mercy saw Phoenix retain against Candice Michelle in less than 5 minutes. None of the titles were defended at Cyber Sunday, Survivor Series or Armageddon. Before you think… were they brand exclusive shows? Nope, none of these shows were brand exclusive. WWE had two singles matches for their women’s titles in six PPVs. So the answer is no, introducing the Divas Championship did not mean more opportunities on the biggest shows.
I’m going to skip ahead to the end of the original women’s championship. This is a title which had been around in some form since 1956, so longer than the WWE Championship. Sure, they did not hold it in as high regard, but at least it could fall back on history. In 2010, Layla & Michelle McCool formed the not so creative team of LayCool (TNA’s Beautiful People said they were cheap copies of them). Together, they held both titles, and claimed to be co-holders. Sometimes, Michelle McCool would defend Layla’s title, despite not officially being the champion. To signify this, WWE literally cut the women’s title down the middle, so LayCool could each hold half.
I remember feeling like WWE was treating its history with so much disrespect. Here’s a title with over 60 years of history, split in two for what? To get heat on LayCool? It was abhorrently unnecessary to go this far, but do you know what’s worse? Deactivating the women’s title. Moolah, Stratus, Blayze, Richter, James, Lita, and so many others, their title reigns being disregarded. Also, it had a link to the NWA World Women’s Championship, so that connection to the past was lost too. LayCool became the Unified Divas Champion by defeating Melina at Night of Champions, and they would be allowed to defend the title on both shows.
Four years after Trish Stratus & Lita fought in a Raw main event over a women’s title they had contributed to, was now gone and replaced with a butterfly toy with 7 title holders in a 2-year lifespan. Again, did this change bring about a rejuvenated focus on women’s wrestling in WWE? It’s a big fat no! Look at this.
- Michelle McCool got disqualified to retain against Natalya at Hell in a Cell. (5:00)
- Layla retained against Natalya at Bragging Rights. (5:23)
- Natalya defeated both McCool & Layla for the title at Survivor Series. (3:38)
- Phoenix & Natalya defeated LayCool in a tag match at TLC. (9:20)
- Eve Torres defeated Layla, McCool & Natalya at Royal Rumble to win the title. (5:12)
- There were no women’s matches at Elimination Chamber or WrestleMania XXVII (Trish Stratus returned to team up with Snooki & Morrison…)
- Layla defeated McCool in a “loser leaves WWE” match at Extreme Rules. (5:24)
So, not only were the Divas still struggling to get match time over ten minutes, the average had dropped to 5 minutes. Also, none of them were important enough in WWE’s eyes to book them for Elimination Chamber or WrestleMania. Instead, they brought back the legend Trish Stratus to team up with a flash in the pan celebrity, and they got the opportunity over full-time wrestlers. After building up Michelle McCool as the new face of the Divas Division, it was all for naught, as she retired from the ring (partly because of injuries) after her match with Layla at Extreme Rules. This is what McCool said about leaving WWE:
“It was tough, just leaving in itself was tough, because it got to a point where I was dealing with so much, again, mostly being Undertaker’s girlfriend, and why I was on TV, and even having a writer throw the papers up one day and say, ‘Why don’t we just call it the Michelle McCool and Undertaker show?!’ It was nonstop, and I went to Vince on numerous occasions and bless his heart, he was wonderful, but I just said Vince, I don’t wanna hate something that I grew up loving so much, and the longer I stay, the more I’m like, getting a sour taste in my mouth. So making that decision to leave was as hard as it is, but more than wanting to be in WWE, or be a champion, I’ve always wanted to be a mom.”
Can you blame McCool for hating it? The stats speak for themselves. After WWE had done so much to bring women’s wrestling in to the spotlight during the early 2000s, it had completely unraveled by 2008. After Eve Torres, came the champions Brie Bella and Kelly Kelly. I consider this one of the lowest points in the history of women’s wrestling in WWE. Brie Bella was nowhere near ready for this, but the company noticed the Bella Twins drawing power and played off of that.
Kelly Kelly had the looks, but like Candice Michelle and Sable before her, she was all looks with no substance. Even worse, Kelly Kelly couldn’t run the ropes properly. She had a very limited move set and her opponents, experienced wrestlers like Beth Phoenix and Natalya, had to go above and beyond to make her look like she wasn’t completely useless. Go back and watch any of Kelly Kelly’s title matches, and you’ll appreciate the women’s wrestling we have today so much more. How the hell does Kelly Kelly defeat Beth Phoenix on PPV several times?!
Rise of the Knockouts
While WWE were still booking rare strip matches, TNA made an effort to take women’s wrestling more seriously. It kept the sex factor, like The Beautiful People shaking their backsides close to the camera, but the Knockouts enjoyed long-time feuds and storylines. The biggest rivalry was between Gail Kim & Awesome Kong, and the Knockouts became one of the company’s major selling points. To this day, some of Impact’s most viewed YouTube videos involve the Knockouts.
Some of the longest reigning champions in Knockouts title history include: Gail Kim, Deonna Purrazzo, Madison Rayne, Taya Valkyrie, Awesome Kong, Taryn Terrell, Mickie James, Rosemary, Angelina Love & Tara (aka Victoria).
While the Knockouts have done a lot of good, there have been low moments. One of the worst matches of all time, rated “minus 5 stars” by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, was a singles PPV match between Sharmell & Jenna Morasca. There was also the Knockouts Tag Team title, which started out alright, but in the end, Eric Young (a man) and his storyline wife ODB held it. The team held it for so long without appearing that Brooke Hogan finally demanded it be deactivated. After 7 years, Impact revived the Tag Team titles, and they are currently held by The IInspiration, otherwise known in WWE by The IIconics.
Impact has recently gone one step further by introducing a Digital Media Championship. It’s defended mostly on kickoff shows and other platforms designed for YouTube or Twitch. While it is classed as an intergender title, Jordynne Grace is the first champion, and defends it mostly against other Knockouts.
Impact has had several intergender matches, and it was the first company to have a woman vs. man match headline a PPV for the World Championship. While this received a mixed reception, again, Impact was doing more to show equality in professional wrestling than anyone else. At Hard to Kill, Tessa Blanchard defeated Sami Callihan to become the Impact World Champion. She defended the title against Knockouts Champion Taya Valkyrie, marking the only time in history that a World & Women’s Champion wrestled a match on TV. While Tessa Blanchard would eventually leave the company and attract controversy, her run as World Champion turned a lot of heads in the industry.
This is a sensitive subject which is understandably easy to argue about. The whole debate of whether transgender athletes should compete at the same level as the gender they identify as, in real competitive sports, is not something I want to discuss. However, it is important to recognize that this is one of the key factors behind some fans not appreciating Tessa Blanchard wrestling Sami Callihan, or Nyla Rose performing in AEW’s women’s division.
There’s an argument that wrestling simulates violence, so having a man beating up a woman is wrong and they should not encourage it. I understand how difficult it could be for a woman who has suffered from physical abuse from a former partner to watch a male beating up his female challenger. Some parents may feel it sends the wrong message to their children, although I’d hope these parents would encourage the message that any physical harm between any genders isn’t the right message.
Then there’s the realism factor. Does it make sense that a woman (other than say, a Chyna or Beth Phoenix) can out power a man? Well, at that point, we have to question why Rey Mysterio wrestled Kane or The Great Khali, or why Spike Dudley wrestled anybody. You have Mark Calaway acting like he’s from beyond the grave, so wrestling is so far from being real, it should not be farfetched to see a woman wrestling a man. After all, it’s not a fight, it’s more like ballet or figure skating. All you need is two people hitting their choreographed moves in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t matter what gender you are.
So long as you aren’t a danger to yourself or others, you should be able to wrestle anyone for any title. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be accepted in 2021. We should question why we have women’s titles and not “men’s titles”. This gives out the message that women are special, and not in a good way. If you want equality, the world must recognize that pro wrestling isn’t a real sport. After all, no gender has a skill advantage over another in professional wrestling. However, there is one issue with intergender wrestling, which seems to get overlooked.
Because men & women are getting so physical in the ring, there’s an opportunity for intentional (or unintentional), inappropriate groping. And this isn’t just a man doing it to a woman, it could easily happen the other way. This creates an issue if some wrestlers feel an individual is regularly violating others. However, if this was such a huge issue, would there not be a problem with homo/bisexual wrestlers working with the same gender? So, it’s not only a possibility with intergender wrestling, as it has always been there with homo/bisexual wrestlers.
I feel this is a reason some fans find it isn’t right that Nyla Rose wrestles in AEW’s women’s division. Although, it’s totally fine if Chyna beats Chris Jericho for the Intercontinental title, or if she or Beth Phoenix enters a man’s Royal Rumble. I think it comes down to the individual. If you’re a woman wrestling in AEW, and management asks “would you wrestle Nyla next week?”. Why would you say no? Unless you think Nyla is going to injure you or make you feel uncomfortable, then there isn’t a reason to decline.
However, I think it doesn’t matter what gender you are. If you don’t trust somebody, or if you don’t believe either you or your opponent can go out there and be professional, then it’s on you to say so. If it goes against what you believe, then do what Eli Drake (aka LA Knight) did in Impact. He did not want to put Tessa Blanchard over, so he refused to work the match. Here’s the reason:
“I’ve done the mixed tag before, so I’m not opposed to that. I’m in a group chat with some of the guys who were working there, and one of them had already told us that they’d pitched this match to him – it was him against Tessa – and he said that he wasn’t comfortable with it. But they said something to him before they announced it. With me, they just announced it and said nothing to me – after one guy had already turned them down for being uncomfortable with it.
First of all, how do you just announce that when one guy already said he’s uncomfortable with it and just assume I’m good and cool? And in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘They already know I’m leaving, because I told them in January. Okay, they’ll try to bury me on my way out. I’ve got immense respect for Tessa – she’s probably the best female wrestler in the world – but she’s also 5’ 4” and 140 lbs, and I’m 6’1″ and 230 lbs. It just doesn’t look believable to me.”
The bottom line is, wrestling isn’t proper sport. We’ve seen The Great Khali vs. Hornswoggle. Men have held women’s titles, and women have held men’s titles. You’re only as good as your skills, and not by which gender you were born or identify as. So long as everyone involved is comfortable and actively wants to get everyone over, that should be enough. However, changing mindsets about this isn’t easy. We’re programmed from a young age to split the genders from all kinds of things, and so it doesn’t feel right when we see it in wrestling.
I’m not telling you to believe in anything I say. It’s up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with, and this is just what I believe. I have zero issues with intergender wrestling, or transgender wrestlers working with the gender they identify as. However, I have a problem if a wrestler is unsafe, or is taking any liberties with their co-workers. If we need to keep genders split? That’s not a problem, although I find it hypocritical that a fake sport splits wrestlers up in this way, while preaching about equality.
Between 1992 to 2015, eight Japanese all-women’s wrestling promotions were launched and still exist today. The UK has two, Canada has one, while the United States currently has six. Why did all these promotions appear? Well, it could be because women weren’t getting the opportunities at the highest level, so they needed somewhere with job security. These shows are crucial because they provide a platform for rookies to get started and hone their skills. Over time, talent scouts may notice potential stars and sign them to contracts. Many of WWE’s Japanese signings, like Asuka, Kairi Sane, and Io Shirai, became stars in their country through its rich collection of women’s promotions.
The market for these companies only came about because wrestling was, and still is, a male dominated industry. Even in Japan, male wrestling is still often considered the biggest draw. The gap isn’t as vast as it was, but it’s still there, which is why all-women’s promotions still continue to thrive. One day, the industry may grow to where all companies feature a good mix of genders, but there’s still a long way to go. Many all-women’s promotions, especially in Japan, rely on looks and plug their wrestlers as gravure idols through photoshoots, and if comfortable, through soft core porn. AEW’s Hikaru Shida is known for her gravure films.
All-women’s wrestling promotions are the most important stepping stones to having dreams realized. Without them, we may not know half of the stars we do today. Instead, they would be replaced by others who may not have the passion, the skills, or the talent to be in the same league as those we support today. Here are some of these promotions:
- World Wonder Ring Stardom
- SHIMMER Women’s Athletes
- Shine Wrestling
- Pro Wrestling Wave
- Ice Ribbon
- Pro-Wrestling EVE
- Women of Wrestling
While women’s wrestling declined in WWE (and not for the first time), there was a boom everywhere else. The TNA Knockouts featured a more respectable division to the United States, while the rest of the world kept on with what it was already doing. With Trish Stratus & Lita retired, they paved the way for a new generation. Today, many of the talent we see were children back then, looking up to these legends and being inspired to become wrestlers. There’s still some way to go, as we have yet to talk about the rise of NXT, the women’s revolution, reality shows like Total Divas, along with the current generation breaking down barriers.
Fingers crossed… I can fit all of that in to one volume, but if not? Without a doubt, we should be two volumes away from finishing this. It has been a long road, and I thank you for sticking with me all the way. Hopefully, the first four volumes have provided plenty of insight in to the evolution of women’s wrestling, not just in WWE, but across the world. Please let me know if you feel there’s anything I may have overlooked, as I’m sure that our followers and I would appreciate that. Thanks for reading! See you soon.