Yes, yes, I understand. I like to watch professional wrestling now and again. It’s something I enjoy doing.
And over the past few years, I’ve seen a marked change in the way women’s wrestling has appeared – on television and on pay-per-view.
Last night’s WWE megacard, WWE Evolution, was the company’s first-ever all-female show. With the exception of play-by-play announcer Michael Cole and some of the referees, all the matches were wrestled by women, the events were called by women, and some were even officiated by women.
There was much talk throughout the event of this card being effectively the breaking of another glass ceiling for women.
I saw it in a different vein. I saw this card as a moment when women’s wrestling was taken seriously. That women were executing several different moves in the wrong, that they were telling a story in the ring that was believable and entertaining, and that their athleticism and skills were more important than being spandex-sporting eye candy.
Because prior to WWE Evolution, women in the company were treated like valets (“Miss Elizabeth” Hulette) or pinup fantasies (Tammy “Sunny” Sytch), or if there was a women’s wrestling match, it was considered a “popcorn match” – in other words, go to the concession stand while you can, this match would take place before the main event and you don’t want to miss that last box of popcorn.
That’s not to say that there weren’t capable female wrestlers in the WWE at one time or another – Trish Stratus evolved from eye-candy valet to a qualified and capable grappler; and Amy “Lita” Dumas also went from being a goofy sidekick with Esse Rios to being a moonsault-shooting superstar with the Hardy Boyz. And some female stars even had the opportunity to wrestle against – and in some cases, defeat – male talent. Joanie “Chyna” Laurer and Beth Phoenix are two examples.
But only as recently as a few years ago, the WWE marketed their female talent not as “wrestlers,” but as “Divas” – there was a butterfly-themed “Divas” championship title, and an E! reality series called Total Divas that still airs today. But the Divas weren’t called wrestlers, and they often completed in gimmick matches – bra and panties matches, pillow fight matches, even bikini and beauty contest matches. It was less wrestling and more fetish.
And WWE’s current run of supercards in Saudi Arabia – including Greatest Royal Rumble and the upcoming Crown Jewel – are in a country where women’s wrestling is forbidden. So those cards would have NO women’s matches on them.
Eventually, though, a new crop of female wrestlers joined the card – stars who understood the sport and what it meant to compete in the squared circle. To be taken seriously as wrestlers and not to be dismissed as popcorn breaks or eye candy. They trained in developmental territories like Ohio Valley Wrestling and NXT, and one by one they made it up to the WWE’s main shows.
And last night … you could see it all unfold at the Nassau Coliseum.
First up was a “heritage match” of sorts, pitting Trish Stratus and Lita against veteran Mickie James and last-minute replacement Alicia Fox (the previous battler, Alexa Bliss, could not compete due to injury). Understand that three of the four wrestlers in this match (Stratus, Lita, James) were among the early true wrestlers in the company, and they put on a great opening event. I’ll even forgive Alicia Fox for botching a finish, where she tried to break up a three-count pin but got in the ring so late that the referee had to hold up the three count to wait for her.
Then came the 20-woman battle royal, where elimination meant getting tossed over the top rope and having both your feet hit the floor. This was a mixture of current wrestlers and vintage talent (including Molly Holly, who once had to convince the WWE to put a women’s match on a pay-per-view card by agreeing to a “loser gets her head shaved” stipulation – and then having her head shaved bald after she lost that match). And, of course, the final entrants in the battle royal were the IIconics, Australian crowd taunters Peyton Royce and Billie Kay (who clowned the Nassau Coliseum attendees over their Lung Guyland accents) before being the first two contestants tossed out of the ring.
Eventually, the winner was Nia Jax, a 6’0″ 275 pound powerhouse who not only powered nearly every superstar out of the ring, she later took the time to thank her aunt in attendance – one of the legendary Anoa’i wrestling family. Yes, Nia Jax is connected to other famous Samoans in the wrestling world, including the Usos, the Rock, Roman Reigns and Yokozuna. The legacy continues.
There was an incredible match afterward for the Mae Young Classic – Mae Young was a professional wrestler from the old carny circuit, who actually wrestled in WWE for several years. The Mae Young Classic was a 32-woman single elimination knockout event, and the finals were held as part of WWE Evolution. And in the finals, a wrestler with WWE’s British developmental company, Toni Storm, took out Japanese sensation Io Shirai in the championship match, although both wrestlers really had the crowd cheering for them in dueling cheering chants. Heck, the crowd for WWE Evolution was hotter than fire.
A six-woman tag match was next, in which the Riott Squad (Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan) fought against a team of Sasha Banks, Bayley and Natalya. I should note that these six women all worked their way up from developmental territories to the main rosters, and all six paid their dues along the way. Heck, Sasha Banks and Bayley once wrestled in an NXT match that was considered Match of the Year (male or female). In the end, the Riott Squad took the loss, as Natalya applied a sharpshooter leglock (in homage to her heritage in the Hart Family, she is the daughter of the late Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart), followed by Bayley dropping an elbow on her fallen opponent (a clear tribute to Randy “Macho Man” Savage) and Sasha Banks finishing the victory with a frog splash off the top turnbuckle (the announcers said it looked like a tribute to Eddie Guerrero, but it looked more like a Rob Van Dam five-star frog splash to me).
Next came an NXT championship match, in which legit mixed martial arts fighter Shayna Bazzler fought her arch rival, the “Pirate Princess” Kairi Sane. Again, the crowds went wild over this, as Sane and Bazzler battled each other throughout the match, both in and out of the ring. One thing to understand about professional wrestling. You’ll hear the statement that the wrestlers are “telling a story” in the ring – the fact that they will injury an opponent’s body part in one form or another, so that the opponent might not be able to use their finishing move – and in this case, Bazzler wore down Sane to the point where, when Bazzler locked Sane in a deadly submission hold, Sane couldn’t tap out, she couldn’t submit … she just passed out. Victory and the NXT title to Bazzler.
Then came the match that really made the night. Former best friends Becky Lynch (an Irish scrapper who fought her way through the developmental territories just to get to the main roster) and Charlotte Flair (yes, she’s the daughter of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair) went to war in a “Last Woman Standing” match, where the winner incapacitates her opponent to the point where she cannot stand to a referee’s count of ten). There storyline has been brewing for months – Flair and Lynch were best friends, but Flair thwarted a chance by Lynch to claim the championship title. With that, Lynch turned on Flair – but the crowd supported Lynch, cheering her as a “bad-ass babyface” in the mode of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
As the match continued, Lynch and Flair battled outside the ring, and eventually Lynch went under the ring apron to find a weapon or two. Oh yeah, “Last Woman Standing” matches are no-disqualification matches. So that Kendo stick under the ring was perfectly legal to use – yeah, I’m still wondering who leaves a Kendo stick under a wrestling ring. Eventually the match went from using Kendo sticks to using steel chairs … and eventually using tables … and finally, a couple of ladders came into play. The crowd ate this up. Lots of “Holy Shit!” chants. Lots of “This is Awesome” chants. And finally, when Becky Lynch answered the ten-count and Charlotte Flair could not … the Irish Lass Kicker retained her championship. To a roaring chant of “You Deserve It” and “Becky! Becky! Becky!” As legendary ring announcer Jim Ross might say, that match was a complete slobberknocker.
There was one more match on the card, though. And this match symbolized the difference between the old WWE and the new WWE. Ronda Rousey, the UFC / MMA / “Baddest Woman on the Planet” powerhouse, would face Nikki Bella, one of the Bella Twins and one-half of the stars of what was once the WWE’s “Diva” period.
Now I have no beef with the Bellas. Just because they can’t wrestle a lick, and when they do wrestle, they injure their opponents (Nikki’s sister Brie Bella put Riott Squad member Liv Morgan out of action for a couple of weeks with a sloppy wrestling move that resulted in a concussion for Morgan), and that they promote all their side businesses as if they were the greatest thing in wrestling since the invention of a turnbuckle …
In the end, though, all the scheming and double-trouble by the Bella Twins did not faze the mixed martial arts superstar, and Rousey clobbered the Bellas to win the match and retain her championship.
But in the end, it wasn’t just about an all-female wrestling card. Or the dozens of mentions about empowerment or breaking the glass ceiling or whatnot.
This was actually a card with seven quality matches. Each one was exciting, each one told a story, and not all the stories were about that main theme of female empowerment. Some of the matches paid tribute to the heroes these wrestlers grew up watching on TV (both Bayley and the IIconics both talked about growing up and watching professional wrestling), while others talked about storylines that were about fighting for championships, no matter what the cost or what the goal. And that’s true, whether you’re male or female.
Great card all around. I hope this means that WWE Evolution becomes a yearly staple, similar to the other WWE supercards like WrestleMania or Survivor Series or Royal Rumble.
One can only hope.