Death Rays, MMA Megastars, and Horsewomen: The Women Shaping The Future of Pro Wrestling
By Joe Starr | Think Pieces | July 14, 2015 |
By Joe Starr | Think Pieces | July 14, 2015 |
Pro Wrestling has historically had a troubled relationship with the stronger sex. While the WWE will always be quick to tout legends like all time great women’s champion of the 50’s-70’s The Fabulous Moolah, the vast majority of women on WWE programming have been blank page eye candy at best, borderline sexual assault victims at worst, and typically treated as jokes and afterthoughts.
I don’t mean to be completely unfair to WWE in this regard. They’ve had some stand out female talent, and Stephanie McMahon is a great example of a major media company executive, but much like Marvel pulling Black Widow from her LEGO sets, WWE is absurdly slow to understand the value of strong female characters, or the strength of their female fanbase in general.
Now, a small group of women is working to change that perception where it matters the most: in the ring. They’re an incredible group of athletes and performers connecting with crowds like no other group before them, and they are very much worth your time and love.
This past Wrestlemania, the biggest event in professional wrestling of the year, MMA star Ronda Rousey made a surprise in ring appearance alongside her Furious costar The Rock. Now, fans want to know what her return will look like: Who will she wrestle? What’s going to happen? To think that, in my optimistic fan heart, that the WWE could go from gross old dudes from Memphis shouting for women to show their puppies throughout the 90s to highlighting a core group of bad asses and the most recognizable female athlete on the planet is an exciting thought. We could quite possibly be seeing a massive renaissance in how women’s wrestling is promoted and perceived, and this is your guide to jumping on the bandwagon.
But before we get much further, since this is Pajiba’s first pro wrestling article, let’s hit some bullet points to get on the same page.
What is pro wrestling?
Pro wrestling is a big ridiculous comic book combat stunt show based around the trope of personal beefs being settled in a wrestling ring as opposed to Downtown Metropolis or Hells Kitchen or the Technodrome. If you like comic books or movies or cool things, you’ll find something in pro wrestling you dig.
What is WWE?
WWE is the reason why you recognize Hulk Hogan’s voice schilling loans on the radio and why kids in your high school kept yelling at people to suck it. Owned by Vince McMahon, who is assisted by his heir apparents, daughter Stephanie and son in law Triple H, WWE is pro wrestling’s Disney. The men are called Superstars and the women are called Divas. Yes I agree, this is problematic.
What is NXT?
NXT is WWE’s developmental promotion where new talent is sent to train and prepare for a spot on WWE’s main roster of shows and network specials. Conceived of and run by Triple H, it’s developed a rabid cult following based around being much better and more fun than the product it’s meant to prepare its athletes for, which probably makes family dinners uncomfortable for the McMahons.
Now that we’re caught up on the basics, let’s talk about the cool thing that is the future of women’s wrestling in WWE. This possible road ends with the most famous female fighter in the world, but it starts somewhere much more humble: with an independent female wrestler experts said would never step foot in a WWE ring.
And in a way, she still hasn’t.
SARA DEL REY
Sara Del Rey (Real name: Sara Amato) has been an ace of the independent wrestling scene for more than 15 years. She’s wrestled all over the world, from Japan to Mexico, and became a centerpiece of American promotions ranging from Shimmer (highly competitive women’s wrestling), to Ring of Honor (super serious business wrestling), to Chikara (a place of dreams where a group of ants have feuded with a group of evil, more extreme ants). Trained by Bryan Danielson, who is widely accepted as one of the best pro wrestlers of all time, Del ‘Death’ Rey has spent her career proving she’s one of the greats herself.
Fans have shouted for years for the WWE to stop hiring bikini models and start hiring actual wrestlers like Del Rey. It’s a long-time pipe dream, and it probably surprised more than a few when the WWE did her one better: They hired her to train their future women’s wrestling division.
The best women’s wrestler in the world overseeing the education of tomorrow’s most recognizable stars. The change was almost immediate: Suddenly NXT’s women’s matches were standing out, and keeping your eyes glued to the screen. WWE women’s wrestling has long been associated with bathroom breaks, but under Del Rey’s direction, it was quickly becoming must watch television whether WWE considered it a worthwhile part of the product or not. Quite simply, Del Rey and her students would not be ignored.
The chemistry between teacher and this hungry class of women was undeniable. It was contrary to almost two decades of female characters in the company. Even the branding of the women on NXT was challenging the company’s preconception of women, cringe inducingly known as DIVAS on the main roster. NXT has made it clear that theirs is a women’s division, fighting for a Women’s Championship.
Let’s meet the stand outs.
For fans of: Captain Marvel, training for the 2016 Warrior Dash, Xena
To say that the wrestling world was skeptical of Charlotte when she debuted in 2013 is an understatement. A woman with no experience in the ring and a famous name, the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair had a lot to prove. Her name had gotten her foot in the door; would she seize the opportunity or would she fizzle like so many other famous sons and daughters, the Sofia Godfather 3 Coppola of fake fighting.
Charlotte gave her answer in the form of two years worth of Sofia CoppoLOTTA GREAT WRESTLING MATCHES. It’s bizarre how much of a natural she is. In such a short amount of time, we’ve watched a green rookie that looked nervous doing a handspring to a fully realized champion.
Some people are just meant for greatness. Charlotte is an all time great in the making, who much like third generation star The Rock, makes you wonder how much of their natural ability and instinct really is genetics.
For fans of: Adventure Time, Kaylee Frye, Lisa Frank Folders
There’s something for everyone with Bayley. She’s bright and optimistic, unwavering and loyal to a fault. Bayley is the extension of the 8-12 fans- childish enough for kids to see themselves in the ring, but presented in a clever enough way for the character to be appealing to adults.
Childish characters are tough to pull off in a genre where conflicts always end with punching and suplexes, and yet Bayley is a great balance, from her wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men flanked entrance to her ponytail tightening comebacks in the ring. She hands out slap bracelets to kids on the way to the ring for crying out loud. What is there to not to love? She’s a character out of the world of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but instead of singing catchy songs about friendship lessons, she dropkicks a few bad guys to death and then probably sings a few catchy songs about friendship lessons.
For fans of: Warped Tour, Guy Ritchie movies, Attack On Titan
Becky Lynch began wrestling in Ireland when she was 15, and if a small teenage red head Irish girl putting the locals in armlocks until they tap out isn’t a person whose story you want to follow into adulthood, I don’t understand you or your weird, sad brain.
Lynch gathered major ring cred wrestling across Japan, Europe and North America before suffering what was thought to be a career ending head injury. Lynch wasn’t done with arm breaking, however, and fought her way back to health until signing with WWE in 2013.
Debuting as a river dancing Irish lass, Lynch was (luckily) able to toss that absurd gimmick aside to show off her no nonsense, punk rock ass kicking side. At the recent live special NXT Takeover: Unstoppable, Lynch pushed her look further with a steampunk homage to Magic: The Gathering’s Chandra Nalaar, seeming more in control of and comfortable in her own skin than she had since signing. Challenging Sasha Banks for the Women’s Championship, Lynch had found her identity in the ring. Wrestlers are at their best when they are themselves turned to 11 and that reflected in her performance: Lynch vs. Banks at Unstoppable is one of the best matches of the year in WWE.
I wouldn’t mind watching it right now. Join me?
In a valiant losing effort, the crowd gave Lynch a show of respect to show their appreciation for the self proclaimed lass kicker: serenading her with her own theme music as she left the ring.
For fans of: Giving zero fucks, binge watching Scandal, having squads on fleek that run things
Really, the only thing you need to know about Sasha Banks is that she signs her match contracts with a stamp that reads BOSS. Like Charlotte, Banks started green and has grown into one of the best in ring performers in the company, despite not having a famous last name. In fact, whether they’re allied or at each other’s throats, her relationship with Charlotte is based in privilege vs struggle.
She’s a nobody to champion, from rags to riches. She’s the boss. And she’s awesome.
Collectively, Charlotte, Bayley, Banks, and Lynch are referred to as The 4 Horsewomen of Wrestling, a nod to Charlotte’s dad’s legendary faction The Four Horsemen, whose membership boasted the best of the best of their time.
Not a wrestler, and not a part of the Del Rey Finishing School, but Renee Young is one of the most animated, fun to watch, and engaging personalities on TV. In an imperfect world, she would be the host of Good Morning America and stacking Emmy’s. But luckily, we live in a perfect world where Renee is the new face of WWE broadcasting.
After years of rotating through whatever boring wrestling talent WWE could think of behind the announce table and backstage conducting interviews, Renee Young bursting on the scene was a breath of fresh hair. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest she’s had a massive positive impact and the product and fanbase. The presentation of WWE programming has changed very little in the last 15 years, and the rise of Renee Young’s on camera career has been the difference between Kansas and Oz.
Fun fact: She’s also one of the main reasons Tumblr still exists, as Renee is the real life girlfriend of WWE main eventer Dean Ambrose. Dean has a lot of teenage fans. And holy shit but they hate her.
Finally, the fireworks factory: The foundation that these women are building brings us to the biggest UFC star in the world, who recently debuted on the big screen in the Fast & Furious franchise, and more importantly, the first of hopefully infinite ENTOURAGE movies. At last year’s Wrestlemania, a card which featured wrestling legend Sting’s first ever WWE match, and the beast Brock Lesnar defending the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the only person fans were talking about after the show was Ronda Rousey.
In a confrontation with WWE’s evil owners Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, THE ROCK was reminded by Mrs. McMahon that he wouldn’t strike a woman. Understanding the problem this presented, The Rock left the ring, only to pay a visit to his good friend Rousey, who was watching the show at ringside.The faithful gathered at Levi’s Stadium, for lack of a better term, lost their shit.
70,000 people chanting ‘Ronda’s gonna kill you’ and a few well placed armbars later, Rousey had cleared the ring not only of Stephanie McMahon, but King Bad Guy Triple H as well. Of course the UFC immediately insisted that Ronda’s appearance was a one time favor to The Rock and will never happen again, but that’s the carnie world of pro wrestling for you- the same type of strategy that keeps people guessing if Jon Snow is actually dead or not because Kit Harrington hasn’t signed a new contract.
It’s one of the biggest questions in pro wrestling for 2015: When is Ronda Rousey coming back, and who is she going to fight? That’s what makes Sara Del Rey’s work in NXT so important: there are a lot of Divas in WWE that have been jokes for so long that it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough that they could hurt themselves, much less the most dangerous woman in the world.
But the next Wrestlemania is a long way off, and there is a hungry group of inspiring young women in NXT working to prove to the world that anything the men can do, they can do better. In fact, this week, three of the four made their main roster debuts on Raw, and for the first time in a long time, the women on Monday Night Raw earned a chant of THIS IS AWESOME from the live crowd. When she does finally return, Rousey will have plenty to work with courtesy of the Death Rey, who was recently promoted to assistant head trainer of the entire NXT roster: the legend’s daughter, the ‘never say die’ optimist, the steampunk arm breaker, and the god damn BOSS.
Joe Starr is a comedian in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter
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