Women in wrestling. What do you think of when you hear those words? What images spring to mind? I bet it’s the skimpy outfits, the bra and panties matches, the lack of in-ring ability. Right? Be honest! That’s the way I viewed the women’s scene not too long ago. You’d rarely see a proper non-gimmick women’s match on TV, let alone pay-per-view, and when you did it was invariably met with little or no audience participation. It also, quite frankly, bored me to tears. The speed, the moves, the psychology, it just wasn’t there. Hell, I’ll admit it; the only time I was really interested in a women’s match was if it involved the words “lingerie” and “Trish” in the same sentence.
But things change.
You see, no longer am I impressed with those type of gimmick matches. Sable vs Torrie Wilson in a lingerie match on Smackdown the night after the Great American Bash (2004) just annoyed me. Thanks to the influx of proper female wrestlers into WWE, no longer is it a chore to watch a proper non-gimmick women’s match, it’s actually more entertaining half the time than a lot of the men’s matches on the Raw on a given week. The women’s division right now is probably the best it has ever been. WWE has more legitimate female wrestlers than ever before, and what’s more, they have a match (and sometimes two) on Raw each week. They play a part. There was a time where we saw women wrestle only once a month or even once every few months. The fact that we’ve moved from barely seeing them to watching them on our T.V. more than once a week for a proper wrestling match says a lot.
Things have certainly moved on a lot since the days of the then-WWWF’s first female champion, the tough-as-nails Fabulous Moolah. Moolah made debut in pro-wrestling sometime in the 1940’s as “Slave Girl” Moolah, the barefooted, leopard-print wearing valet to “The Elephant Boy”. Some ten years or so later, she was running her own company and training camp (“Girl Wrestling Enterprises”), and was pretty much the universally-recognized world champion.
By 1985, she was a veteran of well over thirty years, and a champion for much of that time. Working now for Vince McMahon Jr, Moolah (aka Lilian Ellison) seemed more than happy to play out her career with the WWF. The company just needed a proper opponent to challenge their veteran, and they found one (of sorts) in Cyndi Lauper.
Lauper only accepted the company’s offer because her manager insisted it was good publicity. One of the most famous singers in the world at that point, her album had recently topped the charts; she had two number-one singles already under her belt, and would have a third by the time the angle ended. The outlandish notion was concocted of Lauper fighting with Roddy Piper on national TV, then feuding with Lou Albano. Lauper provided the star quality, Wendi Richter would provide the wrestling skills.
Richter began her wrestling career under the woman she would eventually best: The Fabulous Moolah. Richter was one of Moolah’s trainees at GWE, but discouraged by what she perceived as a lack of progress in her skill level, she took an extended trip to Japan. Upon her return in 1984, she was programmed in a series of tag matches with old tag partner Joyce Grable, and in a match in Madison Square Garden against then-tag-champs Velvet McEntire and Princess Victoria, put on a performance that impressed Vince McMahon. Placed in a feud with Moolah, she drew instant face heat. It seemed something big was building, and indeed it was.
Vince made the decision to put Richter on top of the card. Pairing Wendi up with Lauper, in what would be called the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection”, worked a treat. Richter adopted Lauper’s colourful makeup and bright neon-coloured tights; she would often wrestle in full makeup and wear elaborate earrings to the ring.
In mid-1984, Wendi Richter won her first woman’s championship from Moolah on a live MTV special called “The Brawl To End It All.” It would become one of the most watched wrestling matches in the history of cable T.V. Moolah aligned herself with Leilani Kai, and the twosome managed to get the belt off of Wendi one week before the first WrestleMania. Kai and Richter, Lauper and Moolah; they would all collide on a spring evening in Madison Square garden. And women’s wrestling would never be the same again.
On March 31st, 1985, Vince McMahon’s baby was born; Wrestlemania. And for the only time in the history of the sports entertainment extravaganza, the women played a major, major part. Wendi Richter, in a pink tiger-striped outfit and huge hoop earrings, finally achieved supremacy in her feud against Leilani Kai. She won her Women’s Championship. Afterwards, Richter, was riding higher than she ever had. The crowd loved her; as she continued to tour with the company, her pops increased in volume, to the point that she began to almost rival Hulk Hogan’s popularity.
Wendi was promoted heavily; the first woman ever to reach that high. In the Summer of 1985, she achieved a feat still unequalled to this day; alone at the top of the bill, she sold out Madison Square Garden. Everywhere, Wendi’s face seemed to gleam back from WWF programming; she was the only female figure in the Hulk Hogan “Rock And Wrestling cartoon”; she had a costume marketed with her features. Over the Summer of 1985, she reigned supreme. And it all came crashing down by the end of the year.
When Wendi Richter refused to sign a contract she deemed unfair and decided to leave the WWF, Vince McMahon decided to screw her out of her title. In what was a foolish, bizarre match that has often been compared to the WWF’s abuse of Bret Hart, Wendi’s last match in the company ended in a screwjob finish that would mirror what would eventually happen to the “Hitman” Bret Hart twelve years later. Defending her title against the masked Spider Lady, Richter had no idea that it was in fact Moolah behind the mask. A small-package and fast three-count later, and Richter was the former champion. Richter was gone, never to return to the WWF. And Moolah, now in her sixties, was once again champion.
While Wendi Richter struggled with the top brass, there were plenty of women propping up the middle rankings of the women division, including McEntire and Moolah protegees Donna Christenello and Desiree Peterson. However, there were no secondary storylines in the women’s division, so they were mostly used as jobbers for Moolah, Richter, and Leilani Kai and Judy Martin, the company’s veteran tag champs. The company stirred things up by introducing The Jumping Bomb Angels, a hugely popular Japanese tag team, to face Martin and Kai. They built a solid feud for the belts, the Angels won them at the first Royal Rumble in 1988. But not for the last time, the WWF proved that they didn’t know how to approach women’s wrestling; they would simply vanish in the booking process.
Of course, the first female presence on WWF programming for so many of us was the valet (and off-screen wife) of the Macho Man, Miss Elizabeth. By the time Savage won his first WWF World Title in 1988, the perpetually worried-looking Elizabeth was indeed “The First Lady of the WWF.” And she would play her part in a huge storyline, the birth and explosion of the “Mega Powers,” with Randy Savage growing increasingly jealous and paranoid about Hulk Hogan’s intentions towards her. The two would square off in an outstanding match at Wrestlemania 5 in 1989, with Liz firmly in the middle. She’s certainly still one of the best known valets in wrestling history. And the fans loved her. If you watch the Randy Savage vs Ultimate Warrior retirement match from Wrestlemania 7 where she rejoins Savage, there was not one dry eye in the entire building.
Of course, the problem with this was that Elizabeth wasn’t a wrestler. Women’s wrestling was beginning to falter badly as the 80’s drew to a close. There would be one last, brief hope, however. Sensational Sherri.
Sherri Martel was another who had begun her career as an understudy to Moolah, watching the veteran make her way through the smaller southern promotions. The svelte Martel made her way to the WWF by working her way through the Minnesota territories, and when Verne Gagne’s AWA began drying up, she jumped ship for the WWF. Martel was pushed, within a month of her entrance into the company, as Moolah’s prime competition. She won the Women’s belt in 1989, and would hold it for only a few months before the plug was pulled on the women’s division. Moolah left the company on good terms, returning to her southern roots and her training camp. Martel was to be kept on in a memorable stint as Randy Savage’s new valet, and placed in a series of confrontations with Miss Elizabeth. The twenty or so other female wrestlers the company employed were released back into obscurity, to become the great undiscovered treasures of their era.
The women’s wrestling scene under Vince McMahon continued to have its ups and downs. In 1994, an attempt at a serious revival was once again made, with Alundra Blayze/Madusa leading the way. Often considered one of the greatest women wrestlers of all time, Madusa crafted her skill in Japan.. She started off in AWA, and held their womens title from late 1987 to late 1988. Well-respected wrestling journal “Pro Wrestling Illustrated” voted her their rookie of the year for 1988, and she remains the only woman to obtain this honour.
She competed for AJPW at the start of the 90’s, getting her nose broke four times during her stint there. She captured the IWA title and at the end of 1990 was voted All-Japan’s Inspirational Wrestler of the Year. Madusa came back over to the U.S. and took the WWF womens division by storm in matches with the likes of Luna Vachon and Japan’s Bull Nakano, which included a hell of a match with Nakano at Summerslam 1994. But again, due to general apathy from the masses and all-round scepticism from the company, the women’s division was to be knocked on the head once again. And in an incident that must have fuelled Vince’s decision to screw Bret Hart some two years later, the fired Blayze took her title with her when she left, and dumped the WWF Woman’s Championship into a trash can live on WCW Nitro.
The title wouldn’t appear again for another couple of years. That it did at all was down to the new female star of WWF, Sable. At Wrestlemania 14 in 1998, Sable turned in a superb performance for a non-worker (it was her first match) in the Mero/Sable vs Goldust/Luna bout. It convinced the top brass to revive the Women’s Title one more time. Again, though, the problems were the same. There wasn’t enough interest or competition to sustain the women’s division. In Japan, women can beat on one another like the most frightening of hardcore grapplers and get just the right amount of heat. In Mexico, they’re revered as technicians. Only in the WWF were women an anomaly, treated like pretty, strange objects, elusive of meaning and purpose within the company’s infrastructure. And this would again become the case before, during, and especially after Sable’s stint as champion.
Debra, Jacqueline, Terri, Tori, The Kat and Ivory were the next generation of female grapplers, but were more often than not to be found in bikini matches, rather than wrestling matches. And when they did wrestle, the familiar silence from the crowd was to be expected. This was the Attitude era, which made T&A the norm in female professional wrestling. The obvious exception was the Ninth Wonder of the World, Chyna, but Ms. Laurer’s attention was firmly on wrestling with the guys; she was women’s champion only once in her WWF tenure. That particular reign was marked with glorified squash matches, including the abysmal match with Ivory at Wrestlemania 17. Chyna may have been the biggest name in women’s wrestling, but she did little for the women’s division in WWE.
Perhaps the biggest cure for the degeneration of women’s wrestling in WWE were the two most unlikely candidates.
Lita’s refreshing tomboy image, plus her connection with the super-over Hardy Boyz, made her a star in 2000. It was only a matter of time before she won the women’s title, and that she did from Stephanie McMahon (that’s right, Stephanie) in mid 2000. While the women still weren’t top of the card or anywhere near it, at least there was a female grappler wrestling other women who connected with the masses and was over.
When Chyna parted ways with WWE in 2001, the women’s title took a hiatus for a few months. It made it’s return in a six-way match at Survivor Series which was notable for two things; the arrival of Jazz, and Trish Stratus’ first title win. I cannot say enough good things about Trish. She epitomises the determination of the WWE’s grappling divas. Brought in for her looks alone, the easy thing for Trish to do would have been to get by on those, do the odd gimmick match, and stay where she was at. But she busted her ass to learn her trade, and today, is one of the best female wrestlers in WWE. She knows how to work a match, and has had great feuds with Jazz and Victoria. She’s become a very valuable member of the roster, both as a wrestler and as a character, and has really come into her own as a heel in Christian’s absence. She’s also that very rare type of female wrestler; she connects with the crowd. And she’s not afraid to take the knocks either, as her current broken hand proves.
Vince McMahon has always had a certain way of treating female performers and, needless to say, he hasn’t exactly been a poster child for the equal rights movement. McMahon turned womens wrestling into more of a sexy sideshow than an athletic main attraction. This influenced womens wrestling throughout the United States and Canada. Women seemed to gain more exposure in the WWF as T&A (Stacy, Trish (at first), Sable, Torrie) than as credible performers. Granted, wrestlers such as Victoria, Molly Holly and Jazz could put on good matches, but they didn’t get the same reaction from the mostly male fan base as the other ladies did. This is why Lita and Trish were so important; they had both sex appeal and talent, and they were allowed to have a character too. Lita and Trish got over with the fans and proved that women’s wrestling could be good. It went from there.
So Vince opened his eyes and now we have women who can actually wrestle in matches (rather than bra and panties). WWE are now lucky enough to have the deepest and most talented female wrestling pool they’ve ever had. Of the lot, Victoria, Jazz and Molly Holly would probably stand out as the best. All three are skilled at executing spots and working a match. Closely following them would be Trish, who has come on in leaps and bounds since she won that first title in 2001. Lita is still over and still has those spectacular moves (and is involved in one of Raw’s major storylines), while Gail Kim is an excellent worker with the unfortunate habit of having accidents in the ring (but they will happen).
However, regardless of how talented they are, there’s one main reason why we’re seeing a wonderful women’s division on Raw week-in, week-out; the women have been allowed to show their worth. They’ve been given the opportunity to wrestle, to have feuds, to cut promos. In other words, they’ve been given the opportunity to have a character, one of the most important aspects in the development of any wrestler, male or female. And while they’ll never upstage the men completely, they offer something different. None of the female wrestlers think that they’re Chris Benoit or Lou Thesz in the ring; they each have their own style that’s different to any of the men, and that’s good. From Victoria’s rather excellent Widow’s Peak, to Trish’s Stratusfaction, their matches and moves are their own, and are giving people real reason to take an interest in the women’s division.
An interest in women’s wrestling?! Yes that’s right. It’s taken a long time, and the women’s division has hit many bumps along the road, but they’re finally playing a major part in a prime-time wrestling show. And they’re only going to get better. I for one am happy about that.
***Please note, there were two errors in my article from last week on Ravishing Rick Rude. Firstly, while reading back over it, I realised I said that Rick’s career-ending injury was a neck problem. It was of course a back injury he suffered. Secondly, it was pointed out to me that Rick never beat Steve Austin for the US title, and this is also true. The US title win in question came against Dustin Runnels. I apologise for these mistakes and will endeavour to stamp them out in future. Thank You.***