From the Mat to the Ceiling

As a child, I’d remember seeing wrestlers that captured my imagination even before becoming an actual fan of the fictional medium. Among them were women that were and still are badass, some before their time.

Sable, who fought for her agency against vindictive boyfriend, the Wildman Marc Mero. My childhood crush in Chyna, running through men and women alike. Lita, another childhood crush, I wanted to see her beat up people Ivory in Right to Censor (who had top tier entrance music, may I add), Dean Malenko, and Trish Stratus while also helping the Hardy Boyz in their feuds. Throw Jazz into the mix, especially with her feud with Trish Stratus, and you had yourself a party.

I was first finding myself enthralled in wrestling for more than just a pay-per-view event when Asuka faced off against Charlotte Flair in a streak vs title match at WrestleMania 34. That, and Becky Lynch with her aura, kept me watching. I was then introduced, or reintroduced, to a litany of other captivating women. In WWE, there were the likes of Naomi, Mickie James, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Ember Moon and Natalya Neidhart.

Credit: WWE

Seeing this and so much more drawn into 2018’s Evolution event, WWE gave me so much more to chew on. It was around this time I found that the women’s division in WWE was better than the men’s in quality. Not quite to my taste as the level of what came before, but still, it was something juicy. That couldn’t be helped, for as talented as the women were, it was the creative behind it that would falter. Still, when they got it right, they got it right.

Seeing major promotions not put much effort in their women’s divisions has been disheartening for most fans. While the morsels and scraps we do get fed are undoubtedly delicious, we as fans want more. 

To stress the importance of wrestling’s need for women and the great storylines, let’s start from the beginning.

Mildred Burke and What Followed
Women in wrestling history can be traced a long while, but typically it starts with Mildred Burke. A Midwest native, Burke was introduced to professional wrestling by her boyfriend, at an event held in Kansas City. You know that moment when you spend enough time with a passion you’ve newly acquired, and you want to dive fully into it? That’s what happened to Burke after this instance.

Winning over local promoter Billy Wolfe, Burke became a star, a sensation. Initially hesitant to work with her, Burke changed his mind when a male wrestler instructed to body slam found himself body slammed instead. The perfect set-up to a movie where a woman must overcome preconceived notions and excel after impressing those who can make a difference with just a single decision.

Mildred Burke would go on to wrestle 200 men, losing to only one and rarely facing off against other women, try as she might’ve. Still, this was proof that intergender matches can be a great draw if done right.

Later in her career, following her 1956 retirement, Burke would continue to fight for women’s wrestling, not just locally within the United States, but worldwide, introducing it to countries who would otherwise not see it as widespread. Most notably, this included Japan, with All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (AJW) buying the WWWA Championship from her in the 70s, leading to some memorable championship reigns from the likes of Manami Toyota, Aja Kong, and Bull Nakano. In modern NWA, promoter and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan gained Burke’s original title belt, and in 2021, it was fought for at NWA EmPowerr, where Kamille would defeat Leyla Hirsch to retain it. 

Credit: NWA

Burke influenced and trained women who would go on and forge a new path in women’s wrestling in their own right, such as Mae Young and Ethel Johnson. Burke’s story and influence speaks to the issues of women’s wrestling, and just why this matters today. 

Before we go into that, however, we must take a quick detour to Titan Towers. 

Wrestlers and Divas
WWE’s early life was mostly a man’s game, so it took someone magnetic as a woman to stand tall among them. Sure, you had your Mae Youngs and Leilani Kais, but none reached the top in the brief time that Wendi Richter did. Fitting into the MTV generation and scene, Richter would be associated with pop star Cyndi Lauper and become women’s champion. Richter was so popular, in fact, that she would have her own pop as fans cheered her; she even had an animated role in Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling during Saturday morning cartoon blocks. Huge.

Chyna. Chyna was the enforcer for Hunter Hearst Helmsley and was a valuable member of D-Generation X. She played with the big boys and would stand tall among the later peers of badass women that walked through the doors in the Attitude Era. I’m talking about women like Lita, Trish Stratus, Ivory, Molly Holly, and Jazz. I could go on. So many of these women would kick ass. It wasn’t always perfect, but it felt just as rewarding to watch.

As a result, this boggles the mind when factoring in the advent of Divas. Untrained women brought on to look sexy and stupid. The kind of stuff that makes you wonder who the audience is supposed to be. Despite all this, the women did give their best to provide at least some sort of entertainment, but it felt like they were set up to fail, no matter how smart they actually were.

Credit: WWE

At the time, audiences were either conditioned to laugh, be aroused and/or sexist, and treat the segments as bathroom breaks, if not in the camp of knowing the women deserved better. It has been an on-and-off slippery slope since then, but to see there be an active fanbase for the Divas to this day that are so passionate, especially towards the Divas of the early 2010s is proof enough that if that if there’s even a single modicum of effort, people will gather in support of the talent making things work.

You Can’t Even Lace My Chuck Taylors
Do you know why there are Diva stans? Why people still look fondly enough on that part of WWE’s history? 

It’s because there was something to care about. It may not have been for me, or you, or that guy that gets red in the face when anyone has anything close to positive to say about the WWE. The same fans of reality television found themselves in the demographic. And y’know what? Some of these women grew into great wrestlers when they found a passion for this industry.

While the Diva Era of WWE’s women’s division was polarizing fans, there were the alternatives. The kickass women of TNA, such as Gail Kim, Awesome Kong, and even WWE’s Mickie James. If you dug deep enough, you could just as well discover the various all-women indie promotions or budding joshi promotions that grew into what we know now.

What the divas in Connecticut offered, was something different. WWE’s women’s division at the time were not known for their crazy work rate or wrestling ability, and sometimes they weren’t charismatic or competent on the mic, but there was something there to latch on to. Something compelling, especially as people were still digging the aforementioned reality television aspect that was the market, like Jersey Shore. 

Stemming from the interest of this demographic was WWE’s Total Divas series. The drama and sensationalism that offered a glimpse into the life that came with these stars gripped young people, some of which didn’t care that much about wrestling. They wanted to see their favorites without giving two flying turtle shits about the matches. 

There is a lot of hate for this period, just as much as there is a lot of hate for those that were and still are enamoured by it. Where were the people like Beth Phoenix or Awesome Kong? Why is nobody like Chyna or Lita? 

A disconnect had been present and growing, and it’s still there, that rift. While there was a market for divas, what people hoped to see on wrestling themed shows was actual wrestling. Shows that felt must-watch in order to see what athletic and combative competition would bring next. Something had to change, and why not mix the wrestling with the compelling nature? That way, everyone would win, right? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

August 26, 2013. A simple diva trios match on Monday Night Raw – Natalya Neidhart and the Funkadactyls vs The Bellas and Eva Marie. Short, standard affair for mainstream women’s wrestling at the time, prevalent in WWE. Natalya and the Funkadactyls being undercut and undermined by the Bellas and Marie enough for the latter to get their win. Cue the heelish celebrations.

AJ Lee’s music hits and she saunters to the edge of the stage, Diva’s belt wrapped around her left shoulder like a royal sash, and a microphone in her right hand. Mockingly promoting Total Divas with the snide manner of someone tired of the same old schtick, craving something more. The tomboyish, girl next door nature of Lee had already made her a crowd favorite, and what came next was exactly what fans wanted to hear, and who better the speaker than AJ Lee?

Credit: WWE

The sting of the Black Widow sunk its poison in through the speakers as AJ Lee spoke and bits of April Mendez oozed out. Sick and tired of the formulaic presentation of women wrestlers in the company, feeling as though she was carrying the division, that the women she was speaking to onstage and backstage were complacent. She was above the reality television nature, and wanted more out of the cute wrestlers, the wrestlers born from other generations of talent in days of yore, and those who “sucked” up to the right people. 

AJ’s co-stars did not like this, shouting about it while still in the ring and at ringside, as though an invisible barrier prevented them from retaliating as Lee kept bombarding them with criticisms. Meanwhile, the crowd ate it up like it was on sale at the concession stand. To Lee, the women in front of her were expendable and bland. The fact that these women didn’t even give her the courtesy of thanking her or shaking her hand spoke volumes to her, because she felt it was on them. They couldn’t hope to touch her at her level. 

This was what the people wanted, the crowd sang the tune oh-so-well. Compelling, right? Someone who loved pouring herself into wrestling, talking smack to the drama queens in a way that spoke to more than the reality television demographic.

It is easy to feel as though AJ Lee was demeaning the work these women were putting in, and as to whether or not she was, if it was a work or not (pretty sure it’s a work but I’m a dumbass, so who knows?). But, this spoke to the audience, and from here, this is where the tides would change and a new dawn would rise. And that is reality.

The ramifications of this would not be present yet, but we’ll get there. For now, we will take a trip elsewhere, during a different time period.

The Indies and the Joshi
To say that women’s wrestling suffered during the duration of mainstream western wrestling would not be the full truth. There was much to love. 

Approach any indie fan, they’ll point you to women’s matches that were a different breed. Human punk rock against homogenized pop music. The women that belonged to Ring of Honor or any local promotion. There were all-female promotions like Shimmer, WOW, and GLOW – the latter of which was covered in the Netflix comedy-drama series – featuring women solely and prominently. The fun in women’s wrestling could easily be found, the effort to find it just had to be put in if you wanted to look past the titans. The market was always there.

Remember Mildred Burke took women’s wrestling across the globe, including Japan? From the 60s-70s forward, women’s wrestling grew, and come the 1990s, Japan would discover women putting on all-time classics. The beautiful yet deadly Manami Toyota. The destructive behemoth Aja Kong. Kyoko Inoue, the strong, fiery scrapper, and the iconic woman with the blue-paint on her face and the blondish Slim Jim hairdo, Bull Nakano. And so, so much more. 

Akin to the men’s wrestling in the country, the women hit hard. They wanted to destroy each other for success and gold, matches that will have you on the edge of your seat and wanting more. Brutal, fun, and memorable, it is always worth checking out. I personally recommend Manami Toyota’s matches against Aja Kong. If you’re into the longer stuff, Toyota’s time-limit draw against Kyoko Inoue went an hour long and delivered in every minute.

Credit: All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling

As time progressed, joshi wrestling stayed its lane, at least until the mid-2010s. The internet birthed more accessible ways to enjoy wrestling, and among the other women’s wrestling promotions in Japan standing tall was World Wonder Ring Stardom, and others such as Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling. Promotions that gave us the likes of Maki Itoh, Hana Kimura, and Io Shirai, while also featuring workers foreign to the country, such as Thunder Rosa, Heidi Lovelace (now known as Ruby Soho), and Toni Storm. Currently, there is but another gaijin star in the making: Thekla.

These promotions are typically broken down into factions, much like New Japan Pro Wrestling, and arguably STARDOM has the most popular names, such as Queen’s Quest, Oedo Tai, and Donna Del Mondo. Joshi wrestling is goofy, it’s adorable, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s intense. There is a reason why the puro purists that tout the good name of Japanese wrestling always bring it up, especially if someone mentions they like a western wrestler and must therefore be ashamed for not considering these women oceans away. It’s because the matches are good, the performers are good, the stories are good, and the characters are good. It’s just good.

If you’re reading this, new to the idea of joshi wrestlers and want to know more, I implore you to follow and read the works of fellow Inn-mates Ryan Dilbert, Scott E. Wrestling, and Trent Breward, as well as puro aficionado Sam Roberts, all on Twitter. 

If you’ve paid attention to some of the names in WWE, you’ll recognize that some of the women there come from Japan, making the trip across the globe to show the world just how good they are.

NXT’s Women Take Over
Remember when we all loved the NXT that was draped in black and gold? Good times. The feud between the Four Horsewomen and how much they wanted to kill each other to stay on top. The dominant reign of Asuka and her winning streak that continued to the main roster. Kairi Sane fighting with every single fibre of her being against the inevitable Shayna Baszler. 

God, there is so much I could put there. Even now, the remnants of what once was shine. How could it not, when you’ve got women like Io Shirai being one of the best in-ring competitors I have ever seen? 

Circling back to the time of AJ Lee, a snobby and spiteful heel, she had a successful WrestleMania win against every single diva on the WWE roster – even her own bodyguard in Tamina Snuka. The next night on RAW, her celebration on the 295th day of her reign was interrupted by the debut of a woman new to the main roster.

Paige was a beloved wrestler on NXT, before the days of Takeovers, winning the Women’s title on the program and defending it against the likes of Emma and Summer Rae. But entering the arena on that April night on RAW, she was swallowed whole by the cheers of the jubilant crowd, excited by this new showing.

Paige was there to congratulate AJ for the riches her career has brought not only her, but the women that followed in Lee’s footsteps, t thank her, just as she wanted from her peers the year prior. AJ rejected this gesture, and rejected Paige, instead challenging her to an impromptu match all the same. This was as short as the other matches you would find in this era, but this time it meant something. It meant that the road paved by AJ Lee was being tread on, with no end to the highway traffic in sight.

Not only did this propel Paige to the moon and the stars, it helped shine a light to the NXT brand, full of hungry individuals. Men and women that wanted the same opportunities and were hungry enough to fight for it. And boy, did the women consistently prove they had every right to take up as much space as the men. 

Imagine being a WWE fan, checking out NXT on the WWE Network to see what the fuss was about and seeing Sasha and Bayley’s rivalry. The historic reign of Asuka. Witnessing Rhea Ripley being a badass or Bianca Belair letting her emotions get the best of her and learning from past mistakes. 

Credit: WWE

That was the storytelling fans craved, a reason to care about these performers and their characters. That is what compels fans to buy tickets, wear merchandise, and spread the good word. For all of the many faults WWE has, they had this part done right.

Admittedly, I am not a fan of NXT 2.0, but there are characters that many are already taking to, and you know what? I hope I’m proven wrong in my distaste for the rebrand, and that the men and women on the brand absolutely kill it and exceed expectations. Until then, I’ve always got what once was to revisit.

Now, and Where We Can Go From Here
I became more than a casual fan of wrestling in 2018. In wanting to revisit the wrestling of yesteryear, I found myself slowly progressing from the Attitude Era and the Nitro Era to check out all I had missed on the WWE Network. I didn’t know anything about wrestling yet, though I thought I did. There’s always something to learn. The conversation will always update and change and we as a people must follow along with it or be left in the dust. I’m consistently humbled and excited at the surfeit of things to learn. 

WrestleMania 34 saw Asuka’s streak on the line against Charlotte Flair’s championship belt. The Rumble winner of that year was on a warpath to dethrone the queen and it all seemed inevitable. The pure desperation as they fought for their place was enough to keep your heart pounding, the world stopping around you as the fight raged on. The ending was an outright disappointment, with the streak ending in an instant to the tap of Asuka’s hand. To make matters worse, the moment was taken from the women as John Cena made a scene to prepare fans for his match against the Undertaker (a match that didn’t live up to any hype). Normally, something like that would feel like an insult and I might have walked away from wrestling again, only popping in on occasion. But, my mind was stuck on that match. Nothing on the card followed that in levels of hype for me. I even prefer this match to the Intercontinental triple threat match that night.

I’m glad I stuck to watching wrestling. I’m glad I got to be a fan of Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler. I’m glad I stuck with Becky before her she attacked Ronda Rousey while laying siege to the RAW roster, that iconic image of her bloody nose in the stands of the arena. I’m glad I was able to change my mind on Bianca Belair and see her push through barriers placed in front of her by everyone in her way, becoming one of the best things about the WWE product, if not the best thing. 

And once WWE gained more visible and accessible alternatives, there was so much more to love! A lot can still be said about AEW’s women’s division, but damn have they made some strides. Jade Cargill’s ascension to becoming the TBS Champion, from making an impact the moment she and Shaquille O’Neal took on Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet, wielding an aura that cannot be taught and an unmatchable physique.

If you’ve seen footage of Penelope Ford and Allie coated in blood from their match with Anna Jay and Tay Conti, there was already a great precedent set for it in the Lights Out match between Thunder Rosa and Britt Baker where crimson reigned eternal. Rosa and Baker set out to make a statement, inked with their own blood, that they not only belong on the main roster of AEW, but that women everywhere with talent and passion spreading like fire on gasoline deserve this spot.

Credit: AEW

In the midst of testosterone-filled peers, women that are free agents or on rosters waiting for their moment are there. They’ve always been there. Even on commentary. Look at Velvet Sky, hell, look at Veda Scott. Look and listen. There are women that can carry a match through words alone, narrating it with the love and care they have for the industry that comes across as being a fan whose soul bleeds for this thing of ours. Please listen to them. Please see them. Please sign them. The fans are here and more will come.

Speaking of Veda Scott, they’re not even on the gender binary. There’s plenty to say about the many that are fluid or outside of gender, a discussion with much room to grow as the conversation evolves and more people discover themselves. I could write this same damn article to include people like Sonny Kiss, Max the Impaler and Kidd Bandit, as well as many others I haven’t had the joy to discover yet.

Maybe we will have that conversation, as often as we are having this one. I believe this.

In Conclusion
Why did I go into this long-winded discussion? Why did I discuss Mildred Burke? Why did I spend time pointing out the flaws and upsides of WWE’s history of booking women? Why did I bring up AJ Lee, Paige, NXT, and what has been done to continue women’s booking? Why am I, a white, cisgendered, heterosexual man writing this? 

Because I’m a fan. Because I love this medium. Because this conversation keeps coming up. This conversation will happen again. And it will grow and evolve and change with its meaning, and most of it will be beyond my comprehension because I haven’t lived the life outside of the gender I’ve been assigned and living with. 

Again, I am a fan. I want more of this. I want to see women kicking ass or struggling to overcome the odds or their own human flaws. I want to relate to them. I want my friends and family to relate to them. I want my hypothetical children to relate to them. I want people to talk about them long after we are gone in the same reverence as Mildred Burke, Lita, or Thunder Rosa.

I’m just a simple guy. I don’t rate matches, I’m not the guy to talk to about work-rate. I just enjoy it and write about what I love. I am not good at talking about these kinds of things. It gives me anxiety, but I mean, come on, we all see it, right? 

Let the women be themselves, unashamed and unapologetically. Let them be different and not a carbon copy. Let them take from their experiences, because they are amazing and human in their individuality. There’s no one way to be a woman or to be a wrestler.

The rest will follow. Let them revel in where they’re from, what their skin color is, how they want to dress, or what their imagination brings them. They could be out of this world like Kris Statlander or down-to-earth and punk like Ruby Soho. Give them a chance. Give a chance to Naomi, to Jamie Hayter. 

There’s no reason fkr WWE’s Queen’s Crown Tournament matches totalling to less than thirty minutes. There should be no reason for AEW to have matches or segments that could have been on Being the Elite, Road To…, or one of the Dark shows take up television time that could be used for women to excel and tell the stories we’ve been given morsels of.

While WWE has made strides from what once was and AEW has created memorable moments of their own with the women involved, it needs to be consistent. Give us consistency and give us substance. Give us more than the bare minimum.

Learn from the past and what is being done now in building the future. See what connects indie fans to their favorite stars and compare that to your own. If you don’t allow talent to conduct the soul of your audience like an orchestra, to make them return again and again, then ask yourself why you’re even in this business. Place faith in them. Or are you just allergic to more money and success?

There doesn’t need to be a ceiling with all the talent here. There should never be a diversity checkbox, a quota. It doesn’t stop at more matches, more time, and one or two gripping storylines. It requires effort sustained beyond the men and the tag teams. We fans deserve better. We deserve more of better.

Credit: WWE

We all deserve better segments, better matches, better storylines.

In writing this, I’m doing the bare minimum. Some of the things I am asking are the bare minimum. But, it encompasses many in the industry, those involved and those that are fans. Many women, many people have said these things. They’ll continue to. And so will I. 

I’m just a boy. Standing in front of various promoters. Asking for great women to have the opportunity to do some great wrestling.