Until Chyna burst onto the scene, the WWF (at the time) Women’s Championship was suspended and re-introduced to the company a number of times, and when it was featured, the matches were rarely long and not well promoted. Even during her time with the company, the women were mostly relegated to sexual fodder for its target male demographic, competing in anything from Bra & Panties matches to Evening Gown matches to Paddle on a Pole and Bikini Mud bouts.
However, Chyna was a rare breed - a five-foot-ten powerhouse unlike anything the world of wrestling had seen before. From the second she stepped on the scene in February 1997 and rag-dolled Marlena on Monday Night RAW, she gave women the colossal shot of adrenaline it needed to make a revival in the all-important Attitude Era. It was Chyna’s gigantic presence that gave supporters of women’s wrestling hope that not only could they deliver on a stage usually reserved for men, they could compete with them on that same level.
And compete she did. She was the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble in 1999, paving the way for the women to get their own Rumble match 19 years later. She became the first woman to qualify for the King of the Ring tournament later that year, and in October she won the Intercontinental Championship from Jeff Jarrett, becoming the only woman in WWE history to hold a major title belt, a feat she accomplished twice.
Chyna quickly became one of the most popular superstars of the Attitude Era, but despite her popularity, women’s wrestling didn’t change much after her departure. Women were given a bigger platform, which isn’t saying much considering how little they were valued previously, but there was no one that rivaled Chyna's star power and ability in the ring. The WWE focused more on fitness models new to the business, and while some of them blossomed into good performers - like Trish Stratus and Torrie Wilson - others found it difficult to survive in the ever-evolving world of wrestling, and suddenly women’s wrestling fell out of favor again.
WWE’s relationship with Playboy led to annual spreads that tied into WrestleMania storylines. At the time, Chyna, herself a former Playboy cover girl, had long been gone from the company. From 2003 to 2008, a Divas match or program was highlighted by a Playboy cover girl, usually a newer, greener diva looking for exposure, leading to some poor, forgettable moments on the Grandest Stage. There was the Playboy pillow fight between Torrie and Candice Michelle at WrestleMania 22, and the BunnyMania lumberjill match hosted by Snoop Dogg.
Once their relationship with Playboy ended, the poor string of WrestleMania matches for the women’s division didn’t stop there. In 2009, a battle royal that started with a Kid Rock performance in place of superstar intros ended with “Santina” - Santino Marella in drag - winning the crown of Miss WrestleMania. In 2010, a 10-diva tag team match finished with a “Hog Splash”, as Michael Cole put it, from Vickie Guerrero (a non-wrestler) onto Kelly Kelly (a fitness model-turned-wrestler) and a painful botch of a pinfall. The following years were centered on celebrity involvement; in 2011, Snooki from Jersey Shore scored a win in a six-person tag, and in 2012, entertainment reporter (and huge wrestling fan) Maria Menounos was victorious in another tag match.
Then comes 2013, and the now-infamous scratch at Metlife. Women’s wrestling had fallen so deep into obscurity in WWE that they couldn’t even get five minutes on the biggest show of the year. The fans had had enough. Hell, some of the wrestlers had enough too, like Gail Kim, who eliminated herself from a battle royal once just to see if anyone noticed.
But what we didn’t know at the time was down in Florida, a revolution was burgeoning.
NXT grew from the ashes of WWE’s failed ECW revival, becoming what amounted to a game show before overtaking Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE’s developmental promotion for new superstars. The first woman to come out of NXT and make a difference on the main roster was Paige, who debuted on RAW the night after WrestleMania XXX in 2014 - another show with a multi-women clusterfuck of a match - and pinned Divas Champion AJ Lee to win the title on her first night on RAW. Paige would go onto tag with AJ against the Bellas the next year at WrestleMania. While Paige was growing the brand on the main roster, the seeds that were planted back in NXT were starting to blossom courtesy of the Four Horsewomen.
Charlotte Flair. Sasha Banks. Bayley. Becky Lynch. Four women who changed the face of women’s wrestling for eternity. Each one unique in their own right. Charlotte, the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair, was physically gifted and a natural at the business. Sasha Banks, a charismatic black woman from Boston, found her voice down in NXT. Bayley became one of the biggest fan favorites in the company, moving merch like no woman in WWE or NXT at the time. Becky Lynch, the wild-card of the group, had retired and moved on from wrestling before being pulled back into the mix and signed by WWE. She carried a chip on her shoulder from day one, but when she got in the ring with her three sisters, she created magic.