My what a difference six years makes.
The last time WWE posted up at Metlife Stadium for WrestleMania 29, women’s wrestling was so insignificant in the company, the only match scheduled on the card involving women - an eight-person intergender tag team match featuring The Funkadactyls, Naomi and Cameron, and the Bella Twins - was scrapped at the last minute due to time constraints. When they return on Sunday for the 35th installment, the ladies will take center stage for the first time in WrestleMania history.
It’s kind of appropriate that on the same weekend Chyna takes her long overdue place in the WWE Hall of Fame as a member of D-Generation X, three of the five most popular superstars of this generation - Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey - will main event the show for both the RAW and Smackdown Women’s Championships, while the other two - Bayley and Sasha Banks - will defend the new Women’s Tag Team Championships in a Fatal Four Way. It’s appropriate because Joanie “Chyna” Laurer was the linchpin of women’s wrestling at a time when when it was basically an afterthought in mainstream wrestling.
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.
These four women were the heart of the women’s revolution in wrestling, with all three being featured prominently at WrestleMania 32 in 2016. Bayley defended her NXT Women’s Championship at the biggest NXT show to date, while Becky, Charlotte and Sasha stole the show in a triple threat match for the new Women’s Championship. Women were no longer the bathroom break on the card; they were must-see.
Fast-forward to 2019, when the four of them will compete for gold on the Grandest Stage. Aided by UFC Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey, WWE Hall of Famer Beth Phoenix, the incomparable Asuka, and another powerhouse in Nia Jax, the three - count em, THREE - women’s matches at this year’s WrestleMania, including the second women’s battle royal and the main event - are the most anticipated matches on the card.
And on the night before, the legend who led the way 20 years ago will finally be called a Hall of Famer. It’s bittersweet that Chyna won’t be here to see the culmination of what she started, but the ladies participating in Sunday’s show will no doubt do her memory justice.