WWE NXT and the Revival of Women’s Wrestling

After years of being a punchline, the WWE women's division is getting a much needed infusion of talent, and a new mission statement.

The WWE really, really wanted you to know that the main event of October’s NXT TakeOver: Respect created history. In case you forgot, the telecast commentators repeated ad nauseum that the match between Bayley and Sasha was the first women’s bout that headlined a main event in any WWE special ever. WWE executive and NXT boss Triple H also drove the point home about the night’s significance by presenting retaining champion Bayley with flowers in the center of the ring, and the entire roster came out from backstage to applaud.

The hoopla was justified, though, because the moment served as a celebration of how far women’s wrestling had come in not just NXT but in the industry as a whole.In terms of the wrestling ability on display, the match was deemed an instant classic by critics. Aside from headlining, the two engaged in a physically challenging bout fought under Iron Man (strangely, not Iron Woman) rules where the winner was determined by the amount of falls accumulated over a half an hour time limit. Similarly lauded was their previous encounter, when Bayley won the championship. After that match, Charlotte and Becky Lynch joined the two in the ring. Breaking character, the four embraced.

It was a symbolic moment, as all of them but Bayley had recently joined WWE’s main roster for what Stephanie McMahon dubbed “The Divas Revolution.” This so-called revolution found Diva face-offs being allotted as much time as men’s matches, and some nights WWE even broke recent tradition by televising more than one contest between women. At the recent TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs event, current Divas champion Charlotte and the first female NXT star to make an impact in the WWE, Paige, even held a coveted spot in the night’s program when they continued their much-hyped feud directly before the main event for the men’s heavyweight title. This is a step forward, especially considering the complicated place women occupy in the world of pro wrestling. Like their male counterparts, female wrestlers date back to turn of the 20th century carnivals, though their bouts were promoted for erotic appeal, an aspect that endured. Even when the skills of female grapplers improved to move them from the carny circuit to shared bills with men in the 1940s and ’50s, they rarely received spots near the top of the card. As time wore on, they were often further marginalized to being eye candy on the sidelines as “valets” or managers.

WWE/WWF seemed like they would take women’s wrestling seriously at various points in the past. During the 1980s boom, Wendi Richter played an important role in the Rock ’N’ Wrestling storyline with Cyndi Lauper before departing the company after a controversial title change that likely occurred due to compensation disputes. Popularity of the women’s division dwindled until the WWF phased out the roster in 1990. To seemingly reignite it, the then-WWF brought in Debrah “Madusa” Miceli three years later, who was given a big push under the name Alundra Blayze before leaving just two years later—again, due to financial reasons. The women’s title then remained vacant until 1998, but soon came the rise of Chyna, a bodybuilder, star of the Attitude Era, and the only female to win the Intercontinental Championship.On the flip side, the Attitude Era was also the beginning of WWE head honcho Vince McMahon’s obsession with hiring an endless succession of blondes like Sable and Sunny, the rise of bras-and-panties matches, and female entertainers gracing the pages of Playboy (including Chyna). Even the most talented women wrestlers suffered indignities. The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young are justifiably regarded as icons, yet most people alive today remember them as comic relief during this period (a septuagenarian Young giving birth to a rubber hand is a notorious lowlight in the company’s history). For the sake of ratings, even the highly regarded ring worker Lita faced the humiliation of simulating sex with Edge on an actual bed in the center of a ring.McMahon would rather you forget any of that raunchy business ever happened since he ushered in the current family-friendly PG Era. But he still seemed either confused or ambivalent about what to do with what became the anachronistically named Divas division (complete with a title belt sadly adorned with a pink butterfly). Until the NXT call-ups, models were reportedly hired after being spotted in magazines, while the Bella twins have seemingly been learning on the job for years.This all emphasizes the importance of NXT. The company’s developmental branch, it places a strong emphasis on wrestling, rather than Vince’s vision of “sports entertainment,” i.e. long promos, goofy gimmicks, and forcing wrestlers into straight-to-video sequels of The Marine. The women are expected to compete on the same level as the men, as seen on the WWE Network show Breaking Ground, which profiles NXT hopefuls.

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Fans also value and expect skills. NXT crowds are vocal—reminiscent of ECW shows from the 1990s. When Eva Marie, a fixture in men’s magazines, was recently sent to NXT to improve her ring work, fans immediately started heckling her for lack of talent—so much so, that it was worked into her character’s storyline.Some credit WWE’s new focus on women to TNA’s Knockouts, including members of that women’s division. However, one might question the logic of copying a formula from a company whose plunging ratings have practically made them a non-competitor. Even still, TNA at least seems to have been ahead of the curb with diversity. Two stars signed with them include former WWE talents Gail Kim and Awesome Kong. When legendary commentator Jim Ross was in charge of hiring talent for WWE, he claims he talked Vince into hiring Kim by saying, “A lot of guys like Asian women. There’s Asian porn sites.”

He also reportedly told Kong she was too heavy to fit the Diva mold years after her 2002 tryout. After gaining a reputation on the indie scene, Kong turned up in some vignettes for the WWE under the name Kharma in 2011 before taking maternity leave. She appeared in 2012’s Royal Rumble as the third female ever in the competition—after Chyna and Beth Phoenix—but was then released. Though the build-up indicated a push for the intimidating Kong/Kharma, the Rumble was her first and only WWE match.

For its part, NXT doesn’t adhere to those standards. This year it signed one of Japan’s most celebrated female wrestlers, who now calls herself Asuka. Also quickly rising up the ranks is Nia Jax, a former plus-size model (although, Jax has the benefit of being from the famous Anoa’i family of Samoan wrestlers, making her a cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).Lucha Underground also seems intent on breaking the glass ceiling, where stars like Ivelisse and Super Sexy participate in intergender matches. This seems appopriate for an organization that—even while American—honors lucha libre traditions, given male versus female matches are common in Spanish-speaking countries. While such encounters remain controversial, the popular Philadelphia-based indie promotion Chikara saw its highest championship recently go to Princess KimberLee after she beat veteran male grappler Hallowicked on December 5th. For those who aren’t fans of a pantomimed battle of the sexes, there are a number of female-only wrestling promotions on the indie circuit. Perhaps the most successful of these is Shimmer, which in the past featured Awesome Kong, as well as current WWE talents—and former NXT competitors—Paige and Natalya.The WWE’s main roster continues and will most likely always continue to create awkward storylines for their female talent and no doubt objectify them at times, such as the asinine angle Lana and Summer Rae were given this year when their storyline shifting romantic allegiances fueled a tepid fued between Rusev and Dolph Ziggler. The Bellas also continue to get pushed. Some attribute this to Nikki Bella’s relationship with WWE top draw John Cena and Brie’s marriage to the frequently injured fan favorite Daniel Bryan. Of course, the sisters are also stars of the E! reality show Total Divas, a Kardashian-like abomination where the Divas break character and turn black the clock on feminism in the name of cameras capturing them getting brunch and decorating their homes.

>Even still, hope is not lost. Triple H has reportedly been transitioning slowly into taking over his father-in-law’s company in recent years. When he appeared on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast early this year, he praised NXT’s female roster and commented that one thing he would change about Raw would be giving Divas more screen time. In July, his wife Stephanie McMahon announced the Divas Revolution on Raw when introducing NXT talents Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch to the main roster. Previous Diva stars were quickly relegated to backing roles (Alicia Fox) or phased out (Rosa Mendes). The NXT call-ups (including Paige, promoted in 2014) now receive the lion’s share of WWE screen time devoted to women, even if they still have to share it with the Bellas.On the other hand, it’s no secret that sagging ratings put the WWE in panic mode. Historically, Vince becomes very hands-on during such times. To get more viewers, he could well go with patterns that worked in the past. This could mean once again pushing looks over ability with his old Hugh Hefner playbook. So, WWE fans should enjoy this moment while they can.NXT is a different story. The off-shoot organization continues expanding and more or less becoming its own brand. Diehard wrestling fans love the product, and the league keeps adding more and more shows outside of its Orlando base, including its first international tour. While NXT continues to thrive, one can only assume their women’s division will as well. There’s little doubt then that—at least in NXT—the revolution will live on.