Women’s wrestling: The next big thing? (Part 1)

 

jvarsallone@miamiherald.com

Before the panda uproar, WWF found a diamond with the rough as Elizabeth, the beautiful, shy manager of the overly-aggressive Macho Man Randy Savage, captivated fans in the 1980s. That started a trend. Women’s looks became an integral part of the growing company’s creative.

Elizabeth wasn’t the first.

Susan Sexton and Wendi Richter combined looks with wrestling, before Elizabeth went national. Madusa, an eye-catching women’s wrestler, did the same in the AWA, a year after Elizabeth’s WWF debut. Sherry Martel was another who combined the two. Candi Devine also.

A difference, they wrestled. Elizabeth didn’t. She didn’t have to. Dressed in lavish gowns, the former Miss Kentucky was over.

Chyna and Sable followed in WWF, but unlike Elizabeth, they wrestled.

Major entities outside of WWF began taking notice of their look and even more -- their popularity. As WWF continued to soar nationally and internationally, Chyna and Sable ended up in “Playboy.” Chyna even wrestled men and did a good job. Sable improved in the ring. Most women in WWF during that time wrestled. Though, like Elizabeth, Sunny only managed, and she also made a huge mark. That’s where most of the similarities between her and Elizabeth stop. Sunny took control of her men. Not shy at all, she’s always ready to cut a promo or interfere. Elizabeth quiet and reserve. She never did “Playboy,” and neither did Sunny, but they could have.

The business changing. Wrestling managers -- generally former wrestlers like Classy Freddy Blassie, Mr. Fuji, Bobby The Brain Heenan, Luscious Johnny Valiant, Harley Race -- confronted some new competition. Introducing valets, a hybrid name for pretty managers like Baby Doll, Dark Journey, Missy Hyatt, Precious and Woman. These ladies didn’t wrestle. They made an impression in other ways with male fans.

WCW took it one step further, introducing the Nitro Girls, a talented, eye catching dance ensemble led by the beautiful Kimberly. They didn’t wrestle, but they were showcased during the show and at appearances. Male fans approved.

The antithesis to the dancing Nitro Girls are Chyna, Awesome Kong, Midnight and Beth Phoenix. Wrestlers, they combined height and power, able to compete against the guys, if necessary.

It was not the norm nor being solicited as such.

The big experiment occurred in WWF when Trish Stratus made the transition from fitness model to wrestler. She changed the face of women’s wrestling. It took time, but Stratus proved someone without a wrestling background could make it on the big stage, even main eventing with Lita on Raw in 2004.

A women’s match the main event on Raw? A groundbreaker for sure. Stratus, who became a WWE Hall of Famer in April, set the bar very high, but sex appeal eventually surpassed wrestling skill.

In the 1995 WWF Survivor Series, WWF owner Vince McMahon was also the lead commentator. The event featured a women’s Survivor Series style elimination match. It included Japanese wrestlers Aja Kong, Tomoko Watanabe, Lioness Asuka, Kyoko Inoue, Sakie Hasegawa and Chaparita Asari. Kong is a tough-looking, physical combatant. McMahon noted during the match, it’s not about the looks; it’s about the competition.

As the company evolved, WWF (now WWE) changed that tone, deciding looks first (primarily), resulting in a divas search contest with dancers, singers and models. Hoping lightning strikes again, it’s a challenge finding the next Trish Stratus.

Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in the late 2000s proved the wrestling (not the T-n-A) of the TNA Knockouts -- talented women’s wrestlers -- can succeed on television. Some of its highest rated segments on the weekly broadcast featured Knockouts matches. Sex appeal? Yes, but these ladies know how to work, wrestle. The Gail Kim/Awesome Kong feud produced some of the top matches of the year -- female or male.

With changes backstage and in the ring, the focus toward the TNA Knockouts blurred. Though the company does feature a woman in power with Dixie Carter as president, men run the wrestling show, and men, especially former wrestlers, feel more comfortable developing a known commodity (men’s wrestling) rather than the unknown or untested (women’s wrestling). You can’t blame them. Men’s wrestling being highlighted is familiar territory, the nature of the beast.

Gail Kim desires an opportunity for women to prove themselves in the ring regularly.

In her feud with Awesome Kong, she proved fans will react — to the action in the ring. Recently she repeated that theory but with an unlikely opponent, Taryn Terrell, a WWE outcast who had some personal issues. More noted for eye candy, Terrell wrestled at the tail end of her WWE tenure. In TNA, Terrell received a fresh start and opened eyes with her in-ring work with Kim.

Kim and Terrell delivered in a Last Knockouts Standing match. A women’s gimmick match? Well, Kim likes to get physical in the ring, and that’s an important element of making it believable and capturing the attention of fans for the moves in the ring. Terrell, a stuntwoman, followed suit. It worked. The two later competed in a ladder match that was equally impressive.

• Part 2 will feature standout wrestler Gail Kim, giving some of her thoughts on the profession.

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