Quality women’s wrestling matches were rarely found on television for a long while. But, today, women are prominently featured and even main-event the world’s grandest wrestling event of all: WrestleMania. This is the tale of how a pair of champion women wrestlers navigated through the barren times and helped pave the way for today’s stars.
Barren Beginnings for the Women’s Wrestling Revolution
In 1995, professional wrestling was a tough game for women. Mary Beth Bentley, AKA Lexie Fyfe, began her journey that year after initially wanting to become a marketing executive. Instead, she stumbled across the business via a friend who wanted to be a wrestler.
“We were considered the popcorn match,” Fyfe – who has worked with Lita, Mickie James, Melina, Luna Vachon, Leilani Kei, Daffney, and Amazing Kong – opined in an interview with Pro Wrestling Stories.
“But then they realized that we were learning and kind of knew what we were doing, and we started getting better and longer matches.”
“On your card,” Fyfe continued, “you either had the midgets or the women! We were the novelty matches.”
Six-time TNA Knockouts World Champion and one-time Women of Honor (ROH) World Champion Lauren Williams, AKA Angelina Love, added, “I started in 2000, so it was definitely a woman in a man’s world,” Love told Pro Wrestling Stories.
“That’s never bothered me. I was only 18, so I remember the guys just looked at me like, ‘You actually wanna do this?’ On the Ontario indie scene at the time, pretty much every girl in the locker room or on the show was a stripper or one of the boy’s girlfriends.”
The Attitude Era
In 1995, Lexie Fyfe was getting regular bookings earning fifty bucks per night. There were only a few females working at that time, so they could make 150 dollars for rare high-profile gigs.
“Matt and Jeff Hardy, who was showing up on WWE TV doing dark matches – we were making a ton more than them on the shows because there were so few of us,” explained Fyfe.
Fyfe was wrestling three to five days a week, doing county and state fairs, and being just home for a couple of days at a time.
“Then, when the Attitude Era hit, Lita and Molly Holly became popular. Many women suddenly started training, and the pay decreased a little because of supply and demand.”
Fyfe took up a second job to supplement professional wrestling.
As the wrestling boom of the late-2000s hit, Fyfe found obstacles in her way.
“If you didn’t have the look they were looking for, you weren’t going to get hired, or you would be the one that always lost to the good-looking girl. That was how it was for a little while. It got very misogynistic.”
Fyfe was very successful on the independent scene and came close to signing with the then-WWF and WCW. She worked as an enhancement talent in the late ‘90s for WWF (vs. Tori) and WCW (vs. Molly Holly as Mona).
“When you’re enhancement talent, it was a little better for me. I never got asked to do the evening gown matches or that type of thing. Instead, they brought me in to give the woman a win to get her over before a pay-per-view. I never got asked to do anything I consider demeaning.”
She was almost relieved that she wasn’t contracted full-time by the WWF or WCW, as they would have inevitably requested that from her. However, she never had to compromise her beliefs.
In April 2005, Lexie was rewarded for her body of work by having the NWA Women’s World Championship bestowed upon her. However, it was an honor that carried a burden.
“I did not have a great championship reign. They did this build-up with me and Kiley McClean, who had the NWA title then, and we had a really good feud. The promise was, as champion, they’d give me bookings and a solid fee.
“I think I defended that belt once during my entire reign. I’m not bitter about it. I’m disappointed.
“They knew I traveled a lot and were talking about having me go to Ireland and Hammerlock. They talked this big game, and I just never saw any of it.
“It sucked because the rules about holding the title is that I had to approve all of my other bookings through them because they wanted to protect the belt, so I lost some of the bookings I normally would have had.”
Fyfe’s pride quickly turned to deflation, but she refused to blame anyone.
A Shimmer of Light
At WWE’s Great American Bash pay-per-view in 2005, Melina and Torrie Wilson contested a Bra and Panties match that lasted less than four minutes. WWE still mostly sexualized its talent.
Meanwhile, an upstart company set the wheels in motion for the business to change.
“I know for a fact, because of people who worked there,” Fyfe explained, “that WWE and Impact (TNA) took notice of what Shimmer was doing.”
“Dave Prazak [titled] it Shimmer Women Athletes. It was never Shimmer Women Wrestling or whatever; he was pushing us as athletes and not as fluff pieces. It was a great place to work.”
Prazak, a Ring of Honor employee, created Shimmer Women Athletes in November 2005 and wanted his talent to blossom. But instead, he celebrated his top talent moving on and signing with the WWE and TNA.
The promotion quickly established itself as the premier women’s-only pro wrestling league and moved mountains to help female grapplers attain the levels required for the big leagues.
Some of their alumni who’ve proceeded to reach the top include Becky Lynch, Asuka, Paige, Natalya, and Bayley.
Other big promotions still, however, tended to hire female wrestlers on looks rather than in-ring qualities.
Early WWE Diva Search shows were more interested in sex appeal than in-ring acumen. The inaugural winner in 2003 received a photoshoot and no actual wrestling contract. It was more entertainment-centric than about work rate and in-ring capabilities.
Total Nonstop Action
In the late-’00s, TNA was a big part of women’s matches being taken seriously. Their weekly Spike TV show and pay-per-views gave valuable TV time to their women’s “Knockouts” division.
TNA brought an alternative to WWE’s showcasing of “divas.” Instead, they had quality female feuds, like Awesome Kong vs. Gail Kim in 2007/2008.
At the same time, Angelina Love was about to embark on her second run with TNA, and after suffering a release from the WWE, she ended up in the right place at the right time.
“I thought WWE would be my be-all and end-all. But, once I got released and looked back at how everything happened with ‘The Beautiful People’ – it was never meant to work in WWE.”
Angelina and Velvet Sky came up with The Beautiful People gimmick that garnered years of success in association with booker Vince Russo. The ‘Mean Girl’ personas worked. They mixed beauty with ability and ran with it.
“It had to be me and Velvet [Sky]. It had to be TNA. Had either of us made it in WWE, we would never have been able to do The Beautiful People. That’s how we could make ourselves household names without the WWE machine behind us.”
“WWE went PG at that time [in 2008]. PG and wrestling don’t go together,” Love continued.
“In TNA, we were giving edgier content, and judging by the ratings that we were getting – that’s what everybody was wanting to see. So it was the right place, right time.”
WWE was usually churning out multi-woman tag matches on Raw that lasted all of five minutes.
“WWE has always had to kind of just flow with how society flows,” Love said.
“For many years, their women’s matches were the pee-break matches. What we were doing with the Knockouts division in TNA was a catalyst for WWE to go, ‘Oh, I think we got to do some more serious stuff.'”
TNA continued to push its Knockouts division, and the WWE would eventually catch up.
WWE’s developmental league, spearheaded by Paul Levesque AKA Triple H, NXT, had a significant impact on the sea of change of quality women’s wrestling by 2013, with Paige, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Asuka ultimately holding the Women’s Championship.
On the February 23rd, 2015, edition of Monday Night Raw, #GiveDivasAChance went viral after a match on Monday Night Raw between Paige, Emma, and The Bellas that lasted less than a minute.
Fans had grown impatient with Vince McMahon not allowing his female superstars the same freedom given by Paul Levesque of NXT.
Vince McMahon tweeted in response, “We hear you. Keep watching.”
And it has never been the same since.
Women As The Main Event in Wrestling
At WrestleMania 32, in 2016, the WWE Women’s Championship replaced the dated Divas Championship – a nod to equality. Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch put on a match befitting the new era.
Three years later, at WrestleMania 35, Lynch, Flair, and Ronda Rousey main-evented.
They also established an annual female Royal Rumble, a yearly Money in the Bank contest, and WWE Evolution – the first WWE-produced pay-per-view consisting solely of women’s matches.
Impact Wrestling even booked its World Championship to be held by Tessa Blanchard in January 2020.
Yes, they’ve come a long way from being merely eye candy, valets, and managers. And thank you to Lexie Fyfe and Angelina Love for helping to burst open those doors.
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