Rock ‘n’ Wrestling: Ladies in Wrestling

Originally published in PORK #27, Fall 2017


I am quite pleased at the positive response to the GLOW series on Netflix, particularly that from viewers who have clearly never watched professional wrestling before! This confirms something I have always believed—that many more people would enjoy watching wrestling if they gave it the same chance that they did their favorite TV shows or films!

Pro wrestling is about getting its fans invested in the various personas and the stories they tell in the ring with a cathartic emotional response being the goal. None of this is lost on GLOW; I found it very interesting to note just how much it resembled classic wrestling television! Do you remember when Debbie Eagan stormed into the GLOW training facility and attacked Ruth Wilder in the ring? This scene is Pro Wrestling 101, folks! Debbie was the classic fired-up babyface who had been done wrong and was about to dole out the ass-kicking of a lifetime. Ruth was the chickenshit heel begging for her life after sleeping with her best friend’s husband. Their conflict was the main event feud that kept you watching while other sub-plots unfolded much like a wrestling promotion’s mid-card. Everyone had their motivations for success and you liked and/or disliked them based on how they presented themselves. Getting in the ring is the payoff; can they back up their claims by putting their words into action?

GLOW cast member Kia Stevens wowed wrestling audiences as Awesome Kong in TNA and Kharma in WWE.

GLOW is a great series that understands pro wrestling and respects it more than I remember from the original promotion years ago. I’ve watched the first season from start to finish several times and can safely that that if you enjoy GLOW, you are capable of enjoying professional wrestling! Nice to see actual wrestlers sprinkled throughout the cast as well, including Kia Stevens (aka Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson) who wrestled as Awesome Kong in TNA and Kharma in WWE.

Becky Lynch, Bayley, Charlotte & Sasha Banks: the Four Horsewomen of WWE!

American women’s wrestling has been at its best in recent years thanks in some part to WWE’s increased efforts to present it in a more serious light. I was never a big fan of their portrayal of women during the Attitude Era where one-dimensional personalities essentially competed in stripper matches designed to appeal to the male lowest common denominator. That approach was far worse than arguably anything the original GLOW promotion did in the ‘80s; it was an embarrassing throwback to those ads for apartment catfight videos in the back of old wrestling magazines. Wrestling was hard to defend to skeptical girlfriends when the only women featured were silicone-enhanced bimbos obsessed with tearing each other’s clothes off. You can imagine the reaction to something like ECW and their “equal rights/equal fights” ethos where it was somehow okay for male wrestlers to beat up women in the ring—and we are talking about the good guys here! Now I can show matches where women like Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Nia Jax actually get in the ring and W-R-E-S-T-L-E and I couldn’t be happier. Charlotte and Sasha’s rivalry over the women’s championship produced some of the best matches in all of WWE in 2016.

Although I admittedly don’t keep up with the independent promotions very much, I can at least inform you that they actually deserve much more credit for seeking out quality talent. Virtually all of WWE’s superior wrestlers have first passed through SHIMMER Women Athletes, the leading women’s wrestling promotion in the country affiliated with Ring of Honor. I would also like to recommend watching TNA’s Knockouts division from their 2007-2010 glory days, which drew some of the promotion’s best ratings at the time for good reason. Fans loved to hate the Beautiful People, who were a wonderfully wicked satire of WWE’s emphasis on eye candy over athleticism. Kia Stevens as Awesome Kong destroyed her opponents with a move called—you’ll love this—the Implant Buster! ODB was a whiskey-drinking redneck gal who could probably beat up most of the guys too. Ex-WWE Diva Gail Kim was the inaugural Knockouts champion. Her series of “David & Goliath” matches against Awesome Kong set the standard for the division and that’s all you need to know.

Japan has always been something of a hotbed for the True Sport of Kings; women wrestlers have certainly made a case for it also being the True Sport of Queens as well. All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (AJW) was the stalwart promotion from the 1970s through the ‘80s—their matches are not easy to find via YouTube, but are well worth the search. You have not lived until you have seen Chigusa Nagayo & Lioness Asuka team up as the Crush Gals against the dreaded Gokuaku Domei faction led by the devious Dump Matsumoto! I kid you not when I tell you that the Crush Gals were as big in Japan during the ‘80s as Hulk Hogan was here in America! Their rivalry with Gokuaku Domei defined AJW, in which young women all over the country tuned in to see the tiny schoolgirls take on the biker punk gorillas. They would later disband and embark on a bitter rivalry that culminated in an epic January 1989 battle that saw the Lioness defeat Chigusa to become the AJW International champion. Fans saw the Crush Gals reunite over ten years later in Chigusa’s all-women GAEA Japan promotion, which was huge news in the media. You cannot overstate the Crush Gals’ influence, as they inspired countless young women to enter the world of joshi puroresu. One such woman got over in the Japanese rings as Kana before signing with WWE and renaming herself in tribute to the Crush Gals—of course, I am referring to current NXT women’s champion Asuka.

Women’s wrestling has been the subject of several documentaries that I like to recommend whenever I can. I imagine that many of you have watched the GLOW documentary on Netflix after viewing the series. You have also probably heard of Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling, which came out in 2004. Interviews with the Fabulous Moolah, Johnnie Mae Young, Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillem, and others are interspersed with archival footage to tell the story of women’s wrestling’s Golden Age. Wrestling Queen is an obscure 1973 documentary about Vivian Vachon, who was widely considered one of the best wrestlers of the ‘70s. Other wrestlers featured include Vicki Williams, Kay Noble, and Bonnie Watson; plus Vivian’s brothers Butcher and Mad Dog Vachon and a host of other male counterparts. Lots of great arena footage with the kind of rasslin’ fans that don’t seem to exist anymore. Gaea Girls is an often intense look at Chigusa Nagayo’s training dojo where it’s still real to them, dammit. Slacking off in the ring earns you a stiff dropkick in the mouth and don’t even think about rinsing out the blood before the trainer berates you for not working hard enough! You can find both Wrestling Queen and Gaea Girls on YouTube while Lipstick & Dynamite is available on DVD through the normal channels.

Proper respect for the ladies of the ring has been long overdue, folks. They are the future of the industry, at least in my view. GLOW’s success shows that a potentially huge audience is out there just for them. You can bet that the series and documentary are already inspiring more women to enter the squared circle. I’ve wanted a better representation of women wrestlers my entire life as a fan; I can’t describe to you how happy it makes me to see the likes of Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Bayley having their day in the sun. Let’s see that continue and progress. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see the women’s title defended in a money-drawing WrestleMania main event someday!

 

Written by Jake Kelly

Proud author of the Rock 'n' Wrestling column as seen in PORK, a free quarterly magazine from Portland. Wrestling fan since 1985. TSM lurker since 2003. Semi-functional human being since 1978.