The Evolution of Women’s Wrestling in WWE
Women’s wrestling has long been an interesting component of the larger world of professional wrestling. Through title reign shenanigans and periods of inactivity to periods of desired inactivity to the boom of the branded “Women’s Revolution”, the WWE has long had a somewhat peculiar relationship with women’s wrestling. It is not that they didn’t want women’s wrestling or that they didn’t want it to succeed, for a long time it just seemed that they did not know what to do with it. In light of the recently announced Global Women’s Tournament, let’s take a look back through the winding and often weird history of women’s wrestling in WWE and see if we can figure out how we got to today.
The First Champion and the Title Timeline
Ok, so this starts off weird. In 1956 The Fabulous Moolah became the third NWA World Women’s Champion. At the time there was no WWE or WWF for that matter as that company did not exist until 1963. In the 70’s Moolah purchased the rights to the championship from the NWA and defended it under that name until 1984. At that time Moolah sold the rights to the championship to the then WWF and she became recognized as the WWF Women’s Champion.
The interesting side note is that WWF did not reflect the title changes during that time so they listed Moolah’s reign as 28 years.
Six years later, in 1990 the championship became inactive after the champion at the time, Rockin’ Robin vacated the championship on her way out of the WWF. They then reactivated the belt due to Alundra Blayze’s winning a tournament for the championship. This run lasted two years as the division again went inactive after Alundra Blayze bolted the WWF for WCW, taking the championship belt with her and infamously dumping it in a trash can on WCW Monday Nitro.
It was another three years before the WWF Women’s Championship was reactivated in 1998. Jacqueline Moore defeated Sable to win the title. (Don’t worry, we will come back around to that shortly.)
In 2002, the WWE underwent its first brand split. The WWE Women’s Championship was the only title to be defended on both Raw and Smackdown until 2008. It was at this point that the WWE introduced the WWE Divas Championship, to be defended on the Smackdown Brand as their women’s championship.
Just two years later the two belts were unified at Night of Champions 2010 and the lineage of the Women’s Championship was used as the lineage of the Divas Championship (let’s not talk about what this means for all of the Divas champions from 2008 to 2010).
After the launch of the “Women’s Revolution” in 2015, eventually WWE decided to drop the “Divas” moniker and changed the championship to the WWE Women’s Championship, which was won by Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania 32. This title apparently does not carry the lineage of the previous Women’s Championship or Divas Championship but is acknowledged as the successor to both previous titles. Taking into consideration the brand split of 2016, the WWE Women’s Championship is now the Raw Women’s Championship and a new title was created for Smackdown, cleverly named the Smackdown Live Women’s Championship. That brings us to the present day iteration of the title(s). A whole hell of a lot has happened in those 60 plus years.
For simplicity, we will look at the generations as follows – The Fabulous Moolah years (1956 – 1984), The Rock and Wrestling era (1984 – 1995), The Attitude Era (1995 -2001), The Original Renaissance (2001 – 2010), The Divas Championship era (2010 – 2016) and the Women’s Revolution (2016 – present).
The Fabulous Moolah Era and the Rock and Wrestling Era (1956 – 1995)
I’ll be honest the end of the Moolah era falls in the year I was born and the end of the Rock and Wrestling era ends right as I got into wrestling, so there won’t be much on this section. There are two or three points of note in these years though.
First, the then-WWF made an interesting decision to recognize Moolah as champion from 1956 to 1984. Given the time and the relatively low stature that wrestling had in the mainstream at that time, it probably seemed like a good idea. The WWF got to tout that they were involved in the birth of women’s wrestling and had a champion that was recognized going back to the 1950’s. Now that so much time has passed, however, it really stands out that their history books reflects a champion with a reign of 28 years. In a lot of ways it reflects the status of women’s wrestling because someone just decided to say, “ya know what, let’s just say she had the belt this whole time, no one is gonna care”. Sad times, and really indicative of times to come.
The next big moment of this era, at least from an in-ring, active wrestler standpoint, was the involvement of Cyndi Lauper in the Wendi Richter and Fabulous Moolah feud of 1984. This was during the launch of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection where the WWF looked to bring in and retain the teenage and early 20’s audience through interactions with MTV. This is one of the most cited and replayed moments and series of moments of this time period. Women’s wrestling at this time was still not recognized in a really legitimate way. It was a sideshow in comparison to the major men’s feuds of the day.
The final moment of this era would be the infamous Monday Nitro episode where Alundra Blayze showed up, WWE Women’s Championship belt in tow, and proceeded to throw the belt into the trash. Blayze left the WWE unceremoniously in 1995 and showed the ultimate disrespect to the title that she had previously held. Like Moolah before her, Alundra was the focal point of the division and seemingly the only legitimate title holder during her run in the WWF. After Alundra’s exit, the division disappeared for three years.
P.S. It’s not lost on me that I am not helping by lumping almost 40 years into one section. Let’s just say I am following the company’s lead in that regard.
The Attitude Era
Now, for as much as teenaged me loved the Attitude Era, in retrospect the women’s division was woefully underwhelming in the shadow of what we have been blessed with in the last few years. With bra and panties matches, evening gown matches, any number of matches where women wrestled in some sort of liquid – Thanksgiving gravy, slop, – I’m pretty sure there was even a paddle on a pole match. Some may argue that most of these matches happened outside of whatever the main story was for the championship at any given time, a lot of these matches did include the top women on the roster during that era. This was also the advent of WWE’s woman appearing in Playboy magazine. No links provided. This was the age of Jacqueline, Sable, Ivory, Debra, The Kat, Chyna and towards the tail end of the era Lita and Tris Stratus. Now, I could post a pic here of the ladies mentioned above to prove what this era was really about, but I will only say that there was a tag team during this time with the name T&A consisting of Test and Albert who were accompanied by none other than Trish Stratus.
While I’m certain there must have been moments in this era that captured the audience’s attention for more than just puppies and thongs that really is all I can remember for the most part. Yes, there is a part of that for me that may just be because I was at the heart of my teenage years and wrestling was one of the easiest methods of seeing half naked girls at the time. But if anyone under the age of 30 has more than 2 non-sexy related memories of this time, then feel free to put me on blast in the comments. I will allow you moments such as Chyna entering the Royal Rumble and winning the IC belt in 1999, but Chyna in a lot of ways was an outlier in that division. (No jokes or puns intended. Seriously, don’t be disrespectful. RIP Joanie Laurer.) But for those moments, you have to remember that Stephanie McMahon held the belt during this era, as did The Fabulous Moolah. Yes, the boss’ daughter and the original 1956 title holder held WWE’s Women’s Championship at some point during this time. Imagine that happening in today’s WWE. I’ll wait. Moving on.
The Original Renaissance & The Divas Championship (2001 – 2016)
The introduction of ladies such as Trish Stratus (after she honed her craft), Lita, Moll Holly, Victoria and Mickie James, the first half of this decade had some pretty strong wrestling. Lita and Trish especially locked down the division with storylines that didn’t involve a love triangle or just catty nonsense. They both wanted to be seen as the best and helped to move women’s wrestling in a very progressive direction. That rivalry, along with a string of quality (albeit for the time) matches began to change, ever so slightly, the fans’ perception on what women’s wrestling could be.
From there you consider Mickie James’ stalker angle against Trish Stratus and some of the other feuds that occurred during this time and the 2001 to just about 2006 or so was a hopeful time for women’s wrestling in WWE. Unfortunately, as great as these early years were, the division did kinda hit a downward spiral in the back half of the decade.
For all that was established between 2001 and 2007, the WWE fell right back into the trap of models and “It” girls being the main focus of the division. With women such as Michelle McCool, Layla and Candice Michelle holding the championship at different points during 2007 and 2010. Yes, they did introduce Beth Phoenix during this run and yes, she was the evolution of Chyna – a monster athlete, with a slightly softer appearance and probably the most likely woman of previous generations to be able hang with the Four Horsewomen of today’s WWE. Beth was a breath of fresh air during a time where WWE slowly shifted back to its Attitude Era roots. This inevitably led to the creation of the Divas championship in 2008. And yes, the name and the title sucked then and straight up until it was retired.
From 2008 until about 2013 was a really dry spell for women’s wrestling in the WWE. There were additional reigns by Michelle McCool, Melina, (pre-Foxy) Alicia Fox, Layla, Kaitlyn, (pre-Daniel Bryan influenced) Brie Bella, (pre-John Cena influenced) Nikki Bella and Kelly Kelly. Most of these ladies were not wrestlers in the same mold as those of the last two to three years. Even AJ Lee, who, for the most part, had a number of great stories and held on to the belt the longest in terms of total title reigns, was too diminutive to be considered a threat to the Charlotte’s, Nia’s and even Taminas of today. Don’t get me wrong – most fans adored her, she was arguably the best worker of that era not named Beth Phoenix, and she had what could have been a game changing feud with Paige – but, the women’s championship during this run was not main eventing Monday Night Raw, much less a PPV. The match times during this stretch mostly top at about 5 minutes – and trust me, I may be being generous on that number. So for as fondly as we may remember the AJ Lee, Paige, post-Cena Nikki Bella runs, the introduction of the Four Horsewomen from NXT is what really changed the game for WWE Women’s division.
Women’s Revolution (2016 – present)
Towards the end of that rough stretch of the Divas championship, WWE signed a number of ladies to their NXT developmental territory. Paige in 2011, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley in 2012 and Becky Lynch in 2013. Charlotte, Sasha, Bayley and Becky became the lynchpins of the NXT women’s movement. It was during their time in NXT, from 2013 to about 2015/6 that WWE’s women’s wrestling transformed from T&A, catfights, and bra and panties matches into legitimate athletic performances that in most cases rivaled and in some cases surpassed the NXT men’s division.
Gone were the days of petty fighting and namecalling. No more jokes about weight or boyfriends or promiscuity. The focus became outperforming each other and their own matches time and time again. Most of these ladies point to Lita, Trish Stratus and Beth Phoenix as their mentors, which means that even the slightest glimmer of hope can lead to exponential greatness in the next generation. It may be easier than people think to draw a direct line between today’s famed NXT class of women and the heyday of the three women mentioned above. During the timeframe that Lita, Trish and Beth were doing their best to move women’s wrestling forward, young girls and teens like Sasha, Bayley, Charlotte, Becky, Paige and others were paying attention and crystallizing their ambitions to be wrestlers – and take the concept of women’s wrestling to previously unreached heights in WWE. (You have to say in WWE for two reasons. First, it is the biggest show in town so it tends to have a larger ripple effect when changes occur. Second, there are a number of women’s specific independent wrestling promotions, most notably Shimmer, so WWE isn’t exactly the only game in town in terms of changing the perception and culture of women’s wrestling).
I’ll end by saying this, the women’s divisions in WWE right now are not perfect, by any stretch. However, the leaps and bounds that have been made in the past three years are relatively unparalleled. So I will leave you with proof of how much better women’s wrestling is now and with the thought of what is some little girl or teenager thinking of doing right now that may put this current revolution to shame.
Now go fire up the WWE Network and take a look at these gems.