By JOHN CLAPP – For SLAM! Wrestling
Mercedes Martinez is leading the pack of young and talented female wrestlers in the U.S. who are making their presence known for knife-edge chops, not pulling hair.
Since making her debut six years ago, Martinez has emerged as a main player in the revitalized American women’s wrestling scene. Having earned herself a reputation as a charismatic and hard-hitting performer, she’s quickly gaining recognition for her exciting matches in New York, Illinois, and California.
But on the anniversary of her debut, Martinez returned to familiar territory: the Albanian Culture Center gymnasium in her hometown of Waterbury, Conn. There, under approximately the same row of lights as which she beat Trinity H. Campbell six years ago, Martinez pinned Nikki Roxx in a match promoted by MXW Connecticut on November 12th. She spent the time in between Campbell and Roxx building a solid resume match by match, including a WWE Heat match against Victoria, several appearances for Ring of Honor, and main events on some of the nation’s best women’s shows. What caused Martinez, a former criminal justice major at Waterbury’s Teikyo Post University, to leave the classroom for the squared circle?
“I was bored,” she said in a phone call while on her way to a Women’s Extreme Wrestling TV taping in Philadelphia. “I guess you could say I didn’t find wrestling, wrestling found me. It kind of fell in my lap.”
Martinez heard about Jason Knight’s wrestling school in Waterbury and began training with the former ECW TV champion in October of 2000, only about a month before her debut. Such short training period usually suggests either a rushed education or prodigious ability. With Martinez, it might have been a case of both. An athletic former high school basketball and softball player, Martinez stands 5’7″ and weighs 147 pounds. She gained experience wrestling fellow Knight-trainees in his promotion, Assault Championship Wrestling, but one of her most influential bookings happened by accident.
When some of Martinez’s classmates drove to Massachusetts to wrestle on a New England Championship Wrestling card in early 2001, she went along for the ride, figuring she might pick up some pointers at the show. Wisely, she had her ring gear within reach when promoter Sheldon Goldberg asked if she wanted to take the spot of a wrestler who had no-showed. She accepted the spot, lost the match against Kurt Adonis, and gained valuable exposure.
“Sometimes in wrestling you can tell a person’s special when they walk through the curtain for the first time,” Goldberg said. “It was instant electricity the moment she came out.”
He booked the rematch a month later in Vermont. Martinez won and and the crowd went wild.
A women’s division in NECW was born soon thereafter out of the decision to bring in female opponents for Martinez, said Goldberg. It wasn’t long before the variety of her competition expanded to include international talent.
In May 2002, Yoshimoto Ladies Pro’s Sumie Sakai was ready to embark on a three month stay in the U.S. The Japanese women’s promotion wanted her to win a title to bring back to Japan and, through Weekly Gong photographer Shun Yamaguchi, managed to hook up with Goldberg and NECW. Martinez beat Sakai to win the co-sanctioned North American Women’s championship on May 10, in a match unlikely to be deemed a classic. She lost the belt to Sakai a month later, allowing Sakai to return to Japan as champion, but scored several photographs in Japanese magazines in the process. Since then, she’s wrestled Sakai dozens of times on the east coast and as the series grew, the matches improved.
“When I first fought Sumie, it was different,” Martinez said, emphasizing the last word. “Now when I wrestle her, it’s easy. I looked forward to wrestling her because it was very different at that time to wrestle a women’s wrestler from Japan.”
The Martinez-Sakai feud did pose a unique role reversal in the women’s wrestling industry. Whereas American women often appeared on Japanese tours during that country’s wrestling heyday in the ’90s, this was the rare example of a Japanese woman coming to the U.S. to compete. An increased interest in independent women’s wrestling over the last few years has led to the creation of several companies, like Goldberg’s World’s Women Wrestling and the Illinois-based SHIMMER Women Athletes. There’s also an increase in the number of women training to be wrestlers, Goldberg added.
As the presentation of respectable women’s wrestling caught on with fans and indie promoters, so, too, did Martinez’s athletic no-nonsense style. SHIMMER promoter Dave Prazak compared her stiff strikes to Samoa Joe’s. Her influences include Bret Hart, Ricky Steamboat, and Chris Benoit. A quick look at her MySpace page reveals an Eddy Guerrero tribute slide show between a gallery of fan photos and a picture of her being gored by Rhino. A strong work ethic is one of the reasons why Martinez went from bored to gored in a relatively short time.
“I could tell from her wrestling that she really put everything into it,” said Joanne Starer, owner of Chikara Pro’s now-defunct sister promotion, Kiryoku Pro. “She was serious about learning her craft and growing as a wrestler.”
For fans whose idea of women’s wrestling is what’s shown on WWE television, a Martinez match might hold a few surprises.
“With Mercedes, it’s not pulling hair and hip tosses and flying mares,” Goldberg said. “She goes in there and gets down and dirty and really works hard. She works a rugged style.”
In addition to her strong wrestling ability, Martinez demonstrates a level of comfort and charisma rarely found in women on the independent scene. Prazak first saw Martinez on a Kiryoku Pro DVD and was immediately impressed with her entrance in which she danced with fans.
“She had the crowd in the palm of her hand before she even locked up,” Prazak said.
Martinez’s Kiryoku Pro appearance inspired Prazak to suggest her to Ian Rotten when the IWA-Mid South booker decided to bring in women for his student, Mickie Knuckles, to face. Rotten thought it would do Knuckles well to wrestle a variety of opponents and, much like Martinez’s situation in NECW, the IWA-MS women’s division was born out of a desire to bring in competition for its area’s top female wrestler.
Martinez had a good showing at the IWA-MS “Volcano Girls” show on May 30, 2004. Martinez had a solid match with the inexperienced valet-turned-wrestler Becky Bayless and beat Knuckles in what Prazak called Knuckles’ best match up to that point in her career. Then Martinez and Daizee Haze lost the three-way tournament final to Lacey. Martinez’s ability to adapt to opponents was one of the tournament highlights.
“She went in there and wrestled wrestlers who she hadn’t really before, except for Bayless who she worked with only a little bit,” Prazak said. “She wrestled most of these women for the first time and she was in the night’s best matches.”
Martinez continued the trend of good matches with a 20-minute draw against Sara Del Ray on SHIMMER’s debut show last November. That bout, and its subsequent rematches, drew strong reviews from fans. Clips of her match against MsChif and Cheerleader Melissa for the California-based Chick Fights have been viewed close to 10,000 times on YouTube. Those are examples of where she’s been, but where does Martinez see her future in wrestling?
“In a perfect world, I’d be in the Fed,” she said, referring to WWE. “But right now, I prefer SHIMMER and indies because that’s where the competition is. Titan’s looking for T&A;, not that I’m knocking it, but I prefer wrestling in front of fans like SHIMMER and Ring Of Honor fans. Also, I want to wrestle in Japan.”
Maybe it isn’t so important to focus on where Martinez, 26, will end up wrestling as it is to appreciate what she represents, which is a movement within North American women’s wrestling toward a tougher and more athletic product presentation. Prazak might have put it it best when he said Martinez’s ability tends to challenge fans’ preconceptions about women in wrestling.
“When you watch her wrestle, you think you’re watching a fantastic wrestler,” he said, “not a fantastic woman wrestler,”
As long as there’s a market for aggressive and physical wrestlers, Martinez should have no problem fighting her boredom.
John Clapp is a seventh-semester journalism major at the University of Connecticut, and a lifelong wrestling fan who secretly hopes ESPN begins showing Global Wrestling Federation reruns by mistake.