Perhaps no other social group in history has had to work longer and harder than women to earn the rights and privileges they have today. Thanks to those who came before them, women have the right to vote, work, own property, and, of course, wrestle.
But there was a time when it wasn’t easy going for the female set in the ring.
“It was real tough for a woman to get into the business at that time,” said Joyce Grable, who wrestled in the 1960s and 1970s. “We (girls) didn’t have any option at the time but to be tough. We had to be tough. A lot of the guys saw us as nothing more than sex partners. Us being in the business didn’t seem to bother anyone at the top of the card, because they would have their spot regardless. It was more of the middle-to-low card guys who were afraid that we were trying to take away their work.”
Grable did occasionally have to step into the ring with men who were less than thrilled about it. But despite all the arrogance and chauvinism, she would not be intimidated. Grable recalls one match in particular, where she had to prove that there is no such thing as a weaker sex.
“I was teaming one night with Judy Martin in a tag match and one of our opponents was Jacques Rougeau Jr.,” Grable said of the bout at Atlanta’s Omni. “He didn’t want to wrestle girls, so he tried to make us look bad. He would get Judy in the ring and manhandle her and then he would lock up with me and do the same to me, so I said, ‘Come on big boy, try me again.’ And I just kicked him as hard as I could and he went down to his knees and started to think better of me from then on. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrestling a man or a woman, you better be tough. Otherwise you’re going to keep getting manhandled.”
Like Grable, Rockin’ Robin Smith has been a fighter her entire life. And with a father like Grizzly Smith and brothers like Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Sam Houston, how could she not be? Smith remembers having to protect her family name as early as childhood.
“The kids used to tease us all the time that wrestling is fake,” Smith said. “I used to say, ‘Is the big house, the cars and the swimming pool fake?'”
Her last name may have opened a lot of doors for her, but Smith made sure that as soon as she walked through them, that people would remember her first name just as well. In fact, Rockin’ Robin is actually the only member of the Smith family to have held a recognized WWE Championship, which is a huge deal.
Wrestling may be Grable’s favourite pastime. Earlier this year, she received an award at the Cauliflower Alley Club for her contributions to women’s wrestling. And just like some of the younger women that she was able to pass on her knowledge to, wrestling was always a learning experience for her as well. And she may have had the greatest teacher of all, The Fabulous Moolah.
“I would train for months and months and I trained with other girls,” Grable said. “Moolah would come out every once in a while and ask us to show her what we’ve learned. And then she’d show us a better way of doing it and teach us what we were doing wrong.”
Smith was just breaking into the business at a time that Moolah’s in-ring career was winding down. But she always enjoyed working with the Fabulous One and always looked up to her as perhaps the matriarch of women’s wrestling.
“At the time when I was wrestling, everybody kind of wanted Moolah’s blessing,” Smith said. “We all looked up to her and respected her.”
It has been over 20 years since either Grable or Smith have competed in a match. Comparisons can certainly be made between then and now, but the one similarity that stands out may be the most important one. The women in today’s business are undoubtedly some of the most attractive women on television. But they still have the physical toughness, the determination and the ability, which should not go overlooked, as TNA Knockout Madison Rayne cannot emphasize enough.
“TNA looks for wrestlers first,” Rayne said. “If they find a woman who is beautiful and can wrestle, then that’s just the icing on the cake.”
TNA certainly does not discriminate when it comes to scouting talent, which Rayne says is a huge positive for the company, moving forward. She adds that this may be especially beneficial to the women, who have all the talent in the world and finally have a place to ply their craft, without worrying about how they should look.
“It’s been their (TNA’s) goal since they started the women’s division in 2007, to have the best women’s athletes they could find,” Rayne said. “I feel like they’ve done a really good job of staying true to that. We’ve got girls of all different shapes and sizes. We all appeal to a different demographic, but we’re all there for the same common goal, and that is to be athletes, and to set higher standards in women’s wrestling.”
Any fan can make the argument that looks are more important than ability, or vice versa. But as Rayne pointed out, it would not hurt to have both. And Angelina Love may be a good example of someone who does.
Love has spent almost an equal amount of time on both her physical appearance and her wrestling ability. But she is also fully aware of what kind of company she works for, and would never have gone through some of the toughest training at the hands of some of the finest wrestling educators in Toronto if she never intended to be a wrestler. And she is hopeful that other female wrestlers out there never take the business for granted and that they learn to crawl before they can walk.
“I think with the Knockouts division especially, that it gives hope to a lot of girls out there that are watching,” Love said. “There is still a spot for women’s wrestling in a major company. For the longest time, there was nothing. Maybe there was a manager here or there and maybe a girl’s match every once in a while, but it was never featured. It’s so prominent now, and such a big deal. We (Knockouts) get a lot of fan feedback that says they just love it.”
Love has not even made it to 30 yet, but has already paid her fair share of dues. She’s wrestled all across North America, from her home country of Canada to Mexico’s AAA promotion. She actually first started as a valet and even had a series of tryouts with the WWE, which never really worked out, but may have been a blessing in disguise as she is happy to be where she is right now, knowing that she’s worked so hard to accomplish her ultimate dream and just hopes that other women will follow in her footsteps, by learning to wrestle first.
“I would like to see more women with actual wrestling backgrounds get into wrestling, as opposed to just being plucked off the street, thrown into a training school and being put on TV when they’re not ready,” Love said.
One of the younger ladies of the business, who has proven time and time again that she is ready, is TNA’s Taylor Wilde.
Wilde started wrestling at the age of 17, and has been at it for the last seven years, proving how dedicated she is. It also helps that she comes from a long line of strong women.
“All of the women in my family are very strong,” Wilde said. “My grandmother came to Canada with only 20 bucks in her pocket and didn’t speak a word of English. But she worked very hard to make sure that her family was taken care of.”
Wilde may have worked equally as hard as her grandmother to put food on her own plate. She knows as well as anybody that success in wrestling is not a common trend, but she has worked very hard to keep her dream alive and would not trade it for anything in the world. Wilde traveled down a similar path as Love, making a name for herself on Toronto’s independent scene as Shantelle Taylor. She has also had the pleasure of learning the Lucha Libre style in Mexico and had her own series of tryouts with the WWE.
Just like TNA had enough faith in her to give her the Knockouts title in only her second match with the company, Wilde has an equal amount of faith instilled in the longevity of women’s wrestling.
“It’s all about girl power in today’s business,” Wilde said. “Women have proven that they’re no longer a sideshow and have come a long way, since competing in carnivals. I think women can now be looked up to by young girls, and women’s wrestling can no longer be misconstrued as mud wrestling.”
Former TNA Knockout Traci Brooks may have started the trend of women’s wrestling in TNA. Brooks, like Love and Wilde, is from Ontario, and although she spent most of her six-year run with the company as a valet, she has proven time and time again that she is also quite comfortable in the ring.
Though times have changed and characters have evolved over the last 20 years or so, Brooks doesn’t find the two eras all that different.
“The women back in the day were also glamourous,” Brooks said. “If you watch the Lipstick and Dynamite DVD, they (women) actually say they had to be dressed up and in full hair and makeup from the time they travelled to the match, until they came home. They wore makeup and skimpy clothes back then as well.”
All that glamour may be a distraction to some of the males out there, but there are those who look past it, to notice the talent in the ring, and Brooks could not be more pleased with that.
“Elizabeth is the reason that I got into wrestling,” Brooks said. “I was the exact opposite of her and wanted to get into wrestling to prove that women are more than just eye candy. It wasn’t until I started wrestling that I realized how truly talented and amazing she really was. I don’t think there has ever been a woman since, who has connected with the fans, men and women, like she did. I’m blessed to be part of this business as a woman.”
Looking towards the future, the talent does indeed extend beyond the major promotions. Although the big two promotions may give these women the exposure to make themselves household names, it is the smaller, independent promotions that prepare them for what’s to come.
As Sara Del Rey continues to create headlines on the independent circuit, she hopes to one day be considered as great as some of the female wrestlers who have preceded her.
“I think women have contributed huge in wrestling world for the most part it is still a guys world, but I think every day we make progress,” Del Ray said. “I think the fans are ready and want more prominent TV roles for the female athletes and I think that might help broaden the audience.”
Toronto independent star Nikita (Jane Miroshnykova) may have gotten herself noticed long before she could have ever imagined. At only 19, she is one of the youngest girls in the business, but if you’re as talented as everyone says you are, 19 is just a number. She is indeed living proof that women’s wrestling has a future.
“It’s a good thing that more women are being presented with more opportunities and are being accepted,” Nikita said. “It’s great to see that women can still draw in wrestling.”
Nikita has also added the Lucha style of wrestling to her repertoire and only hopes that when she makes it to the big time, there are more female wrestlers to compete with.
Despite all the criticism of women’s wrestling today, there are still similarities between then and now, in terms of athleticism. Nobody can debate the talent that the current females of the business put on display. But the main ingredient that seems to be missing is experience. Times have certainly changed as far as the skill level and look of the women’s wrestlers of today, but regardless, legendary female wrestler Donna Christantello gives today’s women her full support and hopes to see many more years of women’s wrestling.
“We kind of paved the road for these younger girls,” Christantello said. “They are doing a great job in the entertainment business.”
Women’s wrestling has certainly come a long way since Mildred Burke reigned as the first recognized World Women’s Champion in 1937, or even before that with the likes of Cora Livingston or Laura Bennett. The women of today may have it a lot easier in terms of equal rights, but they may be just as strong when it comes to their passion, dedication and love for professional wrestling. And Smith agrees that these are qualities that nobody can put a price on.
“Women’s wrestling is very different now,” Smith said. “There’s a lot more glamour. But the girls still have to be in great shape and still have to be athletic and they have to get in there and work hard.”
— with files from Bob Kapur and Richard Kamchen