WATERLOO, Iowa – WWE Hall of Famer Beth Phoenix shared her journey of overcoming gender barriers in the wrestling industry on the same night she became the first woman inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

With her best friend and former tag team partner, Natalya (Nattie Neidhart), in attendance, Phoenix told fans and fellow wrestlers at the weekend event in Waterloo, Iowa, that she was called into the principal’s office in high school two years straight because she selected “boys wrestling” on a winter sports sign-up sheet. The first year, she said she “chickened out” and changed to track and field when questioned. The second year, she stood by her choice — a decision she said was one of the biggest in her life.

“Some people were receptive… Some people were angry, including my own parents,” Phoenix said.

She recalled being told she was “attention seeking” in joining the boys wrestling team and noted that the cost of going after something “you truly believe in is huge.”

“When I got past the noise, I was able to revel in the magic of wrestling, the camaraderie of my teammates, the respect they had for me when I just kept showing up,” she said.

Phoenix also said she and her husband, WWE Hall of Famer Adam “Edge” Copeland, have shared their experiences as pro wrestling fans with each other, and in doing so, Phoenix noted that for him, the possibility of wrestling his heroes could become a reality.

“I knew it was never in the cards to wrestle Bret Hart, Owen Hart, Ted DiDiase or Curt Hennig simply because I’m a woman,” Phoenix recalled.

But in today’s landscape, she said, the current generation has more female heroes than ever.

“It’s on the table to touch the stars. I want to encourage us to continue to advocate for the growth of women in sports,” Phoenix said.

Organizations like Sally Roberts’ Wrestle Like a Girl, according to Phoenix, are doing just that for current and future generations.

“[Women] deserve a chance to compete with fellow dream chasers and have a pot of gold at the endow the rainbow,” she said.

Phoenix’s fellow WWE Hall of Famer, Sgt. Slaughter, received the Frank Gotch Award, which honors those who brought respect to pro wrestling. He regaled the crowd with tales of his first memories of wrestling and the full-circle story of Jumpin’ Joe Scarpello’s influence on his career. As a child, Slaughter met Scarpello by chance at the airport, and Scarpello told the young Robert Remus that he believed the boy would grow up to be a wrestler.

Fast forward nearly 20 years to training at Verne Gagne’s camp, and the two reconnected when Scarpello paid the camp a visit. Slaughter would later go on to wrestle in Scarpello’s hometown of Omaha.

“We became real good friends, and he helped me a lot in this business,” Slaughter said.

In regard to the honor bestowed on him by the museum and hall of fame, Slaughter said he was happy to be in Waterloo for the event.

“[At first I wasn’t] sure if I really belonged here, but I feel it now,” Slaughter said. “It’s been a great ride for me meeting so many great talents.”

He also donated action figures to be raffled off and said he would make a matching donation to the Dan Gable Museum.

Two-time WWE world heavyweight champion Bruno Sammartino received the posthumous honoree award. John Arezzi, his longtime friend and host of the Pro Wrestling Spotlight podcast, accepted the award for Sammartino, who died in 2018.

Known as the living legend, Sammartino held his championships with “dignity and honor,” according to Arezzi.

“He epitomized what a champion should be in and out of the ring,” Arezzi said.

Though they lost touch in 1996, Arezzi said he was happy when he learned that Sammartino would be inducted in WWE’s hall of fame in 2013. And the same sentiment was echoed regarding the Tragos/Thesz accolade.

“It’s an honor that’s also well deserved… I just wish he was here to accept in his gracious and authentic manner, this high honor,” Arezzi said.

Brian Shields, author of Ric and Charlotte Flair’s dual memoir Second Nature, received the Jim Melby Award, which honors excellence in professional wrestling writing and preservation. Shields has worked with WWE since 1998 through gaming company Acclaim entertainment and has since penned the first two volumes of WWE’s encyclopedia, and currently writes announcer dialogue for WWE2K video games.

“WWE was my first love,” said Shields, a New York native. “The company and its superstars, much like today, were part of the fabric of New York.”

Shields also was instrumental in establishing WWE’s legends program alongside WWE executive Mike Archer and Jim Ross — something he considers a highlight of his career. And for Shields, wrestling is not a niche genre of sports and entertainment, but rather the “embodiment” of sports and entertainment.

“This is one of the most exciting times to be a fan, and I hope my pen doesn’t run out of ink,” Shields said.

Thunderbolt Patterson accepted the Lou Thesz Award that recognizes those who transfer their skills from the wrestling industry into public service. Patterson, a Waterloo, Iowa, native, is an ordained minister and retired from wrestling to work in ministry and at a children’s home. He thanked God throughout his speech and noted that he began learning how to wrestle at six years old, when his mother sent him to the YMCA.

“If it wasn’t for Jesus, I wouldn’t be here,” Patterson said.

Gerry Brisco, a former tag partner of the honoree, said Patterson was Dusty Rhodes before Dusty Rhodes.

“You’re an inspiration to me,” said Brisco, who also accepted the George Tragos award on behalf of recipient Daniel Cormier. Cormier was unable to attend due to training for his UFC 241 fight against Stipe Miocic. Brisco said with the addition of Cormier, “another Oklahoma State cowboy is now represented” in the hall of fame.

“He sincerely wanted to be here,” Brisco said, “and he’s a great gentleman and a great representative we’re going to have on the wall in this museum.”

The family of George Tragos announced the Tragos/Thesz Scholarship that will be awarded by coaching staff to individuals who attend the University of Northern Iowa.

Also during the hall of fame weekend:

– WWE superstar Sheamus made an appearance Friday for an autograph signing.

– Curt Stallion won the Hall of Fame Tournament after defeating Nick “Eugene” Dinsmore in the first round, Kobe Durst in the second, and Air Wolf in the finals.

– Bob Roop, Phoenix, Brisco and Patterson discussed the transition from amateur to pro wrestling on a panel Friday morning.

– Wes Brisco hosted a live podcast.

– Wade Keller of the Pro Wrestling Torch did a podcast with Sgt. Slaughter on Friday afternoon.