Bret Hart versus Owen Hart at WrestleMania X is the match that made a young Beth Copeland determined to find a path to professional wrestling. So to stand on stage 25 years later christened as the “Glamazon” Beth Phoenix, reunited with her Divas of Doom partner Natalya Neidhart and high-five one of her heroes, was more than the former amateur wrestler could have hoped for.
“When we got to the bottom of the ramp, my exact thought was, ‘If I trip and fall and I explode into dust at this moment, it’s OK because the best part’s already happened,'” Phoenix recalled during a conversation in July in Waterloo, Iowa.
Sitting among items from wrestling’s past at the Dan Gable Museum, Phoenix said that WrestleMania 35 entrance alone was a “life-completion moment.”
“Bret Hart high-fived me. At WrestleMania. I’m done,” Phoenix said, exuding with excitement nearly four months removed from that place in time. “I’m wearing pink and black. They played the Hart Foundation music. I’m done. I really had that thought as I held Nattie’s hand.”
Though quick to say she loved working with the women in that four-way tag match for the women’s tag team championships, it was hard to find the words to express what those seconds on the entrance ramp truly meant.
“I’m standing with [Nattie], with my childhood hero, coming down to the Hart Foundation music. We’re celebrating — we both lost our dads — we’re celebrating our dads. There’s so much emotion, it’s really hard to even put words to that. It was so special, and the match was perfect. Fantastic. It was everything we wanted it to be. Perfect. We were so happy, and if I never, ever step foot in a ring again, I couldn’t write a better fairy tale ending to my career.”
For Neidhart, the moment was equally special.
“All of my dreams in wrestling kind of came together in that one moment,” Neidhart said, “and I felt like my dad [Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart] had a hand in putting it together. My dad really played a part in Bret being out there with us for our entrance, and Beth being with me as my tag team partner, just the stars aligned. It was a dream come true.”
LEADERS OF THE WOMEN’S DIVISION
The bond the two women share landed them in Waterloo, Iowa, last month, as Phoenix became the first woman inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, best friend by her side. Phoenix, according to Neidhart, is “such a poised person” with integrity that she carries both in and out of the ring.
“She carried it with her when she was in WWE, as a multiple time women’s champion there and as Divas champion. She carried that with her when she entered into motherhood,” Neidhart said.
Above all, Neidhart sees her best friend as a champion in life.
“She’s a role model, a leader for so many of the women,” Neidhart said, “and when she came back, came out of retirement at WrestleMania, and had that match with myself for the women’s tag team championships at WWE, so many of the girls in the locker room really look up to her. She’s still so relevant and so current to the women of the WWE today and women’s wrestling today.”
When Phoenix learned she would be inducted into the hall of fame, which had previously presented her with the Frank Gotch Award, Dan Gable himself called Phoenix in yet another full-circle moment for the two-time hall of famer.
“When I became an amateur wrestler, the first thing I did was go out and buy Dan Gable’s book on amateur wrestling,” Phoenix said of the legendary American amateur wrestler and coach, “and I was studying the takedowns and just trying to learn as much as I could from his book. So that was a surreal moment.”
Though she has been upfront about the fact that she was not a “successful amateur wrestler,” Phoenix said her WWE career has provided a platform to advocate for women in sports. In her induction speech, Phoenix specifically mentioned the nonprofit Wrestle Like a Girl.
“I am so proud and happy to have that opportunity because I think there are so many women that are deserving of recognition that have paved the way for myself and my daughters’ generation,” Phoenix said.
NORMALIZING FEMALE ATHLETICISM
When Phoenix received the Frank Gotch Award in 2015, she told SLAM! Wrestling that she did not know if women would main event a pay-per-view in her lifetime. Just five years later, women have not only headlined WrestleMania, but have been involved in a plethora of “firsts,” including the women’s Royal Rumble, Hell in a Cell and Elimination Chamber matches, and the all-female pay-per-view Evolution.
“I couldn’t be happier that they had that opportunity [at WrestleMania] this year because I think we’re all — girls included — we’re all ready to be done with the firsts,” Phoenix said. “The first this, the first that. Let’s normalize women in these roles instead of making it like an outstanding accomplishment. Because we’re capable of being on an equal level. Let’s normalize that.”
Phoenix’s importance was emphasized when she returned in 2018 for the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble. And that was something Phoenix herself wanted, according to Neidhart.
“She surprised me with it,” Neidhart said, “and it was such an incredible surprise because it was really her way of giving back to me. And I always felt like she gave me enough. She gave me more than enough, but she just wanted to give me a little bit more and to be able to have eliminated Beth Phoenix in the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble, it was just a special moment in my career.”
The Rumble, from Phoenix’s perspective, was her way of continuing the “path that Chyna had started,” just as she was the second-ever woman to participate in a men’s Royal Rumble, in 2010, after Chyna had in 1999.
“I really looked up to what Chyna did because I feel like she was starting to crack that glass ceiling of, ‘The women should be a draw. Women should be on the level with the men,'” Phoenix said, “and I don’t mean even just wrestling the men, but I mean we should be equivalent in star power, in drawing power, in representing heroes because that’s what pro wrestling is — superheroes, right?”
However, Phoenix was quick to note that not all the females need to be “powerful superheroes” — villains are essential, too.
“You should have a girl that’s in this role like Vickie Guerrero, the most hated character on the show was a woman at one point,” Phoenix said, “which was huge. You know what I mean? Vince McMahon was the only one that ever got heat like that. And that was such a big deal for Vickie to be in that role, and she doesn’t get credit for that.”
Neidhart and Phoenix first teamed up as the Divas of Doom in 2010, during which time they embodied “pinup strong” and competed against LayCool (Layla El and Michelle McCool) in the first women’s tables match. Though the duo only competed together for about a year, the time they shared gave Neidhart the “confidence” to stand on her own.
“Beth taught me that it’s OK, and it’s good, and it’s extraordinary to be different,” Neidhart said. “You need to be different. You need to strive to be different. That’s what Beth taught me. And now, everything that Beth was teaching me back when we were doing the Divas of Doom stuff, it’s everything that the women wrestlers and female superstars are embracing today. Be different.”
And different — a “throwback,” even, according to Phoenix — is what the duo brought to the division at the height of what became known as the “divas era.”
“We struggled a little to fit in because we felt like we were girls that wanted to wrestle,” Phoenix said. “Most of the girls come from a modeling background, and we were just different and the audience recognized that, too.”
The Divas of Doom garnered respect from the fans, Phoenix recalled, so much so that even when they were meant to be heels, fans cheered.
“Nattie and I kind of embraced that,” Phoenix said.
It was during that time, she said, that a “little shift” in what fans wanted out of the women’s division began.
“Aside from all that, that woman [Nattie] is one of the best human beings in the entire business,” Phoenix said, “and that is not me speaking, that is everybody. Everybody says that of her. She is generous. She looks out for people. She comes from this pedigree of amazing people that did the same for those around them.”
And being able to play out their friendship on television was, for Phoenix, “so special.”
“Even if it was only a brief little blip in time and nobody remembers any of it, it was so meaningful to me, and I got my best friend out of it,” Phoenix said.
FORGING AHEAD SEPARATELY
And while their career paths have separated, the two continue to share an unbreakable bond, evidenced by their excitement to explore the pro wrestling wing of the Dan Gable Museum together before sitting down for an autograph signing.
Neidhart continues plying her craft inside the ring — and will face WWE Raw Women’s Champion Becky Lynch on August 11th at SummerSlam in Toronto — while Phoenix continues breaking gender barriers, this time at the commentary booth.
To Neidhart, her match with Lynch centers on respect. The two have known each other for 15 years. They met in Canada. Lynch was there for Neidhart’s first tour of Japan. At one point, Neidhart even wrote Lynch a letter telling the future lass kicker not to give up and to never lose her “sparkle.”
Heading into what could be the “biggest match” of her WWE career, in a marquee spot on an event the Hart family has become synonymous with, Neidhart believes Lynch and she will “raise the bar” for the women’s division.
“We actively sought out for close to two decades wanting to be female superstars, female wrestlers, and we have this story that we’re building right now, and we also have this passion for what we do in the ring … I just think that that’s why the match is going to be special because we have a good story, a story that nobody expected, a story about — I feel like — a lot about respect. And integrity.”
While both women, according to Neidhart, are respected, their journeys have been different.
“It’s the women’s championship on the line,” Neidhart said. “Both of us want to be it, and I feel like Becky is not going to be the champion forever, so somebody’s going to take it from her. And it might as well be me. Why can’t I?”
Meanwhile, on WWE’s NXT brand, Phoenix became a full-time member of the commentary team alongside Mauro Ranallo and Nigel McGuinness after stints behind the desk during the company’s Mixed Match Challenge and Mae Young Classic. Under the WWE banner, the number of females who have sat at the announcer’s booth are few and far between, with Mike McGuirk, Lita and Renee Young the only three to consistently don the headset prior to Phoenix.
“I love that you’re acknowledging past female commentators because it has been out there,” Phoenix said, “but I think it’s a change for our whole audience, just like it’s taken time to educate the audience to see the women in, not a powerful role, but an equal role on the card, it’s going to take time to educate people to the voice, hearing a female voice.
“And I get a lot of hate on that and I know Renee gets a lot of hate on that, but it’s just different. We’re so used to hearing those iconic J.R., the barreled man’s voice, you know? And it’s just going to take time to condition people to hearing a woman in the fray.”
MORE THAN ‘HEADLOCKS, DROP KICKS AND CHAMPIONSHIPS’
Hearkening back to their friendship, when Neidhart thinks about what Phoenix has meant to her, it goes far beyond the confines of a wrestling ring.
“Meeting Beth, I feel like maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was meant to get into wrestling,” Neidhart said. “So that I could meet her and she could influence my life in ways that are far greater than headlocks, drop kicks and championships.”
And for Neidhart, life is “all about” meeting people who inspire you.
“I’m not going to be a lady wrestler forever — I mean, I plan on it,” Neidhart said with a laugh, “but I do think that meeting Beth kind of made me realize that life is so much greater than what we do in the ring.”
These two women, who hold a combined six title reigns, were there for each other when both of their fathers died. Neidhart trained in the famed Hart Dungeon. Phoenix took to the amateur mat, joining the boys wrestling team to learn the craft. Their friendship blossomed on television every week for a year. Neidhart was there to induct Phoenix into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017 and was by her side in Iowa last month.
“At heart, we are lady wrestlers,” Neidhart said.