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How Pro Wrestling Helped Establish Women's MMA, and How WMMA Returned the Favor

In celebration of the WWE's newly named Women's Championship and its less ridiculous-looking new belt, we take a look at women's MMA and women's wrestling's parallel and sometimes symbiotic paths to success and respectability.
April 4, 2016, 8:10pm

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Ronda Rousey may not have made an appearance at Wrestlemania 32 in Dallas, Texas last night—despite months of speculation and rumors to the contrary—but her presence was certainly felt during the WWE Wrestlemania 32 Kickoff pre-show. After WWE Hall of Fame member Amy "Lita" Dumas revealed the brand new WWE Women's Championship belt in the ring, created to replace the increasingly unfortunate pink butterfly Diva's Championship belt that's been around since 2008 and the patronizing attitude toward female wrestlers that came along with that branding choice, Rowdy's name came up in a panel discussion about women's shifting role in the sports world. Athletes like the former bantamweight champ and Olympic boxers, the panel of past and present WWE personalities pointed out, are enjoying both competitive and commercial success that keeps them in the public eye just as much if not more so than their male counterparts. And as part of this greater cultural shift, the women of the WWE deserved to be treated as equals in their promotion.


This echoes the sentiment expressed by Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon when she kicked off what became known as the "Diva's Revolution," the movement the culminated in last night's major shift in nomenclature, branding, and championship hardware, on the July 13, 2015 episode of Monday Night Raw. "I began by speaking about the revolution around women in sports, referencing Ronda Rousey's breakthrough success as the first UFC women's champion, Venus and Serena Williams' overwhelming popularity transcending tennis and the United States Women's National Team's World Cup-clinching victory garnering more viewers than any other soccer game in history," McMahon writes of her speech in her article on the new division in The Player's Tribune. "I made it clear that our female performers were going to have that same opportunity in WWE."

It's appropriate that Rousey should figure so prominently into the WWE's public discussion about their shifting attitude toward their female talent, not just because she herself appeared at Wrestlemania 31 with The Rock, but because the sport she still represents to the outside world (even if she doesn't dominate it any more) has a unique relationship with professional wrestling. Over the course of the past decade and a half, women's mixed martial arts and its choreographed, predetermined counterpart have risen to fame and respect in parallel to each other, and have sometimes indirectly helped to pull each other up along the way.

I have no data to back this up, and the sample size of my anecdata is limited to my social and professional sphere, but I personally have never noticed the same antipathy toward professional wrestling among my female MMA-loving friends and former training partners than I've faced from male ones. (Many of my male writing colleagues still seem to openly hold a soft sport for it, though, perhaps because we all grew up with things like The Wrestling Observer, Live Audio Wrestling, and tape trading circles, which managed to hold both worlds in equal esteem.) I've long wondered if this is because wrestling, for all of its testosterone-fueled posturing, poses a certain threat to a certain kind of masculinity.

Then pro-MMA, anti-wrestling men I've talked to usually resort to the classic dismissal of the art form: it's fake. But this strikes me as both absurd and overly simplistic. Few of the people still trotting out that refrain are old enough to have seen the dying days of Kayfabe, so it's not like the realism of what they've witnessed has ever been up for debate. And to dismiss something just because it's fictional is absurd. I've spent large chunks of my professional writing career talking to documentarians and while they may have their gripes with narrative filmmaking—primarily in terms of the amount of funding and attention it received compared to their medium—I have never once heard anyone reject it simply because it's "fake." Because that's silly and simplistic.

But I can see how the conflation of sports and entertainment could cause anxiety in the average alpha male type. Despite performing incredibly similar functions in our society, the two things have been treated very differently. Sports, a predominantly masculine field, is regarded as more serious. Entertainment is perceived as less consequential, more fluffy, and more female. It's telling that the second most common complaint hurled against wrestling is that it's just a soap opera, a form of entertainment still most commonly, if unfairly, associated with bored housewife stereotypes. Wrestling, by including impressively staged and performed stunt work in its storytelling, combines athleticism with fiction, bringing alleged "fluff" to the real and more important world of athletics. So it must be dismissed and mocked to defend the sanctity of real sports like MMA.


People of other genders don't have these same concerns about hyper-masculinity, which leaves us free to either be indifferent to wrestling or actually enjoy it. And for women who do like it—particularly those who came of age before the rise of Gina Carano—pro wrestling offered an added bonus: role models.

In almost every promotion in the history of wrestling, the medium's treatment of its female talent has often been far from ideal. They've been treated as props, used for cheap titillation and continuously undervalued. Trish Stratus was infamously forced to bark like a dog, among other low points. But thanks to the women themselves and their performances, from old school legends like Mae Young and The Fabulous Moolah to Stratus and Lita's generation, wrestling became mainstream North American culture's most consistent source of publicly tough women.

Men have always been able to see themselves in boxing and MMA. Until Christy Martin started drawing attention of Mike Tyson undercards and Gina Carano became the face of WMMA, though, pro wrestlers were really the only game in town for a fight-inclined woman who wanted to look up to someone who might look like her. And even when Martin, Carano, and their contemporaries did come along, wrestlers arguably remained the most famous examples of tough women in sports and entertainment.

Pro wrestling's influence has long been apparent in Ronda Rousey's ascent to fame. The former champ has never been shy about wearing her fandom on her sleeve, or about employing classic heel techniques to help promote her fights and herself. And it's these very techniques that helped to make so fascinating to people both in and outside of MMA, which helped to make her such a breakout star in pop culture at large.

In turn, Rousey's success helped to pave the way for the current generation of artists formerly known as Divas in the WWE. In terms of the work itself, the women deserve all of the credit. Stars like Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks, who fought in the show-stealing inaugural Women's Championship match triple threat at WM 32 last night, have worked their asses off to take women's wrestling to a whole new level. But it is thanks to the stardom of athletes like Rousey that the WWE has been forced to reevaluate the way they treat their female talent and finally make the first gestures toward treating them as equals by calling them Superstars, just like their male counterparts, and giving them a belt that doesn't look like it was designed by Lisa Frank on downers.

Pro wrestling begat generations of young women who wanted to kick ass, whether the end result was predetermined or otherwise. Those women then went out and helped to change the world so that all female athletes, choreographed or otherwise, could at least start to be properly celebrated for their accomplishments. It's a pretty ideal example of what the sisterhood should be about: women with different backgrounds, disciplines, and goals working in tandem to help each other and themselves. Real recognizing real, even when some of their art is "fake."