From the moment she arrived in the WWF in 1997 it was clear that Chyna, born Joanie Laurer, was not to be fucked with.
Before she made history by becoming the first woman to ever participate the Royal Rumble and King of the Ring tournament, and first and only woman ever to hold the Intercontinental title—which she did twice—she debuted as the taciturn, glowering bodyguard for D-Generation X and her real life partner, Triple H. Even in 2016, the idea of a woman serving as the muscle for a faction of men would be progressive. Amid the rampant misogyny and sexism of 90's professional wrestling, it was a dizzying, foreign blast of Jetsons-grade futurism. That had more to do with Chyna than any secret progressivism in the world of wrestling. She forced the issue, just through the sheer force of her self. There has never been anyone like her, before or since.
On Wednesday night, Chyna was found dead at her apartment in Redondo Beach, Calif. She was 45. Pro wrestling is known for chewing up and spitting out its heroes, and Chyna's story may be the cruelest case of all. She changed everything, and left worse off than she arrived.
An on-screen storyline involving Triple H—by then, Chyna's off-screen fiancée—marrying Stephanie McMahon, the heiress to company fortune, bled into real life, as wrestling storylines often do. Triple H really did leave her for McMahon. Chyna was taken off the road and fired by the company shortly afterward in 2001. There is no way to confirm that this was a direct byproduct of her ex-partner marrying into the family that signed her paychecks, but Chyna contended that it was. She battled substance abuse and, allegedly, mental illness. A sex tape made with then-boyfriend Sean Waltman, who wrestled under the name X-Pac as another D-Generation X member, led her to a career in the adult film industry. Later, she moved to Japan to teach English and escape it all.
"There was this misconception out there, in the media, about everything that I've done," Chyna told VICE Sports in a sitdown last year. "[I'd] become this monster or something. In the meantime, I'm just trying to get a job, man. I'm just trying to move on and live my life."
She returned to the United States in the last year of her life to work on a documentary entitled The Reconstruction of Chyna, which in addition to telling the story of her career intended to chronicle her return home as she simply "tries to begin her life again, navigating her celebrity and staying healthy." As of Thursday morning, the film's director Erik Angra says he intends to complete it.
Her dream was to one day be enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame, a point she punctuated with a YouTube account entitled Chyna HOF. In an interview last year, Triple H acknowledged her in-ring qualification for the honor before insinuating that her history with pornography would disqualify her—a problematic statement on numerous levels. It was an unfortunate microcosm of Chyna's last 15 years, during which this iconic athlete—she was once nicknamed the Ninth Wonder Of The World—was first diminished, then marginalized and, finally, quite nearly forgotten.
At its best, professional wrestling is both a forum for unique athletic brilliance and a vibrant storytelling medium. Only a select few performers can master both the athletic demands and the theatrical ones. Chyna was among them. She was a unique canvas—she stood 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, and despite her bodybuilder's physique she was as adept at a back handspring as she was with a body slam. As such, she was colored differently than other women: There was no need for her to coil or cower or shrink into a damsel in distress. That role never suited her.
She never had grapple with the most vexing trick in wrestling—convincing the audience to suspend its disbelief—because it was entirely plausible that she could go toe-to-toe with any man she stood across the ring from. At first, her signature maneuver was a low blow. By the time she began to work as a regular in-ring competitor, in 1999, it evolved into the tried-and-true DDT. The message behind the transition was implicit: Why stoop to hitting below the belt when she was perfectly capable of dropping men right on their heads?
Her greatest achievement was taking gender equality from an abstract concept into a real life practice. From 1999 through 2001, Chyna not only competed against men on a weekly basis, but won. Those who tuned in for her feuds with Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero, two of the greatest in-ring performers ever, watched her tower over Guerrero and overpower Jericho. She was good enough, charismatic enough, and athletic enough, that fans bought in as she defeated Guerrero and Jericho, as well as other male wrestling icons—The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Jeff Jarrett and, yes, Triple H. She was booked in main events on some of the biggest shows of the time, and it never felt or seemed anything but right, and she never seemed anything but at home.
A decade and a half years after hanging up her boots, Chyna's impact on pro wrestling is still visible. Although the WWE has done away with intergender wrestling, presumably to cater to kid-friendly audiences, it still dots independent cards throughout the world. Last year, a wrestler named Kimber Lee became the first woman to hold a world championship of a major non-female United States promotion for the first time ever; she tweeted Thursday morning that Chyna was the reason she began to wrestle.
Meanwhile, WWE PR has spent the better part of the last two years championing the rise of its women's division, providing women wrestlers with more air time, better match slots, and recently doing away with the dated "Divas" moniker in favor of describing them as WWE Superstars, same as their male counterparts. And yet no competitor has come close to approaching Chyna's formidability in the ring. There is a temptation whenever someone transformative dies to label them ahead of their time. In her case, this falls short, to the point where it almost scans as an insult. That description implies that there will be more wrestlers like her.
The truth is Chyna is the female equivalent of Andre the Giant, an aspirational archetype that no one may ever successfully emulate. If anything, she's the more unique of the two. Paul Wight—better known as The Big Show and, before that, The Giant—has carved out a Hall of Fame career mostly by being a reasonable enough facsimile of Andre that he was once billed as the Frenchman's son (the two aren't related). There is no "next Chyna" on the horizon. There aren't even murmurs of anyone being in the conversation.
Perhaps the WWE will now finally do what it should have done years ago and acknowledge her legacy. The personal history still makes it unlikely, but the posthumous induction of "Macho Man" Randy Savage into its Hall of Fame offers a morbid reminder that death has a way of softening the company's ire. Whether she is inducted or not, everyone that ever saw Chyna wrestle knows that she deserves it, and deserved a lot better than she got across the board.
Her impact in four short years in WWF speaks for itself. Regardless of how much Chyna sought the company's approval, the truth is she never needed it. Even as they denied her, she was never anything but undeniable.