USA TODAY International Edition

WRESTLING’S WOMEN ARE FLY­ING HIGH

‘ Di­vas’ no more, they’ve taken cen­ter stage in the squared cir­cle

- Josh Bar­nett Wrestling · Sports · Texas · The World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Incorporated · Orlando · Natalya Neidhart · John Cena · Triple H · Phoenix · Austin · Phoenix · Serena Williams · United States of America · Ronda Rousey · San Francisco Bay Area · Sasha Banks · Charlotte Flair · Becky Lynch · Bayley · Nia Jax · Alexa Bliss · Mickie James · Nikki Bella · The Miz · Beth Phoenix · Stone Cold Steve Austin · Mike Johnson

As Sasha Banks rolled up to AT& T Sta­dium in Texas in the days be­fore Wres­tle Ma­nia last year, she was amazed to see im­ages of her­self, Char­lotte Flair and Becky Lynch in the cen­ter of a mas­sive ban­ner with men’s wrestlers on ei­ther side of them.

“I never in my whole life thought that I’d see the women right in the mid­dle rep­re­sent­ing WWE,” said Banks, who got out of the ve­hi­cle to take a photo.

Rais­ing the ban­ner meant rais­ing the bar.

“To think that the com­pany had that much faith to high­light us along with the men on the sta­dium, it was sur­real,” Flair re­called. “And it makes you want to work that much harder.”

Wres­tle Ma­nia 32, which took place April 3, 2016, was the last time the com­pany used the term “Di­vas” to de­scribe its fe­male tal­ent, in­stead opt­ing to use “Su­per­stars,” the word it uses to de­scribe its male per­form­ers. The cham­pi­onship belt with the pink­ish but­ter­fly was re­placed. From a change in phi­los­o­phy in re­cruit­ing and de­vel­op­ing women to the trend­ing hash­tag # Give Di­vas A Chance

from an­gry fans in re­ac­tion to a 30- sec­ond women’s match in Fe­bru­ary 2015, to move­ments termed the “Di­vas Revo­lu­tion” and the “Women’s Evo­lu­tion,” to elite- level per­form­ers among the most pop­u­lar ath­letes within WWE’s three brands, women’s wrestling has un­der­gone a meta­mor­pho­sis. An­other po­ten­tial in­flec­tion point is ahead Sun­day at Wres­tle Ma­nia 33 in Or­lando.

Bay­ley will de­fend her Raw women’s ti­tle against Flair, Banks and Nia Jax; all four were trained un­der WWE’s third brand, NXT, at the Per­for­mance Cen­ter in Or­lando. Alexa Bliss will de­fend her

Smack­down women’s ti­tle against Lynch, Carmella, Mickie James, Natalya and prob­a­bly other sur­prise par­tic­i­pants. Bliss, Lynch and Carmella came up through NXT. In a mixed- gender tag team match, Nikki Bella will team with boyfriend John Cena against Maryse and hus­band The Miz.

“I al­ways think there’s more work to be done,” Flair said. “But if you look at 2016 as a whole, Sasha and I hav­ing the first- ever women’s Hell in a Cell match, we main- evented a pay- per- view, we stole the show at Wres­tle Ma­nia at AT& T Sta­dium. There’s al­ways a women’s match on the show; some­times on Raw and Smack

down, there are two matches. I think they are giv­ing us more and more op­por­tu­nity ev­ery week.”

Mer­chan­dise sales de­pict­ing fe­male per­form­ers con­tinue to grow, the com­pany says. Walk through an arena at any WWE event, and you see as many men wear­ing T- shirts in sup­port of Bay­ley, Flair, Banks, Nikki Bella and oth­ers as you do women wear­ing them.

WWE’s TV au­di­ence con­tin­ues to in­crease in the per­cent­age of fe­males, near­ing 38%, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen fig­ures. Those num­bers in­clude re­al­ity shows To­tal

Di­vas and To­tal Bel­las on E! that have added an en­try point to the fe­male per­form­ers for new fans.

As a TV prod­uct — rev­enue from TV and the WWE Net­work was more than $ 420 mil­lion in 2016 — WWE ap­pears to have con­vinced a male- dom­i­nated view­ing au­di­ence to ac­cept fe­male ath­letes.

“We gave the women a plat­form, and once the world saw that, they re­al­ized that is what they wanted,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of tal­ent, live events and cre­ative. “Women’s wrestling has earned the plat­form that it has. There are times when the men’s match can’t fol­low the women’s match. There are times when the women’s match is — and it should be — the main event. And we’re not stop­ping here. It’s just get­ting started.” Beth Phoenix, who will be in­ducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on Fri­day, wanted to be a wrestler since watch­ing Wres­tle -Ma­nia X as a 13- year- old. She was on her high school’s wrestling team. She had a gi­ant poster of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on her dorm room door in col­lege. She trained and worked on the in­de­pen­dents be­fore get­ting a de­vel­op­men­tal con­tract with WWE.

Dur­ing a six- year run on the WWE main ros­ter be­fore re­tir­ing in 2012, she was a three- time women’s cham­pion and won the Di­vas ti­tle. She did so with a dom­i­nat­ing phys­i­cal style rare in her era. Many of her op­po­nents had been mod­els or dancers who had not had as­pi­ra­tions to be wrestlers and were culled from the com­pany’s Diva Search con­tests.

It was an era of brazen sex­u­al­ity by the women’s per­form­ers in bikini con­tests, bra and panties matches, pil­low fight matches and even a gravy bowl match.

“There were times where that wasn’t the trend to have wrestling matches,” Phoenix said. “There’s noth­ing wrong with that, but it wasn’t the style, it wasn’t the brand, it wasn’t the fla­vor of the month. This move­ment hap­pen­ing now is girls get­ting op­por­tu­ni­ties that they have had oc­ca­sion­ally in the past but not con­sis­tently. ... Now there is a con­sis­tent drive to mar­ket the girls as equal as men, and I think it’s awe­some.”

The key moment of change came when Levesque took over the com­pany’s de­vel­op­men­tal ef­forts and al­tered the pa­ram­e­ters of what the com­pany was look­ing for when it hired women — in ex­pe­ri­ence and phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Levesque wanted to present the women as ath­letes to help WWE ride a wave of in­ter­est in women’s sports, fu­eled by Ser­ena Wil­liams, the U. S. women’s soccer team, Ronda Rousey and oth­ers.

“I think WWE is more open to see­ing who is out there that they can groom as op­posed to just rel­e­gat­ing them­selves to, for ex­am­ple, one blonde, one brunette, one Spanish tal­ent, etc. It’s made the en­tire fe­male ros­ter more var­ied,” said Mike John­son, who cov­ers the in­dus­try for PWIn­sider.com.

WWE hired its first fe­male as­sis­tant coach in Sara Amato, one of the top fe­male wrestlers at the time and now the com­pany’s di­rec­tor of women’s wrestling. THE BAY­LEY FAC­TOR Per­haps the most pop­u­lar per­former — male or fe­male — in WWE right now is Bay­ley, who heads to Wres­tle Ma­nia as the Raw women’s cham­pion.

Her con­nec­tion to the fans runs deep, given that she was a long­time fan her­self who dreamed of be­ing in WWE as a kid grow­ing up in the Bay Area. Her wardrobe with bright col­ors and tas­sels hang­ing from her sleeves is in­spired by WWE Hall of Famer Randy “Ma­cho Man” Sav­age. “I still feel I’m such a fan, and I lit­er­ally, ev­ery time I come out, I can’t be­lieve that I’m here and I re­ally do this,” she said. “I want to give back. I’m so ex­cited to be there, so I can’t imag­ine how they feel.”

Levesque said he hoped to an­nounce a women’s tour­na­ment for pos­si­bly the sum­mer.

The big­gest step seems ahead, and not nearly as far away as it was even a few years ago.

“To main- event Wres­tle-Ma­nia,” Flair said, “that would be my goal.”

 ?? LUKAS SCHULZE, BONGARTS/ GETTY IM­AGES ?? Char­lotte Flair, left, and Bay­ley, mem­bers of the WWE’s “Women’s Evo­lu­tion,” tan­gle last month in Ger­many.
LUKAS SCHULZE, BONGARTS/ GETTY IM­AGES Char­lotte Flair, left, and Bay­ley, mem­bers of the WWE’s “Women’s Evo­lu­tion,” tan­gle last month in Ger­many.
 ??  ??
 ?? WWE ?? “I still feel I’m such a fan,” says hugely pop­u­lar Bay­ley, who is ful­fill­ing her child­hood dream.
WWE “I still feel I’m such a fan,” says hugely pop­u­lar Bay­ley, who is ful­fill­ing her child­hood dream.
 ?? DAVID O. GUNN, WWE ?? Next stop for four- time cham­pion Beth Phoenix: the WWE Hall of Fame.
DAVID O. GUNN, WWE Next stop for four- time cham­pion Beth Phoenix: the WWE Hall of Fame.

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