Disclaimer: This post discusses the progress of gender equality within WWE, a subject that is not not problematic and may require some anti-capitalist context to see the big picture. To get that context for yourself, please read my lengthy “capitalism is bad” preamble.
For fans of women getting opportunities in the wrestling industry, and women’s wrestling in general, the last few years in WWE have kind of ruled. 2015 saw the rise of the Four Horsewomen of NXT, including one of the best matches in company history from Sasha Banks and Bayley, and their follow-up rematch in a historic Iron Woman contest. In 2016, the Divas Championship was replaced by the reborn Women’s Championship, which would have to become the Raw Women’s Championship after the latest brand split necessitated the creation of the Smackdown Women’s Championship (for those who don’t recall, the first time there was a brand split, the Women’s title was shared between the two brands). That Raw Women’s Championship was also the focus of an epic series of matches between Banks and Charlotte Flair, including Raw and PPV main events and culminating in the first women’s Hell in a Cell match. 2017 gave us the first women’s Money In The Bank, which was so problematic they did the match again and pretended the first one hadn’t happened, but it also gave us the first Mae Young Classic, which has now concluded its second iteration. Not only has the MYC provided numerous women on the independent scene a chance to shine on a larger stage and a potential pathway to an NXT contract, it has also featured a number of fantastic matches, most notably a contest between indy wrestling legends Meiko Satomura and Mercedes Martinez that was so good it briefly turned Michael Cole into a relatable human being who likes watching wrestling. And kicking off 2018 was the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble, a match so historic it got the main event spot for the show, and the evening ended not with some random dude pointing at the Wrestlemania sign, but with the on-screen debut of Ronda Rousey. Pointing at the Wrestlemania sign. So, you know, mostly great.
The second women’s Rumble happened about a week ago, and I was lucky enough to be there in person. The year between the 2018 and 2019 Royal Rumble events has been packed with progress for women (despite it being painfully clear that main roster creative doesn’t know what to do with most of them and doesn’t particularly care) and while the inaugural women’s Rumble was ridiculously fun to watch, I think the 2019 Rumble as a whole is singularly indicative of how far WWE has come, and secretly one of the most important nights for gender equality in wrestling history.
With that in mind, by the power vested in me as a Person What Was In The Audience, I hereby present the following four awards to the 2019 Royal Rumble, each named for one of the people who did really good wrestling things back in 2015 and started this whole thing.
The Sasha Banks Award for Giving the Women Enough Time
The 2018 women’s Rumble match lasted 58 minutes and 57 seconds, and Sasha Banks was in the ring for 54 minutes and 46 seconds of it. Yes, technically Natalya broke Sasha’s newly won record this year with a 56-minute showing, but she wasn’t in there for 93% of the match like Sasha was, so The Boss gets her name on the trophy. Anyway, while it was great to see women’s wrestling for 59 straight minutes, that 59 minutes actually represented the entirety of the women’s wrestling portion of the 2018 Royal Rumble. Every other match was wrestled by men. Excluding the preshow (which was also all-male, but which I’m discounting here as much as WWE discounts it on every PPV) the combined time between bells in men’s matches was one hour, 59 minutes, and two seconds, 60 full minutes more than the women got. It was particularly egregious because while both Raw and Smackdown got their respective world and tag team champions on the show in title defenses, women’s champions Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss didn’t get to do anything other than sit ringside for the women’s Rumble, waiting to see who was going to be challenging one of them. I guess when Asuka won they got in the ring with her for a few minutes and then got to briefly stare at Rousey when she showed up, but that’s it.
The 2019 Rumble, on the other hand, featured defenses of both women’s titles in addition to the women’s Rumble match. Those two championship matches got plenty of time, and the women’s Rumble lasted significantly longer than the men’s, to the extent that the final tallies of combined bell-to-bell action for women on the show was one hour, 43 minutes, and five seconds. The men on the main card wrestled for a total of one hour, 44 minutes, and ten seconds. On this year’s show, the men wrestled almost exactly a minute longer than the women. I don’t think that’s ever happened in WWE before. And yes, that’s also discounting the preshow, and yes, the preshow was once again a total sausage-fest, but (1) it’s the preshow, most people are still trying to get into the building while those matches are happening and being positioned there is a clear indicator that you matter less to the company than the main show stars who actually get their pictures in the marketing material, and (2) the 2019 Rumble preshow actually contained a story element (Lana’s ankle injury) that would become important during the women’s Rumble, so I’m just gonna go ahead and count that as a minute and five seconds of women’s wrestling for the show as a whole. Also, I have no doubt that those beautiful new women’s tag titles debuting at Elimination Chamber are going directly to the preshow as soon as the champs are crowned, so hopefully we’ll finally get some ladies in that part of the programming, too! Equality is here, everybody! We did it!
The Bayley Award for Being New and Exciting
To be fair to the 2018 women’s Rumble, it might have been difficult for WWE to put on both a Rumble match and two championship matches with the talent depth they had at the time. It was an open question going into the match how the company would even find 30 women to compete without plundering basically everyone from NXT. Their answer, as it turned out, was for 11 of the 30 competitors to be “legends” or otherwise part-time performers, including Lita, Trish Stratus, Michelle McCool, Molly Holly, Jacqueline, Vickie Guerrero, Beth Phoenix, Torrie Wilson, Kelly Kelly, and the Bella Twins. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun seeing these women in the match, and it’s wonderful that they were able to be part of the first women’s Rumble. But their presence was a sign that WWE didn’t quite have the roster yet to be giving women as big a piece of the platform as they deserved. The fact that only two NXT performers were in the match – NXT women’s champion Ember Moon and Kairi Sane, who was a last-minute replacement for the injured Alicia Fox – was equally telling. The NXT women’s roster, while not exactly barren, had already been picked pretty clean at that point, and it was clear that WWE wanted to focus more on the past than on the future.
A year later, the exact opposite is true. In addition to Rousey’s arrival, the 2019 Rumble had access to new call-ups like Lacey Evans, Zelina Vega, and Nikki Cross, and even the rarely-seen Maria Kanellis got a chance to shine. Meanwhile, with the NXT roster refreshed and restored thanks to a second Mae Young Classic and the need for more women to compete in NXT UK, the future was on full display, as the women’s Rumble featured six MYC/NXT competitors – Sane, Io Shirai, Xia Li, Kacy Catanzaro, Rhea Ripley, and Candice LeRae. As for legends and part-timers…well, unless you count Kanellis, there weren’t any. Even the Bella Twins, who made the final four in the 2018 Rumble, main-evented Evolution, and are from the Phoenix area where the 2019 Rumble took place, were absent, and it didn’t matter. WWE didn’t need them. If there was ever a sign that the WWE women’s division is actively growing, it’s the fact that they are currently handing out more paychecks to female wrestlers than ever before, and as a result, they were able to find 35 women to work the Royal Rumble without breaking a sweat.
The Charlotte Flair Award for Women Having the Best Matches
If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly a wrestling fan, so here’s a question for you. All those men’s matches I mentioned earlier that preceded the 2018 women’s Rumble – you remember any of them? Like, just what they were? Who was in them?
I didn’t think so. I had to look them up, myself. My friend Eric watches wrestling every hour of every day and is a goddamn savant with this stuff, and it took him a few minutes to come with a single match on that card that wasn’t one of the Royal Rumbles. They didn’t suck, exactly, but they weren’t memorable. The women’s Rumble was the match of the night and it wasn’t close.
In 2019, the women’s Rumble might not have been the match of the night, depending on your particular inclinations, but whatever the match of the night was, it was most assuredly a women’s match. The women’s Rumble, Asuka vs. Becky Lynch, and Rousey vs. Banks were all superior to the men’s matches on the card, and again, it wasn’t particularly close. There have obviously been WWE shows in which the women have stolen the show, especially in recent years – Wrestlemanias 32 and 34 spring immediately to mind – but for the women to have three matches on the main card at one of WWE’s biggest annual events and knock them out of the park so completely that all three are better than the rest of the show? That’s historic. That’s what demonstrates the unwritten and unspoken truth about gender in modern pro wrestling: It’s easy for male wrestlers to make it. The entire industry is designed to support them, and if they have talent, work ethic, and a little luck, they stand a good chance of performing a match of the night candidate. Every woman who is able to put on a great wrestling match has had to work so much harder, overcome so many more obstacles, train longer and learn better and perform more consistently than any of their male counterparts. Even Rousey, who is new to wrestling but already amazing at it, is only able to be so because of the work she put into herself as an athlete, work that allowed her to briefly conquer the male-driven world of mixed martial arts.
Some women in wrestling still get hired because they have supermodel good looks, but now more than ever, success is achieved in the ring, and women who achieve that success tend to be special. Whether you’re WWE or Tommy’s Backyard Fed, or even Impact Wrestling, there is a very high likelihood that your female wrestlers are the best wrestlers you have. The 2019 Royal Rumble demonstrated that if you just send them out there and let them go, you will get quality results.
The Becky Lynch Award for Becky Fucking Lynch
Here’s the simplest reason the second-ever women’s Rumble match was better than the first one: it involved 31 women instead of 30. I know, I know, it sounds reductive, but then again, the fact that there was one extra woman in the match wasn’t nearly as important as who that woman happened to be. As previously mentioned, Lana, who was scheduled to compete in the Rumble, injured her ankle during the preshow (a storyline injury, not a real injury), and never made it to the ring. This opened the door for The Man herself, Becky Lynch, to take Lana’s place. Most wrestling fans had a feeling that Lynch was somehow making it into the Rumble, but that didn’t stop Chase Field from going absolutely insane when she was allowed to enter the match, and we went even crazier when she won the damn thing. Because come on. It’s Becky Lynch.
In the year between the two women’s Rumbles, three very important things happened. First, Ronda Rousey showed up, was instantly great, and won the Raw Women’s Championship. Second, Becky Lynch, who has been wrestling since 2002, went on hiatus in 2006, and came back to join NXT in 2013, tapped into something within herself and became a white-hot megastar sensation. And third, as she was in the process of becoming a white-hot megastar sensation, the collective members of the WWE audience suddenly realized there was nothing we wanted more in the world than to see Becky Lynch kick the shit out of Ronda Rousey.
Of course, part of being a wrestling fan is knowing that you probably won’t get what you want. It just doesn’t happen very often. It requires what one might call extraordinary circumstances. But on January 27th, 2019, wrestling fans got exactly what we wanted. First, Lynch lost her Smackdown Women’s Championship match with Asuka (and by the way, to everybody out there being mad about the fact that Lynch tapped out, grow the fuck up – Lynch is a wrestler and wrestlers tap out sometimes, especially when they are up against submission monsters designed to kill you like Asuka, and the hold in question was some sort of ridiculous Cattle Mutilation variant of the Asuka Lock that looked so painful it hurt just to watch). Second, Rousey defeated Sasha to retain her championship. Third, Lynch found her way into the Rumble. Fourth, Lynch won the Rumble, which allowed her to challenge either brand’s champion for a title match at Wrestlemania. There was never any question about who Lynch was going to challenge, and it was confirmed the following night on Raw. Charlotte Flair might still find a way to make the match a triple threat, but regardless of that, Rousey and Lynch will be fighting for the title at Wrestlemania, and at this point I would be shocked if that match isn’t the main event of WWE’s single biggest show. If that actually happens, female wrestlers will close out Wrestlemania for the first time in history. And again, it’s totally going to happen, both because Rousey is a huge crossover star, and because Lynch is currently the most popular person in professional wrestling, full stop. No female competitor in WWE has ever been on top of the mountain the way Lynch is right now.
I talked earlier about the best three matches on the show being the three women’s matches. What I left out, because I was saving it for right now, is the fact that they were also three of the first four matches on the main card. It was such a strange decision, and the one thing about the 2019 Royal Rumble that didn’t scream about how far the women of WWE had come in a year. It’s all well and good to get excited over the first women’s Mania main event, but with Lynch’s status as the hottest act in the company, why would her victory not be chosen to close the show? Why not main event the 2019 Royal Rumble with the women’s Rumble match, as opposed to the men’s?
I can’t answer those questions. I do have a theory I like: Nia Jax, who made the final three in the women’s Rumble before being eliminated by Lynch, came out again later for the men’s Rumble, taking R-Truth’s #30 spot by force and dragging WWE closer to true intergender wrestling, the ultimate sign of equality, than it has ever been. That wouldn’t have made sense if the women’s Rumble hadn’t gone on first. The optimist in me hopes that’s what happened, the cynic in me knows it isn’t, and truth is that I have no idea. What I can say is that, even though she wasn’t the main event, Lynch’s star power continued to infest the arena after she went to the back, and it was kind of delicious.
There are some places on a wrestling card you just don’t want to be, and the foremost of those places is immediately following the company’s biggest star. Sometimes a card will have two extremely anticipated matches featuring some of the most popular wrestlers available, but you can’t run them back to back. You have to give the crowd a break from the first big match so they can be fresh and hyped for the second one. So you put another match in between the two, and no matter what that match is, the crowd is not going to give a shit. If they’ve just seen the main person they bought a ticket to see, anything following that is going to be performed in front of a drained, dead audience. This is the entire reason that the biggest stars are supposed to go on last — the reason being “the main event” is a big deal at all.
A lot of women’s matches over the years have been stuck in the dark spaces between popular male acts. During the nadir of women’s wrestling in WWE in the late aughts and early ‘10s, women’s matches became known as “bathroom break” matches due to the performers’ general lack of talent, but they were also frequently given the bathroom break spot on the card — after one match you really wanted to see, but before the next. Even the most celebrated of women’s wrestlers have found themselves in this dead zone; Trish Stratus and Lita, arguably two of the greatest female wrestlers in WWE history, performed in exactly this spot at Wrestlemania 18, right after the crowd had been treated to Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock. So there was something fitting about the fact that, after Becky Lynch was done winning the Rumble, two of WWE’s most consistently popular and most decorated men – Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles – came out and wrestled a 24-minute WWE Championship match in almost total silence.
Becky Lynch has reached rarified air in her ascent to superstardom. There has never been a female wrestler like her. The three best matches of the night all involved women, but the three biggest crowd reactions all involved Lynch. I was there, and being part of those three reactions was possibly the best feeling I’ve ever had as a wrestling fan. Because that was the moment I knew, personally, for a fact, that she had actually done it. She had broken through. Becky Lynch, always and unfairly considered the fourth in the 4, had somehow risen above them all. Regardless of what happens at Wrestlemania (let her tap out Rousey in the main event, you cowards) she has taken her place in the upper echelons of wrestling history. And for my money (which I can say, because I spent it) so has the 2019 Royal Rumble.
Although, technically, it was my wife’s money.