Part 5 of an in depth look at the growth of women’s wrestling, from noted ring historian The Phantom of the Ring..
The Phantom of the Ring
Lipstick, Dynamite and Glowworms Part5
More on the WWF/E, and WCW.
For Vince McMahon, the 90s were something out of Charles Dickens: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Long after the bloom went off the rose known as Hulkamania, the WWF was still top dog in the early 90s. Even though media rival Ted Turner had bought WCW, he made little headway into McMahon’s domination of the business. Business was down, true, but wrestling was always cyclical in terms of fan interest. It would soon peak again.
In the meantime, things continued as normal, meaning McMahon continued to be on top. Even the defection of Hulk Hogan to WCW put little dent in the WWF’s ratings. Things merely continued as before: Women’s wrestling, not being seen as necessary to the promotion, was almost forgotten. In 1990, the belt was suspended following the departure from the company of the reigning women’s champion, Rockin’ Robin (Robin Denise Smith). The division remained dormant until December 1993, when the title was reactivated. Madusa Miceli (Debra Ann Miceli) was signed to be the new headliner under the name Alundra Blayze. In a six-woman championship tournament, she defeated Allison Royal, and then pinned Heidi Lee Morgan in the finals. Miceli would defend the belt at home against Morgan, Debbie Combs, Leilani Kai and Luna Vachon, and in Japan, where she honed her skills, she defended against Sakie Hasegawa, Kyoko Inoue and Bull Nakano, among others.
Meanwhile, the business did begin to peak again, but not in the manner McMahon expected. WCW, a promotion known for hiring WWF castoffs, now hit gold with two of them, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, in a hot new angle. Using their real names of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash (since Razor Ramón and Diesel were trademarked by the WWF), they formed a group called the NWO. This angle skyrocketed WCW over the WWF and made Nitro, not Raw, the show to watch on Monday nights.
As if that wasn’t enough, Vince was publicly humiliated by Miceli, who signed with WCW, and on the December 18, 1995 episode of Nitro, announced her signing, renounced the name “Alundra Blayze,” and dropped her WWF belt into a garbage can. Instead of holding a tournament to crown a successor, McMahon dropped the Women’s title. However, he never forgot what Miceli did, and this incident most likely was the motivating idea behind the famous screwjob in Montreal when Bret Hart “lost” his belt to Shawn Michaels.
But the women’s title wouldn’t remain dormant for long. Marc Mero’s wife and manager, Sable (Rena Mero Lesnar, nee Greek) was developing into a major attraction. Sable fit in perfectly with Vince McMahon’s new booking philosophy. In order to best WCW, which dominated in the number of stars, he reasoned that the best approach was to become edgier, so he pushed the envelope as far as it would stretch. Degeneration X (DX), the Nation of Domination, Los Boricuas, the Disciples of Apocalypse, Brian Pillman and Stone Cold Steve Austin were the new stars. It was only natural that the Women’s Title be reinstated.
An angle was devised wherein Marc Mero, Sable’s husband, would ditch the services of Sable in favor of those of the recently signed Jacqueline Moore. A feud developed between the two women and they met in a bikini contest at the Fully Loaded PPV in July 1998. This was the turning point in how McMahon would promote the women. Sable won the contest by displaying a pair of painted hands on her bare breasts. Disqualified by Vince McMahon on next night’s Raw because she did not wear a bikini, Sable and Jacqueline settled their differences in a match for the newly reinstated Women’s Title on the September 21, 1998 episode of Raw. Jacqueline won the belt after Marc Mero interfered, but Sable was able to reverse things a few months later at the November 15 Survivor Series PPV by powerbombing both Jacqueline and Marc.
This marked the first time (to my knowledge, anyway) that a woman wrestler would win a major title without the benefit of formal training or experience on the road. McMahon had taken a lesson from GLOW; he would now push the women based on their physical attributes and not on their physical abilities. But didn’t that strategy fail for GLOW? Yes, but – and this is a big but – GLOW was ahead of its time in that it was syndicated and couldn’t push the envelope as far as was necessary to ensure success. McMahon had the benefit of cable, which was more loosely regulated, and the PPV, which was analogous to an HBO or Showtime in terms of content. McMahon not only had far more financial resources than did David McLean, he also had a greater intuitive grasp of the business.
The wrestlers themselves morphed into a new category. They were no longer wrestlers, but “divas.” This gave McMahon much more flexibility in their marketing. One of his brilliant marketing strokes in this line was an alliance with Playboy magazine to feature his divas as centerfolds. Sable was the first to pose; her cover on the April, 1999 issue became of the biggest sellers in the magazine’s history (all in all, she appeared three times in the magazine).
Women’s wrestling was now here to stay in the WWF as more talent entered the promotion. Such names as the aforementioned Ivory, Jazz (Carlene Begnaud), Gail Kim, and Lita (Amy Dumas) made their debuts. Even Moolah and Mae Young were brought back, though this time mainly as comic relief. Mae would do anything. Who could forget her romp with “Sexual Chocolate” Mark Henry in one of the great punishment angles of all time, or her “topless” (prosthesis) appearance in Madison Square Garden? The matches themselves became more risqué. Bra and Panties matches, where the winner was the first one to strip her opponent to bra and panties morphed into Evening Gown matches, where the contestants wore evening gowns to start the match. When WCW copied this type of match, McMahon abandoned it in favor of pillow fights and lingerie pillow fights, where up to four divas engaged in a literal pillow fight. The ring outfits also became skimpier, even going past the thong types introduced by GLOW. Despite everything, one woman that went against this trend would be the one who dominated both the competition and the interest of fans: a young wonder woman named Chyna.
Joan Marie Laurer was a former bodybuilder who trained with Killer Kowalski’s school. She worked the New England independent circuit as Joanie Lee or Just Joanie, often with then boyfriend and fellow Kowalski alumni Saturn (Perry Satullo). A 1997 meeting with Shawn Michaels (Michael Shawn Hickenbottom) and Triple H (Paul Michael Levesque) changed her life. They recommended her to Vince McMahon, who was struck by her sheer size (5’10”, 200 lbs.). McMahon called Kowalski, who provided background and recommended her. McMahon, ever the carny promoter, saw the potential in this freak of nature and immediately devised an angle to introduce her to fans. On February 16, 1997, at the In Your House PPV as a fan in the audience who attacked Goldust’s manager (and wife), Marlena (Terri Boatwright Runnels). She was now known simply as Chyna and became aligned with Degeneration X, serving as the bodyguard of Triple H (with whom she enjoyed a live-in relationship in real life). She would often interfere in his matches using her trademark uppercut to the crotch of his opponents. At the No Way Out of Texas PPV (February 15, 1998), she became the first woman to receive a Stone Cold Stunner from Steve Austin, which allowed her to take some time off for plastic surgery (breast implants and a restructured jaw). When she returned, she still had the steroid build, but her new physical appearance turned her from a mere Amazon into a Glamazon. She also began working crossover matches. At the 1999 Royal Rumble, she was the first woman to become a contestant. She was also the first woman to hold the Intercontinental Title, defeating Jeff Jarrett in a “Good Housekeeping Match” at the No Mercy 1999 PPV (October 17). She eventually lost the belt to Chris Jericho in a three-way dance with Hardcore Holly at the 2000 Royal Rumble.
Her plastic surgery had made her much more alluring to the male fans, so much so that she posed partly nude for the November 2000 issue of Playboy. (She would pose again in a subsequent issue.) McMahon also used her Playboy pictorial as an angle to move her into the Women’s division when Ivory and Val Venis of the Right to Censor group “injured” her during a match. Chyna came back to squash Ivory at Wrestlemania 17. If she was impressive facing men, she was even more so against the women.
Her defeat of Lita at Judgment Day 2001 (May 20) proved to be her last match in the WWF. Contract re-negotiations broke down over pay and her desire to wrestle men rather than women. However, the real catalyst may well have been the breakdown of her relationship with Triple H, who left Chyna for Stephanie McMahon. Whatever the reason, she was gone and her career, and life, spiraled downward. Bookings became fewer and fewer as she was limited to independent promotions and a short stay in New Japan. Her personal life became a mess; she was engaged on and off to Sean Waltman and together they made a porno tape that was obtained by the company that released Paris Hilton’s sex tape. The video was edited and released under the title 1 Night in China. She has since served a stint in rehab and now functions as a D-List celebrity on such shows as VH1’s The Surreal Life.
With Chyna having vacated the women’s title, a successor needed to be found. That successor was Trish Stratus (Patricia Anne Stratigias), who won the belt in a six way match against Ivory, Jazz, Jacqueline, Lita, and Molly Holly (Nora Greenwald) on November 18, 2001 at Survivor Series. Stratus was a fitness model who was signed by the WWF in November 1999 and sent to learn the business from former wrestler and trainer. Ron Hutchinson. She made her WWF debut in March 2000 as a manger for T & A (Test – Andrew Martin – and Albert – Matthew Bloom, a wrestler originally slated to debut as George Steele’s son). She was also involved in an angle as Vince McMahon’s mistress in a contrived plot to commit McMahon’s wife, Linda, to an institute. The plot failed when it was reveled that Stratus was working with Linda all along.
Moving into the ring as a wrestler, she worked hard to make herself credible. Her dedication to her craft made her stand out given her lack of formal background. Also to her credit she refused a Playboy centerfold, stating that she wanted to be remembered for her wrestling, not her posing. Her skills paid off when she won the Hardcore Championship, one of only four women to do so. (The others were Godfather’s Ho – Cynthia “Bobcat” Sarven, Molly Holly, and Terri Runnels.) Her beauty earned her the title of “WWE Babe of the Year” (three times), and “Diva of the Decade.” Stratus retired on September 17, 2006 after winning the WWE Women’s title for a record seventh time.
As of this writing the Women’s Division remains a vital part of the company with Melina Perez, Victoria (Lisa Marie Varon), and Beth Phoenix (Elizabeth Kocanski Carolan) being its best workers by far. The future looks good, although I would advise any aspirant that plenty of silicone plastic surgery will take her farther than wrestling ability alone.
And what of Madusa, one might ask? Was the grass indeed greener on the WCW side of the pasture?
Well, not exactly. She feuded briefly with Sherri Martel in a silly angle involving manager Colonel Rob Parker (Robert Fuller, nee Welch) and she worked a program with Bull Nakano. After Nakano retired, WCW decided to establish a Women’s Championship and contracted with GAEA Japan for talent. This led to a program with Akira Hokuto, which ended at the Great American Bash 1997 (June 15) when Miceli lost a retirement match to Hokuto. She returned as if nothing happened (hey, fans forget) in April of 1999, finding herself aligned along with Gorgeous George (Stephanie Bellars) and Miss Madness (Nora Greenwald), but that went nowhere. On the October 18, 1999 edition of Monday Night Nitro, she was “forced” by the new controllers of WCW, the Powers That Be (Vince Russo and Ed Ferrera) to wrestle Mona (Nora Greenwald, again) in an Evening Gown Match, which Miceli lost because while she was yelling at the ringside announcers, Mona came up from behind and stripped Miceli down to her shorts and sports bra. This led to a stupid skit involving her being made to come out in a skimpy red bikini to plug the “new WCW cologne” at the Halloween Havoc PPV. She dumped the contents over announcer Bobby Heenan. The next night, on Monday Night Nitro, she was entered in the WCW Championship Tournament, which saw her lose to Meng (Uli’uli Fafita). From then on it was an angle with Evan Karagias and a slide even further down the WCW chute as she entered into a feud with Oklahoma (Ed Ferrera doing a Jim Ross parody).
Being as WCW never had a clue as how to promote the women, Miceli turned backstage, becoming an instructor at WCW’s Power Plant, its training ground for young hopefuls. She continued in this role until the company’s collapse in 2001, save for one last appearance, a feud with Torrie Wilson and Shane Douglas that culminated with Miceli and her partner, Billy Kidman, losing a mixed tag team scaffold match.
After leaving WCW she wrestled one last match against Beth Phoenix at an independent show in May 2001. Shortly thereafter, she called it quits, and is now driving a monster truck for Team Bigfoot.
When Miceli left the WWF for WCW, she thought she was just throwing her WWF title belt in the trash. It turns out that what she really threw away was her career and place in wrestling history.
Next: The Japanese get it right.
— The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher