Philadelphia is a town known for having some of the most vulgar, opinionated, passionate and loud pro wrestling fans in the world. Odds are, if you hear a chant referencing the fairer sex, it’s something about the female anatomy. At least, that’s how it used to be.
In March, men were walking around Philly’s Tower Theater in t-shirts emblazoned with “Do It With Flair” and “Legit Boss,” cheering for their favorite show stealer. The names on the main event ticket were decidedly female: Sasha Banks and Charlotte.
Both are stand outs from WWE's developmental brand, NXT, and this was one of the first NXT Road shows. During the last and most anticipated bout of the night, in an estrogen-filled ring, Banks, who is NXT Women’s Champion, and Charlotte, daughter of 16-time heavyweight champion of the world Ric Flair, battled for more than 20 minutes in front of 3,000 screaming fans, with the title on the line. Just 18 months ago, the notion of two women dominating the main event was unheard of. But as Sasha Banks held up her title after a hard fought victory, both women were met with a standing ovation. Welcome to the WWE Diva Revolution.
Women's wrestling has been part of sports entertainment as long as steel chairs and face paint. Every generation has had their stars, from The Fabulous Moolah to Alundra Blayze; from Luna Vachon and Bull Nakano, to Lita and Trish Stratus. But those have all been exceptions to the rule. Today, a new generation of female wrestlers is shifting the spotlight once reserved for the male monsters of the squared circle. For the first time, a generation of women is being groomed to compete on a level so high, even the most cynical wrestling fans are admitting to needing a new moment in the show to take a bathroom break. The Diva Revolution is here—and it’s a move that’s been years in the making.
In 2012, WWE took the first step in redefining the next generation of women’s wrestling by hiring one of the top independent female wrestlers on the planet, Sara Del Rey. Del Rey had wrestled for organizations across the United States like Chikara, Shimmer and Ring of Honor, and also traveled the international circuit, with appearances in Japan, Mexico and other countries. Still, her role in WWE was an unexpected one.
Instead of signing her as a performer to wrestle in NXT, WWE brought her to the newly developed, state-of-the art WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where she would be their first female trainer.
“It’s a void not having a trainer for the Divas, and that’s an area that should be covered,” says Del Rey. Her reputation preceded her, and superstars like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Joey Mercury all vouched for her as the perfect candidate for the new position.
“It was kind of my dream job, but it didn’t exist so I didn’t know if it was possible. It all happened so perfectly—in my mind at least,” says Del Rey. She said that the transition from performer to trainer requires remarkably different skill sets, but for her, it was the perfect fit. “Performing wasn’t my passion. It is training and being in the ring and learning just the skills it takes to perform,” says Del Ray, who adds she has no desire to get in front of the crowd again. She’s happier training women in the art of various styles of pro wrestling—she specializes in submissions, an act that’s as hard hitting and fast paced as anything on the roster—and introducing to the world a style of combat not seen before from the Divas of WWE.
The Star Students
Sasha Banks is a lifelong wrestling fan who says she once skipped her grandfather’s funeral to watch an episode of “SmackDown.” Formerly known as New England’s Mercedes KV, she built a reputation on the American independent scene, before coming to NXT, and eventually winning the championship title. Banks says the hard-hitting style that Coach Sara brings to the ring was easy for her to become accustomed to. Growing up, Banks idolized male dominators such as Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle and Dean Malenko (who now works putting together matches for WWE), so the strength and endurance of the sport was a given. Her toughest challenge, particularly as a shy person, was creating the “Legit Boss,” her bold, outspoken character. See, it’s not enough to fight, there also has to be a story line, a reason for fans to care. She learned how to do that at the Orlando Performance Center, where the late Dusty Rhodes, aka “American Dream,” helped turn Mercedes into “Legit Boss” through promo classes and character training.
Charlotte had no wrestling background whatsoever when she showed up at the WWE Performance Center. She did have a number of pluses on her side: she was an athletic woman, and, of course, her lineage: “Nature Boy” Ric Flair is her dad. But her background was in public relations, not performance. Over the last three years, with the training help of Del Rey, as well as other trainers like former wrestlers Billy Gunn and Norman Smiley, Charlotte has become a favorite among fans and critics and even WWE development classmates, creating her own name based on her unmatched athletic abilities. She says that what she lacked in the beginning has become an asset, “You know a lot of the whole revolution is “What is a diva?” When I first started I’m not a diva but I can be a wrestler.”
Charlotte says training has taught her about the physicality of in-ring competition at the WWE Performance Center, and she has learned the different ways of building a match from a baby face (good guy) or heel (bad guy) position. She’s also managed to embrace her DNA rather than live in the shadow of it, adding a strut (made famous by her legendary father) to her entrance and her finishing move is her own version of Flair’s “Figure 4 Leg Lock,” which she calls the “Figure 8.” She’s an alpha in the ring, once claiming the NXT Women’s Championship title, and moving forward despite cringe-worthy injuries, like a broken toe and burst breast implant.
Another one to watch: Becky Lynch, an Irish-born competitor who was trained in her homeland by current NXT Champion, Finn Bálor, before securing a contract to train at the WWE Performance Center. Lynch’s training began as a teenager, who had access to a hot gym with thin mats, no ring and Bálor as a coach. At 17, Lynch decided to follow her dream, and spent the next two years wrestling in Japan and Mexico. At 19, she veered off the wrestling path to surf, teach English as a foreign language and backpack in Thailand and Cambodia. From there, it was Pilates training, acting, bartending, attending clown college, becoming a flight attendant, even getting roles as a stunt woman for the TV show Vikings. After more than six years of career experimentation, she discovered where her passion had been the whole time. After staying in contact with him, she was able to re-enter the squared circle, with the help of Bálor. That’s when the opportunity arose to try out for a WWE Development deal, which she landed. When she arrived in Orlando, Lynch says she treated herself as a blank canvas at the Performance Center, morphing into the Becky Lynch WWE fans have been raving about in recent months. Her signature steampunk look and orange hair are tributes to her love of thrift shopping and her own flamboyant style.
The Feminine Mystique
Banks, Charlotte and Lynch are the backbone of an NXT Diva Revolution. It all came to a fever pitch when Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE owner Vince McMahon, announced the debut of the three on WWE’s flagship show, “Monday Night Raw.” In front of a global audience of millions, Stephanie uttered these immortal words: “I have set the table of opportunity, now I want to see who’s gonna take it.”
Look back just a few years and you’ll see women competing in the ring, but they never got more than 10 minutes in the spotlight. Today, on “Monday Night Raw,” the three divas compete in multiple matches, some of which last 15 minutes or more, gaining millions of new fans as they go. And wherever they go, Sara Del Rey is with them, producing their segments on “Raw” and “SmackDown,” while also working with women already on the main roster.
The coach has a huge responsibility on her shoulders (one of which she popped back in to its socket on her own while being trained by WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan). When she’s not training the current Diva stars, she’s working to ensure the Diva legacy continues to grow, by working with the next, next generation of women. Whether or not it’s wishful thinking, Del Rey believes the current crop of NXT women is here to stay. “Oh yeah, I think there’s going to be a very bright future for NXT Women’s division.”