Wrestling fans who came of age during the 1990s probably remember women’s wrestling as a lurid sideline to main event showdowns between mega-celebrities such as Steve Austin and the Rock. The WWE, then locked in an epic battle for survival with WCW, turned to the likes of bikini model Rena “Sable” Lesnar (now married to WWE tough guy and erstwhile MMA champion Brock Lesnar) in order to add sizzle and sex to their productions. Sable and her sultry successors Stacy Keibler, Trish Stratus and Torrie Wilson mixed striptease with sparring: wrestling inside pools of mud or grease while clad in lingerie, seducing horndog CEO Vince McMahon or serving as seconds for the sport’s top stars.

Out of this “Attitude Era” came a resurrected Women’s Championship, which in turn quickly spawned a Divas Division: a never-quite-featured attraction that foregrounded a wrestler’s good looks to the detriment of almost everything else. Sure, there were great performers like Jackie, Luna and “Glamazon” Beth Phoenix, but they seemed to be there primarily to carry all those other pretty faces through halfway decent matches. However, the WWE is nothing if not endlessly reactive, and the rise of women’s athletics as a box office attraction—Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey, among others, are big money performers—forced the promotion to make a change.

The “Attitude Era” spawned a Divas Division: an attraction that foregrounded a wrestler’s good looks to the detriment of almost everything else.

So say bye-bye, Divas Division. The success of the reality show Total Divas notwithstanding, there was something weirdly out of date about the notion of women packaged like Victoria’s Secret supermodels cat-fighting in the center of the ring. Prior to her retirement, AJ Lee—one of the last great stars to enter the Divas Division—scored major rhetorical points by criticizing the “cheap, interchangeable, expendable women” employed by the WWE.

But even as Lee was holding court on RAW and Smackdown, a new generation of athletes was being groomed on NXT, the WWE’s developmental league. The women’s wrestling on offer there was something WWE fans hadn’t experienced in a long time: snug, crisp, athletic and extremely safe—completely indistinguishable from the quality work being done by male members of the NXT roster.

“Men and women do their wrestling training in the same place and in the same ways, learning the same techniques and the same moves,” explains Carrie Dunn, a professor at the University of East London who studies the sport. “Their actual abilities and movements are no different. What’s different is the way in which they perform and are perceived—in other words, the characters they’re being asked to portray while wrestling.”

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For years, too many of those characters were portrayed as babes and bimbos, promoted for reasons having little to do with their worth as athletes. Even top performers Beth Phoenix and Natalya (Natalie Neidhart, daughter of WWE great Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart) were feminized when paired together as the “Divas of Destruction”: Natalya was asked to slim down and pose for bikini photos, while Phoenix swapped out her tights for a skirt.

Slowly but surely, away from the scrutiny of all save the most rabid fans, that was changing. The rapid NXT development of Sasha Banks (Snoop Dogg’s cousin), Charlotte (Ric Flair’s daughter), Becky Lynch (protégé of former NXT champion Finn Bálor) and Bayley was a much-needed shot in the arm.

On display was exactly what fans of women’s athletics had already witnessed in other sports: competitive matchups that emphasized the skills of the performers involved. Feuds may have been enhanced by Banks’ over-the-top “boss” persona or Bayley’s ingenuous demeanor, but they were, like all other NXT storylines, gloriously simple throwbacks to an era when wrestling involved two people hating one another because an authority figure had ordered them to fight.

As older stars like John Cena slow down, it will be up to all of the remarkable performers in the rechristened Women’s Division to carry a much more diverse promotion into the future.

As other WWE Network subscribers have noted, the work was compelling. I used to fast-forward through women’s matches, thinking them degrading at worst and unsafe at best. (Lita, a daredevil performer from the “Attitude Era,” was a neck injury waiting to happen.) But I couldn’t stop watching the 10-minute clinics staged by the women of NXT.

And as I watched, I gradually started to get sad, because the best NXT performers, both male and female, kept getting recalled to the main WWE roster. The promotion had a bad track record of squandering the potential of promising superstars such as Wade “Bad News” Barrett, and I wondered how the now-rebranded “Four Horsewomen of NXT” could possibly survive in a division long-dominated by the likes of the Bella Twins and other smaller, less athletic “divas.”

The answer, amazingly enough, was to push the Bellas aside: Charlotte won the title by going over Nikki clean after a brief feud in late 2015, then systematically dismantled her at Hell in a Cell later that year. Thereafter, Charlotte turned heel, began using her famous father as a crutch to help her win difficult bouts and prevailed in a “Triple Threat” match against Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch at Wrestlemania 32 this year that ranks among the greatest ever staged at that event—on par with Ricky Steamboat/Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Title at Wrestlemania III, and the Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels “Iron Man” match at Wrestlemania XII.

Charlotte won the match after a picture-perfect, out-of-the-ring moonsault that overshadowed even Shane McMahon’s foolhardy plunge off the top of a steel cage.

The match seemed like a fitting coda to the Divas era; that belt was retired and Charlotte became the inaugural Women’s Champion. The feuds to come, including one that pitted her and her father against Natalya and her uncle Bret Hart (who had legitimate heat with Flair, per Hart’s autobiography), were appointment viewing.

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Even so, there’s more where that came from. Legendary Japanese wrestler Kana, currently tearing it up in NXT as Asuka (see photo above), looms as the next big thing in the WWE. Her thrilling wins against Bayley and the powerful Nia Jax (herself a prodigiously talented up-and-comer working in the style of the great Bull Nakano) reaffirmed Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer’s claim that Asuka “may be the best worker in WWE, man or woman.”

Meltzer, one of the most detail-obsessed wrestling critics, isn’t alone in his analysis. As older stars like John Cena slow down and management-backed “hot prospects” like Roman Reigns fail to win the approval of the fans, it will be up to unconventional tag teams like the New Day and all of the remarkable performers in the rechristened Women’s Division to carry a much more diverse promotion into the future.

In a sport where the outcomes are fixed well in advance, I doubt anybody could have predicted that.

 

To take a closer look at the 10 best female wrestlers in the world, go here.

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