When World Wrestling Entertainment star Sasha Banks started watching wrestling as a child, her favorite wrestler was Eddie Guerrero, one of the most charismatic, creative and technically gifted wrestlers of all time. Her options for a favorite female wrestler were more limited.
"At that time, there were great, athletic women that would have matches that would be two or three minutes long. Or bikini contests," she recalls. "As a little girl, at 10 years old, to tell your mom you want to be in the WWE . . . she doesn't really want to support that dream you have."
Banks's mom eventually came around - as did the world of women's wrestling, which had gone from a key part of wrestling's mid-'80s boom to an over-sexualized nadir at the turn of the millennium to an afterthought by the top of the decade. But thanks to vocal fans, persistent wrestlers and key behind-the-scene advocates, female wrestlers have nearly reached the same level as their male counterparts. These days, WWE - by far the world's largest wrestling promotion - says its "Women's Evolution" is just getting started.
The company's audience is about 60 percent male and 40 percent female, according to Nielsen Media Research cited by the company, and the 10-year-old girls in the audience who watched the flagship "Monday Night Raw" last week had it better than Banks ever did. The show featured a 10-minute, high-impact women's tag team match between Banks and her partner - the huggable, girl-next-door Bayley - vs. the punkish and puckish Riott Squad. It had the same intensity and was met with the same crowd enthusiasm as any of the matches that night featuring men. But is this a permanent revolution or the latest marketing tactic of a billion-dollar entertainment company?
When Hulk Hogan helped turn the WWE (then called World Wrestling Federation) into a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s, it was women's wrestling that helped kick off the boom period. The company teamed with Cyndi Lauper and MTV for the "Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection," which resulted in its first true mainstream exposure.
Women's wrestling would soon move to the back burner as the Vince McMahon-owned company became big business. Women returned to the spotlight as WWF and its chief competitor, World Championship Wrestling, entered the "Monday Night War" period in the 1990s. But rather than being an athletic competition on par with men's wrestling, the women's product devolved into a sexualized sideshow used to titillate male fans and drive ratings by showing off bikini bods and ripping off evening gowns. Somehow, women's wrestling in the WWE got even worse in the 2000s, as the company added a beauty competition called Diva Search, hosted a Playboy-branded pillow fight at WrestleMania, and branded its female wrestlers as "Divas," complete with a butterfly-festooned championship belt.
Despite all this misogyny and objectification, there were always women fighting to be taken seriously as wrestlers. There was the Amazonian enforcer Chyna, the highflying Lita, and Trish Stratus, a fitness model who turned herself into an accomplished in-ring performer. They still had more than their share of sexist story lines, but when they were given a chance, they shined.
That was the case on Dec. 6, 2004, in Charlotte, when Lita and Stratus fought for the women's title, the first time women headlined "Monday Night Raw." One person in the front row that night would eventually make women's wrestling history of her own. But at the time, she was just Ashley Fliehr, a high school senior and the daughter of pro wrestling legend Ric Flair. She was there to watch her dad, she says, and "didn't realize the history that was being made or the impact those two women were having on the industry."
Fliehr, who is now 32 and goes by the stage name Charlotte Flair, didn't grow up wanting to follow her father's footsteps into the business. "When I saw the female wrestlers, I thought, look at these beautiful women," she remembers. "They were glamorous models, everything that I thought I wasn't." A champion volleyball player in high school, she knew she could do a backflipping "moonsault" like Lita, but she didn't see herself glammed up for the cameras. "I saw myself as an athlete."
Flair was working as a personal trainer when a WWE official asked her to consider getting into the family business in 2012. All Flair had when she started wrestling was "a pair of amateur wrestling boots and a last name." Her father rarely brought his work home, so she knew very little of the business, but she still had to work to step out of his long shadow and prove she was there on her own merit. And while she could handle the athleticism that wrestling required, building a character - like her stylin' and profilin' father had done so masterfully - was a challenge. "It took two years to learn that I needed to connect with people on an emotional level."
Flair learned how to wrestle, tell stories and connect with fans on NXT, WWE's in-house minor league system, which has its own tours and a weekly TV program on the company's WWE Network service. She and other ascendant stars such as Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch were able to hone their craft away from the spotlight of the WWE's main roster, under the watchful eye of Paul "Triple H" Levesque, formerly one of WWE's biggest stars who is now the company's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. Levesque, who took over developmental training at the beginning of the decade, is credited with helping to change the way WWE approached its female performers.
"The first thing I noticed was the way we were working with our women," Levesque says. "They were almost being told, 'Don't wrestle or perform like the men.' I felt like that was fundamentally wrong." He also changed how WWE recruited women. "Instead of looking at women like it was a modeling agency, we went from an athletic standpoint," he says. "I wanted athletes that would be willing to embrace the grind we did, but deliver at a high level that is needed to be a WWE superstar."
At NXT, the new approach paid off quickly. "It was so cool to see fans' perceptions of women's wrestling change," Banks says. "Eventually fans wanted to buy tickets to see the women, which was so crazy to hear, because before that, we were considered the bathroom break." But even as the women took a step forward at NXT, that wasn't the case on WWE's "Raw" and "SmackDown" programs.
It reached a low point in February 2015, when "Raw" featured just half a minute of women's wrestling in a three-hour-long show. Outcry from fans led to some changes, with the four NXT stars soon joining the "Raw" roster. Slowly but surely, WWE started presenting women's wrestling as the equal of men's wrestling. At WrestleMania in 2016, the WWE finally retired the "Divas" branding: From then on, both male and female wrestlers would be "superstars."
In WWE's parlance, the Divas' Revolution gave way to the Women's Evolution, which has seen the women check off a list of firsts, such as headlining a pay-per-view and competing in their own Royal Rumble. It has also seen the WWE change its perception of what a female wrestler looks like.
Charlotte Flair isn't WWE's only female wrestler with a family connection. Nia Jax (born Savelina Fanene) was at WrestleMania in 2012 to watch the main event match between John Cena and her cousin - Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. "I caught the bug of feeling the buzz in the crowd," she recalls. "I turned to my aunt, [Johnson's] mom, and asked her if she thought I could do something like this. She said, 'Actually, this business needs somebody like you.' "
What her aunt probably meant is that the wrestling business needed someone who didn't fit the conventional swimsuit model physique that the WWE had long expected of its female wrestlers. Jax, billed at 6 feet and 272 pounds, played basketball in college and was a plus-size model.
When Jax went in for a WWE tryout, the difference between her body type and those of her peers was striking. Every other woman in the dozens-deep class was wearing a "cute outfit" and had their hair and makeup done for what was ostensibly an athletic tryout, she says. "I stuck out like a sore thumb," she remembers. "Not only was I taller and bigger than them, but I wasn't dressed to the nines. What am I walking into?"
She assumed she wouldn't make the cut, but on the first day, a coach told her: "You're my number one draft pick. I want you here - you should be in this company." Instead of a handicap, her size became her calling card. "At NXT, they made sure I knew I was different and that I needed to stand out," she says. "It was a cool thing to get used to. Growing up, you want to be like everybody else, but I was told I was different and I needed to capitalize on that."
Jax worked her way up through NXT and landed on the main roster in 2016. She was presented as a "monster heel," a villain who physically overwhelmed and overpowered her smaller opponents, whom she rag-dolled around the ring. Earlier this year, she ended up in a feud with Alexa Bliss, a pint-size wrestler and stereotypical mean girl who had turned on Jax and made fun of her weight. While some criticized the WWE for turning fat-shaming into a story line (especially because, in real life, Bliss overcame a life-threatening eating disorder as a teenager), Jax thinks the company has to mirror what's happening in the real world.
"We're doing something that really happens every day to people," she says of the story. "It blows my mind that people say we shouldn't do anything about it." The story culminated with a match at WrestleMania in April, where a self-confident Jax won the title from Bliss. Like the best stories in wrestling, good triumphed over evil, on the largest stage. "I thought it was one of the better stories told in the last year," she says, "and it needs to be told."
The momentum continues, most prominently with WWE Evolution, the company's first all-women pay-per-view event on Oct. 28. Still, challenges remain as the WWE tries to modernize its treatment of women's wrestling.
"Where it would be if it were fair and equal to men, it's not there yet," said Dave Meltzer, pro wrestling's preeminent journalist. "There are more shapes and sizes and definitely more emphasis on being able to wrestle . . . [but] 'unattractive' women are going to have a hard time there, even if they're tremendous at what they do."
Still, Meltzer chalks up the progress to changing fan tastes, and the WWE's need to modernize to suit arguably its biggest star, former Ultimate Fighting Championship pioneer "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey, who appeared at WrestleMania in 2015 and joined the company full time in January. "You couldn't do what they were doing before and use Ronda Rousey."
And what about women's wrestling, beyond Rousey, and Banks, Flair, Jax and the rest? "They're recruiting a lot of athletic women," Meltzer says. "The fact that the women are in main-event slots on television on a regular basis tells me that they have to be pulling [good ratings]."
On a recent Monday, that main-event slot belonged to Rousey. She made short work of her opponent with the same type of arm bar she mastered in the UFC, fended off a sneak attack and called out the current women's champion, Alexa Bliss, all to a riotous reception. (The two will face off in a highly anticipated contest at SummerSlam later this month.) The show closed with her theme song, Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," and its lyrics rang true: "A girl can do what she wants to do, and that's what I'm gonna do."
"SummerSlam streams live Sunday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. on WWE Network. wwe.com.