It has been quite the eventful first half of the year for WWE. From the launch of the WWE Network to the end of the Undertaker’s famed WrestleMania undefeated streak, there has been plenty to talk about. The in-ring action has been at a consistently high level too, with battles between The Shield and the Wyatt Family, and Evolution; Daniel Bryan’s quest to become WWE World Heavyweight Champion and Cesaro’s rise up the card producing quality matches on a weekly basis. It has been a good year for fans of wrestling’s biggest company.
In among the plaudits and the platitudes for the names mentioned above, another match has been mentioned time and time again in the discussion over what has been the best of the year thus far. It featured two second generation stars fighting it out in the final of a title tournament, with each having a legendary figure from their family in their corner. It was the story of a seasoned veteran who was looking to regain their status versus the up-and-coming young star who was looking to establish their name.
After a back and forth encounter which featured incredible wrestling, reversals and submission attempts, it would be the younger of the two who would come out victorious. As the two embraced following the conclusion, their Hall of Famer relatives came into the ring to shake hands and appreciate what they had just seen – a match that was worthy of two legendary names in professional wrestling. The match had time to tell a great story, exhibit both wrestlers’ strengths and build to an exciting and emotional climax. The fact that it was contested by two female wrestlers – Charlotte, daughter of ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair and Natalya, daughter of Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart and niece of Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart was refreshing.
Women’s wrestling had for many years been something of a sideshow in the masculine world of WWE. For many years, the only women you would see in or around a ring would be valets such as Miss Elizabeth or Sensational Sherri. There was a time in the mid-nineties where the WWF tried to build a Women’s Championship around Alundra Blayze (better known as Madusa in WCW), but it was given up on almost as soon as it started and Blayze would be best remembered for throwing the WWF Women’s Championship into the bin on an episode of WCW Nitro.
It was from that point on that women in the WWF were used more as eye candy as anything else, as valets such as Sunny, Sable and Debra would appear on weekly programming in a state of undress as opposed to squaring off in the ring. Around this time there were some women who could wrestle, for example Jacqueline and Ivory, but their matches were never given much time to be anything more than filler. Chyna was perhaps the biggest female star of the late nineties, with her muscular physique and frequent clashes with the male roster making her stand out as a fan favourite, but aside from her match against Jeff Jarrett at No Mercy 1999, Chyna’s in ring career is better best forgotten.
The appointment of Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay as the women’s trainer in the early 2000’s was a turning point for the WWE’s women’s division. Moving from the ‘Bra and Panties’ matches normally associated with the women’s roster to a focus on actual wrestling, Finlay helped mould the wrestling skills of women such as WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus, Mickie James, Victoria, Molly Holly and Lita among others. This led to some of the best women’s matches in years in the WWE, with Lita and Stratus famously main eventing Raw. Sadly, it didn’t last - Finlay was called up to the active roster and the women’s roster would flounder, with skilled wrestlers such as Beth Phoenix becoming the exception rather than the rule as the WWE became more interested in hiring swimsuit models rather than women with a wrestling background. Ultimately, this led to a steep decline in the in ring quality of the WWE Women’s division.
Try as they may, women such as Kelly Kelly just did not have the required ability to put on credible matches. Over the next few years there would be glimmers of hope with the emergence of Phoenix and Natalya. Kharma, who had risen to prominence in TNA as Awesome Kong, also signed with the WWE and it seemed we were set for a renewed women’s division, but Kharma soon departed and Phoenix and Natalya were placed in situations that would be generally diminishing (Natalya was once placed in a storyline where she suffered from a flatulence problem).
Things slowly began to turn around and by 2012 the WWE signed the woman who would have the biggest impact on the woman’s division since Fit Finlay – Sara Amato, who was seen as one of the best female wrestlers in the world under the name of Sara Del Ray. Amato was not hired to wrestle, however – she was hired to coach.
Since the hiring of Amato, the standard of the WWE Women’s division has never been higher. With the addition of NXT to the WWE’s weekly programming, the women have had a chance to learn in the ring with quality opponents, and have more importantly been given time to show what they can do, resulting in the aforementioned Charlotte vs Natalya match which stole the show at NXT Takeover.
The WWE women’s division has never been stronger, and these are the ladies who are leading the way:
AJ Lee: The reigning Diva’s champion and new Mrs CM Punk, AJ returned last week on Raw to win the title back she had lost from Paige on the post-WrestleMania Raw . AJ is a true student of wrestling and her love for the profession is demonstrated by the fact that the date of her first title win is tattooed on the back of her neck. She has come on leaps and bounds since the days of being Daniel Bryan’s downtrodden girlfriend.
Paige: Norfolk’s finest Paige looks set to start a much needed heel turn following a mixed bag first Diva’s title reign. From the legendary UK wrestling family the Knights, Paige cut her teeth in NXT and became the first ever NXT Diva’s Champion before moving up to the main roster to defeat AJ on her debut.
Charlotte: Daughter of ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, Charlotte is the reigning NXT Divas Champion having defeated Natalya in the aforementioned classic at NXT Takeover. A natural athlete who has taken to wrestling as if she had been doing it all her life, Charlotte has all the tools to become a legend in the women’s ranks.
Natalya: The best current wrestler in the WWE women’s division, Natalya plays the role of grizzled veteran to perfection, despite the fact that she is still only 32. A member of the legendary Hart family, Nattie is the go-to woman to put on the big match when the chips are down. Perhaps underappreciated, Natalya remains a vital part of the roster.
Emma: Despite a bizarre few days that saw her released and then quickly re-hired, if Emma can get her head down and be given a chance to shine, she will quickly catch the eye on the main WWE roster. A graduate of Lance Storm’s wrestling school, Emma spent time honing her craft in NXT alongside Paige before being moved up to the main roster in a bizarre romance angle with the recently retired Santino Marella.