Ben Sledge 26th January 2018
Professional wrestling is often seen as a hyper-masculine, testosterone-fuelled man-fest, but when you really think about it, that is hardly the case.
Both male and female wrestlers appear in the ring dressed in incredibly extra costumes, having walked down what is essentially an elaborate catwalk whilst performing choreographed entrances. Music, light shows, and pyrotechnics often add to the show. The bigger the wrestler and the event, the bigger the entrance.
In any other scenario, this could be seen as very feminine, but because the wrestlers are acting this out moments before beating the shit out of each other, it is overlooked. How different is it from a fashion show, a concert, or even (dare I say it?) a pantomime? It is what Roland Barthes called in his 1957 essay The World of Wrestling “the spectacle of excess”.
The fight itself, we all (should) know, is fake. Yes the wrestlers do hit each other, throw each other and take a thorough pummelling that no human in their right mind would go through other than in exchange for a hefty pay packet, but the outcomes are predetermined. Much like a stage show.
British wrestling is currently undergoing a quiet resurgence, after being overshadowed by the likes of America and Japan in the days since Mick McManus and Big Daddy were household names. Utilising a style more reliant on grappling, big dogs of professional wrestling WWE even have a UK Championship fought over by British wrestlers, which is a testament to how strong the format is.
WWE superstar Paige, hailing from the humble Norwich, has held the WWE Women’s Championship title in recent years, but she is just a tiny English droplet in the American ocean of WWE. The real stories of British wrestling become apparent on the independent, or indie, circuit.
Ruby Radley, hailing from Leeds, has been wrestling for five years on the British circuit.
“Being a wrestler has given me so much confidence, when I started I was quiet and shy and I only spoke to people when spoken to.
“Wrestling has given me a lot of friends, a few best friends, and I’ve found the love of my life and I feel so lucky every day to have him, and so many great friends, around me.”
Radley’s confidence translates to her performance, and in the ring she pulls off complicated moves while staying in character.
“I feel very zoned in and focused, all eyes are on me and the people I’m sharing the ring with. It can be nerve wracking, but it can also make you feel like a superstar.
Here I am, proving them all wrong, and I can’t say I’m friends with those people any more. But I can’t say I really care either
“My greatest achievement as a wrestler is exactly that, being a wrestler. When I was in school, some friends always told me I’m too small, I’m too weak, that wrestling isn’t for girls. And here I am, proving them all wrong, and I can’t say I’m friends with those people any more. But I can’t say I really care either.”
Radley’s hard work in the ring pays off, as she often wrestles at big events, and challenges for titles in main event matches.
“I like being a wrestler because of the adrenaline of being in front of an audience, whether they cheer for you or boo you, whether there’s 40 or 800 people.”
We all work just as hard, female or male, so why shouldn’t women wrestle men too?
Eliza Roux, from Grantham, agrees. “Being able to get a crowd invested is a big part of what we do,” she says.
And crowds are invested. Defiant Wrestling, formerly known as What Culture Pro Wrestling (WCPW), is one of the biggest British independent wrestling promotions, and according to its website, is “one of the fastest growing promotions in the world”, with events that “keep getting bigger”.
Tens of thousands tune in to watch their weekly shows, and more for pay per view events, numbers not seen in British wrestling since a time when twice as many Beatles were alive, shillings were a legitimate form of currency, and World of Sport was shown on ITV.
While wrestling is becoming more mainstream in Britain, mixed gender wrestling is still a rarity. “We all do the same sport,” Roux argues. “We all work just as hard, female or male, so why shouldn’t women wrestle men too?”
She argues a good point, adding that “there are certain things we can do with males, especially if they’re larger, taller or stronger”.
Roux believes in the “show” of a wrestling match, and that fighting men simply affords her opportunities to perform bigger, better, and more spectacular moves to impress the crowd.
While coming across in our interview as confident, and her in-ring character bordering on the side of arrogant, Roux admits that this has not always been the case for her. “I suffer with anxiety and I’m naturally quite shy so [wrestling] is something I can vent all of this into and just bring out some confidence,” she explains.
This confidence is palpable when she is strutting into the ring, when she is wrestling, and when she is giving the live crowd an all-out performance. “You might have a lot of issues or have had one of those days but as soon as you walk out, you are your character, [and] the reaction from the crowd, everything about it, gives you a feeling that words don’t explain.”
“There’s no better feeling for a wrestler stepping into a ring,” Lizzy Styles, from Liverpool, mirrors Roux’s thoughts. “It’s what I wanna do, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, so being able to get in there and do it is the best feeling.”
Styles also wrestles against male talents, and feels that everyone is equal once they are inside the ring, and that she and other female wrestlers can easily compete with their male counterparts.
I’ll happily wig a few lads to prove a point
“I’m a wrestler, not a ‘female’ wrestler, I’m just a wrestler. Just because I have a set of boobs doesn’t mean I can’t compete on a man’s level… I’ll happily wig a few lads to prove a point.”
Styles hasn’t always been so outgoing and confident, however; “when I started training I would always avoid certain things because my confidence was so bad.
“I had a lot of weight on me too, so I struggled to come to terms with how I was going to wrestle on shows and what I would wear.”
Her worries were based on the gaze of the audience, as, more so than male wrestlers, female wrestlers are judged first and foremost on how they look, something that Styles admits was what she also noticed as a child.
“The female idol I had was Maria Kanellis, she always looked good, and that was what mattered as a girl growing up!”
Wrestling has helped Styles gain more confidence, and she wants now more than ever to “make it” as a professional wrestler. “My main goal from here and now is to keep working as much as I possibly can, get better at what I do and eventually be signed to WWE one day.”
The WWE is evidently still the subject of amateur wrestlers’ hopes and dreams, and, to its credit, has been improving its female wrestling scene over the past few years. As the largest professional wrestling promotion in the world, it is important that their women’s division sets the bar as high as can be.
My main goal [is to] eventually be signed to WWE one day
Its female superstars have moved away from the term “Divas” to become “Women”, and the newly renamed Women’s Championship belt is no longer garish pink. Matches for the Women’s Championship have moved up the running order at pay per view events, and in recent years, the company’s female wrestlers entered into their first cage matches — on Sunday is the inaugural Women’s Royal Rumble.
However, there is still a long way to go, as male intervention from the likes of Ric Flair (and others) appears in countless women’s matches and often directly affects results.
It is also worth noting that, although making strides towards equality on-screen, behind the scenes the WWE has a massive disparity in what its superstars are paid.
The highest female earner in the company (other than Stephanie, the daughter of WWE’s owner Vince McMahon) earned just $400,000 in 2016. This seems like a lot of money to us normals, but when Nikki Bella is one of the top female stars in the company and doesn’t break into the top 20 earners, it shows a large discrepancy.
For comparison, her annual income must seem like loose change to $6m man Brock Lesnar, the company’s highest earner that year. And let’s be honest, who would win in a fight between Brock Lesnar and 15 Nikki Bellas? There is only one winner. Or, should I say, 15 winners. In fact, Lesnar’s salary could pay the salaries for the entire women’s roster and have a couple of million dollars’ worth of change.
Personally, I will never believe that the WWE has any semblance of equality or fairness until Chyna has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, as she was a stereotype-breaking, immensely successful wrestler left out purely due to a post-wrestling (and equally successful) career in adult films.
On the biggest stage, women’s wrestling is moving forwards, slowly but surely, but what is most important is the confidence and drive that wrestling is giving female wrestlers in Britain. They have the strength of body and mind to push boundaries, to get themselves noticed, and to wrestle absolutely anybody who steps into the ring with them.
It is the up-and-coming female wrestlers themselves, like Radley, Roux, and Styles, who are demanding more respect from wrestling companies and fans in England and around the globe, due to their tenacious performances, hard work, and perseverance in the face of a challenging sport that has traditionally favoured its male stars. If these fierce and talented women continue to push boundaries as they are currently doing, the future of female wrestling looks bright.
Ben Sledge 26th January 2018