Road to the Women’s Evolution: To Ruthless Aggression, Divas, & Beyond

LaToya Ferguson
Mickie James, Trish Stratus (source: WWE)

The WWE’s transition from the Attitude Era to the Ruthless Aggression Era was relatively seamless for the women’s division, as talents like Trish Stratus, Lita, Molly Holly, Ivory, and Jacqueline were all still around as WWE got both the “F” and the “attitude” out. But it was clear that Trish and Lita were the linchpins of the division, especially as the former’s in-ring and promo game continued to grow stronger and the latter’s real-life drama became part of her onscreen persona.

Yet by the fall of 2006, both of those women had retired from the WWE. Now, while there was a dark age between the Classic Era and the Attitude Era—by WWF’s own choice—the same wasn’t exactly true for the Ruthless Aggression Era as it led to the Divas Era. At least, not in the same way, perhaps because the Ruthless Aggression Era (at least on the red brand side of things) honestly had something special brewing with its female performers. It wasn’t a revolution yet, but in retrospect, it certainly could have been. 


Victoria

Victoria was technically introduced to the WWF audience in August 2000, as The Godfather’s “Head Ho” in the lead-up to his Right To Censor/Goodfather transformation. But she officially made her WWE debut in the summer of 2002, losing to Trish Stratus in a competitive match on Sunday Night Heat… only to soon reveal a psychotic obsession with Trish that went all the way back to their fitness competition days. Victoria’s intensity and physicality helped her stand out during this era, as did her memorable—and very of the time—entrance theme, t.A.T.u.’s “All The Things She Said.”

Victoria eventually went on to beat Trish in a Hardcore match to win the WWE Women’s Championship (for the first time), keeping the championship—often due to the help of her just-as-unhinged paramour, Steven Richards—until WrestleMania XIX. But despite ultimately losing the championship and feud to Trish, Victoria remained in the women’s division spotlight when she went on to feud with Lita. In fact, the two women competed against each other in WWE’s first-ever women’s Steel Cage match. Because of these high-profile, hard-hitting feuds, by the end of 2003, Victoria was a fan favorite, defeating Molly Holly for the Women’s Championship—and successfully defending the championship at WrestleMania XX, in a Hair vs. Title match. Unfortunately for fan favorite Victoria, she eventually ended up losing the championship to a villainous Trish Stratus. So one could say she was right about Trish all along.

After this particular feud with Trish, Victoria had a few more (lower-profile) phases of her career: one of “Vince’s Devils,” a dancing gimmick, a promising but short-lived checklist of Divas she’d destroyed. Towards the end of her run in WWE, she even had experienced veteran role before officially announcing her retirement from WWE in January 2009 (during the Divas Era).


Mickie James

Mickie James debuted on Monday Night RAW in the fall of 2005, and like Victoria, she was immediately thrust into the spotlight of the division. Her first feud even ended up being one of the most memorable feuds of both her and Trish Stratus’ WWE careers. Only, unlike Victoria, her obsession with Trish wasn’t the stuff of revenge: It was the stuff of well-intentioned obsession.

What that means is, when Mickie James first showed up on RAW, she appeared as Trish’s #1 fan, enthusiastic and with the desire to be like her idol. Eventually, that enthusiasm transformed into wanting to be with her idol and then wanting to be her idol… until she ultimately wanted to destroy her idol. You know, as you do. This lead to Mickie James challenging Trish Stratus for the Women’s Championship at WrestleMania 22 and defeating her, in a match that was considered the greatest women’s match in the history of WrestleMania at the time (and is still cited as one of the best). And despite her turn as the obsessed villain, the match was also notable for the WrestleMania crowd cheering Mickie over the otherwise beloved Trish. A few months later, Trish would retire and Mickie James would take on the beloved role in the division as she also ended up retiring a villainous Lita.

During the tail-end of the Ruthless Aggression Era, Mickie James stuck out as a female wrestler who was obviously the complete package, and considering her feuds with Trish Stratus and Lita—as well as her undeniable in-ring ability—she arguably should have been the face of the division moving forward. However, the transition into the Divas Era soon began, and with that, Mickie would never have as high-profile of a feud as she’d had in her early time in WWE. (Unless you count the LayCool/“Piggie James” storyline, which was Mickie’s final feud before WWE released her in the spring of 2010.) Still, in her original time in WWE, Mickie managed to win the Women’s Championship five times (making her only second to Trish Stratus in terms of reigns) and the Divas Championship once.

In the fall of 2016, with the Women’s Revolution and Evolution in full swing both on the main roster and in NXT, Mickie James finally returned to the company for a one-off match against the then-NXT Women’s Champion Asuka at NXT TakeOver: Toronto. While Mickie came up short—proving once more that nobody was ready for Asuka—she also made clear that she still had “it.” Months later, Mickie made her official return to the main roster as Alexa Bliss’ ally and mentor, a bond that continues to this day, as the duo are scheduled to face Trish and Lita at WWE Evolution.


Even with Trish Stratus and Lita out of the picture, the WWE women’s division looked bright. But as WWE went from the TV-14 Ruthless Aggression Era to the era of TV-PG in 2008—eliminating concepts like the Bra & Panties matches but also replacing them with costume-based gimmick matches—it didn’t automatically give women’s wrestling the respect it deserved or even truly show the quality it could achieve. While Divas had been a part of the company brand for years, the “Divas Era” of WWE spoke more of the specific brand to get away from serious competition and characterization. This led to a new championship title being created for the division—the “Butterfly belt” known as the Divas Championship in 2008—eventually leading to the dissolution of the original Women’s Championship altogether in 2010. (The new version would appear in 2016, eventually split into the RAW and SmackDown Women’s Championships.)


Kelly Kelly

While WWF/WWE struck gold with Trish Stratus as a model-turned-wrestler, when this became the norm for WWE—reaching an all-time high with the WWE Diva Search—it proved that not everyone could be “the next Trish Stratus.”  But when you look back at the Divas Era, it’s no surprise that Kelly Kelly was arguably the face of the division for a time. 

Despite a lack of wrestling experience, Kelly Kelly was offered a WWE developmental contract in May 2006 and ended up on the WWE’s rebooted ECW brand the following month. Kelly’s original gimmick was as an “exhibitionist” who performed a weekly striptease called “Kelly’s Exposé.” (Basically, the type of thing a look back at the Divas Era tends to try to gloss over.) Kelly’s first feuds were all centered around the male Superstars she was either interested in or were interested in her, but by May 2009, she’d become the #1 contender to the WWE Divas Championship. From that point on, she remained in the title picture, finally winning the championship in 2011 (from Brie Bella… in three minutes). Kelly would hold the championship for 104 days, feuding with “The Glamazon” Beth Phoenix as her first and only challenger. The two had three title matches on pay-per-view, with their third and final match going for eight minutes—something that might not sound all that special now but was a big deal for the Divas at the time—before Phoenix won the championship.

Despite her run on top, Kelly Kelly was done with WWE by the fall of 2012, having mostly wrestled Beth Phoenix, Eve Torres, and Natalya over and over again. Because for as much as WWE has gotten away from the Divas Era—for good reason—it’s worth noting that, even when these women were barely featured as more than eye candy and exhibitionists, they still felt the physical tolls of professional wrestling… like the lingering neck issues which caused Kelly to hang up her “wrestling Barbie” boots.

Kelly made a return to WWE—merely as an observer and a legend—in 2017, eventually getting into the ring one more time as a surprise entrant in 2018’s inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match.


The Bella Twins

You can read more about The Bella Twins’ journey to Evolution here.


Beth Phoenix

While Beth Phoenix credits Molly Holly for helping her get signed by the WWE, “The Glamazon” certainly put in the hard work to have a Hall of Fame career when all was said and done. Beth Phoenix was technically caught between the Ruthless Aggression Era and the Divas Era, and in the case of the latter, Phoenix was able to give some of the “stereotypical” Divas (like Kelly Kelly, one of her biggest rivals) their best matches. But she originally debuted on RAW in May 2006 as an ally of Trish Stratus’ in the feud against Mickie James—only a broken jaw prevented Phoenix from ever taking on Mickie in this context. In fact, she didn’t return to the main roster until the following summer. That is when “The Glamazon” was born, and she defeated Candice Michelle to win the WWE Women’s Championship and put the entire Divas division on notice.

“The Glamazon” would go on to participate in some historic matches for the company, like the WWE’s first-ever Divas “I Quit” match (against Melina, another one of her biggest rivals) and the first-ever Divas tag team Tables match (with Natalya, against LayCool). She’d also become the second woman ever—after Chyna—to compete in the men’s Royal Rumble match, eventually becoming the only woman to compete in both the men’s and the women’s Royal Rumble matches. As the more muscular woman in a Divas world, Phoenix was often depicted as the villain to those models-turned-wrestlers, which is what led to her and Natalya’s team-up as the “Pin-Up Strong” Divas of Doom. But like Natalya, Phoenix proved she could also play a comedic role, as evidenced by her time as one-half of the WWE “power couple” “Glamarella” with Santino Marella. Despite eventually returning to the dominant villain role after this romantic pairing, it was a side of Phoenix that allowed the WWE fans to see that someone considered so atypical in this division could also be vulnerable. Although, anyone who could rock the Butterfly belt was honestly tough as hell.

Beth Phoenix retired in the fall of 2012—as she was fired onscreen by RAW authority figure Vickie Guerrero—but she’s remained a part of the WWE family since then. In 2017, she became the youngest in-ring performer to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and also began doing commentary for WWE shows like the Mixed Match Challenge and the Mae Young Classic.


Natalya

The daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and WWE’s first female third-generation wrestler, Natalya knows two things: professional wrestling and cats. While the cats thing is more of a new development in a Revolution/Evolution Era WWE, the professional wrestling part was always clear, even during the Divas Era. After training at the world-famous Hart Family Dungeon and wrestling on the indies, Natalya debuted on WWE’s main roster in the spring of 2008, teaming with Victoria (in the veteran phase of her WWE career). Natalya soon found herself in title contention, as she faced off against Michelle McCool for the inaugural Divas Championship, but once she lost, she feuded with The Bella Twins. (Natalya and The Bella Twins have been linked since their developmental days.)

Natalya late joined forces with her cousin David Hart Smith (British Bulldog’s son) and her boyfriend (now husband) Tyson Kidd to form The Hart Dynasty, ultimately feuding with Tamina Snuka. Yes, two daughters of WWE legends, fighting for supremacy. But post-Hart Dynasty, Natalya found championship gold and tag team supremacy. As previously mentioned, she eventually teamed up with Beth Phoenix against LayCool, but she was also able to defeat the “co-Divas” Champions in a Handicap match by herself to win the Divas Championship for the first time in 2010.

After losing the championship and despite only being part of WWE for a few years, Natalya soon transitioned into the mentor role she’s now best known for behind-the-scenes—just ask Ronda Rousey—and on Total Divas. Perhaps that’s because, throughout her WWE career, Natalya has proven to be game for whatever WWE throws at her. During the Divas Era, that involved: a brief hair color change, a farting gimmick, and even a romantic relationship with The Great Khali.

But Natalya also had a hand in the early rumblings of the Divas Revolution in NXT, as she faced off against Charlotte Flair at the very first NXT TakeOver for the vacant NXT Women’s Championship in 2014. Even with Ric Flair in Charlotte’s corner and Bret Hart (Natalya’s uncle) in Natalya’s corner, all eyes were surprisingly on the female competitors in the ring. While the main roster WWE audience had always had an idea of how talented Natalya was, this match and her time in NXT as a veteran made clear that the women in this company weren’t unable to compete at a high level. They just needed a chance.


Paige

While the ingredients for the Women’s Evolution were technically always on the main roster—the Revolution just had to happen—a good deal of the actual cooking technically happened (because it was allowed to) in NXT. Paige and Emma arguably started the “Divas Revolution”—which led to the “Women’s Revolution,” which of course brings us to the “Women’s Evolution”—when they competed in 2013 to crown the inaugural NXT Women’s Champion. (That it has always been called the “Women’s” Championship and never the “Divas” Championship helped a lot.) Matches like Paige vs. Emma and Charlotte vs. Natalya led to the WWE Universe begging for more, especially when they saw how the main roster Divas matches would get no time compared to even the shortest NXT Women’s matches.

Paige didn’t fit the physical mold of the “typical Diva,” which may have been part of her appeal but would have only gotten her so far if she’d not been able to back it up. In NXT, she was a fan favorite, and that continued onto her main roster run… where she debuted by defeating AJ Lee for the Divas Championship (the RAW after WrestleMania XXX). This made Paige the youngest WWE Divas Championship in company history, and she held the NXT Women’s Championship (until she was forced to vacate it) simultaneously. However, Paige’s promotion to the main roster (despite her popularity) didn’t automatically change the landscape of the Divas division from short matches and little screentime. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 2015—the beginning of the Divas Revolution—that things truly started to change.

While she teamed with NXT call-ups Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch to begin the Revolution, Paige eventually turned on her partners/proteges after Charlotte became the Divas Champion. And though she came up short in that feud, Paige’s popularity only increased as she became a cast member of the Total Divas reality series. But unfortunately for Paige, the combination of a neck injury in the fall of 2016 and personal issues kept her off WWE TV for quite some time. She returned near the end of 2017—with some new proteges, in the form of NXT’s Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose—but her time as an in-ring competitor soon came to an end.

Post-WrestleMania 34, Paige announced her in-ring retirement (at age 25); but she did not retire from WWE, as she became the new SmackDown General Manager and a regular reminder of how far things have come since the Revolution.


AJ Lee

Despite also supposedly not fitting the typical Diva mold—and in looking back at this era, the “typical Diva” is really more of concept than an actual physical type—AJ Lee managed to become one of the most popular and featured Divas (in a pre-Total Divas world) since Trish Stratus and Lita. Signing to WWE developmental in early 2009 —with prior wrestling experience under her belt, a rarity at the time—AJ made her main roster debut on the Divas season of WWE’s game show version of NXT (alongside Naomi and Kaitlyn). After she was eliminated, she didn’t return to the main roster until May 2011, when she teamed up with Kaitlyn under Natalya’s temporary mentorship. (“Temporary” because Natalya turned on them to form the aforementioned Divas of Doom with Beth Phoenix.) While AJ’s early days in WWE saw her in romantic pairings with Superstars like Primo Colon and Hornswoggle, by the end of 2011, she’d enter into a romantic pairing that would just so happen to skyrocket the careers of both herself and a very familiar WWE: Daniel Bryan.

As Bryan became the “YES”-ing World Heavyweight Champion who eventually lost the championship as WrestleMania in 18 seconds—due to a kiss from AJ—AJ, on the other hand, became the somewhat unstable black widow who brought mind games and destruction to every Superstar who crossed her path. Superstars like CM Punk, Kane, John Cena, and Dolph Ziggler. And these weren’t just romantic storylines, these were main event storylines, with AJ gaining power as an authority figure and as the mastermind behind certain feuds. This view from the top also extended to her role within the Divas division, as she ended up feuding with her longtime friend-turned-rival Kaitlyn. Not only did the two participate in the first-ever Divas in-ring contract signing segment, but this feud also led to AJ Lee winning the Divas Championship for the first time.

At the beginning of 2014, AJ Lee became the longest-reigning Divas Champion, surpassing Maryse as the previous record holder. (This record has since been broken by Nikki Bella.) And at WrestleMania XXX, her reign also marked the first and only time the Divas Championship had been defended at WrestleMania (despite the title being introduced in 2008). But in February 2015, everything changed, as the combination of an AJ Lee tweet about WWE showcasing the women and a Divas match on RAW that lasted only a few seconds led to a very important trending topic: #GiveDivasAChance.

A couple of months later, AJ Lee retired from WWE. But by that summer, the Divas Revolution had begun. And the rest has continued to be history in the making.


Talents like Alicia Fox and Naomi were also able to make it through the Divas Era, with the Revolution allowing the former to gain a new focus (as focused as Alicia Fox can be) in and out of the ring and latter to show what she can do inside the ring as something other than a Funkadactyl. Mickie James made her full-time return to WWE to prove the chants of “YOU’VE STILL GOT IT” right, on a weekly basis. More recently, former Divas Champion Kaitlyn made her impressive return to professional wrestling and WWE in the Mae Young Classic II, showing there’s still a place for her in the Women’s Evolution.

Of course, there are plenty more names to mention. Women like Eve Torres, Melina, Maryse—yes, a former Divas Champion, not just The Miz’s better half—Layla, Michelle McCool, and more who are still going at it in the squared circle, even if no longer in the WWE. Despite how many female Superstars remain (or have since returned) from that era and how often WWE is able to look back, the Divas Era was something of a lost generation for women’s wrestlers. The women made the best of what they could when given very little, and even today, the work’s not done.

This Road to Evolution is only scratching the surface of what women’s wrestling in WWE has been and what it will continue to be as it continues on…

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