Road to the Main Event: The History of Women’s Wrestling at WrestleMania

Kimberly Schueler
Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch (source: WWE)

This Sunday’s upcoming WrestleMania 35 is undoubtedly the biggest installment of the show for women’s wrestling. Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair have carried their connected feuds all the way from SummerSlam to this show’s main event, meaning female performers will headline the WWE’s biggest pay-per-view for the first time ever.

Since the first WrestleMania in 1985, women’s wrestling typically hasn’t played a high-profile role on the show, with that only changing over the past three years. With this feature, will look at how female wrestlers have played a role at WrestleMania over the decades, from three-minute championship matches to exciting triple threats.

Ladies of the ’80s

Women played a larger role in gaining mainstream media attention for WrestleMania I than one might’ve guessed from how much they did not wrestle on WrestleMania IV, V, VII, VIII, or IX. In the second-to-last match on the card, Cyndi Lauper managed Wendi Richter as she challenged Leilani Kai for the WWF Women’s Championship. She had learned this trade from Captain Lou Albano—who had previously supported her a lot less as her dad in the “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” music video—and in doing so, solidified the Rock N’ Wrestling Connection. Lauper and Kai’s villainous manager The Fabulous Moolah brawled as Richter and Kai displayed their in-ring skills, and the good guys walked away with the gold.

The next two times the Women’s Championship was defended at WrestleMania, it was a much less important part of the show. In 1986, the 63-year-old Moolah retained the title against Velvet McIntyre in a match under two minutes long and with a confusing finish. At WrestleMania X, Alundra Blayze retained against Kai in a more substantial match, but the audience wasn’t into it. Unfortunately, the most significant part of Blayze’s run as the face of the WWF’s revived women’s division would take place between Manias, and this would be her only appearance on the company’s biggest show of the year.

Attitude and Aggression

When the women’s division was revived once again in the Attitude Era of the late 1990s, it was with more focus on sex appeal, which showed in how female wrestlers were presented at WrestleMania. The next time the Women’s Championship was defended on the show in 1999, the match was preceded with defending champ Sable asking the audience, “Are you boys ready for ‘The Grind’?” and executing her signature “dance.”

The following year’s women’s match was designed to be even more titillating, billed as a “catfight” between The Kat and Terri Runnels with Val Venis as the special guest referee. In a segment filled with stripping, flirting with the ref, and the ultimate punchline of the elderly Mae Young kissing Venis and him being disgusted, it was clear that as the new millennium began, women’s wrestling in the WWF really wasn’t about wrestling at all.

However, as the Attitude Era came to a close, there was one women’s WrestleMania match that showed a performer not just as a sex symbol but also as an athlete and a bona fide badass: a match in which Chyna defeated Ivory to win the WWF Women’s Championship in 2001. Though it was more of a squash than a battle, the match told the story of a heroine recovering from a serious injury to enact righteous vengeance, a premise that could easily have been used for a male performer as well.

In the Ruthless Aggression Era of the early 2000s, women continued not to get much time allotted to wrestle on WrestleMania cards, but they at least got to show off more athleticism. At X8, in-ring veteran Jazz retained her title in a triple threat with Lita and Trish Stratus. The following year, Stratus—who had gained much more wrestling experience by this time—won the belt from her nemesis, Victoria, in a triple threat that also included Jazz.  

At WrestleMania XX, Victoria and Molly Holly got more ambitious with their hair vs. championship singles match for the WWE Women’s Championship. Holly later revealed that she volunteered to shave her head in order to make sure the match made it on the card. Though the crowd wasn’t as interested in it as they were most other matches on the card, the women were still able to tell a clear story with the opportunity they had.

But while there were more substantial women’s matches during this time, there were also Playboy-branded WrestleMania segments designed to sell magazines and turn on men in the crowd. At WrestleMania XX, Torrie Wilson and Sable defeated Miss Jackie and Stacy Keibler in a “Playboy Evening Gown” match that quickly ditched the evening gowns when most of the women opted to wrestle in their underwear instead—and Miss Jackie, who didn’t, was stripped by her opponents.

The following year, Women’s Champion Trish Stratus destroyed 2004 Diva Search winner Christy Hemme to end a feud with the theme of a woman being jealous of another woman for being in Playboy. At WrestleMania 22, Torrie Wilson defeated Candice Michelle in a “Playboy Pillow Fight” with the same theme and even less wrestling. Melina vs. Ashley Massaro the following year told the same story in the format of a “Lumberjill” match.

The WrestleMania women’s match that managed to strike gold with the combination of a hot angle involving the sexual themes of the era with two skilled in-ring performers was Mickie James vs. Trish Stratus at WrestleMania 22. The story of James going from fan to stalker to archenemy of Stratus had been going on for months and there was a lot of hype around the WWE Women’s Championship match, the feud’s climax.

The women told a straightforward physical story of James capitalizing on a knee injury suffered by Stratus and using a mix of strategy and wildcard craziness to defeat her rival for the gold. The crowd was invested every step of the way and the performers exited the ring having shown what female wrestlers were capable of—though this would still be the highest profile match for this title for about a decade.

Divas in Limited Action

As WWE transitioned to less explicit programming later in the decade, the women’s segments on WrestleMania became less overtly sexual… but still didn’t feature much wrestling or even get much time on the card. Beth Phoenix and Melina versus Ashley Massaro and Maria was more about the interference of Santino Marella and the appearance of Snoop Dogg than any of the performers working the match. The “Miss WrestleMania” Battle Royal the following year was similarly more about the punchline of Marella in drag than any of the women involved.

The 2010s started with some more all-female matches, but the 10-Diva tag team match at WrestleMania XXVI only lasted a few minutes, the tag team match the following year was more about celebrity guest Maria Menounos than the regular WWE wrestlers involved, and the 14-Diva match for AJ Lee’s Divas Championship at WM XXX just didn’t make much sense. By looking at the women’s WrestleMania matches alone, it’s no surprise the “Give Divas A Chance” hashtag sprang up soon after.

Mixing It Up

It’s worth noting that, mixed tag team matches have consistently been featured on “The Grandest Stage of Them All.” These have typically been more light-hearted matches than others on the card, usually with more focus on storytelling or comedy than athletic feats.

The first mixed tag team match on this pay-per-view was at WrestleMania VI, when Dusty Rhodes and his manager Sapphire (with Miss Elizabeth) defeated Queen Sherri and Randy Savage. Marc Mero and Sable vs. The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust and Luna Vachon helped usher in the Attitude Era at WM XIV. A six-person tag featuring Snooki gained some tabloid attention for WrestleMania XXVII, and WrestleMania 33’s memorable bout between real-life couples John Cena and Nikki Bella and The Miz and Maryse ended in a marriage proposal for the former.

Though these matches all provided fun WrestleMania moments, anybody—not just!—will tell you that Ronda Rousey’s debut WWE match alongside Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon was the best mixed tag team match in pay-per-view history. It was full of surprises and great character moments, while also managing to be a genuinely empowering match for any woman watching. By this point, it was clear the role of women in WWE had changed for the better.

Revolution and Evolution

But before the wrestlers who would make up the first women’s main event in WrestleMania history were even on the main roster, their path was paved by AJ Lee, Paige, and The Bellas. The revolutionary Divas faced off against the evil representatives of the status quo in a tag match at WrestleMania 31 and their win seemed to indicate that things would continue to change for the better.

And it did, with two women’s matches at WrestleMania 32. The first was a tag match promoting Total Divas, a show that would show the hard work and passion of wrestlers to a new audience. The second moved WWE’s female performers out from under the “Divas” label when Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks—who had all been called up from NXT to the main roster within the past year—battled for the reactivated WWE Women’s Championship. Their triple threat was full of exciting spots and character moments from wrestlers the audience was invested in and showed what this new generation of female performers was capable of.

In the following years, women’s wrestling has continued to play a more significant role at WrestleMania. The first post-brand split iteration of the show included matches for the RAW and SmackDown Women’s Championships—a Fatal 4-Way and a 6-Pack Challenge, respectively. WrestleMania 34 not only saw more women included on the card due to the pre-show’s battle royal, it also featured two championship singles matche: Nia Jax defeating Alexa Bliss for the red belt and Charlotte Flair ending Asuka’s epic winning streak for the blue, in arguably the best women’s match in the history of the pay-per-view.

While the specific ways women play a role at WrestleMania continue to change from year to year, it’s clear now the Revolution that turned into an Evolution has become the new normal, with “The Grandest Stage of Them All” now a platform for female competitors to show off their skills in similar ways to their male counterparts.

And don’t forget: You’ve got until April 10th to cop this new LIMITED EDITION Ronda Rousey shirt.

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