wrestling / Columns

Intergender Wrestling is the Future – Mixed Match Challenge, Rousey after Mania & Beyond Wrestling!

April 21, 2018 | Posted by Jake Chambers
Intergender Wrestling Kurt Angle Stephanie McMahon Kurt Angle Ronda Rousey WWE WrestleMania 34

It sure seems like a lot of dudes like professional wrestling. At least in the collective punditry of blogging, journalism and podcasting, it’s about as straight white male as the WWE main roster. And count me among them.

Despite pro-wrestling basically being about a bunch of shaved-down, oiled-up dudes play fighting in their underwear, apparently it’s the most grrr argh masculine thing you can watch. Bros love marathoning through pro-wrestling videos on the reg, debating every aspect surrounding it with the authoritative proclamations of a drunkard, and then setting the sober rules by which all things must be measured based on some objectively flimsy law. You know, white guy stuff.

But then along comes the Women’s Revolution in the WWE. Women’s wrestling being treated like content of equal importance to the men’s matches. And, well, it’s kind of sticking. I’m personally shocked, as the women’s wrestling we’ve gotten during this period has been so bland compared to what we saw in the golden era of the NXT women’s division. This could just be a symptom of the general mediocrity of WWE main roster wrestling though; allowing the women leeway to be just as boring while maintaining their substantial position on these shows is possibly evidence that the WWE is really not ever changing back to pre-Revolution “hot chick”-first booking.

So then, if the current status quo holds, just how far off are we from full intergender competition in the WWE? It might be closer than you think. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen some of the most landmark moments in mainstream intergender professional wrestling, and guess what… it’s been awesome. Today I’m taking a very liberal white male look at the three stages of gender equality that took place during the biggest week on the wrestling calendar and what that means for the future of a form of entertainment once so dominated by dudes, bros, and men’s men.

Rusev and Lana went up the hill, both with a buck and a quarter…

For as much praise as 205 Live is getting these days, I wish a little more of that fanboy spotlight would shine on the Mixed Match Challenge. 205 Live is a bit more enjoyable now than it used to be, sure, but I feel like it’s backwards to congratulate WWE on letting good wrestlers wrestle in good matches.

While on the other hand, this creative gem was hiding on Facebook every Tuesday that applied house show-style wrestling to big character work in some of the most fun I’ve had watching the WWE in years. And all that fun came directly from the dynamic between the intergender teams. Rather than having women as valets, managers or love interests, as was the traditional scenario, teaming them up as equal competitors has never been so thoroughly explored as a consistent storytelling device.

Driven by the tournament format once thought annexed from WWE lore, much like with the Mae Young Classic, we got to see the women here competing in the most “real sports” formula in pro-wrestling. Of course, we also come for the wacky hi-jinks. The balance of athletics and comedy were so well portrayed during the MMC with just some short clips and one match per week. We got to see unique character work from some wrestlers who rarely get more than a blink on TV to do something different, like Goldust and Mandy Rose as a charming pair, Apollo Crews and Nia Jax building to a nice inner-team tension, Finn Balor and Sasha Banks showing a wry cocky side, Elias and Bayley were cutely wacky together, Braun and Alexa Bliss actually having a convincingly odd romance, and my favourite of the tournament was the ridiculousness on display by the team of Sami Zayn and Becky Lynch.

The inclusion of the undefeated Asuka on a team with The Miz kind of made the winner of the finals inevitable, but having them go up against Bobby Roode and Charlotte just days before Wrestlemania was kind of brilliant timing. The match itself was actually pretty fantastic, including a stand-out moment of intergender action as Charlotte poetically applied the Figure Four on The Miz, as well as the interactions between the upcoming Wrestlemania opponents for the Smackdown Women’s Championship. If only they had the audacity to break Asuka’s streak in THAT match by letting Charlotte win there instead of at Wrestlemania, that would livened up what, up to that point, was a dead-in-the-water rivalry between the two. All in all, it was a great tournament that always made you feel like the women involved were just as important to the outcome as the men.

Ronda Rousey quite contrary, trim that…

As a kind of epilogue to the Mixed Match Challenge, at Wrestlemania we got Kurt Angle teaming with Ronda Rousey against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, easily the biggest intergender match in pro-wrestling history.

I think Rousey is the true WWE gateway to regular intergender wrestling, and we got a hint of it in this match when she went toe-to-toe with Triple H in a totally believable segment. Following this crossover moment for intergender wrestling, the WWE is now saying that Rousey is all in as a full-time superstar. Does this mean they really going to degrade her star power and reputation by having her compete every Monday in the same 4-minute matches against like Ember Moon or Sonya Deville, along with 6-woman tag matches on the weekend house show circuit? That would have to be one of the most insane business moves in the history of time.

These Brock Lesnar stay-at-home title reigns have felt so destructive to the narrative of regular WWE programming, but actually not having Brock compete on TV weekly in dopey feuds and pointless matches against mid-carders does help to maintain the aura that he’s still a dangerous MMA-level threat. So they could choose this route to go with for Rousey as well, and just trot her out to demolish a top female star every 4th PPV, I guess.

There really are no reasonable challengers on the women’s side for Rousey anyways, especially if they plan on leveraging her background as a legit badass. As good as some of these women are today, from Becky Lynch to Sasha Banks to Alexa Bliss, we’ve seen nothing from them to indicate they would pose a threat to Rousey in a real fight. There would have to be so much change to their style and look to make it even remotely reasonable, regardless of how poor Rousey’s “workrate” shapes up. You just can’t put UFC legend Ronda Rousey in a match with Bayley and have her realistically lose to a Belly to Belly suplex. Charlotte, Asuka and Rousey’s friend Shayna Baszler are the most authentic match-ups for Ronda, but that is it: one year’s worth of matches if they’re lucky. Effectively they’ve got another Chyna on their hands: too believable of a threat to compete against the women’s roster but no intergender wrestler to model a feasible career after either.

Chyna at least had the size to make her look comparable to the bottom tier of the male heavyweight division she eventually was able to have some pretty good matches in, but Rousey is way too small to be in there with Finn Balor and Seth Rollins, let alone Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar. I figure they’re going to have to really think outside of the box when it comes to the future with Rousey, and I’ve got a few ideas.

Talk about a way to make 205 Live must-see TV for the mainstream audience, am I right? Or how about this one: Ronda Rousey vs. Daniel Bryan? What a precedent-setting series of matches those two could have, grappling based, no head shots or highflying necessary, and Bryan could sell the drama of the threat without looking physically dominant. How about a Mixed Match Challenge Tag Team Championship, where you could give her a belt and a kick ass partner that could do a lot of the heavy lifting, like a Samoa Joe. Or what if they just change the rules for all Rousey matches: no jumping off the ropes, no rope breaks, can win with a 1-count, and a points system.

This is a big investment, and they’ve got to know that trying to use Rousey in a traditional role is gonna tank hard… right?

Beyond Wrestling blew… they needed the money!

While the WWE skated the line on any serious combat between the men and women in the MMC, Beyond Wrestling doesn’t fuck around. The most progressively gender neutral promotion in the world held a pretty epic card of intergender match-ups on Wrestlemania weekend: Lit Up!

Beyond has definitely gotten attention in the past for some moments (possibly taken out of context) that look like just savage violence against women. And I think in the delicate social atmosphere of 2018 they precariously booked a full card of men vs. women matches. But, damn, if it didn’t turn out to be one of the best shows of a crazy stacked weekend, while also the most progressively awesome.

Look, we all suspend our disbelief about pro-wrestling. While it might not be an art like theatre, we do treat it as such, and the audience plays a similar role in participating along with the fiction of the performances. As much as you wouldn’t rush on stage to stop Macbeth from stabbing Duncan, you’re also not going to run into the ring and stop Brock Lesnar from giving a bloody Roman Reigns one last F5. Since we can accept John Wick the movie right next to Atomic Blonde, we are obviously smart enough to suspend our disbelief in the fictional universe of pro-wrestling too, aren’t we? Newsflash, John Wick can’t do any of those things in real life anyways, so what does it matter if he’s portrayed as a man or a woman?

Pro-wrestling matches are clearly not real fights. It’s doubtful anyone could take one major wrestling move for real and keep getting back up, let alone all the unprotected strikes that are thrown. But after years of being caught up in the rhythm of wrestling matches we do kind of get lulled into a numb monotony of shared movement and reciprocal damage. “A lock-up means this, a wear-down hold means that, they’re not kicking out of that, here comes the finish,” etc. It is very rare that a match shakes you out of that trance.

But the intergender matches Beyond puts on really force your brain to re-see pro-wrestling. For so long we’ve been trained to watch women wrestle against each other with a similar rhythm to the men, but when men and women interact combatively in pro-wrestling it’s always from a position of male dominance. Beyond breaks that pattern by making the women equal participants in the balance of violence and athleticism. The women are not in peril in these matches, they are simply just another pro-wrestler – and that IS a gender neutral term.

Of course, this can lead to often startling moments of brutality when a woman takes a big move from a man. Some may look at that as exploitation, but I rather think it’s the professionalism of the women involved to be able to take the move without, of course, actually being hurt.

The Mixed Match Challenge put together matches that were house show, family-friendly fun, and the Rousey match at Wrestlemania was full of some nicely orchestrated yet clearly choreographed spots to get some highlights on SportsCentre and TMZ, but Beyond Wrestling (and their brother promotion Women’s Wrestling Revolution) ripped the hinges off the door of the room the WWE just wants you to peak into.

The show was bookended by matches of contrasting style, the opener leading you slowly into this visual world, and the main event ending with a completely even match-up. Matt Riddle vs. Deonna Peruazzo was such a perfect choice to start the show, both are lovably charming, hard-workers with legit styles. Riddle initially acting hesitant to fight the diminutive Peruazzo could represent the nervousness of a first-time viewer to an all intergender show. However, as Peruazzo earns Riddle’s respect early in the short match, he succumbs to the sport of it all and gives her his full-effort in victory, as she deserved. Their embrace at the end signaled no hard feelings, telling the audience, “you see, we’re all equal competitors here, so just enjoy.”

And the card is then filled with a variety of unique match-ups – from the technical work between Jonathon Gresham and Karen Q, the comedy of Janelope, Orange Cassidy (always awmazing) and Session Moth Martina, and the heavy-hitting battle of the “Havoc/ks” between Jimmy and Jessica – and it all finished with two genuine main event-ers, Toni Storm and Timothy Thatcher, in match that required no further primer. While a similar size difference as the opening match, Storm vs. Thatcher had no moment of “meet-cute” between the two, it was presented as just a larger wrestler going up against a smaller one, a trope we’ve seen in wrestling since the dawn of the last century. Playing against the grappling strengths of Thatcher, it was Storm who eventually tapped him out with a well-earned armbar that he sold as if this was the UFC and not an Alberto Del Rio match. The message sent in the ending of the best match on the show was simple: women can do whatever men can do.

It feels trite to write this, but there it is: women can do whatever men can do. Of course, we know this. Yet we too often these days, particularly in wrestling, are hammered with exposition of “history” and “equality” when the truth is – none of this is news. Anyone who has a mother, sister or female family member, worked with women, interacted with women, or spoken to a women in their lives (yes, that’s all of you), is already aware of this truth regardless of whatever stage of social politics we currently find ourselves. The reality sometimes is that art is the often the one place where these truths can be displayed without needing to back up your statements with sources, peer-reviews, or a social media campaign. We don’t need to be told by the WWE that they are having a “women’s revolution” for all kinds of “reasons”, just do it. The Mixed Match Challenge, Rousey’s performance at Wrestlemania, and especially Beyond Wrestling’s Lit Up show are cases where the women were presented as just as important as the men, as good as the men, and as interesting as the men. And it wasn’t because they’re hot, but just because they’re good at what they do: wrestling. So we should accept that intergender wrestling is really the only fair future for professional wrestling… and society as a whole.