|Fighting for Acceptance |
Society can be a funny place sometimes. Women have the vote, they have independence and they have the right to do any job that a man can do, and quite often do it better. Yet still, in certain areas of sporting competition, women are both underused and underrated for no good reason at all – and nowhere more so that in the world of professional fighting.
The plight of women in wrestling and mixed martial arts is far less well-documented than you may at first think. Certainly, female performers in combat sports (and, indeed, sports entertainment) have been overlooked for centuries, having to settle to playing second-fiddle in male-dominated arenas, but, beyond the battle for recognition, even deeper, darker issues are often at play.
Take professional wrestling, for example; not only are there two incredible female-only wrestling promotions operating on an international scale, SHIMMER and ChickFight, but there are also scores of women working on the undercards of events around the world, and yet, for all their talent, the biggest company on the planet, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), hires glamour models and Playboy stars to fill their ranks. The second biggest company, Total Non-stop Action (TNA) has at its disposal some of the brightest figures in women’s wrestling, and yet has no dedicated women’s division in which for them to ply their trade. When the two biggest companies in the world have such a blasé attitude about the situation, one could be forgiven for thinking that women have no place in the sport at all. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Whilst WWE push women as eye candy, and keep talented workers languishing in their developmental facilities until they have had big enough breast implants or are willing to play some ‘dumb blonde’ role, they are systematically educating their huge audiences around the world to believe that women are nothing in comparison to the men who lead their product. Despite the fact that, in the main event of many WWE shows, are performers such as John Cena and The Great Khali – big, impressive men, but with little grasp of the finer points of professional wrestling an art form. There are many female athletes within WWE’s own ranks who could wrestle rings around these men and who, booked in a prime position on the card, could garner great respect from the audience and present a whole new avenue for the group to explore.
But WWE is geared to the 18-35 male demographic. As such, those women who do make it onto TV are pushed into contests ranging from mud wrestling to ‘bra and panties’ matches, and are not even given the dignity of being referred to as ‘wrestlers’. No, these women, like it or not, are ‘Divas’, and their role on the show is to provide fleeting titillation for the male crowds. Of course, every now and then somebody truly special comes along. Trish Stratus, for example, went from being the very definition of a WWE Diva (blonde, large chest, unable to wrestle) to becoming perhaps the best loved WWE Women’s Champion of all time. Likewise, Amy Dumas, who went by the ring name ‘Lita’, was a talented, capable performer who, although lacking somewhat in vocal charisma, gave everything in the ring and came back from major neck surgery to become an absolute star.
Sadly, Amy’s career went down in flames last year. After a much-publicised real-life affair with Edge (real name Adam Copeland) behind the back of his best friend, and her boyfriend, Matt Hardy, Amy was slowly but surely destroyed. Whilst Adam was exonerated and became WWE Champion, Amy had to face chants of ‘Slut’ and ‘Ho’ from bitter fans in arenas across America – the same fans who had loved her so much just months before. Ultimately, she tired of the very personal abuse and retired from wrestling to pursue a music career. Sadly, she did not get the send-off she deserved. Whilst Trish Stratus, who retired very shortly before Amy, got the five-star treatment, leaving after a superb match in front of an adoring home crowd, Amy finished up having a box of her so-called ‘personal possessions’ auctioned off to members of the audience by the popular team Cryme Tyme. That the box contained sex toys and underwear, and that WWE officials actually took away signs from people at ringside that supported her prior to Amy’s match says an awful lot about how her involvement in the infamous love triangle was viewed. It was a sad and undignified way to say goodbye after many, many years of sterling service.
...But, compared to some of the women who have been featured in prominent roles on WWE TV in recent years, it could be said that Amy Dumas had it easy. Whilst we all know that pro wrestling is not ‘legitimate’ in the conventional sense of the word, as market leader WWE has a huge amount of responsibility in terms of ensuring that their young, impressionable fans do not see things on their shows that they would repeat in real life to ill effect. Sadly, they do not always get the balance right. On one infamous occasion, Trish Stratus was actually confronted in the ring by her boss and made to strip to her underwear and bark like a dog. Beyond that, non-wrestling females have been smashed through wooden tables by large, muscular men – as have eighty year old women.
To say that wrestling is evil is wrong. To say that it actively encourages violence is also wrong – certainly, it is a violent sport, but there are enough warnings and campaigns running throughout each show to discourage anybody but the most ardent, ill-natured person from going out and committing a violent crime once they have watched a WWE show. That said, however, there is a limit to what is socially and morally acceptable. Whilst society may think it is okay for women to parade around in bikinis and wrestle in mud, there can be no doubt that the acts described above are wrong on every level. But to refuse to do the job in hand is an absolute sin in the wrestling business, and is guaranteed to cause you all manner of problems backstage. And so, it goes on.
But, beyond the simple objectifying of women, and the violence against women within their product, WWE also have a lot to answer for behind the scenes. Amidst the accusations of sexual harassment and of abusive behaviour from certain male wrestlers lies the chilling tale of Nancy Benoit. Nancy was a much-loved female valet who married and had a child with the legendary Chris Benoit, a wrestling star and champion both in the United States and Japan. Despite her previous cries for help – and, most frighteningly, despite the fact that other key female figures within wrestling had spoken out previously on everything from domestic abuse to date rape, and had all been scoffed at in the process – Nancy was murdered earlier this year by Chris, who, it has transpired, had copious amounts of steroids in his system at the time of his death, and was also suffering with depression. He also murdered their son, Daniel, that same weekend, and then hung himself by a cord from one of the machines in his gym.
Whether the deaths were drugs-related or not, steroids are a huge issue in professional wrestling at the moment. Several key WWE figures past a present were recently publicly named as steroid and hormone-buying clients of a major online pharmaceutical company, and Congress are probing the WWE’s ‘Wellness Policy’, which is designed to detect signs of drug use in performers (but is actually riddled with loopholes and, largely useless). Most surprisingly, however, in the recent pharmaceutical scandal, was the fact that no female performers were named as customers, as many sources close to the business allege that even the female athletes within WWE take large amounts of drugs on a regular basis in order to keep up their ‘better than beautiful’ physiques. Of course, this is mere speculation at this stage, but it has been noticed that, perhaps, the non-wrestling savvy investigators may not have even thought of checking the records for names of female performers when conducting their initial investigations, given that so few women on the roster actually have large, steroid-induced physiques. If they did not check for female names on the list, then they were probably largely missing the point.
You see, women in professional wrestling are generally expected to look good all the time, but are also expected to come into a company as an ex-glamour model/porn star/B-list celebrity, and not only learn how to perform on-camera in a variety of roles, but are also expected to learn how to work in the ring. Not only do they then need to learn how to throw punches and kicks that look believable, as well as elaborate move-sets that grab an audience’s attention, but they also need to learn how to protect themselves. So many men within the business are addicted to steroids, recreational drugs and painkillers because of the demanding, dangerous work that they do, and, for an inexperienced trainee, the risks are even greater. Couple ‘learning on the job’ with a road schedule that includes working approximately five nights every week throughout the year in towns and cities all over the world, and you have a recipe for physical disaster.
And yet, despite all of their efforts – and despite the efforts of groups like ChickFight and SHIMMER, who are battling against the uphill struggle and are, very gradually, changing the perception of women within wrestling – the women at the very top of the sport are not garnering anything like the recognition they deserve. Not only should hats be taken off to the women who do come into the sport as models and train hard to learn the ropes, but they should also be taken off to those women who have been wrestling for years but do not get the chance to shine because they just don’t look right. These are some of the most talented, dedicated women in the world, and yet they must work in an industry that does them no justice at all.
No room at the Octogan
Equally hard for female athletes, however, is the world of mixed martial arts. Whilst MMA/cage fighting is currently enjoying a huge international upswing in business and has gained much mainstream media acceptance in the last few years, there is still no dedicated women’s fight group, and there is still no place for women on Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) cards beyond the mundane task of holding up round cards wearing tight bikinis. Indeed, it seems easier for UFC and their fellow fight groups to play along with the social stigma that sees female fighters as some kind of odd anomaly than it is to rock the boat and allow these talented athletes to show what they can do on the world stage.
www.fightergirls.net, for example, features profiles and articles on just a few of the vast number of female mixed martial artists looking for recognition the world over. Debi Purcell, who runs Fighter Girls, is a professionally-trained fighter with an accomplished background, having trained under MMA legend Marco Ruas. The site is dedicated to networking and awareness, and, it seems, has become an excellent tool in terms of taking female MMA to the masses. But, in many ways, the women of MMA have it even harder than the women of wrestling.
Whilst the schedule and lack of degrading storylines might, on paper, make a career in martial arts more appealing to a female athlete than a career in wrestling, in reality, the battle for acceptance is even more of a struggle. At least in pro wrestling women are visible on major shows. Indeed, on most major WWE shows in the last twelve months there has been some kind of women’s wrestling match – normally revolving around the WWE Women’s Championship. Most women fighting on cage fighting cards can only hope, at this stage, to make it to the pre-show.
The main events are saved for the hard-hitting name fighters, all of whom are currently men. Fighters like Chuck Liddell, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Wanderlei Silva are major players for the UFC, and company owner Dana White recently commented that he didn’t see women fighting in the group anytime soon. If that is the attitude of the biggest MMA group on the planet, then it is easy to understand why the dozens of smaller companies are so slow to rock the boat also.
The Female Elite
Woman have made it onto major MMA shows, certainly, and their inclusion always seems to bring about a certain amount of controversy. American group Elite Extreme Combat (EliteXC), for example, broached the subject back in February by featuring a match between Gina Carano and Julie Kedzie on a card in Southaven, which brought with it much publicity and debate. But, as several commentators noted then, and continue to note today, at present female MMA fights are little more than a sideshow.
Despite the lack of opportunities, there are still scores of female fighters worldwide training diligently in the hopes of spots on major shows becoming available. Whilst the UFC may not have an awful lot of room in its unwelcoming bosom at the moment anyway, due to its recent purchase of fallen Japanese fight behemoth Pride, if enough social pressure is mounted to see women on their cards, ultimately they will have to give in.
As such, the answer lies with the female fighters themselves. They are halfway up the mountain, but are heading for the toughest part of the climb. As female fighting becomes more prominent, so it becomes even more of a political hot potato. Even if the UFC decided tomorrow that it would create a women’s division and book a whole primetime show filled with female-only matches, the issue would not suddenly be resolved. Indeed, by doing so, the group may even hinder rather than help the issue. As with any delicate issue, women’s MMA needs to be eased gradually into the social psyche, and presented not as some kind of violent revolution, but as an acceptable, legitimate contest between two athletic women.
The Silent Revolution
So, perhaps, the UFC’s stubbornness will be the greatest boost to women’s MMA. By pushing women out to the fringe companies like EliteXC, they are enabling women to slowly but surely gain the acceptance they deserve, and, although it may prove some time yet before women are fully accepted on a global scale as viable MMA/UFC fighters, it seems inevitable that it will happen in the not-too-distant future. The same mainstream voices that currently deem women’s MMA to be ‘too brutal’ are the same voices that were crowing against the barbarity and violence of the UFC itself just a few short years ago.
The UFC managed such a quick turnaround because of a sustained, committed effort. They demanded attention and had all of the tools to back their own hype up, and this is the model of success that the women of MMA need to now look to in their quest to become equals. If a group of the UFC’s nature can battle with the media and become a multi-million dollar business in a short time, establishing its top athletes as key players, making its own a fortune and creating a rabid, hardcore fanbase the world over that just won’t go away, then surely the tools are there for women’s MMA to enjoy the same success. All it needs is for those within the sport to remained composed and focussed on the end prize – and, with composure and focus two vital traits of any MMA fighter, it seems assured that success will be no problem.
And so there we have it – two sports that are simultaneously exactly the same and decidedly different, but yet both of which have been treating women as surplus to requirements. On the one hand, you have pro-wrestling, a sport run by creative dinosaurs and stuck in the dark ages. On the other, you have the UFC – a group enjoying a major worldwide explosion, and yet cow-towing to media pressure to keep women away from the octagon. And yet, from an MMA perspective, it seems that women are on the cusp of something great. They are sat on the precipice of a revolution, and just need the stars to align to allow them to step over the boundary and prove what they can do. For the women of MMA, it seems their time has come.
For the women of wrestling, on the other hand, much more is up in the air. Whether the congressional investigations will yield any real, lasting changes in the sport remains to be seen, but the facts are there for all to see. Women are mistreated and unheard in pro wrestling, but, when cases like Nancy Benoit come along, they have to be heard. Nancy isn’t the only female wrestling performer to die in recent years, but she may be the one that finally instigates the changes that have been needed for so, so long. If that happens, then women may finally step out of the shadows and be taken seriously. They may be able to feel like equals backstage, and may be able to garner important roles in the television product. It is a big ‘if’, but we truly hope it happens.
But, whilst wrestling and MMA are, indeed, very different animals, one thing remains the same – both are male-dominated, often-misogynistic sports that are holding women back. That said, there is definitely an uprising on the horizon – and who’s to say that the female MMA revolution may not help change things dramatically for the women of wrestling too? In an ideal world, we could look back on this piece in five years and think how dated it seems, given how far MMA and wrestling have progressed in terms of dignifying and respecting their female performers.
For every woman and young girl training and fighting for their fighting survival, we sincerely hope that it will be the case.
By MATT BARNES
...Below is yet another fantastic in-depth article by Matt Barnes, on The magazine FSM (Fighting Spirit Magzine) and how they deal and write truthfully about difficult subjects such as the plight of women in professional wrestling both in the ring and behind the scenes. Click on the PDF to read more. It is truly Fasinating. READ MORE....Click on the PDF below, "Fighting Spirit magazine by Matt Barnes"
photo Getty Images
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