The Rise of Women’s Wrestling – Melina and Southside Wrestling
Women’s wrestling globally is on the up. We have seen some of the best matches of the year so far coming from the women’s division of many promotions. It appears that a conscious step is being made to push female talent and the appetite amongst fans is growing.
We spoke to two individuals who have taken it upon themselves to push the boundaries on women’s wrestling and help pioneer a movement in the UK.
Former WWE Divas champion and current Queen of Southside champion Melina Perez has been working with some of the UK’s top female talent over the last 12 months. We spoke to her about her challenges as a female wrestler and deserving growth and popularity of current crop of talent.
What do you think the state of women’s wrestling is like in the modern era?
I think it’s amazing. It’s incredible to see and it makes me so happy. It’s so weird where I keep thinking of “back in my time” which wasn’t really that long ago. I appreciated people in the past – back in the 60s and everything. People talk about the “women’s revolution” and I’ll tell them that the women’s revolution started in the beginning on women’s wrestling. Women have been such a minority in wrestling, and it’s been a novelty. For a time, even though there were some serious wrestlers, it was still seen as a novelty back before me. And now, from my time, I felt like I was the only girl wrestling in my school. Maybe there would be another one who would come in every so often, but it was such a rare thing to see. So when I got into OVW, it was such a beautiful thing to have three girls! But now there are so many women, and it’s so amazing that women can go anywhere and have people to work with.
You spoke before about there being a lack of women in the wrestling school that you attended – what do you think had changed with women’s wrestling that has made it more popular with women?
I just think throughout time, I don’t think there has been just one incident. You see people who bring their children and at a certain point more family have got involved to come and watch together. I used to hear in the past that a lot of grandmothers, a lot of women, would watch wrestling. There was a jump where fans of wrestling would take their daughters and they started wanting to take their daughters too. And those daughters started growing up and wanted to become wrestlers themselves. And those girls that I see, and when I remember them as little kids, now they are actually in the ring working. For me that’s a beautiful thing. Not everybody will get acknowledgement throughout the years of what they have contributed in wrestling and if I never get it, I’ll be cool with that. But, I remember seeing these little girls, seeing them with their signs, and I’m probably never going to have children, but those will be my children. Seeing them grow up and even though I’m not the best in the world, not the prettiest or the strongest, the little piece that I gave into wrestling – seeing that in these girls, I’ll always be happy for them. I pray to God, or whatever is out there, that they have a better experience than I did. That the experience now, whether in the indies or WWE, will be better than what I had.
Could you elaborate on that – what was your experience coming into wrestling?
It wasn’t the worst experience. I was very shy, very quiet and I could see how people would probably not want to hire me because I’m not this larger than life person. But when the WWE gave me a contract it was such a blessing because they took a chance on me. And that opportunity gave me the courage and the ability to fulfil a dream. So in ways it was very great and a great experience but in other ways it was a transition, coming in when the top girls like Trish and Lita were coming out. So we were are a low and people didn’t want to watch as they were heartbroken about their favourite girls leaving. So we were in a weird place at that time. I think that back then there wasn’t a lot of hardcore women’s wrestling – we only had a limited time. But at the same time, people appreciated it in their own way. Even now we see the likes of Sasha Banks and Charlotte, and I still hear people complaining. So in my mind I think – appreciate what you’ve got now, because when they’re gone and the new generation comes up, you’re going to miss these girls.
Do you see things like signing autographs and telling them that they can go and do it having a knock on effect with women’s wrestling becoming more and more popular?
Yes, I’ve done little pieces. Everybody has – Beth Phoenix, Michelle McCool, Mickie James – these women have done little bits and pieces and in my mind, even though I wasn’t the most loved character, I believe that my contribution to wrestling was as a great heel, as a great bad guy. And I love that because you can’t love certain characters unless you hate certain characters. And when I speak to the girls I always tell them to not give up. I appreciate my time, but there were moments when we were novelties. I was told when I first entered wrestling that I would always be a novelty. And I never believed that or wanted that.
Do you think that’s something that has changed in modern wrestling, that there’s less sexualisation of women’s wrestling, or is it still prevalent?
I think there is sexualisation, but not just in wrestling, in all of media, there’s always that element. I can’t say that it’s not there anymore but that’s kind of part of life, because we do that to men too! But there’s more wrestling and more fighting out there, UFC and Boxing and everything. Women are stepping up and realising “Hey, I’m more than just this. I’m more than just an object, and a person who just puts on make-up and dresses up. I’m more than this.” And so now society is seeing this and embracing it. Now it’s being more accepted.
It’s a really positive step – from what you were saying before, it shows how times have changed in a really short period of time. Ronda Rousey as an example, is being held up as an incredible fighter, and Charlotte Flair who is being held up as possibly one of the best wrestlers in the world. It’s a really positive time…
This has been going on for a long, long time. It makes me sad that there are so many women before me who were such amazing athletes, and it’s sad that they’ll never get any credit. Gail Kim who’s been from the beginning, during the Trish era, to still there right now, and I feel like she’s such an incredible worker that I hope people see her and realise her contribution throughout these years.
We have retrospective appreciation of wrestlers – looking at someone like Brian Pillman as an example who contributed so much and only started getting recognition after about 10 years or so. Do you think there will be a retrospective appreciation of these women?
Yes I do. And it’s not that it’s a crying shame but I hope so. I always tell people not to take it personally when it comes to wrestling. Places don’t intend to not give credit where credit is due. It’s just that things happen that way because of the pace of wrestling. Storylines happen and something new comes about. And I understand it’s nothing personal.
How far away do you think we are from seeing a female Royal Rumble winner or a champion outside of the Women’s division?
I would hope next year, because they’ve hired so many women. All these indie wrestlers they’ve hired. In my mind I’m thinking, something’s going to happen soon. It’s just a matter of time. There are so many girls from around the world that are incredible. I’m excited to see what they’re going to do with these girls.
Looking at it from a Southside perspective, with Southside being really forward-thinking when it comes to the women’s division, to the point where it’s not even really a women’s division anymore – it’s just part of the roster. We saw Nixon Newell winning the tag team championship, and your involvement has also been pushing the women’s wrestling. What responsibility do you think Indie promotions have on pushing women’s wrestling? Or does it just depend on the appetite of the audience?
Another reason why I came here to SWE is because Southside is really big on pushing their women but also it’s an instinct having women just as equal in tag teams and intergender matches. It would be nice to have more independent promotions contributing in the same way. But unless people want to speak up and demand it, just like in the WWE because that’s what happened at the pinnacle of WWE changing, because the fans are speaking up more.
What talent do you think we need to keep an eye out for in the women’s divisions globally?
From now, what I’ve seen, there’s Nixon Newell and from what I’ve heard they (WWE) have hired Evie too, from New Zealand, Kimber Lee, and because she’s my friend and they’ve hired her I’m just so excited. Of all the women they’ve picked, they are all really amazing workers. In my time people kind of crapped on women who were models and got hired, but any person who steps in that ring and wants to do well, who has the love for wrestling, even with the limited knowledge if they didn’t watch for very long, I appreciate the fact that they have the love of wrestling like I have. And if I see them trying hard, to me, I respect that and I embrace that. And I’ve seen some of the girls who were really green at wrestling but tried so hard and wanted to learn and study. And some of these girls had so much passion that I wish I could take and put into other women who have been doing it for years. So to me, if you have the love for it, I won’t knock it.
Are there any specific examples of you being mistreated because you’re a woman whether it’s the locker room, promoters or any group of people?
No, I think that when it came to rumours, people always thought I was a bitch. It was always outside of wrestling. I was always super quiet and unless a person really knew me they wouldn’t talk to me. The hardest thing for me to overcome is, because I never spoke, that people always judged me off of a look, or rumours. I don’t know if anybody else could understand, I know that shy people can understand what I’m saying. If you’re not a person who’s very open, it’s a very difficult thing to try and get across – “Hey, this is who I am”.
So there was an assumption that you were a bitch because you were quiet?
You know what’s funny, when I first started I was always so sweet and nice and bubbly, everybody assumed I was someone to take advantage of and that I should never be a heel. “She can’t do this, she can’t do that.” So then I started being a heel and I was good at it, and people assumed that the heel character was naturally me. It seemed like because I was so quiet, people assumed the wrong thing all the time. But Wrestling has allowed me to learn about how to be social. It got me out of my shyness. And now I couldn’t imagine my life without talking to people, sharing my experiences and asking them about their life.
So Wrestling has given you a lot socially?
Yeah it really has. I’ve had every opportunity to go all over the world and see different cultures. Another thing about wrestling is, I’ve made friends through wrestling. I’m a fan of wrestling and through the internet, I’ve made best friends from all over the world. So when I travel, I’ll go and visit people because we’ve grown close. And they teach me about their culture and their life, and their outlook on wrestling or their outlook of life in general. So, wrestling has opened doors to me that I feel really blessed about.
Being a proud Englishman I hope that we’ve given you a good experience of our fair country and you’ve enjoyed your time here.
Oh my goodness – I love it here! I keep telling everybody that I’m part British now! I’m a local now. Every time I’ve come here it’s either been cloudy or sunny, but I’ve never seen it snow so I’m happy that when I came back on Friday it was snowing. I love the food, I’ve been going to different places to eat. I’m learning to use the trains now! I’m still terrible about making my next train.
Who were your inspirations growing up, male or female. Who inspired you?
The funny thing is that when I watched wrestling, it seemed like such an out-of-reach dream and it never occurred to me to actually do it. I just loved everything about wrestling. I loved Steamboat, Roddy Piper. Well, I was a Macho Man girl – everybody was about Hulk Hogan but I was a Macho Man girl! And then later throughout the years I loved Rey Mysterio, and then I was a fan of Jericho. I just loved all of wrestling growing up. As I was growing older, for some reason, became more partial to heels, so I loved it. And when it came to the girls, I really loved Jazz and Jacqueline. And I look at Lita and I love the fact that even though I loved Lita and Trish, what I looked at with Trish was the way she sold. It was just a certain way she sells. And you look at Trish in storylines and she’d always be the damsel in distress, and I was never big on that as a fan, but I was really into the storyline! And then I’d look at Lita, and Lita would never be the damsel in distress – she always handled stuff. All these little bits and pieces I loved about everybody.
So you were always drawn towards strong women, with the idea of a damsel in distress in wrestling being a little bit off-putting, but someone like Lita who could comfortably wrestle at any level – you were more attracted to them?
Yes, It’s like they gave me storylines when even though I was a strong character, I had to be feminine and have a bit of a weakness and it was a hard thing for me to accept because I didn’t see myself as that. I realised that I had to understand how people saw me, how the fans saw me.
Did you have to swallow a few bitter pills not to have control over your character development and do a few things you didn’t want to do because you were in the elite side of the sport?
Yeah, because what’s interesting and weird about wrestling, and I’m not sure how it is in acting as somebody writes the script and they hire you to go by that script, and kind of on that same level with WWE, you have some creative liberty, and you can say “how about this, how about that”, but ultimately this company is hiring you to play this character and fulfill a storyline. You are an actor and an improviser at the same time. I didn’t understand the point of a pudding match but if this what ultimately I have to do I’ll do a pudding match, because that’s what we have to do. And then later on I know that at some point there will be a different payoff. So yeah you do stuff like that, but in a way I’m lucky to be a part of this amazing experience – I’m a wrestler! Look at me, I’m doing Wrestlemania, so you have certain moments like the pudding matches but then Wrestlemania moments which is why I got into wrestling.
One man who is not afraid to push female talent is Southside Wrestling owner – Ben Auld. Having run all female events and also making the bold step of giving the tag team strap to exciting talent, Nixon Newell, he doesn’t want to stop it there.
An already outstanding promotion, Southside is unleashing female talent on to its fans, and the results have been phenomenal.
What is your opinion of women’s wrestling in its current form?
I think it is at its best level in terms of quality than its ever been whether that’s in the independent circuit or WWE. I think the reason why the WWE is so good at the moment is due to the the women’s division. In this country [UK] we have some really good stars, but worldwide I think there is some tremendous talent. WWE has pushed the boundaries with women’s main events and the girls have delivered. This is something I had done, at Southside, which isn’t something that not many promotions can say they have done. My last show of last year and my first of 2017 have both had women main events. The standard is fantastic.
As a promotion you have always been forward thinking by putting women higher up the card and holding all women events. Is there as much appetite for female wrestling as male wrestling?
There are as many women who can steal the show as much as a guy. Southside’s fans are happy to see whoever is entertaining them, whether its a male or female. Sadly, I think there are promoters who book girls just because they are pretty or just to put on the poster. That is a huge shame. I feel some promotions push women for the wrong reasons, they don’t care about their development, they just want a pretty looking girl. I am not afraid to put women in important matches. Kayleigh Ray, Nixon Newell, and Alex Wondsor they are absolutely superb. I could put them in with the men and they wouldn’t look out of place. The truth of it is the girls have forced me to do it. By that I mean that every single time I have given the girls an opportunity they have delivered so much. This forces me to give them more opportunity. I’ve changed my plans on certain story lines because I have had to book some of these girls again. I don’t say that begrudgingly. It’s because they are so good.
We see less sexualisation of women. Do you think there has been a wholesale change in the way women are used in wrestling?
100%. When was the last time you saw a “bra and panties” match? Women have now been given the respect they needed. They were never thought of as equal to men and for the first time ever I think that they are being shown as equal, particularly by WWE. There have been a couple NXT take overs where women have main evented. Sasha and Charlotte have been the best thing it the whole of WWE, they have been amazing.
If you were faced with either main eventing a former WWE male wrestler, who wrestle for your promotion all the time, or a high skilled female match which one would you pick?
I’m all about the matches. I think Southside women’s title can be the top women’s titles in Europe. Considering it’s only been around two years that’s a bold claim. I respect that too much, I want to make it the best. If I was to bering in some who couldn’t really work then I wouldn’t devalue my belt. As a promoter I’m thinking.- How could I make both work? As an example, I had a chance to work with Beth Phoenix. She hasn’t wrestled for some time and she isn’t going to wrestle, she hasn’t done a UK appearance, so why can I use her as a guest referee for a match between two of my top girls? Then it gives me something different. I get the best of both worlds.