Sometimes I believe the importance and influence of people in teams goes unappreciated. Like in professional sports where the superstar is usually the quarterback, running back or receiver in NFL, the high point scorer in basketball, the superstar striker in soccer, you get the picture. There is usually one or two people on teams who receive all the praise and plaudits. Their contributions are important, but sometimes they steal the spotlight from others. Some of those in the limelight are humble and will insist their success was down to a team effort, and sometimes they do not. There are always the unsung heroes in teams, people who may go unnoticed in the short term but are missed when they are gone. They add that extra dimension, that magic every team needs. They are the catalysts for success. In professional wrestling, the team effort is vital and without it, the product simply couldn’t function. Hulk Hogan would never be as popular as he was if there weren’t guys for him to beat along the way. The Rock wouldn’t have had the stellar career he had if guys weren’t willing to take losses or set up punchlines for him. The top can only be reached with heart, effort and the support of others.
Women’s wrestling has had a turbulent time over the years. From controversy to exploitation, it has been a bumpy road. At the peak of professional wrestling in 1998-2002, many of the women under contract in WWE had backgrounds in modeling rather than wrestling. They were on show for how they looked rather than how they performed. It was a time when they could have been consigned to being a side attraction, a pretty face and body at ringside for guys to ogle over, but in that period, there were green shoots of what would blossom in the future. For every leggy blonde who paraded around the ring in underwear, there was a Trish Stratus kicking ass, a Lita doing moonsaults from the top turnbuckle and a Mickie James showing what could be done if given time and faith that women’s wrestling could be so much more.
Fast forward twenty years and the bra & panties match would be unthinkable now, and rightly so. Society and attitude towards women have changed for the better. Young girls can see women kicking ass like their male colleagues and drawing fans and money, selling out shows across the world and breaking barriers and glass ceilings every time. I say this as a true fan of WWE and women’s wrestling. I do not say it to gain attention or tick a PC box on the internet. As the father of a teenage girl who has been to WWE shows and watched WWE on TV with me, I say it because I want her to see these women show all the little girls around the world that they can do anything and not let any barrier be a hindrance to success. With that in mind, I wanted to write about two women in WWE right now who I think should be recognized not just for their accomplishments in titles, but for their impact, influence and importance to professional wrestling.
Mickie James was around in mid to late 2000s during the Raw vs. Smackdown days and was front and center during that period. While Triple H, John Cena, Randy Orton and Edge were in their heyday, Mickie was busy forging a career in a division that was sometimes treated as eye candy and not taken seriously. When she debuted in WWE in 2005, she shared the roster with Trish Stratus, Lita, Victoria, Melina and others. Aside from those greats in women’s wrestling, there was also Stacey Kiebler, Maria Kanellis, Christy Hemme, Dawn Marie, Amy Webber and Joy Giovanni. I’m not going to badmouth the talent on the show, but the pool of top tier talent was small, and Mickie was certainly in that group. The cream always rises to the top. The opportunities to grow women’s wrestling was limited, especially in the company at the time when the attitude to women in wrestling was…different, shall we say? Nevertheless, Mickie succeeded and became a fixture of the women’s division, finding success in a superb rivalry with Trish Stratus and capturing the Women’s Title on multiple occasions. Mickie’s six Women’s Title reigns in WWE are tied for third most all-time with Sasha Banks – they both trail Charlotte Flair and Trish Stratus.
Mickie may not have been the star of the division the entire time she was there, but her hard work, dedication and sacrifice burned into the memories of fans watching at that time and she became a firm fan favourite. Much like Hogan could never have achieved success without guys to face off against, it would be fair to say Trish Stratus owes a lot of her success to her foil and sparring partner Mickie at that time. Everybody that watched their WrestleMania 22 match remembers it.
As the times changed and WWE became more PG, attitudes changed and WWE began to mature and understand that they had a product that didn’t need to be targeted at young men, but could cover a wide spectrum of fans, none more so than young boys and girls. In the late 2000’s and into the 2010’s, wrestling evolved culturally and became more aware that talent outranked looks. The traditional ‘big men’ became a thing of the past and wrestlers were hired on their ability more and more. For example, the 2010 champions in WWE included John Cena, The Miz and Randy Orton. It was in 2010 that the WWE decided to create the Divas Championship (replacing the Women’s Championship). An idea that perhaps wanted to portray the women in a different light, given that Total Divas debuted three years later. Looking back now, maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but it did spotlight a title and WWE did make a big deal about it. For comparison to 2005 above, the women’s roster contained AJ Lee, Beth Phoenix, Michelle McCool, Layla, Maryse, Melina, Gail Kim and a young Canadian named Natalya.
Natalya, for me, has been one of the most important, yet underappreciated wrestlers in the modern era. She has been a mainstay in WWE for over a decade now and has played an integral role in the blossoming of the Women’s Division. Watching interviews with her over the years, she is one of the most focussed, determined and hard-working individuals I’ve seen. It is important to also remember that she didn’t have an easy way into the business. Trained in the legendary Dungeon in the Hart Family, Natalya got into WWE on pure talent, not through any doors that were opened by her family. Remember, when she signed in 2007, the Montreal Screwjob had only happened ten years earlier and the Hart name was not popular within the walls of WWE. So much so, that Natalya was signed to the company last after TJ Wilson and Harry Smith (son of the legendary British Bulldog) were taken on. The Hart name may have been a hindrance rather than a help back then.
Since Natalya debuted in WWE in 2008, the women’s division has come on leaps and bounds. The Divas Title was abandoned in 2016, reverting back to the Women’s Title. At that time, WWE really began to focus on their pool of women in the company and the division grew and grew. Asuka and Ember Moon were setting NXT alight, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Charlotte were on Raw, whilst Natalya joined Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch on Smackdown. It goes without saying that the young blood of the division will always need help and support to get to the top. Natalya provided that in spades. As the ‘veteran’ of the division, she worked with them week after week to help them gain momentum and popularity with the fans. A recent statistic shared online showed that Natalya currently holds the record for most women’s matches in WWE (1360), the most wins (631), most PPV matches (51), most TV matches (467) and most TV wins (224). That is incredible but shows how important she has been to others if you look closely. A win percentage of less than 50% shows how she’s put the other talent over and helped their careers – such an admirable trait for someone who has been there so long and sees themselves as someone who is there to help others.
The Legacies Continue
Natalya and Mickie James are two of the most important wrestlers there have been in WWE for a generation. Their hard work, sacrifice and willingness to help others cannot be understated. Their work was a key foundation for the rise of the Women’s Division in WWE. They play key roles in Women’s Royal Rumbles, staying in the ring to manage the match and help the other women realize their potential. Natalya’s selflessness shows in the fact that she only ever won two titles in her career: a Divas Championship and a Smackdown Women’s Title. Her accomplishments are getting others over and forging paths for her friends and colleagues.
The same can be said of Mickie James now. A true veteran of the business, she too works hard to help the next generation of women in the industry. I had the pleasure of meeting Mickie some years ago at a small event. When asked why she had agreed to return to the WWE, she said she wanted to work with the talent in NXT, Smackdown and Raw. She wanted to be part of something special that WWE were doing, and I fully believe she has.
Outside of the ring, both women have successful interests. Mickie has released several albums/songs over for the last 10 years has released two albums; ‘Strangers & Angels’ and ‘Somebody’s Gonna Pay’. Mickie also currently has a weekly Youtube show with Victoria and So Cal Val called GAW TV and she’s also a mother that shows her son how much of a hard worker she is.
Natalya writes a weekly column for the Calgary Sun that is released in newspapers throughout Canada. She writes passionately about her career and is forever promoting her female colleagues wherever possible. Natalya has also been on Total Divas since the first season, giving fans an insight into her personal life (she was even married to Tyson Kidd on the show). She comes across as a really nice person, always smiling and laughing. Her social media is full of glamorous photographs, videos on YouTube (she has a Youtube channel too) and cats. Lots of cat photos.
The impact both women have had on wrestling cannot be understated, and like the sports analogy I used earlier, it is not the title winner or superstar who carries a team. It is not the main event or highest paid talent who makes things happen, but sometimes the unappreciated role of driving everyone in the team forward, taking ones for the team or doing all they can to ensure the success of others.
Natalya and Mickie are selfless individuals who are true ambassadors for women in wrestling. They promote and champion women’s wrestling whenever possible and ask for nothing in return. Seeing the success of their peers and friends is reward enough. On the Mount Rushmore of professional wrestling, they both deserve a spot. I suspect both will get their Hall of Fame rings in due course, but their impact and influence will be in WWE long after they call time of their stellar careers.