Torch Flashbacks NEWSLETTER FLASHBACK: Who really started the U.S. Women's Wrestling Revolution?, CALDWELL examines SHIMMER'S ambitious plans 10 years ago
Oct 10, 2015 - 12:14:30 AM
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SHIMMER Women's Wrestling celebrates its 10-year Anniversary this weekend. Before the promotion launched in November 2005, PWTorch assistant editor James Caldwell examined whether SHIMMER could be the trend-setter that set the tone for a shift in Women's Wrestling in the U.S. marketplace.
Ten years later, WWE's NXT brand featured a Women's Title match as the main event of their latest special. And, WWE is promoting a so-called "Divas Revolution" on their main TV.
It started with the first SHIMMER show, picked up steam with the introduction of TNA's Knockouts division, and has carried forward to the NXT brand. SHIMMER promoter Dave Prazak noted it's all about quality talent having highly-athletic, competitive matches. That's certainly the case with Bayley and Sasha Banks on NXT.
Now, a look back to 2005, with quotes from big players in the mix at the time ...
The Perspective with James Caldwell
Original Headline: Is there a market for women's wrestling?
Originally Published: November 5, 2005
PWTorch Newsletter #886
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Since the days of Fabulous Moolah in the '50s and '60s, women's wrestling has taken on a different role in North America. Promoters have been afraid to create a full-fledged women's wrestling promotion without a host of T&A and ridiculous gimmicks for fear that wrestling audiences don't want to watch undersized and potentially undervalued female competitors "wrestle.”
In turn, promotions ranging from your local wrestling promotion to WWE have tried integrating women's wrestling into the mix as "special attractions” or buffer matches. Currently, WWE only has a handful of female wrestlers on roster after releasing Jazz, Nidia, Gail Kim, and Molly Holly earlier this year and WWE's way of replacing those wrestlers was to hire models from the diva search contest. Subsequently, the women's division - which was instantly taken down a notch when WWE pushed Ashley into the mix before she was ready - consists of Trish Stratus, and well, Trish Stratus.
At the local wrestling scene, many promotions feature just two or three wrestlers on a regular basis. The same match between the same two wrestlers in the same second slot on the card becomes a repetitive exercise in placing bets on who'll score the first nearfall this week. More importantly, those same two or three wrestlers realize no growth as wrestlers. Working the same wrestler consistently and repeatedly doesn't allow women to develop their skills against a larger, smaller, faster, or slower opponent. When there's no room for growth, the potential for women's wrestling is left on the table.
One start-up promotion running out of the Chicago area hopes to change that. Dave Prazak, who is one of the voices of Ring of Honor and helped book women's matches for the IWA-Mid South promotion from late 2002 to June 2005, is giving a crop of female talent an opportunity to work with peers from across the country in order to grow, develop, and gain exposure.
"We want to give women wrestlers a chance to wrestle other wrestlers in North America,” says Dave Prazak, whose Shimmer promotion will hold its first DVD taping on November 6. "We want to round up all the good workers...and have them work with one another to develop.”
Prazak hopes fans who attend the first show will be the type of fans who "enjoy and appreciate the product,” but the ultimate goal is to allow female wrestlers an opportunity to compete and grow as athletes with the hope that additional exposure will allow talent to command a higher booking fee at independent shows. Making money with the promotion isn't even a chief concern.
"We want to draw 150 (people) to the live show every other month and break even,” says Prazak.
But, how can a wrestling promotion draw a consistent audience to its shows when the concept of women's wrestling has been watered down by WWE's move towards T&A, bad independent wrestling matches, and the notion that female competitors are less athletic than their male counterparts?
Prazak hopes his marketing technique is one part of the solution.
"The name of the promotion indicates the type of product we're going to promote,” says Prazak. "'Wrestling women' has a bad connotation. We're going to focus on the athletic side.”
Aware of the stigma attached to women's wrestling, Prazak has separated the words "women” and "wrestling” from each other like two people straight out of divorce court. Instead, Prazak calls the talent "women athletes,” implying that the competition is between skilled competitors who just happen to wrestle.
Another piece of the solution is scheduling. Prazak plans to run the Shimmer shows every month or every other month to keep a consistent following, but also to ensure the market isn't over-saturated. For women's wrestling in North America, many promotions run into the "All-Japan mystique” trap or what I like to call the "golden ring syndrome.”
During the 1970's on through to November 11, 1994, when All Japan Women's realized the pinnacle of success - a Tokyo Dome show - women's wrestling took on a life of its own as the symbol of what female in-ring competition can ultimately become. Television ratings were good, the product was appreciated, and lengthy tours were standard money-makers.
However, success in Japan was aided by the mystique surrounding the concept. When AJW ran shows on Fuji television beginning in 1975, there wasn't a bra and panties match or lingerie pillow fight opposite the serious wrestling competition.
Many promotions, most notably Women of Wrestling (2000-2001), have tried to run weekly shows in North America featuring gimmick matches and a host of innuendo-laced characters. (Can you say EZ Rider?) W.O.W. lasted six months and many have wondered how it even lasted that long.
"You can't do it every week,” says Dave Marquez, New Japan USA Vice President. "It's not a full-time market - rather - it's a saturated market.”
But, what can North American promoters take from Japan's success with women's wrestling that isn't a direct result of the mystique surrounding the concept?
"A good product that holds the attention (of the audience) can be successful - man or woman,” says Dave Prazak.
It's a basic, underlying factor that applies to all forms of pro wrestling, yet something that many women's wrestling promoters often times forget. W.O.W. featured "wrestlers” who were incapable of working ring crew, much less sell a wristlock. Local wrestling shows will often feature women wrestlers who aren't prepared to compete in the ring, but are used because they can generate a certain response.
"There are some very, very good women wrestlers out there,” says Chris Hero, an independent wrestler and trainer at Chikara pro wrestling in Pennsylvania, "but the division is polluted by so many who don't necessarily respect it and just want to go out there and get a reaction.”
In many ways, the concept of women's wrestling is hurt the most from within rather than external variables of T&A in WWE and over-saturation. Female wrestlers who put on a pair of boots and bounce around the ring without training or a sense of understanding diminish the concept and create the stigma of illegitimate pro wrestling. That stigma follows around the female talent who are solid workers and can actually compete in the ring. Yet, because many promoters are simply looking for the quick reaction rather than building up the concept, wrestlers such as Cheerleader Melissa, Sara Del Ray, Lacey, and Daizee Haze suffer.
"What promoters do is get these girls who aren't necessarily ready, aren't completely trained, and are booked to fail,” says Chris Hero. "They're a little extra attraction.”
Dave Prazak doesn't want his crop of 20-24 female talents to be "extra attractions” on a small-time independent show. Prazak believes in the abilities of trained female athletes who aren't simply looking for a chance to earn a quick $25 bouncing around the ring in a skimpy outfit in between matches involving a few school teachers playing wrestlers on the weekend.
Yet, even when legitimate female talent is booked on local shows, there are only so many available match slots and the male wrestlers are given priority because they drive fans to the arena. And it is the local independent show - where women's wrestling matches are packed in between the male counterparts - when I believe the most damage is done.
At the heart of the issue is the physical match-up between male and female wrestlers. Pro wrestling is a male-dominated sport where moves are executed and made to look real by men. Consequently, when an audience is trained to expect a certain reaction following a move, or expect a certain move to be sold a certain way, women are placed at an instant disadvantage - the in-ring product is designed for how a male body reacts, not for how a female body reacts.
When watching a series of men's matches where the action looks legitimate because of the way moves are sold, the instant change to a women's match can throw an audience off and create the notion that what the women are doing in the ring is fake wrestling. The women may make one or two mistakes that would be glossed over if part of a men's match, but viewed as a glaring error in a women's match.
"There are some girls who work hard - Sara Del Ray wrestles just like a guy,” says Chris Hero. "A lot of women wrestlers - it doesn't look natural for them - so it comes off as them acting like wrestlers.”
The stigma created by women wrestlers who aren't properly trained is exactly that - women who are acting while trying to be wrestlers. The unnatural flow of a match can deprive viewers of their suspension of disbelief and instantly remove any credibility attached to the performance.
Certainly, Dave Prazak understands the knock on women's wrestling, especially when female talent is given one slot on a male-dominated show without room for growth.
"We're going to book quality talent,” says Prazak. "The perception needs to be proven wrong by quality women's wrestling.”
With women's wrestling on the down slope due to the cheap "bra and panties” matches in WWE, matches between untrained competitors at your local show, and business going down in Japan, Prazak has an uphill battle to climb. He understands the stigma and wants to fight the idea that no one cares about women's wrestling in America.
By placing his crop of female talent in an independent promotion, where the product isn't instantly exposed by male wrestling that could hinder the product's acceptability, Prazak has the beginnings of a successful formula.
With a solid schedule in place to not wear out the market, a solid marketing plan in place to negate the stigma attached to women's wrestling, and a DVD distribution deal through Ring of Honor to get the first DVD product out to the market by early December, Prazak is setting the table for a resurgence in women's wrestling on a national scale.
I firmly believe there is a market for women's wrestling despite the many factors which have hurt the concept over and over again - a constant stream of untrained wrestlers, promoters who have haphazardly featured female competition, and WWE's fixation with the Ashley Massaros of the world. There is something to be said for any type of pro wrestling that features a solid roster of quality competitors who are hungry for a fresh opportunity to work in front of an appreciative audience, which is something Shimmer hopes for at their first taping on November 6.
"When you have the same two, three, or four girls, it gets stale,” says Chris Hero. "(You) need an outlet where you can have two matches and actually build to a no. 1 contender and not just hand out title shots left and right.”
That outlet may be Shimmer and the women's pro wrestling movement may begin November 6 in Berwyn, Illinois. It's a small, ambitious step for a concept that will feature the best and brightest talent in the country. Realizing the "golden ring” of women's wrestling may be unrealistic, there's something to be said for progress. Female wrestlers who actually care about the sport and are committed to a solid product deserve that opportunity.
"I am excited and proud to be part of a roster of amazing women from all across the country,” says Allison Danger, one of the centerpieces of Shimmer. "Fans here have waited far too long for an alternative to bra and panties matches and diva searches.”
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