Wrestlemania 35: ‘Wrestling has always seen women as second class’

Rhia O'Reilly, Leevanya Mahendrarajah and Anna DobbieImage copyright
BBC / Getty Images

Women in wrestling were once sidelined in favour of men, and in WWE had to compete in their own “Divas” league.

But at Wrestlemania 35, WWE is staging its first ever all-female main event.

During its 35-year history Wrestlemania’s main event has seen the likes of The Rock, Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker fight it out for the WWE’s top prize.

This year, it’s Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair who will headline the biggest moment in the wrestling calendar.

For many women in the industry, it’s a game-changer they never thought they’d see.

“For so long, the wrestling industry has seen women as second-class citizens,” Rihannon Docherty, who wrestles as Rhia O’Reilly, tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

“Originally they were just there for their looks and that was it.”

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Rhia says Wrestlemania’s first all-female main event is a “huge moment” for wrestling

As well as wrestling herself, Rhia trains other wrestlers as part of the UK’s Eve Academy – an all-female pro-wrestling group for women of 18 and over in east London.

She says that seeing WWE put women at the centre of their biggest event will inspire other companies to do something similar.

“WWE is seen as the forefront of wrestling for most people and if they’re doing it – it trickles down,” Rhia says.

“Whether it’s as a wrestler, manager, promoter, tech-guy – whatever it is you want to do, this is the best time for everyone, but especially for women.”

‘Bra and panties’ matches

But Emily Reed, who founded the Eve Academy, remembers when things were very different for females in the industry.

“They hired a lot of women who were models and then would teach them the basics of wrestling,” says Emily.

She says matches where women had to strip each other to their underwear to win – known as “Bra and panties” events – were “disgusting”.

“They were literally bikini contests and fancy dress contests,” she says.

“It’s not how you treat women who are meant to be there as wrestlers, the same as men.”

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Getty Images

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Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch will headline Wrestlemania 35

Emily says that outside the WWE, women would fight in what were known as “toilet break” matches before a main event, giving fans time to go to the toilet or get a drink from the bar before an event’s headliners took to the ring.

So she’s thrilled at seeing an all-female main event at Wrestlemania 35.

“It is a huge step forward,” Emily says.

But she says it’s just the first step in equal billing for women in wrestling and says they “still need to be pushing”.

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Naomi tells 1Xtra’s Ace the event proves women in wrestling can do everything they were told they couldn’t

And of course, there’s excitement about the Wrestlemania 35 main event among some of the WWE professionals as well.

“It’s just motivating and it’s encouraging to all of us,” WWE star Naomi tells 1Xtra’s Ace, who’s at the New Jersey event.

“Who knows what’s next after this. I truly feel this is just the beginning. I think there will be more doors opening and more opportunities for women to come.”

Lacey Evans says this is just one many barriers in wrestling that women continue to knock down.

“This is probably one of the biggest. It’s just up to us to continue this path and continue to prove to the world what women are capable of,” she tells Ace.

My Tinder matches want to wrestle me

But while changes are being seen at the top level of the industry, there’s still a lot to be done at a local level, according to some of the trainees at Eve Academy.

“It’s on my Tinder profile that I wrestle,” says Anna Dobbie, who wrestles under the name of Goldyloxx.

She says people use her sport to make unwelcome sexual suggestions.

“Half of the people will approach me and say ‘can we wrestle sometime?’ That sets me off and makes me block them immediately.”

“This is my hobby, I don’t do it for that reason and the fact you’ve immediately made it about that, I find really disturbing.”

She also says that she has attended recent women’s wrestling events where men in the audience have heckled women in the ring, calling for them to take their clothes off.

Laavanya Mahendrarajah, who says she’s “addicted to wrestling” and its “adrenaline rush”, believes this is still happening when people aren’t aware of the changes that have been made in the industry.

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Laavanya (left) hasn’t chosen her wrestling name, but Anna (right) performs as Goldyloxx

“From the outside perspective, people who haven’t been involved in wrestling don’t see the small changes that are taking place,” Laavanya tells Newsbeat.

“If you are a wrestling fan or are a wrestler yourself, you see all the changes that have been going on.

“But I think there’s a long way women still have to go.”

Both Anna and Laavanya say that learning to wrestle has improved their confidence, and Eve Academy founder Emily says most women who train find it makes a change to more than just their fitness.

“The women turn up here and we sit nice and straight, maybe hide away in the corners and we don’t make noise,” she says.

“Then they leave here yelling and shouting and standing big and tall.

“I started to doubt that women would ever main event Wrestlemania and I’m so happy that there will be a lot of women seeing that it can happen.”

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