First it was the cruiserweights. Then it was the Brits (the male ones). Now WWE has kindly decided that maybe the women of the wrestling world should get some more attention.
Riding the “Women’s Evolution”/”Divas Revolution”/”Hey, maybe we can make money out of not being sexist pigs” wave, it’s fair to say the Mae Young Classic could be one of the most exciting things to happen to women’s wrestling in years. Undeniably, it will offer some of the world’s most talented and unique athletes a massive opportunity to show the world what they can do. We asked a few Maintainers to pick the women the Fed mustn’t forget.
While previous tournaments have been great from a technical standpoint, I’ve still found them rather joyless affairs when it comes to characters and gimmicks. The CWC even managed to make Kota Ibushi seem a bit boring. WWE’s presentation of a women’s tournament is unquestionably about drawing in new fans (and of course they’re timing the release of the show close to the launch of GLOW on Netflix), so it needs to pop.
So this is why I picked Solo Darling. Not because she’s my personal favourite pick, or because it would be good to see her in WWE, but because she stands out from everyone else in a very immediate sense. Wrestlers made of high-fructose energy bursts in bright neon are vital to making wrestling work for the oldest to the youngest fans. Her gimmick is simple but works for a range of audiences: she’s powered by sugar and sweets and will do anything to get them, like Crash Holly crossed with the Trix rabbit. Of course it helps that she’s a very talented smaller fighter, but a hyperactive sugar creature bouncing off the walls is the sort of thing that makes matches instantly exciting to new audiences and I defy you to tell me otherwise.
There’s a video on Stardom World, quite well known among the promotion’s fanbase, in which Kairi Hojo names her three favourite wrestlers as Akira Hokuto, The Rock, and Kenta Kobashi. Leaving Hokuto to one side for the moment, is it not fair to say that Hojo is, by any relevant scale, as naturally gifted a babyface as her other two heroes? Since debuting for Stardom in 2012, Hojo has pretty much perfected her ability to emotionally connect with the crowd over the course of a match, often working agonisingly from underneath, but also showing great poise and pathos when putting down lesser challengers. There’s a reason that Kobashi, regarded as having produced maybe the greatest in-ring babyface performance in puroresu history, invited Hojo onto two editions of his annual Fortune Dream supercard, and is constantly beaming out from photos by her side. With regards to The Rock’s calling card, Hojo’s promos have a weird bouncy energy that is quite unlike the former ten-time WWE Champion’s but that is every bit as fun and memorable. If there were any justice in the world, “It was great to be at pro wrestling! It was great to see all of you! It’s great to be on Earth!” would be as memetic as “It doesn’t matter what your name is!” And hey, if Hojo gets mic time in NXT or wherever she’s ultimately bound for, maybe it will be. Also, her elbow drop is way better than The Rock’s.
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but nobody can really be sure for now how much of the Kairi Hojo character Kaori Housako will be allowed to bring with her as she sets sail for Orlando. There is no precedent in WWE’s long history for kawaii hard-ass female sea pirate gimmicks. The precedent set by the recent success of Asuka in NXT doesn’t really apply here, as the two are about as different in the way they carry themselves as elite-level joshi performers can be. Maybe WWE will lean more into Housako’s presentation on Lucha Underground, where she played the ninja assassin Doku, but her role in that angle was relatively minor, and stretching it out in this way would gloss over a lot of what makes her so special as a performer (British Empire Wrestling reportedly had a go at turning Hojo heel during Stardom’s trip to London last year, with baffling consequences). Amongst all these questions, however, there’s one thing that seems pretty certain at this stage: Hojo is a long-term prospect for the WWE, having been signed to a three-year contract, and will go far in this tournament, dazzling the crowd with her fluid, high-speed, high-impact offense along the way. If all goes well, she’ll also steal their hearts, just as she’s stolen the hearts of more or less everybody who has seen her work in Japan.
I strongly suspect that the purest babyfaces we will see in this tournament will be Kairi Hojo, Nixon Newell and Candice LeRae. They all feel like natural faces and come across as all-round good eggs. Ivelisse is not that kind of character, and she’s not that kind of wrestler. For that reason, she’s exactly what this tournament needs – a take-no-shit, badass heroine of whom you’re completely in awe, but by whom you’re also slightly terrified. If she’s your friend, she’ll destroy anyone who fucks with you. If you cross her, you’re basically dead.
If you’re going to call yourself “the baddest bitch in the building”, you’d better be able to back it up. Ivelisse’s heavily MMA-influenced, strike-heavy style lends itself to exactly that, and her style would be a welcome contrast to some of the acrobatics we might see from her opponents. That said, she’s great value as a fiery babyface and really good at working underneath: go and watch her weirdly brilliant Lucha Underground title match against certified man mountain Mil Muertes. She’s the perfect antidote to a very talented, but very nice, cohort of possible faces.
At some point in my young teens I caught a late-night BBC2 broadcast of Grace Jones vampire flick Vamp, strongly imprinting deathly white make-up and blood on my fledgling sexuality. So I’d be kidding myself on if I didn’t admit that is part of the reason I’d like to see Su Yung in the Women’s Tournament. Whilst I’m told she often comes to the ring soundtracked by The Deftones, I’m still fairly sure her entrance music is actually Gary Wright’s Dreamweaver – for some reason, that’s what I hear.
Moving swiftly on before this becomes a full-blown therapy session, whilst her gimmick and recent promos are definitely better suited to Lucha Underground (please let this happen in Series 3), even if it was toned down so as not to completely terrify the kids she’d still add something to the whole affair. She could be the perfect heel for Ember Moon for instance, and/or as a mid-level boss in this take on how the tournament should work. Above all though, I really just want to lose it seeing her evil-looking finisher on a world stage with that sweet WWE camera work.
A tournament needs heels, and Dahlia Black is a natural. There’s no need for an introductory video package for her character; as soon as she walks onstage, alongside South Pacific Power Couple partner TK Cooper, everything about her screams ‘mean girl’. Then there are the long, lingering kisses, with TK staring into camera – guaranteed heat. So it’s testament to her charisma and dedication that, when it was announced that she would be leaving the UK due to Visa issues, wrestling fans petitioned the government to let her stay, and the crowd reaction made her final appearance in Progress one of the most genuinely moving moments I’ve witnessed in wrestling.
For all her great character work, she can also go in the ring. In recent months, she’s wrestled a 4 star trash brawl against Session Moth Martina, looked extremely competitive against Toni Storm, and also mixed it up with the men on the Progress roster, knocking out The London Riots’ JD with a boot, and employing a ‘Greco-Roman Testicle Lock’ on British Strong Style. Her storytelling is key here though: as with Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne in the UK Tournament, she has the ability to get her character across with limited ring-time. TK at ringside would set her further apart from the other competitors. With potential opponents like Nixon Newell and Kairi Hojo, there’s not much chance of Dahlia winning outright, but there’s no doubt that she’d make a mark.
I am aware that Viper is contracted to ITV’s World of Sport relaunch, but come on now – it’s blatantly never going to get made now that Jeff Jarrett’s hijacked it as a vehicle to sell gold-based pyramid schemes to British pensioners. If WWE has any sense they’ll offer Greg Dyke or whoever’s in charge now enough money to buy her out of her contract, which should be enough to finance at least the next ten series of Take Me Out, and add one more name to what will probably end up being a pretty sizeable European contingent in the tournament.
It’s a drum we bang often on the Puro Pourri Podcast, and a point made elsewhere on this fine site, but including performers with a wide range of looks and body types makes wrestling more interesting; not just in terms of representation but with regard to increasing the variety of stories that can be told in the ring. Viper, who’s north of two hundred pounds, would be an excellent choice to play the unstoppable monster among the 32-woman field; either as a heel, a role in which she’s excelled in Stardom these past couple of years, or more likely as a lovable face who delights the crowd by crushing her opposition in short order. She bumps extremely well for her size, can fire off a mean lariat and is unafraid to take big hits (witness this powerbomb through a table to the outside she took at a recent ICW show).
Considering that WWE seems to be firmly behind Nia Jax, it’d be nice to see them prove they’re willing to push another larger woman (one who isn’t even related to The Rock!) That they could do so and get some fantastic matches into the bargain makes Viper a no-brainer. Just give Uncle Jeff his money, Vince. You’ve done it once before.