UNIONTOWN, Pa. — On a Saturday night, Laura Loveless arrives at the Stronghold Arena to compete at an independent wrestling show called Ryse Wrestling. This time, Loveless is fighting in an intergender match, meaning she will be facing off against a man. It might be taboo for some viewers to see a woman fighting a man, but it’s part of a new trend in the wrestling world where women are proving that they are just as tough as the men in the ring.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. I’ve always had something to prove. And I don’t care if you’re a dude and I don’t care if you’re a woman, whatever…I’m going to show the world exactly what I can do,” said Loveless, “And I mean, if you’re going to be a guy and if you’re going to come at me rough, I’ll come back at you rough, too. I wear fake nails, don’t mess with me. So that’s kind of the attitude I’ve started to embrace and it came out in my persona, too.”
It’s part of what industry leaders are calling the “Women’s Revolution.” Fans took note when the largest company for wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment, started to put more women in their shows, and put them in more extreme matches. In the past, fans used to call women’s matches “popcorn time,” because they were typically bland and right in the middle of the show.
Back then, the match stipulations included the extreme makeover match in 2010, where Beth Phoenix and Michelle McCool were given a number of makeup and hair products to fight each other with. Another stipulation often brought up in this discussion is bra and panties matches where the winner must manage to strip their opponent down to a bra and panties. The women would either be wearing their ring attire or an evening gown for this type of match. Brandon K, trainer at Ryse, said changes began in the past few years.
“Girls were always eye candy. Back in the day, probably the mid 90’s, early 2000’s. and they were on there to sell tickets to the guys,” said Brandon K., “But girls went ahead and did something really special. They started training like the guys. They started getting into the ring like the guys. They stared performing like the guys, and now the crowd started looking at them in a different way.”
At WWE, it arguably started with Sasha Banks and Bayley’s Iron Man match on NXT in 2015. Iron Man matches are timed at either 30 or 60 minutes, and the person who can pin their opponent the most number of times is the winner.
“That I think was a big turning point for the company to see [that] there’s a lot more to be done with [the women’s] division,” said Loveless.
The next year, at WrestleMania 32, WWE unveiled a new women’s title belt to replace the Diva’s Championship belt. Along with that change, WWE rebranded the women’s division as “Superstars,” eliminating the term “Divas.”
“I will be the first to say, I was never a fan of the butterfly belt…it looked like Mattel designed it,” said Loveless, “Which, from a business standpoint, I can understand that it probably resonated with younger viewers. But I’m glad that there’s finally a shift to show that women deserved to have a belt that’s equal in strength to men that represents that properly without having a pink and purple butterfly on it.”
Women headlined this past WrestleMania, the company’s largest annual event, and they were in the main event at the last pay-per-view, Extreme Rules. Very few women have main evented a pay-per-view show, and it was the first time that a women’s match ever headlined WrestleMania.
And then the popular Netflix series Glow allowed people who might not be into wrestling otherwise to see the behind the scenes of what wrestling is all about from a women’s perspective. The show is about an all-women wrestling show set in the 80’s, and it’s praised for its accuracy in portraying women’s wrestling.
“Seeing them actually put the effort in to learn what we do and to take bumps. That’s really cool. I really appreciated that,” said Loveless, “And I’m not even gonna lie. When they had their first crappy show, you know, there’s some children, some elderly, and some homeless, a good crowd of maybe 30 people…that spoke to my heart. I’m not even a lie, I teared up a bit. I’m like, they had their first show and it was in a dingy, dark place but they’re all so proud…For what it’s worth, I think Glow is very accurate, especially for women.”
Aside from WWE, wrestling companies are moving at different paces, but are moving toward the same direction. For some independent groups, extreme women’s wrestling is nothing new. But others are just beginning to add women into the mix.
Ring of Honor had their first women’s match in 2002, and the popularity caused them to rebranded the women’s matches in 2015 under Women of Honor. The women have one championship belt, currently being held by Kelly Klein, who was the second woman to win the title in 2018, and retains it to this day after some back and forth. Having the title of WOH World Champion at one of the biggest wrestling companies in the country is a huge deal.
“No matter what happens, that’s something that nobody can take away from me,” said Klein, “There are women all throughout the history of wrestling and every part of it who have done their part to create new opportunities for the women coming after them. And I owe a lot to them…and that’s something I want to pass along and I want to make sure that not only there continue to be opportunities, but there are more and bigger and better opportunities.”
To Klein, the women’s revolution is about more than just athletic ability. It’s about women being able to tell a story in the way they choose.
“Some people seem to think that it’s sort of like aesthetics vs the athletics, but it’s not to me. I want there to be a place for all of those things…so in any situation where somebody is saying it should be one extreme or the other, that’s where I have a problem,” said Klein, “Sometimes people have different priorities, whether it’s the story or the look or the athletics. And we all kind of put them together in different orders and different pieces and put together what makes us individuals…So it’s more about to me, allowing all of these things to exist together and not placing value over one thing or the other, or saying that there can only be one way to do it.”
As for the past and matches that some see as sexist, Kelly said, “I don’t look down on those women because they were doing what they had to do to change the industry from inside, and I think that a lot of them had fun doing it, but they had to do the best with what they were offered and show why they should push it further and why they should have more minutes and more segments and take those opportunities. Like, ok, let’s do a pillow fight, but in the midst of that, we’ll show what we can do as athletes and entertainers and then start to turn the tide.”
Back at the Stronghold Arena, Loveless gets together with her opponent, Nick Silverstein—aka CPA. They come up with a routine about an hour before the show starts. This isn’t the only intergender match for this show tonight—it’s actually one of three.
“I wanted to kind of take a different approach. I usually try to take different approaches on my matches as far as gauging what everyone else is going to do and then putting my own spin on it,” said Silverstein.
Loveless has less than fifteen minutes to get ready and then she heads out to the ring.
“The first emotion or thought that hit my head was like, oh my God, it’s really hot out here. It’s going to get worse when I get underneath the lights. And then my confidence kind of kicks in and the adrenaline hits you and you get into your persona,” said Loveless.
While she gets into the ring, the crowd boos. Loveless is a heel, meaning that the crowd is supposed to see her as the villain.
“Right off the bat, the crowd was into it. So that makes me happy,” said Loveless, “And it definitely takes two to tango. So that’s a big part of CPA, too. Of having that, I’m-not-going-to-hit-that-girl-but-I’m-still-going-to-win mentality. Very classy. So it should be. It’s a really good way of getting the crowd behind him, and he did it effortlessly in my opinion.”
The crowd was engaged as Loveless and CPA did their routine. As part of their respective characters, CPA pretended that he didn’t want to hit Loveless and even asked her out on a date. Loveless, meanwhile, was ruthless and used her manager to help her attack CPA.
“It did not go the way I wanted it to go necessarily. Unfortunately, there were some things I wanted to do better. It was great working with CPA. He definitely knows what he’s doing. It’s just I always really strive to do technical and very clean about what I try to do. And for me it just was not necessarily the best I could have done. So I got things to work on,” said Loveless. “The good thing about this, though, is you do everything you’re supposed to correctly, for the most part, you get to wrestle another day. And it’s just a learning experience and you go forward.”
As these women start stepping up, not only is it changing a tide now, but the next generation of wrestlers and wrestling fans take notice.
Ok, so maybe the women’s wrestlers are everyone’s favorite. But many people who pursue wrestling started watching at a young age.
“I loved it as a little girl,” said Loveless, “Back in the day, we’d have these big flat black boxes that would get us free pay-per-views and my family had one and we would watch all the WWF pay-per-views. And I was really into it. I liked Alundra Blayze and I liked Bull Nakano, and I remember loving it so much as a little girl. And then I went to go to college and everything had kind of dropped off for me, but then this guy I was dating at the time was really into it.
“And I said, ok, well I’ll take us to the Royal Rumble that they had here a couple of years ago. And I was watching it live and I’m just thinking to myself, well, I work out all the time, I have kind of like a big personality. I was in a metal band at that point, too, and I was thinking to myself, why am I not doing this?”
Loveless said she then looked at different wrestling schools in the area and had a try out with Brandon K. Loveless is now one of Brandon’s students.
“She was one of the girls that never missed a training session. She was always coming and asking me questions on how to get better,” said Brandon K., “She didn’t want to be eye candy. She wanted to be a professional wrestler and she wanted to be looked at like like everyone else. She didn’t really make a transition from eye candy to wrestler. She was always from the start, I want to be a professional wrestler.”
Loveless said professional wrestling training was the same for both men and women.
“It affects us in different ways. I can tell you that probably the most painful part about the body conditioning where you’re going taking back bumps and shoulder tackles, it’s a little more difficult for women because we have stuff there,” said Loveless, “I would sometimes put frozen soda cans in my sports bra to alleviate the bruising and the swelling.”
As for other injuries, Loveless said she lucked out. It’s difficult to avoid serious injury when wrestling because punches, slaps, tosses, and falls are all real, and even certain moves that are staged can end in serious injury if mistakes are made.
“I’ve gotten a couple of concussions, maybe like one or two concussions. Considering I’ve been wrestling now for over three years, that’s pretty good. I’ve got my wrist—it was either broken or severely sprained,” said Loveless, “I hope that people will realize that what we are doing–you can say it’s fake all day, but everything that we’re doing to each other is real. And if a crowd can get behind that idea, who’s to say it’s not?”
“When I do, I really like to milk it for everything it’s worth,” said Loveless, “I like to tell a story of somebody who’s coming out there and looking strong and getting beaten down and a person you want to see win. That’s a very hard thing to encapsulate.”
But ultimately, Loveless says the storytelling is the most important part of her.
“I’m always a fan of the singles. I’m not against matches with gimmicks, though,” said Loveless, “Like those can be pretty fun. Honestly, like hardcore matches or like tag matches, six man tags, you get to do a lot of really interesting things like group moves and do the Tower of Power or something like that.
“I do like the singles match, though. Where two people are set to carry it and you have to get the crowd engaged, and maybe they watched about 10 singles matches before yours, so how are you going to stand out?”
Professional wrestling, for most, is more than just a hobby, because it takes a lot of time and dedication to perfect.
“It is a secondary job. There’s nothing wrong just wrestling on the weekends, but if you’re serious about it, you will slowly start to find out that this is a 24/7 lifestyle,” said Loveless.
Outside of wrestling, Loveless has an office job. She said it took her a while to open up to her co-workers about wrestling, “but if they ever saw me walk into the office with a shiner, I didn’t want them to get the wrong idea like I was getting hurt or something.”
Loveless says her coworkers are very respectful about the fact that she wrestles and they say they hope she wins.
“Sometimes I get a, ‘oh well that’s interesting,’ or I get a, ‘oh that’s so cool.’ Or I’ve gotten the one reaction, ‘oh that’s kind of weird.’ Yeah, yeah it is. But you know, I love it. Usually positive though,” said Loveless.
As far as the future goes, Loveless says she’s not sure where she’s going end up in the next five years.
“I never imagined myself coming out with extendable wings that lit up three years ago. You never know where this business is going to take you,” said Loveless, “What I would like to see, hopefully I would love to go to Japan. Do even just one show in Japan. Then I could die happy.
“More intergender is definitely something I want to explore. Getting really deep into my character more…I want to start doing more, I wouldn’t say dangerous, but more engaging moves physically. I would like to start doing more of that and showcasing that more and just take it as far as I possibly can. I don’t know if that means WWE. I don’t know if that means AEW. I don’t know if that means Ring of Honor, and I don’t know if that means Japan. I don’t know anything. I just want to keep going forward.”
But the best place to see the women’s revolution is to go to a local wrestling show and see it all unfold in person.
“You’ll never see a wrestling match on television that you can say in my own opinion that is better than being at a live wrestling match. There’s a different kind of presence there that I really encourage,” said Loveless, “If you are a fan of wrestling, go to an indie show. Be there in the front row, and see what we’re doing up close. It will change your entire perception of everything that we do. And for me it’s actually rather magical. I mean, I know it’s kind of romantic and silly to say that but there is.”