It’s a Thursday night, and the last bit of sunshine blisters the crowd of WOW Women of Wrestling fans already lined up outside of the Belasco Theatre an hour before doors open. Beside me, a little girl and her older brother play-punch one another in the arms. Their chaperone explains to one of the security guards that the kids’ mom is one of the wrestlers — Dagger — and they’re there to cheer her on. I ask the little girl how proud she is of her mom, and she looks up at me with serious, professional demeanor that takes me aback. “Very,” she says.
Inside, I meet Dagger, who’s clad in black leather and wields two sabers as she poses for photos. She’s an actress with a martial arts background. “Wrestling just made sense,” she tells me. As people file into the theater, she excuses herself — being Dagger means satisfying the fans.
For the night, the historic Belasco has been transformed into a mini-arena: a ring in the center, surrounded by folding chairs and bleacher seats that slowly fill up as people wander away from the bar area with their pricey drinks. But the most striking thing about this show is the audience demographic. Another little girl fidgets with glee in the seat next to mine as she watches a couple of boys play with rolled-up posters like swords. “My friend does the marketing, so we got free tickets. I thought she would want to come to see all these strong women,” the girl’s mom tells me. I bristle at the word “strong,” because its current connotation is a one-dimensional female buzzkill character whose superpowers are organization and ruining men’s fun. But I get her point. And she’s not alone in her thinking, because giddy girls are everywhere here.
That’s not to say the audience doesn’t include men — many sit front and center, ready for the action. One of them surreptitiously gropes my friend’s hip when she attempts to pass him, but I’m delighted he felt the need to hide his advances: We’ve come a long way, baby! Most of the men, however, aren’t creepy dudes; they’re die-hard wrestling fans.
When the night’s announcer gets on the mic to teach us how to cheer and jeer (wrestling falls flat without the audience participation), a 20-something guy and his girlfriend stand up on a bench next to me to get a better look. The guy bellows “boooooooo!” at the top of his lungs, lurching out with his thumb pointing down like a Roman emperor, and the girl nudges him, “Honey, please don’t.”
“You’re supposed to boo!” he says with a smile. But she still doesn’t seem to buy it. She turns her head, scanning the crowd for acceptable norms. Her shoulders fall inward, shy, unsure. So I tap her on the arm and say, “It’s OK. You can be loud.” In how many spaces do women feel comfortable raising their voices?
Soon, the show starts, and most of the adults are two drinks deep. If this were a karaoke party, this would be the time liquid courage would prompt a few rounds of Billy Joel sing-alongs, but because this is wrestling, we’re hooting and hollering for carnage, and the announcer’s really making us wait for the drama to unfold. Before the first match can even get under way, a wrestler named Beast, with long braids tied back in a red bandanna and abs so beautiful and tight she could tow a car with them, enters the ring. The announcer makes a big deal about how Beast shouldn’t even be there, and that’s your first signal that this is a heel, aka a villain. And, oh my god, she wants to challenge someone? Eventually, a challenger from backstage emerges — and loses — because Beast is a master of aerial techniques. She perches herself on the ropes like a big cat stalking its prey, then launches into a diving crossbody, the blunt force of those abs laying right into her opponent’s torso. She does aerial tactics again and again, landing in a splash and savoring the boos from the crowd each time. A middle-aged woman barks, “Get your shit together ref!” and then laughs with her friends.
I love them — the barking woman and Beast, who is quickly becoming my favorite wrestler of the night. That is, until Loca enters the ring with Sophia Lopez, “the greatest attorney-at-law in Mexico City.”
Loca’s clad in an orange jumpsuit, “NOT GUILTY” stenciled on the back in black. Lopez dons a comically thick accent to proclaim her client’s innocence, but in true wrestling fashion, that’s a bunch of racially driven, hilarious BS concocted for the fun. Loca then uses brute force to contort her opponent’s body into pretzel shapes, and I marvel at the two women’s flexibility and athleticism for a moment before Loca slams the woman’s face into the mat, and I’m back to jubilant booing.
The joy of wrestling is found in the right mix of comic showboating and physical prowess. Seeing these women perform live knocks the air right out of your lungs. Every punch, choke and kick is precisely executed for theatrical value. But this live show is merely a filming opportunity for the newly relaunched WOW digital series, created by David McLane.
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In 1986, when McLane’s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling hit the airwaves from Las Vegas, Nevada, the promoter was interested only in making real women’s wrestling a lucrative business. But the venture was a fool’s game, and GLOW and later POWW and the first iteration of WOW all folded. (He did sell out of GLOW before it folded, because he said it was too much theater, not enough wrestling.) But McLane had no idea what cultural effect the show might have on generations of young girls who flipped the channel on Sundays to find grown women body-slamming one another, cracking jokes and playing dumb in ridiculous costumes. I was one of those little girls, draped across my grandfather’s lap while he smoked a cigar and the two of us cheered on my favorite heels, Spike and Chainsaw. I remember proclaiming that I wanted to be one of those girls one day and eventually was, wrestling in a small, feminist DIY women’s league (KPOWW) as One-Eyed Wanda the pirate in the early 2000s during college. (My special move was a “Pirate Driver.”)
Despite those early failures of women’s wrestling, it really does feel as if we’re finally ready for it. In June, Netflix is even releasing its new series GLOW, based on McLane’s original league. Today, multiple generations of females have been welcomed into sports, whereas the wrestlers of the ’80s were pile-driver pioneers — nobody knew what to do with violent, aggressive women, especially the ones who went out of their way to look ugly. But those caustic women, slathered in crusty makeup, chains and spikes replacing ribbons and bows, were my favorite. And playing the heel myself, I can honestly say that becoming accustomed to other people booing you in public, and somehow gaining energy from it, has helped me in a professional capacity as a woman who consistently enters male-dominated professions; I do not exist for your approval. And when you lose the need for approval, you operate with no-holds-barred.
These are all the thoughts that cross my mind as I catch Dagger’s little girl ringside, spazzing out every time the Governor’s Daughter Abilene pulls a dirty trick on an opponent and then blows a kiss to the audience. (Abilene in real life, like most heels, is the kindest soul you’ll ever meet.) In my perfect world, every little girl could get to be the heel they’ve always wanted to be. But until then, WOW is letting us all live vicariously.