The WWE and RAW/SmackDown Women’s Title matches at WrestleMania will create moments that will hopefully exemplify a broadened main event scene.
For nearly 34 years, WrestleMania — the most extravagant of WWE‘s “Big 4” pay-per-views (PPV) — has provided memorable moments that have defined generations of wrestling fans’ experiences with the largest pro grappling promotion in the world.
Whether it was Seth Rollins cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase, Randy Savage outlasting 13 other wrestlers in a tournament to win the WWF Championship, Shawn Michaels’ “boyhood dream” coming true, or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s ascent to the WWF Title, WrestleMania has functioned as the main stage for so many historical flashpoints that have cemented the legacies of so many top stars.
At WrestleMania 35, WWE hopes to add two more to that collection when Kofi Kingston finally gets his singles WWE Championship match against Daniel Bryan and when Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Ronda Rousey clash over the RAW and SmackDown Women’s Championships in the main event.
While it seems certain that WWE will give both of those World Title bouts the pomp and circumstance that it afforded those aforementioned matches, it’s critical to understand why these particular matches mean so much to so many wrestling fans who want to see a more diverse main event picture in WWE.
In both cases, these matches represent WWE’s snail slog toward creating viable main event characters outside of the white male comfort zone that the company has remained nestled in for the last 67 years. However, while they represent a much-needed reshuffling at the top of the card, the WWE and Women’s title matches have slightly different benchmarks for what will qualify as a paradigm-shifting moment in the company.
Let’s start with Kingston vs. Bryan. Assuming he wins the title — and he should — Kingston’s climb to WWE’s most hallowed prize will commemorate more than a career midcarder reaching the pinnacle of his profession, no matter what Jim Ross says. It will vindicate every fan that sat through WWE programming week after week, year after year, as the company essentially told viewers that African-Americans contracted to them could only reach a certain level within the confines of their booking, no matter how good they were.
Sure, WWE has given a couple of Black wrestlers, such as Booker T and Mark Henry, runs with a world championship, but those placeholder title runs have paled in comparison to the mountain of stereotypical characters and storylines that many of their melanin-covered contemporaries. I mean, this is the same promotion that still employs a man who once claimed that black people didn’t need gimmick because being black was their gimmick.
(And yes, I know The Rock, who’s half-Black and half-Samoan, won the WWE Championship numerous times, but as my colleague Raphael Garcia pointed out several times, WWE never promoted him a Black WWE Champion. He even tweeted that he “transcended race” with his title wins, which is an assertion that’s worthy of its own separate discussion.)
While New Day has somewhat subverted many of the tropes that restrict most Black wrestlers in WWE, despite more than a few missteps, they are still very much a comedy act and as entertaining as they are, WWE historically fashions a virtually impenetrable ceiling on those sorts of characters, no matter how over they are.
But if WWE concludes this “Kofi is a B+ player” story with a WWE Title win at WrestleMania, it would not only prove that the company’s usually hollow “grab the brass ring” affirmation holds a modicum of merit, but it would also offer Black wrestling fans something that we’ve never truly experienced while watching WWE: a Black WWE Champion that is promoted as a heroic figure within the WWE canon. For Kingston and the fans who support him, WrestleMania 35 represents an opportunity to prove that Black wrestlers deserve prominent spots on major PPV’s.
That same philosophy can be ascribed to the triple threat main event for both women’s titles, which will be just the third women’s PPV main event in company history. But unlike the Kingston match, the fact that Flair, Lynch, and Rousey will close a male-dominated PPV with one of the most talked about matches on the show means more to how far the women have come over the last few years than any title change.
I could toss out any number of anecdotes that highlight WWE’s past misogynistic tendencies, but I think this quote from former WWE creative team member Kevin Eck gets to the heart of the issue:
“During my time on the WWE creative team, we actually were told that there really are no babyfaces or heels in the Divas division. It was strongly implied that the Divas are all just a bunch of catty chicks, most of whom are mentally unstable.”
That anecdote combined with the backlog of tasteless storylines that designated most women as ancillary parts of men’s storylines and reinforced numerous stereotypes concerning female behavior encapsulated the uphill battle women faced for decades, to the point where it felt as though you had a better chance of winning the lottery twice than seeing a women’s match main event any PPV, let alone the most important one on WWE’s calendar.
Yet here we are in 2019, where the women have gone from having their matches cut from shows altogether to stealing the show to being the centerpiece of the show.
WWE will probably tear its figurative rotator cuff patting itself on the back for giving top billing to these two matches, but the women main eventing and the prospect of Kingston finally winning “The Big One” won’t automatically transform WWE into this bastion of unity and equality.
After all, if Kingston wins the title, there’s nothing stopping McMahon from giving his reign the Rey Mysterio treatment in an effort to prove that he’s “not a draw”. I can almost hear Vince now: “The fans aren’t getting behind him even though I book him to lose every week! I guess he is a ‘B+ player’”.
And as historic as this women’s match will be, that still doesn’t absolve the company from the icky segments that still get greenlit onto television, or from their upcoming Saudi Arabia shows, or the still-disparate wage gap between the top men and women in the company.
Furthermore, this triple threat inadvertently illuminated WWE’s blindspot when it comes to expanding their “Women’s Evolution” to women of color. No one should dispute Flair, Lynch, or Rousey’s spot in this match — they have more than earned it — but that match graphic brought back troubling memories of WWE’s original promotional photo for WWE Evolution. And did WWE really have to beef up the match by adding another title to it at the expense of Asuka, a woman whose character McMahon and the writers have all but mishandled since WrestleMania 34?
Despite its zombie drag toward progress, all of those issues show that WWE still has a lot of work to do to shake off its past mistakes. Using two featured spots at WrestleMania to elevate two of the most marginalized parts of its roster is a good start.