The Royal Rumble is where WWE usually pulls out its biggest surprises of the year, with debuts and nostalgic returns littering the titular matches, in which 30 men and 30 women enter one at a time, and the match continues until 29 of them have been thrown over the top rope to the floor. The winners go on to main event WrestleMania in title matches. The 2019 edition of the Royal Rumble was short on personnel surprises, however. Aside from a handful of call-ups from NXT, WWE’s development brand, and the short-lived return of ‘90s icon Jeff Jarrett, things played out mostly as expected on Sunday night ... that is, until the final entrant of the men’s Rumble match: Nia Jax.
Nia Jax is the so-called powerhouse of the Raw women’s division, so if any woman was going to join the men’s Rumble, eliminate someone, then get dumped out, it would be her. That, in and of itself, is not particularly shocking. And so, she enters the ring, tosses out fan favorite Mustafa Ali to bewildered boos, and squares off with Randy Orton. She then attacks the tiny Rey Mysterio Jr., furthering her dominance and generally looking like a badass.
And that’s when she gets kicked in the face by Dolph Ziggler.
The finisher chain on Jax—Mysterio followed up the superkick with his own finisher, the 619, while Orton capped the sequence with the meme-worthy RKO—sent both the crowd and Twitter into a frenzy. Why? While it was an unexpected development in the moment, sets up some potentially intriguing feuds, and was well-played by all the key participants (Nia both showed off her power and sold the beatdown well), there’s also a bigger historical footnote to her involvement in the Rumble match. When Ziggler superkicked her in the face, it was the first act of a man purposefully striking a woman on WWE television since the last decade.
WWE hasn’t come out and said that intergender wrestling is not allowed on its programming, but it’s been reported throughout the years that men simply do not (purposefully) hit women on WWE TV. Sure, women will take bumps from men by accident; hell, it happened earlier on Sunday night, when Rusev accidentally bumped into his wife Lana during his United States championship match against Shinsuke Nakamura. But, whether it’s due to the company’s own neuroses and PG rating, or the long-rumored contract clause with toy company Mattel stating that it won’t happen, the world’s biggest wrestling company almost entirely abandoned intergender matches last decade, and hasn’t really looked back.
There have been instances of men and women fighting since the unofficial ban on intergender wrestling, but they have come either as comedy or in the Royal Rumble match, where a man can dump out a female competitor without actually striking her. That was the case with both Beth Phoenix (2010) and Kharma (2012), who became the second and third women ever, respectively, to enter the men’s Rumble, with both getting eliminations that were played for comedy. There also was an intergender match in 2017 between the newly-crowned women’s Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch and James Ellsworth, a comedy character who gets demolished the whole match:
The tides seemingly began to change at 2018's WrestleMania. There, a debuting Ronda Rousey teamed up with Kurt Angle to take on real-life married couple and WWE executives Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. It started in the same, clunky way that all WWE mixed tag matches have since the ban on intergender wrestling: whenever a male wrestler tags out to his female partner, the other team must do the same. However, as things broke down in that specific way that wrestling matches do, Rousey found herself in the ring with Triple H and absolutely whaled on him.
Women had hit moves on male wrestlers before, but this felt different. More like WWE conveying that woman can be a man’s equal in the ring, something that the company had made abundantly clear was not the case before this. Sure, it was Rousey, who has a real-life fighting pedigree and is currently the most protected WWE star this side of Brock Lesnar, but it was still surreal to see it happening without much “we’re pioneering a movement” fanfare. It was also wild that it was Triple H receiving the blows, since he played a big part in the previous era of WWE intergender wrestling, back in the Attitude Era of the late 1990s.
In those days, men hitting women on WWE TV was relatively common (to a huge fault that was unsavory then and has not aged well, to say the least), though proper intergender matches were a little rarer. Trish Stratus, Torrie Wilson, and Lita all had high-profile matches against men, while Stratus, Molly Holly, Terri Runnels, and—pause here for a long Attitude Era-style sigh—the Godfather’s Ho all briefly held the Hardcore Championship (a belt defended only in no-disqualification matches).
The one woman who did cross the intergender barrier full-time was the late Chyna. Like Jax, Chyna was physically imposing, often dwarfing over the men she was facing. WWE treated her (mostly) like a serious competitor, equal to the men she was in the ring with, and even making her the first woman to ever compete in a Royal Rumble match. She was also a two-time Intercontinental Champion.
Chyna was a female force in an era where women were treated mostly as sex objects by the company, and she provided a blueprint for how put men and women on equal footing. Of course, it wasn’t all good back then; one of the main reasons that WWE felt like they could portray Chyna as an equal to the men is because they continuously made winking references to her being a man. The transphobia surrounding Chyna’s character clouds the pioneering aspects of her rise to champion, and it doesn’t help that she was also shunned by WWE after her retirement, in part due to her foray into the porn industry; it was only after her death in April of 2016 that WWE started to bring her back into its narrative. She still has not been inducted into its Hall of Fame.
WWE is not the only wrestling company in the world, and if it is serious about bringing back intergender wrestling, even in small doses, it could do worse than looking to the independent circuit for inspiration. It just has to look in the right places.
Most recently, Lucha Underground—a fever dream of a wrestling show that mixes telenovela melodrama with mystical and supernatural themes and high-flying lucha libra-style wrestling—has done it without making it A Cause. The initial roster had two women on it who would go on to achieve intergender success within the company in very different ways: Ivelisse, a Puerto Rican luchadora with a savage mean streak, teamed up with two men in the first season’s best storyline to capture the initial trios titles, while Sexy Star became the first woman to hold the Lucha Underground Championship in season 3.
(It’s important to note here that Sexy Star is, by all accounts, one of the real-life villains of Mexican wrestling, with a history of going too far in her matches and injuring her opponents, while also going into business for herself and denigrating a swath of wrestlers in order to make herself look better.)
The best instance of intergender wrestling from Lucha Underground also feels like a good way for WWE to implement it, albeit with less of a violent tone: Pentagon Dark, one of the show’s most popular and brutal characters, faced off against the Black Lotus Triad (which includes future NXT wrestlers Kairi Sane and Io Shirai, both of whom were in the women’s Royal Rumble match on Sunday) in a gauntlet match.
The show didn’t condescend to the audience by having Pentagon, a top-tier wrestler, nerf himself in order to fight women; instead, they had him run a gauntlet of the triad, with each woman fighting him one-on-one consecutively. The result was a string of four matches back-to-back (yes, there are four women in the Black Lotus Triad, wrestling doesn’t always make sense), where the women were central to a tight contest, rather than a joke segment or a one-sided force played for laughs.
Elsewhere, the company can look to Kimber Lee, who was in NXT for a couple of years before being released; she was the first women to ever hold the top title of a non-women’s federation when she won the Chikara Grand Championship in 2015. Or Tessa Blanchard, daughter of legendary WWE wrestler Tully Blanchard, who constantly wrestles men all over the world, including against the massive Brian Cage in WrestleCircus.
If WWE wants to keep pretending that it is the only wrestling company worth a damn, though, it can still look at the past lives of some of its own stars in order to incorporate intergender wrestling. Due to the ongoing acquisition—some would say “raiding and pillaging”—of independent stars over the last half-decade, the current WWE roster has plenty of intergender alums. Aside from Sane and Shirai, current SmackDown women’s champion Asuka has been in plenty of bloody matches against men in her native Japan. NXT’s Mia Yim and Matt Riddle had a banger of a match in 2018 for Smash Wrestling, a fact that both acknowledged on Twitter after Jax’s Rumble performance:
And then there is Candice LeRae. Current NXT wrestler and fan favorite LeRae has worked every type of intergender action you can imagine: from using comedy moves like the ballsplex (which is exactly what it sounds like: a suplex where she grabs her opponent’s balls), to bloody bouts that make you fear for her and her opponent’s life, to even a match against her future husband, current NXT North American champion Johnny Gargano:
Even if LaRae never gets elevated to having showcase matches (a likely outcome, given her current story in NXT as Gargano’s wife and little else), WWE booking agents should sit down with her for hours and pick her brain about how to make intergender wrestling work for everyone. Her work with walking dick joke Joey Ryan on the indies as the World’s Cutest Tag Team (and, occasionally, as in her last indies match, as opponents) helped define intergender wrestling for the North American audience over the last decade.
If it felt like a big surprise to have Jax enter the men’s Rumble on Sunday, it’s nothing to how shocking it would be for WWE to actually bring intergender wrestling back in a big way. It’s certainly possible that Jax will gloat about hanging with the men only as a way to further the storyline of her dominance over the women’s division, and we’ll only have this performance as a bit of a curio (“who was the last woman to take an intentional bump from a male wrestler in WWE?” makes for a very fun and very niche bar trivia question). But female WWE wrestlers have been pushing for a chance to do real intergender wrestling, with real stakes, for a while now. Perhaps WWE put Jax in this spot because she is the most physically imposing female wrestler the company has, as a way to test the waters without having, say, Sasha Banks get rag-dolled by male competitors (although, to be fair to Banks, she gets rag-dolled by everyone, including Charlotte Flair, who is taller and stronger than a lot of the men who were in the Royal Rumble).
If that’s the route WWE wants to take, it also has an easy candidate for it: Becky Lynch. Lynch has been agitating behind the scenes and in interviews to have a real intergender match for years now. Given her current gimmick of being “The Man” of the SmackDown women’s division, it’s a hop and skip away from fighting a man in a competitive back-and-forth showcase. And if WWE is still squeamish about the perceived strength discrepancy between men and women, Lynch can play off her technical and submission prowess.
WWE is always in a tug-of-war between its current push to make women as much a part of the show as the men—Lynch vs. Rousey (possibly with Charlotte as well) should and probably will main event WrestleMania this year—and its own history of treatment of women as jokes or sex objects. Even in today’s post-“Women’s Revolution” world, the company is still running angles that wouldn’t be out of place in 1999; see the Mandy Rose-Naomi-Jimmy Uso plotline that earned the company more ire than it likely imagined it would.
Intergender wrestling is a delicate tightrope to walk, and especially for a casual audience who isn’t well-versed in intergender wrestling being treated as serious competition. Put the wrong match on, or strike the wrong tone, and you could be putting out something that reads as overtly erotic or misogynistic and violent. One need only look at how rabidly the fans cheered for Jax’s comeuppance, all while Jerry “The King” Lawler—who three years ago was arrested for domestic violence—cackled on commentary, to see how easily it could go wrong. Jax was clearly the villain here, so it was fine, but a three-on-one attack could go wrong very easily.
And then there’s the old “intergender matches promote and normalize domestic violence, so we don’t want it” argument. This is bullshit, as Scarlett Harris wrote in a 2017 article titled “Why Is WWE So Afraid of Intergender Wrestling?”
The argument could be made that intergender wrestling normalizes violence against women, with impressionable young minds unable to tell the difference between the simulated gendered violence in the ring and the real thing. Such concern isn’t often directed at how actual domestic violence affects women and children, with WWE routinely protecting and aligning itself with domestic abusers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, Scott Hall, Jerry “The King” Lawler and the late Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, with the popular opinion being that it’s a private matter to be resolved within the home. And perhaps young wrestling fans could benefit from seeing women rise up to do the same things men can.
WWE isn’t worried about promoting domestic violence with intergender wrestling—nor should it be, that’s a flimsy argument unless that’s the storyline being told, which it has been in the past in the company; Triple H has attacked Stephanie McMahon on-screen more times than we can count. Instead, WWE is preoccupied with the optics of it all, scared of a Parents Television Council-style boogeyman that will try to shut them up if they dare put on a competitive match between a man and a woman. Jax getting in the ring with the men and taking bumps from them is the first sign in ages that WWE’s fear of intergender has finally melted away.
In that same vein, though, has WWE earned our trust, that it can do intergender correctly? No, and that’s okay. The company can get there, and it has both the talent to do so and the right cultural moment to do it in. The women have never been more popular, and they have never been better; at Sunday’s Royal Rumble, the consensus seemed to be that every women’s match was better than its male counterpart. But Vince McMahon is a stubborn man and, by all accounts, he is still in charge of pretty much every big WWE moment. Will he put away the same impulses that created the Playboy Evening Gown Match in 2004, or even the recent Rose-Naomi-Uso storyline, in order to portray men and women as fighting equals? There’s no reason to believe in that, aside from optimism and one three-minute Nia Jax cameo.
It would be a shame if WWE botched this by treating female wrestlers like victims; that will only instruct the audience to do the same, and the reactions will follow accordingly. But, if WWE treats them like competitors instead, then maybe there’s a chance that Jax’s Rumble moment isn’t remembered as a novelty. Instead, it will be remembered as the moment the floodgates opened.
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Molly Holly was the only woman to hold the Hardcore Championship. Holly was one of four women to hold the belt, along with Trish Stratus, Terri Runnels, and the Godfather’s Ho.