On Monday's Raw it became official: For the first time,, the biggest professional wrestling event in the world, will be main-evented by women. Ronda Rousey will defend her Raw Women's Championship in the last match on the show against Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair.
This is good news, but fans of WWE and pro wrestling could be forgiven for reading it with a suspicious eye. WWE is a company obsessed with its public image, and isn't above making on-screen decisions for off-screen press. The company's PR Twitter account has been in overdrive for the past day, for instance, making sure everyone knows how progressive WWE is for making this decision.
Rousey, Lynch and Flair headlining WrestleMania would be historic in any circumstance. What makes this truly important, though, is that this really isn't about good PR. The women's match is the most anticipated on the show, features the company's most popular performers and has a chance to be the best match of the night.
On Tuesday's episode of SmackDown, WWE showed how serious it is about the main event by having Flair win the SmackDown Women's Championship. That means the WrestleMania triple threat will feature both Raw Women's Champion, Rousey, and SmackDown's Women's Champion, Flair. Two champions from separate TV shows and one extremely popular Becky Lynch. That's not winning recipe.
Why does the main event matter?
WrestleMania takes place on April 7 in New Jersey's MetLife Stadium, where over 60,000 fans will watch it live. More importantly, it'll stream live on the WWE Network, a streaming service whose main selling point is its broadcasting of monthly pay-per-views. The past few years have seen an explosion in non-WWE wrestling companies, like New Japan Pro Wrestling, but WrestleMania is still comfortably .
Being the main event of WrestleMania -- the last match, the match around which the show is promoted -- is considered the highest accolade in the wrestling industry. It means Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of the company, believes you are the hottest commodity in the company and his best bet for selling tickets, Network subscriptions and merchandise. Championships come and go in a calendar year, but there's only one WrestleMania main event.
The idea of women headlining WrestleMania was preposterous only years ago. WWE's historic treatment of women is. WWE in the mid to late '90s found success promoting the likes of Sunny and Sable as sex symbols, inking lucrative Playboy deals, and never really looked back. The men were referred to as WWE "Superstars," but the women were "Divas." Women's "wrestling" was more about Bra and Panties matches, where you win by stripping your opponent down to their undergarments, than serious title bouts.
Example: At WrestleMania 22, in 2006, Candice Michelle faced Torrie Wilson in a Playboy Pillow Flight.
WWE's treatment of women has improved greatly in recent years. NXT, an adored WWE-owned brand watchable on the WWE Network, in 2014 began featuring women in prominent spots on its shows. Women were given 10, 15 and 20 minutes to have show-stealing matches, rather than the sub-five minutes they would usually get on WWE pay-per-views. This proved a hit to fans, who then began a #GiveDivasAChance social media movement.
This was in early 2015, around the time Ronda Rousey was selling hundreds of thousands of UFC pay-per-views and becoming a bigger star than anyone in WWE. A year later, in 2016, the term "Diva" was dropped and the company resurrected the Women's Championship (and now both the Raw and SmackDown brands have their own women's champion). By the end of the year women, like Charlotte Flair, Bayley and Sasha Banks, were presented as top stars.
A Rowdy WrestleMania
MetLife Stadium is in New Jersey. If you watch Raw or SmackDown, you've probably heard commentators say that WrestleMania takes place at MetLife Stadium "in the shadow of New York." New Jersey isn't glamorous enough to host WrestleMania, you see, so instead WWE wants you to think it's taking place in New York. WWE cares a lot about PR.
It also cares about taking advantage of new markets and demographics (as any company should). In 2017 a wrestler named Jinder Mahal went from an undercard "enhancement talent" -- someone whose job it is to lose every week and make their opponent look strong -- to WWE Champion in the space of a month. His reign lasted just under six months, and now he's right back to losing on TV every week.
Why did WWE briefly put him on top of the card? Presumably. Mahal wasn't popular before he won the title, and he had little momentum. It was an experiment that, judging by his return to being a background character, the WWE didn't consider a success.
The women's main event at WrestleMania is not that. It's not an experiment or an empty gesture.
"Rowdy" Ronda Rousey, thanks to her UFC success, is the biggest pop culture star the company has other than maybe John Cena. Becky Lynch is not yet a household name, but she is the most popular wrestler in the company. Watch any show she's on and you'll see frenzied crowds chanting her name -- even when she's not in the ring. Charlotte Flair, meanwhile, has been the most consistently promoted and consistently awesome women's wrestler in the company.
The hero of this tale is Becky Lynch, who overcame injury at the Royal Rumble in January to earn a WrestleMania championship match against Rousey. The story has picked up steam, and controversy, in recent weeks as Rousey turned into an on-screen villain. Jealous that Lynch is cheered by fans over her, Rousey now vows to scrap "fake" pro wrestling and beat up her WrestleMania opponents "for real."
Flair was inserted into the match, after Lynch had earned her shot, thanks to being the "corporate pick." The TV story goes that as a statuesque blonde and the daughter of the iconic Ric Flair, the WWE wants her to be champion and represent women's wrestling. The most recent episode of SmackDown saw her -- randomly, and to the dissatisfaction of many fans -- get an opportunity at Asuka's SmackDown Women's Championship. Flair won. WWE is using all of its tricks to make this main event as special as possible.
The three competitors share a blistering hatred for one another in their on-screen storyline. But this is an instance where the TV drama can't match the real-life history making.
These women weren't given the main event. They earned it.
Update, at 8:05 p.m.: Adds information following Flair's title win.