Is Sara Del Rey the best women’s wrestler in America? That the question even needs to be asked speaks to the depth of the women’s wrestling scene today. While the Japanese promotions have utilized their female talent as serious athletes pretty consistently for the past 30 years, the United States has been inconsistent, at best, in the modern era. That’s a sharp departure from territory days, when audiences could see legends like Mildred Burke, June Byers, Fabulous Moolah and the sublime Vivian Vachon plied their trade with no quarter given or taken.
With some notable exceptions (Moolah’s last run, GLOW, the AWA, portions of mid-‘90s WCW), women’s wrestling was put on the backburner in the ‘80s and ‘90s. While there were plenty of awesome wrestlers in that era—Sherri Martel. Medusa Miceli, Jackie Moore (aka Miss Texas)—women were used mostly to great effect as valets/managers and, in WWE, to get crossover appeal via Playboy spreads. Even with the arrival of ladies like Trish Stratus and Lita, the physical viability of the women’s roster was actively downplayed, with excessive gimmick matches and embarrassing storylines that stunk of misogyny and alienated audiences.
By most accounts, Fit Finlay was responsible for helping to transform the WWE’s women’s division into what is now one of the most important components of their overall product. The men’s magazine spreads still happen sometimes, but you’re more likely to see the Divas doing charity work, anti-bullying or pro-literacy campaigns, or maybe putting out yoga DVDs or sitting-in on martial-arts instructional tapes. Over the past decade, the match quality has spiked upward as the women have been allowed to wrestle more, wrestle longer and with more credibility. The current Divas division is probably their best ever—certainly in terms of sheer numbers; a Diva-for-Diva comparison between the 2012 roster and their counterparts from a decade ago would be interesting, some other time.
WWE’s success helped inspire the competition, as the emergence of TNA/Impact has offered another opportunity to evolve the structure of women’s wrestling, and their Knockouts division has regularly had some of the highest-rated segments of their programming. Their roster contains a nice mix of established stars from WWE and girls who came there straight from the many independent promotions out there. They are the only company to ever put a women’s steel cage match on TV, as far as I know. The Knockouts suffer from the same issues as everyone else who has to work with that material, but they manage to do well nonetheless.
The increased visibility of women’s wrestling on national TV via WWE and TNA, and the platform it creates for wider success, has acted as a rising tide lifting all boats—that is, the indies. WWE has an infrastructure for training new female wrestlers, but like TNA they mostly recruit women with some experience on the indie circuit; there is no real female equivalent of men’s amateur wrestling system, besides maybe Judo. So, for them, the independent circuit is truly essential, not just for learning their craft, but for perfecting it.
As good as the very best ladies in WWE and TNA are, their colleagues on the indies are as good, or better. And—with all due respect to Daizee Haze, Nicole Matthews, Madison Eagles, Melissa Anderson, MsChif, LuFisto, Portia Perez—Sara Del Rey is at the top of that list. She’s never worked for WWE but, at 31, it seems inevitable that she will. She’s already been able to claim key roles in the evolution of arguably the top three independent promotions in the country: Ring of Honor, Chikara and Shimmer.
For the record: Sara Del Rey is of no relation to singer Lana Del Rey. She was born Sara Amato, she was trained in California by a fella named Bryan Danielson, who at this writing is WWE’s World Heavyweight Champion. (He was also named PETA’s 2011 Athlete Of the Year, but that’s another subject.) In some ways, she can be considered a feminist icon of this era, with her insistence on training and wrestling right alongside the guys; given that they included folks like CM Punk, Chris Hero, Claudio Castagnoli and Samoa Joe, is commendable. She’s known for her arsenal of kicks and her finishing maneuver, the “Royal Butterfly”, best described as a double-underhook neck-crank into a suplex; it’s one of the signature moves of the women’s scene, right up there with the “Glam Slam”.
The greatness of “Queen of Wrestling” is celebrated in a recent triple-DVD release by Smart Mark Video. While not as fancy as the amazing releases being done by WWE, it’s no-nonsense, straightforward style fits perfectly with its subject. Disc one consists mostly of an interview conducted in late-2011; it runs nearly an hour, and features her talking about how she got into the business, telling stories—the usual shoot-interview fare. The rest of the package is filled-out by 21 matches recorded over the past six years of her career. She appears here for nine different promotions with 22 different opponents, including three men (Castagnoli, Icarus and Chikara founder Mike Quackenbush).
One thing that comes through crystal-clear from the DVD is Del Rey’s versatility. She can play power-games with smaller women like Daizee Haze and Portia Perez, but she can be the versatile underdog when facing opponents like Amazing Kong (who’s had a rough year as the WWE’s Kharma). As for the inter-gender matches, the best compliment one can give them is that they don’t come off as gimmicks. There are two matches with Castagnoli in the collection, and one almost forgets that Del Rey is a woman; it seems more like a match between two guys, albeit with a significant size advantage. Their second match here was one of his last for Chikara before going to FCW, and one of the promotion’s greatest moments; the post-match angle was also the last time anyone’s heard anything from Daizee Haze, who’s really one of the best performers in all of pro-wrestling in the last few years.
Eight of the last nine matches on the DVD are from her run with the BDK in Chikara, starting with one of my favorite matches ever: Del Rey and Daizee Haze against Amazing Kong and Raisha Saeed. (Melissa Anderson appears in four matches, more than anyone else; Haze and Castagnoli appear three times.) She tags with Castagnoli against Quackenbush and Manami Toyota, widely-viewed as the best women’s wrestler of all-time, and later faces off against current Shimmer champion Madison Eagles. Also included is her match with Quackenbush in the semi-finals of the 12Large Summit tournament that ultimately crowned Eddie Kingston as Chikara’s inaugural Grand Champion. I’d also like to point out that Tim Donst’s commentary in the Del Rey vs. Icarus match is a highlight of the whole package.
WWE and TNA have so far been remiss in featuring their women’s rosters on DVD, in part because neither company has really given any of their women time to put together enough material to do such a thing. Of course, both companies have enough to each do at least one nice historical overview of the divisions. Ratings and web-hits would suggest the market is ripe, but we’ll see; a rumored Trish-Lita “Rivalries” package would be an interesting start. More so than any DVD package released so far, this collection finely skims the cream of women’s wrestling in America, and makes a pretty compelling case that Sara Del Rey is, as the cliché goes, “every bit as good as she says she is.” For those looking to get themselves up to speed with the best crop of women’s wrestlers in American history, this release is a great place to start.
firstname.lastname@example.org; March 12, 2012