By Kris Levin, Columnist
Professional wrestling has a long — sometimes, splendid and other times, sordid — history of intergender competition. For contemporary viewers, many fondly remember their first brush with intergender wrestling from Chyna’s battles with men during the Attitude Era of the late nineties (when there was even consideration given to making her the World Champion) or similar feats by Beth Phoenix a decade later. Others may think of antics involving the Dudley Boyz putting a series of women through tables in the early aughts. Prior to this, anecdotal tales abound of first and second golden age stars, prototypical “tough broads” such as Mae Young and Sherri Martel, earning the respect of their peers by regularly getting the best of men.
Despite having a history that dates back to the Victorian era, intergender was first introduced to the world’s stage as a regular component of the professional wrestling lexicon in the late seventies through the early eighties. This occurred when actor, comedian, and performance artist Andy Kaufman captured the attention of rapt audiences with his declaration of being the Intergender Wrestling Champion through a series of media appearances on popular mainstream television programs such as Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. There, Kaufman put out an open challenge to any woman who thought they had what it took to beat him. He ended up taking on a number of amateur and professional female opponents, before the program ultimately culminated in a series of matches against wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler.
As the days count down to the debut event of Equal Rights Equal Fights on Wednesday, June 20th in Philadelphia, I thought it timely and appropriate to discuss intergender wrestling. It should come as no surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with my history to know that I am a huge proponent of intergender professional wrestling. Now, I feel the need to explain that this support is not because of a niche interest or sexual fetish. Instead, it is because intergender wrestling is exactly what this business is all about. Highly-dramatized (and for a world who is becoming increasingly literate on the subject of legitimate combat sports, unrealistic) depictions of violence funneled through a live, theatre-in-the-round presentation in order to tell a compelling, relatable narrative. Anyone who feels differently is, in my opinion, missing the forest for the trees. This is not to say anything about whether you personally enjoy intergender wrestling or not. Everybody has their own, personal tastes and not everything is palatable for everyone. This subject is uniquely important to me because it is an issue of personal choice and freedom. I don’t necessarily go out of my way to view or promote intergender wrestling, but if someone wants to take part in it or view it, why should anyone else have the ability to tell consenting adults what is and is not acceptable?
“It’s fine when they do intergender fight scenes in movies. Wrestling is just a live action movie. What’s the difference?”
-Jon Trosky, former professional wrestler, Hollywood stuntman
I spoke to CHIKARA founder and independent wrestling stalwart Mike Quackenbush on his first experience with intergender wrestling: “Probably playing WWF RAW on Sega Genesis. Beware the Luna Eclipse, lowly Diesel!” As a wrestler, Mike first personally witnessed it around 2001 in the northeast United States: “I was on a card where Beth Phoenix won a triple-threat match over two male wrestlers. I remember her picking them both up for a double Death Valley Driver and the place just going nuts for it. This was the first match, outside of the novelty presentation of a mixed tag, where there wasn’t a divide between the males and the females.”
Women of Honor competitor “Brooklyn’s Baddest” Bonesaw Jessie Brooks first discovered intergender wrestling as a teenager watching Lita, Jacqueline, and Chyna wrestle the opposite sex: “I thought it was awesome and that it should happen more often.”
Today, former WWE performer James Ellsworth keeps Andy Kaufman’s legacy alive across the independence circuit by billing himself as the Intergender World Champion. Before his first experience with intergender wrestling — a match against Alexis Laree, who now competes as Mickie James — he first witnessed intergender wrestling by watching Beulah McGillicutty take on long-time referee-turned-manager Bill Alfonso in ECW in what was an absolute bloodbath, even by contemporary, mid-nineties ECW standards: “I thought it was so entertaining!”
For Impact Wrestling’s senior official John E. Bravo: “When I was younger, it wasn’t really intergender wrestling. The first time I encountered something close to that was in the old ECW. People like Tommy Dreamer or Rhino would grab a woman valet and piledrive them. As a fan, I guess Chyna would be one of the first ladies that caught my attention as far as intergender wrestling matches. She wrestled like the guys did and that’s what made it interesting to watch her wrestle against men. The matches were just as competitive as if it were two guys.”
Jon Trosky, owner of The Sanctuary Stunt Studio and former wrestler under the nom de plume of Supreme Lee Great, also first caught glimpses of intergender wrestling as a fan. At Wrestlemania VI in 1990, a mixed-gender tag bout that occured between “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes and “Macho King” Randy Savage, who both teamed with their managers, Sapphire and “Queen” Sherri Martel, respectively. Mixed-gender matches of the time would rarely, if ever, see the men and women actually touch: “From a fan’s standpoint, it seemed very logical that you wouldn’t let someone like Sapphire in there with Randy Savage — so the separation of genders seemed natural. It was also indicative of the time I grew up in. A time when woman were, to a large degree, second class citizens.”
I think it would be fair to say that, through CHIKARA, Mike Quackenbush was a trendsetter as one of the first promoters in North America to regularly (and continuously) promote intergender wrestling. I ask, what led him to that? Mike tells me: “I don’t really know. I just thought the division was silly. Pointless. I grew up on sixties Batman reruns and X-Men comic books. Batgirl fights the Riddler. Storm fights Magneto. Why can’t Sumie Sakai fight Jigsaw? After reading a detailed obituary on Mildred Burke back in the nineties, I became obsessed with her legend and life. The more I found out about her, the more strongly I felt about the injustices done to her, both while she was alive and done posthumously. Opportunities she was denied or had stolen out from under her. That informs some of how I feel about female wrestlers. Another big part of it was Manami Toyota. Her work ethic is just head and shoulders above everyone else. That will be her legacy. It transcends gender. You would never say, ‘Toyota was good… for a female wrestler.’ That’s outrageous! She’s just one of the all-time greats, period. Unqualified by gender.
“I realize these aren’t concrete plot points, so much as they are things that influence how I see the craft. To an extent, becoming a trainer also informed that. Going to teach at other wrestling schools where the girls didn’t have to do certain moves or learn certain things struck me as insulting. Why not train them the same way you train the guys? Doesn’t truncating or limiting their training hurt their chances of realizing their full potential? Even in Year 1 of my Wrestle Factory, the girls were trained in the same classes, under the same conditions and curriculum as the guys.”
Talking to my friends and coworkers, it appears they were no strangers to performing in intergender match-ups. The Massachusetts-based “Retrosexual” Anthony Greene, who is in the midst of experiencing his breakout year as a performer, first encountered intergender wrestling as a referee prior to the start of his own wrestling career: “I didn’t think anything different of it being man versus woman.” Since then, Greene has been involved in many intergender wrestling bouts, most recently for the 2018 CHIKARA Young Lions Cup. His first direct experience in an intergender wrestling contest as an active competitor, however, occurred in July of 2014, at an independent event in Brooklyn against Bonesaw Jessie Brooks: “We are friends and I saw no difference in having a match with a man or woman. Especially one with the reputation Bonesaw has for being a badass and a professional.”
Bonesaw tells me: “My first professional match was intergender, as one of the masked ninjas at Ring of Honor’s student promotion, Pro Wrestling Respect. Intergender matches have been a frequent thing throughout my career, I didnt think of it as being a separate thing. It’s just another opponent. A new person to work with. I like variety, getting to work different people means more opportunities to learn and create.”
A sad reality for Bonesaw and a multitude of other female competitors is that, when searching for talented female opponents, the pool to choose from can be, at times, rather shallow: “Especially earlier on in my career, I had more intergender wrestling matches than not. That was a result of the lack of female talent in the area. At the time, not all women were trained appropriately, because they were not taken as seriously as the male athletes. Luckily, I came from the Ring of Honor/SHIMMER Dojo. My trainers, Delirious and Daizee Haze, treated everyone equally.”
Jon Trosky’s earliest experiences in the world of professional wrestling also included intergender contests: “In the late nineties, one of my first ever pro matches was against a midget and a woman, which I’m pretty sure was a dig on my height. I’m fairly confident I lost that match to either the woman or the midget. Early on, one of my favorite angles was the ‘SLG woman-beater’ angle. As a worker in the nineties and early two thousands, there was no softer target than female managers. The story was that SLG was angry about losing television time to these chicks, so he systematically beat the hell out of them. Ultimately, it took one of their boyfriends to ‘avenge them,’ but then they all beat my ass after the match was over.”
Prior to being the senior official for Impact Wrestling, John E. Bravo wrestled for over twenty years and he, too, made his bones in this business through the theatre of intergender wrestling: “My personal experience has been at Border City Wrestling versus Jaime D, which had to have happened at least forty-five times over a period of a few years. We were one of the first ones in Ontario to do intergender matches and Jamie can wrestle just like a guy and handle herself. We had quite the feud for a few years.” As mentioned earlier by both Mike and Bonesaw, with how regularly schools held women to lesser standards of quality training than men, wrestling “like a guy” became the ultimate compliment for a female competitor. John continues: “In the middle of our feud, what we were doing — guy versus girl — was illegal. There were some politicians that were out to get us and I had no idea until after the subject was done and over with. It was taken care of and never got to me, I’m not exactly sure how.”
Be it Bonesaw and I’s battle with the New York State Athletic Commission or LuFisto’s fight against the Ontario Athletic Commission, the legality of intergender wrestling has drawn the ire of state-sponsored, sexist discriminatory practices more than anything else within our industry. Intergender wrestling is flat-out illegal in the state of Missouri. Prior to accepting a booking offered to Bonesaw and I in Maryland, we were told that intergender wrestling was only allowed on a case-by-case basis. In a phone call with the Maryland State Athletic Commission, I was condescendingly told that it was to be allowed at the discretion of the state inspectors, whose job it was to determine if a woman was suited to compete with a man. Mind you, no such aptitude test was required for the safety of male performers. Only the women. As Bonesaw put it: “I’m tired of old men telling young women what we can do with our bodies.”
In response to perceived dangers of women working with men, James Ellsworth had this to say: “Look at me, do I look like a threat to any women wrestler? Or do I look like a fair fight for them? With me, it’s fun for the fans.”
Icarus, a Pennsylvania-based world-traveler who joined the professional ranks in 2001 as part of Mike Quackenbush’s first class of CHIKARA students, offers unique insight: “At ten years of age, I had my first intergender wrestling match. One belly-to-belly suplex and, seven seconds later, I emerged with a great lesson in humility. I then watched the same girl destroy several other boys on her way to win second place in the amateur tournament. It’s frankly baffling that any state can control or have a say in intergender wrestling on any level. The Education Amendments of Title IX have been in place since 1972. While that pertains only to education centers receiving federal funding, it seems criminal that a governing body should be allowed to control a business’ actions when it comes to gender integration.
“Female professional wrestlers are, in most cases, trained by men and in a class of only males. They put in the same work and effort as anyone else. Why is it when it comes to performing in front of a crowd the thought of them wrestling men is suddenly a horrific idea? Pro wrestling has no weight class or regulation when it comes to the performers that enter the ring. Even states that do require a license are only in place for the state’s monetary gain. The states I’ve been licensed in did not require a physical, blood work, or even an interview. Just a simple paperwork and a check. Intergender wrestling being banned or frowned upon is quite simply an archaic idea that needs to go the way of the rotary phone.”
“Saying intergender wrestling promotes domestic violence is absurd. Domestic abusers promote domestic violence. That is something that is ingrained. You don’t watch an intergender match, then turn into an awful person.”
-Bonesaw Jessie Brooks, professional wrestler
Legality and safety are one thing, but what about morality? In the past, I’ve heard critics lambaste intergender wrestling for comparisons of it being a dramatic facsimile of domestic violence or cries of sleazy sexual exploitation. For Mike Quackenbush, it is all a matter of intent and perspective: “The domestic violence thing is one that comes up often when I’m doing media. Interesting to note: it has only ever been brought up by male reporters. Never by a female. When I’m asked if intergender wrestling, which does feature male-on-female violence, condones or advocates domestic violence, I point out this simple fact: no victim of domestic abuse is a willing participant. All participants in intergender wrestling matches are willing participants.
“Could intergender wrestling be done in a sleazy way? Certainly. Dance can be sleazy. Sketch comedy can be sleazy. But who is directing this? Who is setting the vision for it? It comes down to things like that, and it comes down to your personal tastes, too. What I think is appropriate, someone else might feel is inappropriate. No argument is going to instantly cause someone to revise their tastes and sensibilities. It’s one thing to say: that’s not for me. It’s another thing to condemn intergender wrestling because it doesn’t match your taste.”
John E. Bravo’s feelings echo Mike’s: “There’s merit to both sides of the argument. Some do exploit it sexually, sleazily, and invoke domestic violence — but just to get a response. Not because they endorse these things. You can do an intergender match and tell a good story and not involve sexual spots or allusions to domestic violence. It’s possible to tell a story of David versus Goliath with a guy versus a girl without doing it exploitatively. As long as it’s not abusive and both competitors can put on a good show and handle themselves, it’s entertainment and should be treated as such.”
“If it’s not believable to someone, they don’t have to watch it. It’s that simple. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean you have to give your opinion on it.”
-Bonesaw Jessie Brooks, professional wrestler
Oftentimes, critics will decry intergender wrestling for killing the suspension of disbelief. To clarify: some feel that women holding their own in combat against men is killing the suspension of disbelief. As if one of professional wrestling’s top stars, a preternatural zombie cowboy biker who rises from the dead and shoots lightning bolts like Raiden from Mortal Kombat didn’t already do that. I digress. Mike regales an experience with an uncooperative performer from the early days of CHIKARA: “Maybe our fifth or sixth card had a bout where we mixed in two of the girls with the guys. We had a very short-lived character at the time, portrayed by a male performer — and he adamantly refused to be pinned by a female performer. I remember just being stunned by this. Our roster at the time included a zombie and at least one bug. But I had a guy who said it was completely unbelievable that a girl could pin a guy. We had to change the match around, but I remember wrapping up his remaining obligations to the company in short order, and he has never performed with us since.”
Both coworkers and industry-outsiders have regularly approached me to ask advice or conduct interviews on the minutiae of what makes for good womens wrestling, intergender wrestling, deathmatch wrestling, lucha libre, or any subculture or product I have found myself professionally intertwined with over the years. Well, the answer to that is: good wrestling is good wrestling and good storytelling is good storytelling. Period. It really is as simple as that. Regardless of which niche it fills or fandom it attracts, the goals are largely the same: good action, a dramatic narrative, and the pomp and circumstance (as well as smoke and mirrors) that are the signature of all well-developed entertainment products. Whether as a performer, producer, or promoter, I went into all of these events with the same general baseline of goals in mind. While this basic set of principles are universal, their methods of delivery can vary greatly. This can be no better exemplified than when comparing the traditional Mexican art of lucha libre with its worldwide counterparts. Lucha libre is to US, British, or Japanese wrestling as Kabuki theatre is to Broadway. I will elaborate upon that and more when I discuss my experiences with and observations of lucha libre on the upcoming June 28th edition of Tales from the Mat.
Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this tale from the mat.
Warmest regards, Kris Levin.
COVER PHOTO CREDIT: Equal Rights Equal Fights
Kris Levin is a professional wrestling referee est. ’07 and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef Riley. Impact Wrestling airs every Thursday at 8PM EST in the United States on Pop TV and in over 120 countries worldwide. You can find Kris on social media at @RefKrisLevin.