With the recent news that a bevy of Europe’s top female wrestling talent attended an NXT UK tryout, it appears that WWE’s British brand are taking an active interest in growing their women’s roster. This, unquestionably, is a good thing.
NXT UK is still a relatively recent phenomenon, but has quickly built a strong reputation for superb live events and a strong women’s division, with stars like Toni Storm, Rhea Ripley, Jinny and Piper Niven the backbone of a roster rapidly accruing up-and-coming talent. And it’s long overdue. WWE’s insistence that they are at long last taking women’s wrestling seriously has often felt like lip service, backed up by grand and inconsistent gestures (see: Evolution, WrestleMania) but just as quickly undermined by poor writing, bad booking, and a dogged insistance on making this Saudi Arabia thing happen.
So it’s refreshing and heartening to see clear signs that WWE are actually interested in female talent. And while it’s important not to begrudge any woman for whom WWE is an end goal, it’s equally important to note that what WWE are just getting round to doing, the UK indies have been doing for years.
Women’s wrestling has been quietly rising in status on the UK indie scene since the 2000’s. Pro Wrestling: EVE have been doing their thing since 2010, while Saraya Knight’s Bellatrix Female Warriors has been in operation since 2005. Insane Championship Wrestling introduced it’s first women’s championship belt in 2015 but has hosted women’s wrestling as far back as 2007. The point is, the so-called ‘women’s revolution’ has been well underway in the UK long before WWE arrived.
When NXT UK was first announced, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from those convinced that the UK brand meant the death of the indies. And there was an equal amount of smug ‘get-over-it’ posturing from those for whom a WWE presence in the UK spelled a degree of legitimacy for UK wrestling, perceived by some to be absent over the years. For both camps, the rude health of the UK indie scene did not seem to factor into their calculations.
And while it’s undoubtedly over-simplifying matters to suggest that NXT UK is preying vampire-like on indie feds, it’s also short sighted to presume that a WWE contract is the logical end goal for any wrestler with serious career aspirations. It was recently reported that Millie McKenzie turned down a WWE contract, opting instead to stick with Sendai Girls. You could reasonably argue that the teenage wrestling prodigy – currently training under Meiko Satomura, one of the very best wrestlers in the world – does not need WWE, and that is an incredibly exciting statement to be able to make. For each incredibly talented woman who attended the tryouts, there are equally talented women who, for whatever reason, did not.
The likes of Charli Evans, Jetta, Heidi Katrina, Roxxy, Chardonnay and a great many others are proof that the UK indie scene is not yet running on empty. And while top female indie stars like Charlie Morgan, Killer Kelly and Nina Samuels have made NXT UK appearances, they haven’t fully made the jump to WWE. This is important for two reasons. The first is that these top stars remain a massive draw for indie fans; the presence of Morgan and Jinny on the card is highly appealing to those who know just how reliably excellent these big names are.
The second is a more long-term concern. The longer these stars get to spend on the indie circuit, the more up-and-coming stars benefit from their experience and expertise. Revolution Pro Wrestling’s Zan Phoenix, who started training as the only woman at the Rev Pro school in 2013, has said that when she started out, there were very few experienced women wrestlers to bounce off of.
We are entering an age of wrestling where we are starting to see veterans emerging on the women’s scene – some of them still very young. Kay Lee Ray, for example, has been wrestling for ten years at just twenty-six years old. To lose too many experienced wrestlers too soon to the exclusivity of WWE is not an insurmountable tragedy, but it is unfortunate. That said, with the emergence of women’s wrestling schools like EVE Academy, the future of women’s wrestling in the UK could very well be in safer hands than we think.
It is completely reasonable and understandable that WWE should remain the ultimate aspiration for many – perhaps even most – wrestlers. And it has ever been the case that smaller promotions serve, to some degree, as ‘feeder clubs’ of a kind to the likes of WWE; this is true for both male and female wrestlers. But it is vital for the health of British wrestling that we continue to support and lift up our indie promotions.
And that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy NXT UK. It doesn’t mean we can’t support Toni Storm and Kay Lee Ray, for whom the stability of a WWE contract is well-earned. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should think any less of the women trying out to earn the same contracts. But in supporting these talented and hard-working women, it is vitally important that we remember the promotions that made them who they are. And it’s imperative that we continue to support those promotions, because although WWE may do things bigger, brighter and with more polish, the indies were there before them, and with our support, they will continue to be there should the NXT UK experiment ever run dry.
More than that, though: the indies present women’s wrestling in a way WWE can’t, or perhaps won’t, engage with. Take EVE’s Rebel Kinney, for example, fast becoming a fan favourite. The self-professed ‘Psycho Dyke’, who wears her queerness as a badge of honour, whose split tongue and butch pride and cheerful innuendo would be the “wrong” kind of spicy for WWE:
Even Nina Samuels, who is absolutely superb at her patented brand of superior yet legitimately dangerous villainy, is watered-down in her NXT UK incarnation. The joy of the indies is that greater creative freedom makes for more complex, more interesting, more three dimensional women wrestlers. I want to see Session Moth Martina swigging lager and grinding on her opponents because it’s bantz. I want to see Sammii Jayne redeem herself for years of shit-stirring. I want to see Su Yung‘s shambling, blood-spitting, gore-streaked countenance, Nightshade‘s nonverbal fury, Kasey‘s aggression and arrogance as she beats her opponents to a pulp. Isn’t this diversity of character and style and intent what wrestling is all about?
To a certain extent, comparing NXT UK to the likes of EVE and Riptide is like comparing apples and oranges: they’re all fruit, but they’re doing very different things. And which you prefer is largely down to your personal taste. But a world devoid of choice is a very boring world indeed.
If you like what NXT UK is doing, check out your local independent promotion. Check out matches on YouTube. Get a feel for how women’s wrestling operates when it is not under the WWE yoke. There is a whole world of British wrestling out there, of which NXT UK is merely a part. The indies paved the way for NXT UK; let’s do our bit to keep them alive and in good health for the years to come.