On the cusp of a definitive end to the Divas era and a true women’s wrestling revolution, we are struck with the loss of one of the division’s most revolutionary performers. The death of Chyna was tragic for many reasons. She was unceremoniously forced to leave WWE after a whole lot of backstage drama between herself, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon. Triple H, of course, ending his relationship with Chyna to get with the boss’s daughter, creating a very toxic work environment for the 9th wonder of the world. After this, Chyna would develop substance abuse problems and make some poor career choices which would lead to her untimely death. But, the wrestling world will never forget or deny the indelible impact that her time in the business would leave.
Chyna changed the way fans viewed women’s wrestlers and the way a female wrestler should look. The moment that Chyna first appeared on WWE television and whipped Marlena around like a rag doll is burned in my brain. I was a young man, and I simply hadn’t seen a women wrestler with the muscle mass of a man before. Such a dominant female was rare in wrestling at the time. Aside from Bull Nakano, there hadn’t really been a major lady wrestler without a typically feminine body type.
As the only female member of Degeneration X (and no, I don’t count Tori), Chyna became a real threat on the outside of the ring. Normally, a “valet” would escort a male wrestler to the ring and maybe distract the opponent using her sexuality or just by being a nuisance. But Chyna acted almost as an enforcer. A woman who can beat up men. Imagine that.
These days, it’s not so uncommon to see women who could do some serious damage to a man. Ronda Rousey is revolutionary in her own right for putting women’s MMA on the map and making it a pop cultural phenomenon. But would woman's fighting be as popular as it is today without the influence of someone like Chyna?
The Divas division in WWE set the quality of women’s wrestling back quite a bit. And although Chyna wasn’t the greatest in-ring technician (being accused by some wrestlers at that time of being a fairly sloppy and uncoordinated worker), she was an undeniable icon. During a period in sports entertainment that was shifting toward sexuality, Chyna challenged gender norms and even began competing against men. A woman fighting men was almost taboo. In fact, it still is. It’s unlikely that you’ll even see a Kaufman-esque intergender match in WWE ever again.
The Attitude era was good like that. Some fans would say that it was full of low brow, immature, lowest common denominator content. And it was. And it was great. But that’s also what made it possible to take a shock factor risk of sanctioning an official man vs. woman matchup.
At the 1999 Royal Rumble, Chyna became the first woman to participate in the 30-person match, opening the doors for future powerhouse woman wrestlers. Years later, Beth Phoenix and Karma would join the short list of women to enter the Royal Rumble, and that wouldn’t have happened without Chyna. Thanks to her, we are likely to see more women enter the Royal Rumble in the future.
Not only did Chyna compete against the men, but she became the first and only female to win the Intercontinental Championship. Even today, this is remarkable. As far as the women’s division has come in the past year, I would still be shocked to see Charlotte, Paige, or Sasha Banks holding the IC strap. But that’s also because none of them are quite as physically imposing as Chyna was.
She became a bit more feminine looking later in her career, getting some significant work done on her face and some well-documented breast enhancement. I always liked Chyna’s original look. More intimidating. But that’s just me. To sexualize a female bodybuilder was still pretty unprecedented. Even her “mamacita” storyline with Eddie Guerrero was creative and very entertaining. Chyna couldn’t fail, and became a pop culture icon even outside of wrestling.
And that’s how we should remember her. We are all aware that she struggled so much after getting screwed over by Triple H and Stephanie. But we should look back on what she accomplished for women in wrestling. Chyna’s wrestling career was a highlight reel of firsts. She’ll rightfully go down in history as one of the most influential wrestling performers in history. Some people are wondering how the Helmsley/McMahon regime will honor Chyna’s death on Raw. It would look bad on WWE if they didn’t treat Chyna like any other wrestling star, with a 10 bell salute and a video package. But I think this era is most notable for its transparency and forgiveness. They did some damage to her that can’t be taken back, but hopefully they’ll have the decency to pay tribute to her with a Hall of Fame induction.
On the Stone Cold Podcast, Triple H said that the only reason they wouldn’t induct Chyna was because they didn’t want younger fans to Google her and find out about her seedy post-wrestling career. But I think now her spot in WWE history is more important than all of that. Chyna should be remembered for what she was; the 9th wonder of the world.