Today, Netflix debuts its latest Netflix Original Series: GLOW. GLOW is a comedy/drama based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW), a wrestling TV show that ran for four seasons from 1986 to 1990. As the name suggests, GLOW focused solely on women’s wrestling. The Netflix show is garnering rave reviews and this is a good opportunity to look at the world of women’s wrestling. However, instead of talking about women in WWE or hyping the upcoming Mae Young Classic, I want to talk about women’s wrestling promotions.
Unlike most wrestling companies, GLOW’s roster was mostly made up of actresses, dancers and models. The show was known for a diverse cast of characters and comedy sketches. After the show ended in 1990 a few of the stars continued to wrestle, although most of them only served as footnotes in the wrestling history books. The most successful GLOW alumni was Tina Ferrari, better known as three time WWE Women’s Champion Ivory. GLOW spawned a few short lived copycat promotions but to this day no women’s wrestling company has had a longer run on US TV. That doesn’t mean that women’s wrestling promotions don’t exist, though–women’s wrestling existed before GLOW and it still exists today.
Women’s wrestling was around for decades before GLOW. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Mildred Burke was the most famous female wrestler in America, eventually founding the World Women’s Wrestling Association in the 1950s before she retired in 1956. In Japan the first women’s wrestling promotion was founded in 1948. From the 1970s to the 1990s, arguably the most successful women’s wrestling promotion in the world was All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW).
AJW started in 1968, and it soon got a TV deal on Fuji TV. It started out by copying the formula used at the time by Japanese men’s wrestling: Brave Japanese wrestlers defending their country’s honor against wicked foreigners. Eventually AJW began focusing on feuds between Japanese wrestlers. In the 1970s the tag team Beauty Pair (Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda) captured the imagination. By the 1980s fans were enraptured by the glamorous Crush Gals (Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka) and their frequent battles with the villainous Dump Matsumoto and her tag team partner Bull Nakano. This feud did great business, gaining great TV ratings and large crowds. AJW closed down in 2005 but along the way they produced many of the greatest Japanese women’s wrestlers, like Jaguar Yokota, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong and Manami Toyota. One of the last wrestlers trained by AJW was Kia Stevens, better known to American fans as TNA’s Amazing Kong and WWE’s Kharma. Incidentally, Kia Stevens actually has a role in the new GLOW Netflix show.
These days women’s wrestling promotions would only dream of the level of success that AJW achieved. Now they focus on creating and maintaining a dedicated fan base by relying on live shows, streaming services or DVD sales. In the US, the main women’s promotion is SHIMMER: Women Athletes.
Chicago based SHIMMER was founded in 2005 as a serious platform for female wrestlers that focused on in ring talent instead of looks and titillation. The company currently runs two weekends a year as well as putting on a show during WrestleMania weekend, running as many shows as they can on those weekends. This lets them produce hours of DVD and On Demand content. The promotion’s current stars include veteran Mercedes Martinez, MMA fighter Shayna Baszler, Mia Yim (better known to many as TNA’s Jade) and Nicole Matthews. Currently SHIMMER is living in interesting times due to a mix of retirements and wrestlers leaving to join WWE developmental. Their alumni contains a who’s who of WWE and NXT wrestlers, including Becky Lynch, Asuka, Nattie Neidhart, Nikki Cross, Ruby Riot and Paige. The most important SHIMMER name to join WWE is Sara Amato, the assistant head coach at the WWE Performance Centre who many credit for the rise in quality in the WWE’s women’s divisions. While you may not have heard of SHIMMER it can easily argued that they’ve had an influence on the current state of women’s wrestling in WWE.
In the UK there are two main women’s promotions: Pro Wrestling: EVE and Bellatrix Female Warriors. Based in Bethnal Green in London, EVE is run by Dann and Emily Read, and they aren’t afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve. Calling themselves “what you get when punk, feminism and pro wrestling make a baby”, Eve has a strong fan base and a diverse roster from the UK, Ireland, and occasionally Japan. Their lineups often include the likes of fiery Scot Kay Lee Ray, “Fighting Irish” Rhia O’Reilly, the monster Viper, the snobbish Jinny, good time girl Martina and their current Champion, Samii Jayne. Eve is building a strong fanbase and like SHIMMER, they have their own On Demand service. Bellatrix is a regional company based out of Norwich and run by Saraya Knight, the mother of estranged WWE Superstar Paige. Saraya is one of the most terrifying wrestlers in women’s wrestling.
The most unique women’s wrestling comes from Bolivia. The Fighting Cholitas are a group made up of women from Bolivia’s indigenous communities. They are known for their unique ring gear: long, multi layered skirts and bowler hats. They were inspired to start wrestling by Lucha Libre, and they have combined it with inspirations from their own culture to create a unique style.
Japan has always been the largest market for women’s wrestling and while the crowds are smaller than they used to be there is still a variety of promotions still operating in Japan. These include companies such as Oz Academy, Pro Wrestling WAVE, Ice Ribbon, and regional promotion Sendai Girls. The talent pool of women’s wrestling in Japan is the deepest anywhere in the world. Some of the names to look out for are Meiko Satomura, Hiroyo Matsumoto, Arisa Nakajima, and Chihiro Hashimoto. The company with the most western exposure, and the easiest one for western fans to follow, is Stardom.
World Wonder Ring Stardom is arguably the most accessible Japanese promotion: They have a YouTube based subscription service, most of their videos have English subtitles and their roster includes a variety of western wrestlers. Stardom produced many great matches in 2016, with most of them featuring either Io Shirai, Kairi Hojo or Mayu Iwatani. Fans of Lucha Underground will recognize them as the Lotus Triad who wrestled Pentagon Dark. Hojo, who has the best looking elbow drop in wrestling, has recently left Stardom to join WWE but Shirai and Iwatani are still around for now.
If you enjoyed GLOW on Netflix and you want to see more, I hope that this has offered you a glimpse into the world of women’s wrestling, and I hope that it has given you ideas for a starting point if you want to continue that journey.