The Women’s Revolutionaries

With WWE Evolution happening this Sunday on the WWE Network, the on-line battles over who created the actual women’s revolution continues to rage. Was it through SHIMMER or was it IMPACT Wrestling? Was it NXT or was it GLOW? Or has it been raging for much longer than that? Regardless the answer, there’s no question that it started in the trenches. While major promotions like WWE and WCW portrayed women as secondary characters or props for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a rise in the independent promotions in the early 2000s (emerging from the demise of WCW and ECW) lead to new areas for women’s wrestlers to work on their craft. Away from the expectations of bra & panties matches or storyline affairs with their bosses, these women – most of which were trained alongside the men, in a time when women’s wrestlers were a scarcity – created enough buzz for women’s wrestling again that promotions like SHIMMER and Women’s Superstars Uncensored (WSU) were popping up in the mid-2000s, followed by IMPACT’s Knockouts Division, Ring of Honor‘s Women of Honor, Shine Wrestling and more.

But it was these early pioneers of the US women’s indie style that helped to create the atmosphere of acceptance on the indie scene, that has begun to permeate the mainstream in the few years, present women as wrestlers more than afterthoughts, and going toe to toe with the men in a search for equity, equality and respect. Many of these women went on to bigger careers, with the WWE, IMPACT Wrestling, Ring of Honor or elsewhere, while some still continue to fight in the trenches, mentoring the new stars emerging today, with more confidence than any generation of women’s wrestlers before.

Here’s a look at 15 women who debuted before 2003 and were instrumental in the women’s revolution on the indie circuit in it’s early days. While many early indie stars went on to huge success in the WWE or IMPACT Wrestling, like Mickie James, Gail Kim, Natalya, and Beth Phoenix, we’ll instead look at women who made a bigger impact on the indie scene during their tenures there. This list is also only representative of the US indie scene, as it bears on the trail of the revolution that lead directly to the WWE’s emerging women’s divisions and this Sunday’s WWE Evolution.


Hawaii’s Malia Hosaka tried to go the mainstream route early on. After the first few years on the indies of the late 80s and early 90s, she joined ECW for a few shows in 1993. In 1996, she joined WCW’s rebooted Women’s Division, competing off and on until the division was quietly dissolved in 1999. She had a dark match with the WWF in 1999, but after that, it was back to the indies for the technical brawler. Hosaka’s hard hitting style – perhaps acquired during several tours with Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling (FMW) in Japan and as part of Harley Race‘s World League Wrestling – became a hit on the emerging US indies, and in 2006, she joined SHIMMER. Since then, she’s gone on to work with WSU, Shine and make appearances in multiple other promotions, as an elder stateswoman of pro wrestling in the US who can still work with the best of them.


“Sweet Saraya” Knight was already a legend of the UK indie scene before she arrived in the US in 2011. Since the mid-90s, her and her husband, fellow UK grappler Ricky Knight, had been running their own World Association of Wrestling (WAW) promotion in Norfolk, England. They were practically British wrestling royalty. When a toughened veteran Saraya Knight arrived in SHIMMER in 2011, she brought another veteran presence into a locker of women that had for the most part been learning things as they went along. The women didn’t have the veterans that so many men’s locker rooms had at indie shows. Saraya Knight become one of the top heels in the US indies, capturing the SHIMMER Championship, and introduced the UK indie scene to an American audience.


New Jersey’s Lexie Fyfe moved to North Carolina to become a pro wrestler in 1995, and ultimately ended up with training with Matt Hardy in his OMEGA promotion. When she was back in her home area, she also worked with WWE Hall of Famer Johnny Rodz. By 1999, she was finding enhancement work with WWF and WCW. But by 2001, she was back on the indies full time, working through places as diverse as IWA Mid South and CHIKARA. In 2005, she became the NWA World Women’s Champion, holding it for 168 days. In 2006, she went to SHIMMER and became a tag team with Malia Hosaka known as The Experience. She slowed down in 2009 and only makes sporadic appearances now and then, but her hustle made the first half of the 2000s more fun.


Photo: James Musselwhite

Originally trained in Japan by All Japan Women‘s Legends Lioness Asuka and Jaguar Yakota, Sumie Sakai spent her first few years in her native Japan, working with All Japan Women’s, Jd’ Star, Michinoku Pro, and Japanese Women’s Pro-Wrestling Project (JWP). She moved to the US in 2002 and trained with Killer Kowalski, entering into the US indie system. She was in the very first women’s match in Ring of Honor history – defeating Simply Luscious at one of ROH’s first shows – and worked with the likes of IWA Mid South, Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), WSU, EVOLVE and more. She still returns for short tours in Japan, such as Stardom and Diana, but she’s spent most of the past two decades running riot in the US indie system. Her hard work and dedication was given its due this year, when she was crowned the first ever ROH Women of Honor Champion.


Montreal’s LuFisto grew up in the hard hitting Quebec indie circuit, of Northern Championship Wrestling (nCw), International Wrestling Syndicate (ISW) and Federation de Lutte Quebecoise (FLQ). She broke into the US indie scene in 2006, crashing through SHIMMER and throwing herself into the hardcore ultraviolence of CZW. In her first year with CZW, she defeated Kevin Owens for the CZW Ironman Championship, and in 2007 won the IWA Mid South Queen of the Deathmatches. LuFisto has transitioned away from the extreme hardcore of her past, working with Beyond Wrestling, SHIMMER, Shine and others, but she remains an invaluable ring general who remains one of the top indie stars on the circuit today, still hitting as hard as ever, and mentoring new stars (like her Team PAWG teammate Jordynne Grace).

JAZZ, 1998

Trained by Rod Price in 1998, Jazz debuted with ECW in 1999, where she immediately made a splash as part of the original Impact Players with Jason Knight, Lance Storm and Justin Credible. She left ECW just prior to his folding, and jumped to the WWE in 2001. She became a 2x WWE Women’s Champion, but left the company in 2004. She returned to the indie scene and immediately gave it a sense of legitimacy. Having a former WWE Superstar take to the indie circuit during it’s early growth helped to give wisdom and confidence to these new stars on the indies and Jazz became an integral part of the early starts for both WSU and Shine. She continues to wrestle independently to this day, most recently defending her NWA World Women’s Championship at the NWA 70 PPV last week.


A second generation wrestler, Cheerleader Melissa followed her dad, territorial journeyman Doug Anderson, into the family business in 1999. She had short stints with such promotions as Vancouver’s Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling (ECCW) and AJW, but in 2002 she became a regular on the West Coast circuit with All Pro Wrestling (APW) in California. In 2005, she joined SHIMMER from the beginning, becoming one of the most popular indies stars of the mid-2000s. Despite all her indie success, TNA/IMPACT Wrestling felt the need to give her a totally unfit gimmick when they signed her in 2008, putting her under a veil as Raisha Saeed, the “handler” for Awesome Kong. She lasted two years before heading back to the indies and being Cheerleader Melissa. She continues to be one of the most important women in indie wrestling, still working with SHIMMER, RISE, and others, including tours with Stardom. She’s also featured on Lucha Underground, under a mask, as Mariposa.


North Carolina’s Amber O’Neal entered pro wrestling in 1999, training with former WWF and NWA Women’s Champion Leilani Kai, debuting with Professional Girl Wrestling Association (PGWA) that year. She began working regularly with Carolina Wrestling Federation (CWF) Mid-Atlantic and then became a regular with SHIMMER in 2008, as well as WSU, Shine, Queens of Combat (QOC), and more. In 2015, she became the first female member of Bullet Club, joining then-husband Luke Gallows as “The Bullet Babe”, and in 2016 joined the cast of Women of Wrestling (WOW).


It’s arguable that no women has been more of a warrior for women’s wrestling on the indies than Mercedes Martinez. She started out in indies like New England Championship Wrestling (NECW) and World Xtreme Wrestling (WXW), but she’s been a pillar in the start of most major women’s promotions, debuting with SHIMMER in 2005, WSU in 2007 and Shine in 2012. A 3x WSU Champion, 2x SHIMMER Champion, 5x WXW Women’s Champion and one of the most respected wrestlers in the world, Martinez has shown no signs of slowing down – she delivered some of the most talked about matches in both the 2017 and 2018 WWE Mae Young Classic, and recently defeated Tessa Blanchard in a 75-minute match to win the Phoenix of RISE Championship, breaking her own record for the longest singles match in women’s wrestling history.


Trained by her brother, former ECW World Heavyweight Champion Steve Corino, Allison Danger started off in the Pennsylvania indies before joining Ring of Honor’s women’s division in their first year in 2002. As great as her wrestling career was – despite it ending prematurely due to a stroke in 2013 – arguably her greatest contribution to the industry may be what she did behind the scenes. In 2005, she joined Dave Prazak in launching SHIMMER, the first major all-women’s promotion in the US, which she continues to work with to this day.

RAIN, 2000

Rain got her start in the local indies in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2000, starting out with Steel Domain Wrestling (SDW). She slowly began to work further and further into the Mid West and Eastern territories, working with IWA Mid South, CZW, and AAW. In 2005, she joined upstart SHIMMER, becoming a major player for the companies first several years. She departed SHIMMER in 2009, heading to WSU (where she became WSU Spirit Champion), and in 2012 went to Shine Wrestling, becoming Shine Champion in 2014. She had a brief run in TNA/IMPACT Wrestling as Bobby Roode‘s assistant, Peyton Banks, but she has spent the bulk of her career in the US indies, with tours with Diana in Japan and AAA in Mexico. In 2014, she was the victim in a car crash that left her with severe leg and abdomen injuries causing her early retirement. But the fight in Rain was too strong and in late 2017, she returned to the ring after a three year hiatus. She’s returned to SHIMMER and also fights in Shine, RISE and Ring of Honor.


She is considered the greatest women’s wrestler of the past 15 years, an unheralded and humble superstar who was to ahead of the game. California’s Sara Del Rey started off in West Coast indies like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), APW, and Pro Wrestling IRON, before joining Ring of Honor and SHIMMER in 2005. She became the most in-demand women’s wrestler, a perfect performance machine and former SHIMMER Champion, working everywhere from IWA Mid South to Shine to All American Wrestling (AAW) to CHIKARA, as well as Mexico and Japan. In 2012, she retired from the ring to take a position as trainer at the WWE Performance Center, and in 2015 was promoted to assistant head coach, working behind only Matt Bloom on the training staff.


Australian indie legend Madison Eagles started training to be a wrestler in 2001 at the young age of 17, debuting with International Wrestling Australia (IWA). In 2003, she headed to the US to continue her growth and education, training at the ROH Dojo, Heartland Wrestling Association school, and CHIKARA’s Wrestle Factory, where she was further trained by Mike Quackenbush and WWE Superstar Cesaro. In 2007, she co-founded Pro Wrestling Australia (PWA) with her then husband Ryan Eagles, which has become one fo the continent’s premier indie promotions, and in 2008 became a longtime regular and one of the greatest superstars in SHIMMER history. A 2x SHIMMER Champion, her first reign was an astounding 539 day reign. She’s also worked for CHIKARA, Shine, and multiple other indies in North America, and continues to work regularly to help bring the Aussie indie boom to the rest of the world.

MsCHIF, 2001

Missouri’s MsChif got her start in her local indie, Gateway Championship Wrestling (GCW) in 2001, followed by the rough and tumble IWA Mid South in 2004, before she found her way to SHIMMER in 2005. In GCW and IWA, she developed a hardcore approach within her gothic persona, causing mayhem and violence around the East Coast and Midwest. Over the years, she expanded her work resume with Ring of Honor, Shine, AAW and much more. A revolutionary of violence who proved that women could hit as hard as some men, she retired from the ring in 2014 to devote her time to being a mother, raising her child with husband, NJPW’s Michael Elgin.


While she had great success in TNA/IMPACT Wrestling as the slightly variated Awesome Kong, there’s no denying that Kong had just as big an impact on the indie scene prior. As Amazing Kong, she was a four year veteran of the indie scene before she signed with IMPACT wrestling in 2006. She got her start on the West Coast, training at the School of Hard Knocks, the school for California indie, Empire Wrestling Federation (EWF). She soon made an impression with her size and athleticism, and was invited for a tryout at the prestigious dojo for All Japan Women. She competed for several years in Japan, with AJW, GAEA, Oz Academy, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and NEO Ladies, before returning to the US to join SHIMMER in 2006. On the indies, she became an anomaly – a giant monster of a fighter, with athleticism and quickness. She was very much like Vader or Bull Nakano, but with a rougher, grittier street smarts. She had a three year stint with IMPACT – and an amazing feud with Gail Kim from 2007 to 2010 (and a disappointingly short run in WWE as Kharma) – but she returned to the indies, this time going through Shine.  She’s since retired from the ring (for now) as she’s gaining accolades for her acting in the current Netflix series, GLOW.


Daizee Haze got her start around the same time as MsChif in Missouri’s GCW, and similarly headed to IWA Mid South, where she started pairing with a young Matt Sydal. In 2004, she began working with Ring of Honor and the following year, joined with SHIMMER, where she became a regular star. She also became a regular performer in CHIKARA as well, joining the international super stable, Bruderschaft des Kreuzes (BDK), that featured such future stars as Cesaro, Lince Dorado, and Sara Del Rey (who she regularly tag teamed with). In 2009, she began working as the co-head trainer at the ROH Dojo with Delirious (the man who originally trained her back in 2002). A solid all-around performer, Daizee Haze retired from the ring in 2011 (although she did one surprise return match in 2015).


Nikki Roxx got her start in 2002, training with Killer Kowalski in Massachusetts alongside her friend April Hunter. She became a longtime regular with NECW, winning their Women’s Championship, competed in CZW and AAA, and joined up with SHIMMER in their first year, 2005. In 2008, she began a sporadic four year run with TNA/IMPACT Wrestling, where she became the incredibly popular “Voodoo Queen” Roxxi Laveaux. Her frantic character was an early prototype of characters like Rosemary and Nikki Cross and she became a fan favorite, but for whatever reason, never really got the push she deserved. She also won the WSU Championship, and worked for Shine after her IMPACT departure in 2011, before retiring in 2013 to concentrate on her own businesses.


Candice LeRae left her childhood home of Winnipeg, Canada to California to become a professional wrestler, honing her craft in the early West Coast indies of EWF, APW, Alternative Wrestling Show (AWS), and eventually PWG and Championship Wrestling From Hollywood (CWFH), where she became a superstar. In 2013, she began to break out more, to Ring of Honor, Beyond Wrestling, Smash Wrestling and more, initially off the success of her intergender tag team, The World’s Cutest Tag Team, with partner Joey Ryan. The two revolutionized what intergender wrestling could be – both in terms of fighting against and teaming with men – and the current boom of intergender showdowns owes a great debt to the work they did. She finally joined her husband, Johnny Gargano, in NXT this year.


Dublin’s “Irish Lasskicker” started out in 2002, trained by fellow WWE Superstar Finn Balor. In 2005, she headed to North America for two years, where she began to work a few circuits. She spent the bulk of her time on the West Coast, with Vancouver’s ECCW (where she faced the likes of LuFisto, Cheerleader Melissa, WWE Hall of Famer Ivory, current UK sensation El Phantasmo and Undisputed Era‘s Kyle O’Reilly). In 2006, she had two runs with SHIMMER, where she feuded with Allison Danger and Daizee Haze, as well as APW, NECW and others. While she’s gone on to a whirlwind career as Becky Lynch in the WWE since she signed with NXT in 2013, her run as Rebecca Knox through the Canadian and US indies for two years brought an early glimpse of the “never say die” attitude of the impending UK indie invasion and gave Lynch herself some early looks at the North American scene she would return one day to conquer.


Winnipeg’s Sarah Stock started out in Canadian indies like ECCW, Tope Rope, and others, as well as the Wild Samoans’ WXW in Pennsylvania, where she had early matches against the likes of Mercedes Martinez. After a year in the northern indie circuit, she headed to Mexico to train in lucha libre, taking on a mask and performing under the name, Dark Angel. She became one of the top luchadoras in Mexico, joining CMLL in 2005. She also worked frequent Japan tours, with top promotions like Stardom (where she won the Wonder of Stardom title). From 2009 to 2011, she competed for TNA/IMPACT Wrestling as Sarita, the tag team partner of Rosita (former indie star Thea Trinidad, now Zelina Vega in WWE) in the Mexican Americans with Hernandez and Anarquia. She also wrestled for SHIMMER, AAA and Ring of Honor, before retiring in 2015 to take a job as a trainer at the WWE Performance Center. She also works as a producer on women’s matches on Monday Night Raw.

There’s obviously a lot more candidates that could have appeared in this article. What are some other women’s wrestlers who debuted in 2005 or earlier that you think deserves to be given credit? Let us know in the comments below!