With the popularity of Dark Side of the Ring, the VICE network has decided to double down on its pro wrestling-related content. On June 17, the network premiered the documentary Vice Versa: Chyna. In telling the life story of late pro wrestler Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, the doc intersplices footage of the unfinished documentary Reconstructing Chyna, which ceased production only upon Laurer’s 2016 death, with footage from her once meteoric pro wrestling career and commentary from loved ones and colleagues.
Looking at the Impact of Chyna
That footage of Laurer’s career at its peak reveals a performer whose physique, image, abilities, and goals were nothing that the pro wrestling world had seen before from a female performer. World Wrestling Entertainment, then the World Wrestling Federation, had phased out its first incarnation of a women’s division in the early 90s; former champion Alundra Blayze famously took the women’s title belt with her upon decamping to rival WCW, lighting it up in a literal garbage fire. What remained of women’s role in the WWF was as valets and eye candy TV personalities. Laurer’s Chyna was an enforcer, who not accompanied members of D-Generation X to the ring but interfered physically in their matches. Eventually, Chyna began wrestling male performers one on one, herself, and was the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble, the King of the Ring tournament, and win the Intercontinental Championship.
Footage from the very beginning of Laurer’s career reveals that her stated goals were always clear: to be a new breed of female wrestler. Despite her tumultuous split from the WWE and later career, even before her untimely death in 2016, Laurer was an inspiration to the female performers following in her footsteps. In her lifetime, competing against men was almost a necessity because her signature muscular physique demanded competitors who were physical equals. Such could not be found amongst WWE’s women’s stable at that time. However, women whose pro wrestling personas lead with strength and athleticism battling against each other in matches with the same importance as those of their male counterparts are now the norm in both WWE and the world pro wrestling industry. Female athletes who have professed being inspired by Chyna, or whose careers seem to be following in her footsteps, include:
The former amateur turned pro wrestler has spoken openly of Chyna being an inspiration not only for her to pursue a pro wrestling career, but also when overcoming body issues in her youth. Nicknamed “The Glamazon” during her own WWE tenure, Beth Phoenix followed in her hero’s footsteps in 2010, when she was the second female athlete, after Chyna, to enter the Royal Rumble. She eliminated The Great Khali, no small feat, but was herself eliminated by CM Punk. Phoenix has since transitioned to a color commentary role on NXT, and in 2021, a visibly proud Phoenix was on hand to introduce another stepping stone in the women’s evolution in the company: the first Women’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic.
Jade Cargill of All Elite Wrestling is another female pro wrestler who has professed her idolization of Chyna. The Nightmare Factory trainee has a similar muscular physique and hard-hitting athleticism as her idol, and while the “managers” of AEW nipped around her like sharks scenting blood in the water, Cargill’s character has been presented as one whose star power everyone wants a piece of, poised to make an impact on AEW’s women’s roster.
While the former MMA fighter does not have Chyna’s towering, muscle-bound physique, her menacing presence cannot be denied and carries a hint of Chyna’s early days as an enforcer for DX: aloof and intimidating. Shayna Baszler brought the pain to all comers on NXT before dominating, until recently, the tag team division with partner Nia Jax with a punishing submission style of wrestling informed by her mixed martial arts background. Like Chyna, Baszler faces male opponents, usually the sommelier Reginald. While these matches have been mostly played for laughs, as WWE continues to tease revisiting intergender singles matches in a serious way, such as the matches Chyna participated in, hopefully, Baszler will get a serious chance to test her Kirifuda Clutch on Reginald or any other worthy male opponent.
Dressed in leather, flexing her impressive muscles before each match, and using her prodigious physical strength to powerfully slam opponents, and projecting both power and beauty, it is hard not to be reminded of Chyna when looking at the current NXT Women’s Champion, Raquel González. One must imagine that the swath of victories against other powerful women with which her path to NXT’s top title is lined is what Chyna could have been if there had been a viable women’s division built around her. Whether it is other strongwomen like Rhea Ripley, gritty veterans of the indie scene like Mercedes Martinez, or high flyers like Io Shirai, González’s recent successes are possible because she had the one thing Chyna didn’t: a wide array of female competitors who challenged her, and were her equals, in a division with honors of weight for all parties involved to aspire to.
“The EST.” The roughest, the toughest, the quickest, the smartest, etc., take your pick. The brashly branded babyface was once in Gonzalez’s shoes, an athletic phenom on NXT, then later moved to Monday Night Raw. Since being drafted to Friday Night SmackDown, Bianca Belair has more than flourished, gaining the SmackDown Women’s Championship and picking up a high-profile victory over Sasha Banks in a headlining WrestleMania match. Feats of strength and athletic prowess are the bedrocks of Belair’s brand, but fresh-faced beauty, cutting edge style, and bubbly charm are big parts of it as well. It would be a surprise to no one if Belair parlays all of these qualities into success in other arenas.
Chyna’s latter days at WWE saw her softening her look and parlaying her uniqueness into multimedia pop culture appearances, fulfilling her original youthful goals to be an actress and a true, mainstream star.
Belair has been heavily pushed, and she is billed as the total package-strong, beautiful, and a supreme athlete. Chyna’s image vacillated from intimidating presence to sex symbol, but times have changed: the end of the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression eras saw WWE return to a programming format aimed at a more youthful audience, such as in the New Generation era, and this allows a performer like Belair to lead with her abilities rather than her appearance in a way Chyna was not granted. The sexualization of Chyna haunted even her post-WWE career and curtailed her options in the wider entertainment industry. Watching Belair’s career reach historically important heights is twice as enjoyable to witness because it has been largely absent from these pressures, allowing her personality and athletic ability to shine.
Some female athletes took direct inspiration from Chyna’s image and achievements in their youth and on their own journey to pro wrestling. Others have built on her achievements, or have been able to break ground that was not accessible to Laurer in her lifetime. Either way, her indelible imprint on pro wrestling is strongly felt, for her achievements and for the ‘what could have beens’ that other women are now able to realize in her stead.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.
Looking to talk wrestling, pro football, or any number of sports? Head on over to the LWOS Boards to engage in conversation with fellow fans!