Standing at 20 feet tall, and weighing over five tons of chain link attached to steel beams, the cage-like structure hangs suspended ominously above the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. An eerie hum and a lighting change shift the mood of the brightly colored squared circle to one of awe and magnificent terror. The monstrous five-sided cage is lowered from it’s resting place one final time. The raucous Boston crowd will watch two competitors put each other through Hell. In a cell. But this is no ordinary “Hell in a Cell” match. This one will prove to be revolutionary to the WWE, the business of professional wrestling, and to the history of women sports entertainers as we know it.
I’m watching as Charlotte and “The Boss” Sasha Banks stand in the ring as the cage descends on them and I suddenly become overwhelmed. I am, once again, becoming emotional over professional wrestling. I remember my experience sitting in the Barclay’s Center watching Banks in the double main event against her friend Bailey. This was the first time two women were part of a double main event in a NXT Takeover live event. I was emotional then as well, tears welling in my eyes, jumping out of my seat and screaming as Banks, Bailey, Charlotte, and their real life friend Becky Lynch hugged one another in the ring.
WWE announced on October 10th 2016 that their newly crowned women’s champion, Sasha Banks, would defend her title against former champion Charlotte and put an end to their rivalry at WWE’s yearly Pay Per View “Hell in a Cell,” in the event’s titular match stipulation. This was the first time two female Superstars (WWE’s word for wrestlers or talent) have been locked in the cell. That was historic enough, but this Pay Per View brought about a second milestone: It would be the first major Pay Per View event to be headlined by two female Superstars.
I’m watching and thinking of the many milestones that got us here, including Banks and Bailey’s rematch, the first time two women fought in an Iron Man (Iron Woman, in this case) match in WWE’s history. It’s been a long time coming, full of beautiful, historic moments. And now we had finally arrived at “Hell in a Cell”, the most historic of all for women in wrestling.
The cell itself was first introduced on October 4, 2009, at a WWE Pay Per View titled “Bad Blood,” and was used to end a feud between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. Traditionally the “Hell in a Cell” match stipulation is used as the final match in a long form story-line between two competitors, a storyline that becomes so personal it can only culminate in the two characters being put in a thunderdome situation and told variations on the phrase “do whatever you want but end this!” Since Sasha and Charlotte has been feuding for a while, “The Hell in a Cell” stipulation became the only proper way to end the feud.
Sasha Banks and Charlotte both came through NXT (the WWE development program at Full Sail University) together and were some of the first female competitors trained by Sara Del Ray/Amato. When training started they were instructed to “act like Divas,” by pulling hair and using slaps, but it was with Del Ray’s guidance and a mutual understanding amongst classmates (Natalya Neidhart, Paige, Becky Lynch, and Bailey) the two formed a female wrestling stable (gang) named the BFFs (Beautiful Fierce Females) with rising WWE star Summer Rae and dominated the NXT women’s division.
After the NXT Women’s title was vacated by Paige, who was called up to the main WWE Roster, both Banks and Charlotte were entered into a tournament to crown a new Champion. While the two never faced each other in the tournament the tension created from the potential that the two BFFs could clash in the final round for the title created a rift between them. Charlotte won the tournament and became the second ever NXT Champion.
Charlotte, the daughter of fifteen time World Heavywieght champion and two time WWE Hall of Famer “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, for most of her career tried to make it on her own name and merits, making everything she does look effortless and gorgeous. (Here is her performing one of the most flawless moonsaults in the business). In her quest for the title, WWE thought it was a better idea to emphasize her lineage. When she, Banks, and current WWE Smackdown Women’s champion Becky Lynch were brought onto the main roster, Charlotte defeated the longest reigning Divas champion Nikki Bella and was the first to win the official WWE Women’s Championship (the Divas title was retired in favor of ditching the “Divas,” brand in favor of all WWE workers being Superstars).
“The Boss” Sasha Banks might not have the lineage, but she built herself up from a young age loving wrestlers like Eddie Guererro. Wrestling under the name Mercedes KV in the indie scene she would find herself in matches against men, oftentimes beating them. This was a major reason she didn’t want to rely on slaps and hair pulling, because she knew and experienced what an athletic scripted contest should look like regardless of gender.
Sasha and Charlotte’s most recent match for the title on WWE’s weekly televised event Monday Night Raw a month ago was the first time two women have headlined the show since Lita and Trish Stratus (which featured The Rock as special guest referee) on December 6, 2004. WWE has been building up their current women’s division to be respected to an extent we haven’t seen in the company’s history. Because the “Cell” is a symbol for in-ring storytelling that is brutal, violent, and more dangerous than any other match in the WWE arsenal of stipulations, Sasha and Charlotte were walking in knowing they’d have to live up to the hype.
By allowing Sasha and Charlotte to put on such a brutal and violent story it shows that WWE now has faith that two female Superstars can put on a high caliber match; one big enough to close out a Pay Per View. Also, from a financial standpoint, it shows that they have faith that people will want to stay and watch the until the end with women at the top of the card.
The match itself delivered everything it promised (albeit with a lackluster finish due to a table not breaking as planned). Sasha being thrown under the cage as it was descending before the match started set a pace of danger. Watching them fight throughout the crowd, including Sasha getting thrown through the Spanish announcer table, showed both of them are willing to go to extremes to tell a great story. Watching them slam one another onto the cage was like an enthusiastic declaration: “I am a woman, I can have a character that is super feminine, and I can not only keep up with but I’m going to prove that I’m even tougher than you.”
Witnessing this historic fight, I begin to cry.
I’m crying because growing up I wanted to be a professional wrestler but I was talked out of it due to my gender. I’m crying because Sasha Banks and Charlotte were trusted to tell their violent, soap opera-like ballet to its brutal fullest. I’m crying because WWE has shown that they are willing to finally trust women on an artistic level, on a financial level, but most importantly as true Superstars and not the “Divas,” they used to be. I’m crying because of professional wrestling. I’m crying because of history. Most of all, I’m crying because I’m happy.