Diva Debate No. 8: Evolution of the WWE Diva Edition

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2013

Diva Debate No. 8: Evolution of the WWE Diva Edition

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    Welcome to Diva Debate number eight.

    In today's edition, we take a look at the evolution of the WWE Diva, as well as what the future may hold for the women of professional wrestling's number one company.

    We also discuss Velvet Sky's return and, more specifically, how TNA managed to fumble the hype, interest, and excitement surrounding it.

    The first round of the Greatest Diva Ever tournament has come to an end. Find out who dominated, and who just managed to sneak by with a win, as well as what match-ups round two has in store.

    All of this, plus the week in review awaits you inside!

TOPIC #1: The Evolution of the WWE Diva, Part I

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    There is a lot of discussion about the current state of today’s WWE Divas and their abilities between the ropes. Some are quick to criticize the fact that a majority of today’s roster started as models, discovered in catalogs by former President of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis and were awarded a contract based solely on their looks. There are others that will defend today’s Divas, citing constant improvement in their work, despite a lack of attention by those in power behind the scenes.

    Regardless, today’s WWE Divas have come a long way from the days when they were simply sex symbols who competed in gimmick matches to satisfy the male-dominated audience. Today’s women have become faces of the company, valuable pieces in media relations and the spokespeople for a number of charitable causes and promotional initiatives.

    Here is how they did it.

    The mid-'90s saw the arrival of two of the most influential women of the modern day. Sunny and Sable were trailblazers for what is, today, considered a WWE Diva. They transcended the role of a female in the sport and became far bigger stars than either of the men with which they debuted. Soon, Sunny and Sable merchandise was as readily available as any of the top male stars of their era.

    Sunny and Sable, and later Terri Runnels and Debra McMichael, injected World Wrestling Federation television with sex appeal and helped drive in the valuable teen and young adult demographic. Somewhere along the line; however, the company came to an understanding that sex symbols helped capture the audience’s attention, but, if they wanted to revive their women’s division and the WWF Women’s Championship, they would need to introduce talented in-ring competitors.

    With Jacqueline and Luna Vachon already on the roster, the company debuted Tori and Ivory in early 1999. Throughout the year, they re-introduced women’s wrestling to a new audience, most notably in the Tori-Ivory feud that ran throughout the summer and early fall.

    Unfortunately, the company still had a problem on its hands. Fan reaction to the Tori versus Ivory matches was solid, but neither woman was receiving the reactions that Debra was for simply walking to the ring and flashing her so-called “puppies.” They had yet to find the type of female performer that could be depended on to provide sex appeal while also being a solid in-ring hand.

    That problem would be solved in early 2000, with the debut of Lita and Trish Stratus.

    For six years, Lita and Trish would champion a Divas division that included a number of women who personified both beauty and athleticism. Along with Victoria, Molly Holly, and Gail Kim, they proved to fans, critics, and peers that they could rip each others clothing off in a Bra and Panties match, as well as, bash each other in the face with a trash can lid in a hardcore match.

    The crop of women that made up the Divas division from 2002 until 2006 changed the perception of many as to what a female in the sport could be. Sure, there would always be some sort of expectation that they be beautiful, that they could fill a bikini, and cover magazines, but those so-called Divas proved that they could look good and kick ass at the same time.

    In the years that followed, the rise of Trish Stratus and Lita, young women such as Mickie James, Melina, Beth Phoenix, and Natalya would arrive on the scene, and continue to carry the mantle for the talented and gorgeous women that came before them. They would be joined by a group of women that has, over time, endured the wrath of the smart fan. These women would be the product of a poorly conceived “reality” competition that would see World Wrestling Entertainment infiltrated by the inexperienced.

    The Evolution of the WWE Diva continues on the next page...

The Evolution of the WWE Diva, Part II

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    The competition was called the Diva Search and it would change the face of women’s wrestling in WWE forever.

    In the summer of 2004, WWE initiated the Diva Search, a weeks-long competition that would reward its winner with a contract. Christy Hemme would be declared the victor, the most popular of the girls vying for the contract according to fan vote, but she would not be the only competitor that would make an impact. Maria Kanellis, Candice Michelle (pictured), and Michelle McCool all went on to enjoy great success within the company, the latter two becoming either Women’s or Divas Champions.

    Two of today’s top female performers, Layla El and Eve Torres, also won the Divas Search competition.

    The competition rapidly became one of the most despised aspects of WWE programming in the 2000s. Many felt that the blatant search for women with no wrestling skills, who simply looked good in bikinis and were voted for based on that fact alone, was a massive slap in the face to the women who broke bones, bled, scratched, and clawed to get where they were.

    Fans did not understand why there was a need for a contest as shallow as the Diva Search when there was a wealth of talented women on the independent scene plying their craft in hopes of getting that one opportunity so many dream of.

    Those fans had a reason to be angry, to be disappointed, as did those wrestlers who saw their potential chance at stardom passed over by any number of models looking for a quick payday, and the exposure that national television appearance on Raw or Smackdown brought with it.

    But to classify the Divas Search as an absolutely failure would be incorrect, irresponsible, and unfair.

    The aforementioned Eve, Layla, Maria, Candice, and Michelle have all contributed to WWE television in some meaningful way. Despite her role as the clueless backstage announcer, Maria has been given credit, most notably by Paul Heyman, for being one of the smartest women in the business. 

    Candice, at one time simply known for her appearances in the GoDaddy.com Super Bowl commercials, worked really hard to become a solid in-ring worker and saw that hard work pay off in the form of a Women’s Championship reign. Who is to know what would have come of her career had she not have suffered a vicious clavicle injury in a match with Beth Phoenix on Raw in 2007.

    Michelle McCool became the unquestioned top female performer in WWE from 2009 until her departure from the company in 2011. There will forever be debates surrounding how and why she was put in the position that she was, but for anyone to question her work ethic to remain in that spot, eventually becoming one of the sport’s top all-around female talents, would be ludicrous.

    Layla and Eve have remained a part of the WWE roster since 2006 and 2007, respectively, and fans have seen the fruits of their labor pay off in their growth as in-ring performers. Each had been members of NBA dance squads prior to their winning the Diva Search and have been able to utilize that athleticism in constantly evolving their in-ring work. They have collected a number of championships and remain two of the more featured women in the sport.

    The Evolution of the WWE Diva continues on the next page...

The Evolution of the WWE Diva, Part III

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    As 2013 kicks into gear, the Divas division is an interesting mix of women from different backgrounds. There are the former models who have improved by leaps and bounds to remain a part of the roster. These women include current Divas Champion Eve, Layla, and third-year stand-out Kaitlyn. They have overcome their lack of experience to learn from those around them and, as a result, are enjoying great success.

    There are the second-and-third-generation Divas that have wrestling in their blood. These are women who, for whatever reason, have found it somewhat difficult to breakthrough the proverbial glass ceiling, despite in-ring skills that are nearly unmatched by anyone around them. Natalya and Tamina fall into this category.

    There is also a handful of women who have filled different roles on-air, in-ring talent not necessarily being one of them. They include Rosa Mendes,  Naomi, and Cameron.

    The current state of the Divas division is one of much doubt. With no true hand-picked successor to lead the division into the future, the company has opted to ride the hot hand as of late. As of press time, Eve and Kaitlyn are the hot hand. But waiting in the wings is a female who had a tour-de-force year in 2012 and 2013 is shaping up to be just as eventful. She is a throwback to years gone by; a Diva that has paid her dues in the independent scene before receiving a developmental contract.

    She is AJ Lee and she may lead the new wave of WWE Divas into the future.

    What exactly the future holds for the women of World Wrestling Entertainment is uncertain. What is certain; however, is that the company appears to have recognized that it needs more female performers with experience in the business, rather than experience in posing for a camera. Perhaps the success of AJ has led to that way of thinking. Maybe the company’s new power structure has something to do with it?

    Either way, the company has recently hired the highly-talented Sara Del Rey to train with the developmental Divas in NXT while Paige has made a tremendous strides in her attempt to become the company’s next breakout star. Paige, herself, has wrestling in her blood, both her mother and father having been stars in her native England.

    The WWE Diva, like any other personality in the professional wrestling business, will always be highly scrutinized. Unlike other aspects of the industry; however, women are faced with great inconsistency in terms of their push on television, as well as their place in the company.

    Until World Wrestling Entertainment, as well as Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, find some sort of unquestioned place on their programming for their women’s divisions, it will forever be difficult for the general fan base to accept them as anything more than eye candy and for the die-hard members of the audience to be satisfied with the product they are presented.

Topic #2: TNA Botches Follow-Up to Velvet Sky's Return

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    When Velvet Sky made her return to TNA Wrestling near the end of 2012, there was great excitement amongst fans of the nation’s second-most popular promotion. After all, the months leading to the return had seen great fall-off in the attention paid to the Knockouts division by management and, with a roster depleted by departures, Velvet’s return could not have come at a better time.

    After all, she was easily the most popular woman on the roster.

    Unfortunately, the company wasted little time in failing to capitalize on the hype and excitement generated by Velvet’s return, instead choosing to focus on the comedy act that is the Tara-Jesse pairing, as well as the similarly returning Mickie James.

    This is not the first time the company has failed to follow up on something that has shown signs of re-igniting a stumbling Knockouts division. Earlier in 2012, Brooke Tessmacher appeared to be the breakout star of the division, but a series of questionable bookings followed by an on-screen disappearance cooled her star off significantly.

    Now, faced with the one woman that could generate a spark for the division, TNA has decided to shove her into the background in favor of former WWE talents, such as the aforementioned Tara and Mickie.

    With the Genesis pay-per-view a mere two days away, TNA could right their latest wrong with a gauntlet match to determine the number one contender to the Knockouts Championship. There are a number of talented women involved, including Mickie and Tessmacher, but in order for the division to escape the doldrums it finds itself in, it needs an injection of energy and excitement.

    Velvet Sky can provide that, if even for the short-term.

    If she enters Sunday’s event and simply loses, an afterthought in a match tailor-made for her to win, TNA risks cooling down another potential star for their once-great women’s division.

Week in Review: Tamina Re-Establishes Her Dominance

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    On last Friday’s Smackdown, Tamina defeated Layla in a match that could best be described as a squash.

    Despite capturing the Divas Championship earlier in 2012 and remaining in the title hunt through year’s end, Layla proved to be no match for the second-generation Diva. The daughter of Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka essentially dominated her opposition en route to a much-needed victory.

    When Tamina returned in November, it appeared as though the company had big plans for her. She seemed poised to represent Vickie Guerrero in her feud with AJ Lee. But along the way, the decision was made to turn AJ heel and, as a result, the impending series between AJ and Tamina was quickly blown-off in a single match on Raw.

    Tamina’s win over Layla appears to signal the renewal of a push towards championship gold. With a championship victory for babyface Kaitlyn seemingly on the horizon, it appears as though a showdown between the two could be in the future.

    Or, as has happened in the past, Tamina’s win over Layla could simply be a means to filling a slot on the company’s second-tier show.

    Only time will tell.

Week in Review: Eve Narrowly Escapes...again

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    The rivalry between Eve and Kaitlyn continued into 2013 as they once again met for the Divas Champion.

    As has been the case in the past, Kaitlyn showed great intensity throughout the somewhat short match while Eve continued to portray the cowardly heel, stopping at nothing to thwart her challenger’s attempt to wrest the title away from her.

    This week, Eve managed to get herself counted out, escaping from the ring and through the audience while Kaitlyn was forced to watch her latest attempt to become champion slip through her fingerless glove-wearing hands.

    The buildup to the eventual switch has been very good, with Eve succeeding in a role few were absolutely sure she could fill and Kaitlyn improving by leaps and bounds as she enters her third full year with the company.

    The only issue surrounding the rivalry is timing. At some point, the feud will have to be blown off, with the title switching hands, or the crowd will become bored. There was a hint of that on Monday, when the Tampa audience could not get into the match. In prior bouts, the women have been able to overcome crowd disinterest and have them invested by the match’s conclusion.

    On Friday afternoon, it was announced that Kaitlyn would meet Eve for the Divas Championship, again, on Monday’s “Twentieth Anniversary” edition of Raw.

    While the title switch appears more likely for the Royal Rumble, do not be surprised if Kaitlyn finally realizes her dream and captures the title on a night that will surely be one of the most important in Raw history.

Week in Review: Mixed Tag Team Match Results in Few Laughs, Results

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    On Thursday's Impact Wrestling, Knockouts Champion Tara teamed with boyfriend Jesse to meet Brooke Tessmacher and Robbie T.

    The match continued Tessmacher's streak of televised matches and gives her a bit of momentum to ride into the Genesis pay-per-view.

    Unfortunately, it continued TNA's ignorance toward the division that was, at one-time, must-see television. The comedy aspect of the division has already devalued the Knockouts Tag Team Championship and the pairing of Tara and Jesse has done nothing to help the somewhat prestigious history of the singles title.

    A mixed tag team match, more focused on getting Rob Terry over than furthering the story, or lack thereof, surrounding the Knockouts Championship, will do nothing to cure the problem.

Greatest Diva Ever Tournament: First Round Results, Second Round Match-Ups

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    The first round of the Greatest Diva Ever tournament featured many dominating performances by all-time greats, but it also featured a few tighter-than-expected races. In the closest race of the opening round, the very popular Torrie Wilson narrowly—narrowly—edged Jacqueline to advance by a single vote.

    Gail Kim also advanced over Stephanie McMahon by the narrowest of margins. The win could be considered somewhat of an upset considering Gail's lack of real success in WWE and Stephanie's role as daughter of the boss and her place during the Attitude Era.

    Round two matches are as follows:

    • Trish Stratus vs. Michelle McCool

    The woman named "Diva of the Decade" in January of 2003 meets the woman who, arguably, was most dominant of the new decade in Michelle McCool. While it would most certainly be a pay-per-view dream match, if voting in round one was any indicator, Trish may not be stopped on her road to the finals.


    • Layla vs. Beth Phoenix

    Two of the more successful Divas of the modern era meet up in a round two clash. Beth Phoenix is widely praised for her mix of beauty and in-ring abilities but there is a very loyal group of Layla fans out there. Beth may be the favorite to advance but do not be surprised if an upset occurs.


    • Lita vs. AJ Lee

    Lita and AJ were equally as impressive in their victories in the first round of our tournament. Fans of the current day product, who have not had the exposure to Lita that fans from the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression eras have, are likely to vote for AJ. With that said, the pairing could be more difficult for the spitfire from New Jersey to win as her opposition is one of the most popular performers in WWE history.


    • Gail Kim vs. Sable

    The fan support for Gail Kim was never more apparent than when she defeated Stephanie McMahon in round one to assure her advancement in the tournament. Despite having very little success in McMahon Land outside of a single, failed title reign in 2003, she meets the woman responsible for the emphasis on sex appeal in professional wrestling during the Attitude Era, Sable. While the former Playboy cover girl may be more important in the annals of WWE history, do no be surprised if Gail scores another upset and advances once more.


    • Maria Kanellis vs. Stacy Keibler

    An interesting match-up between two of the most naturally-beautiful women in WWE history. They are also two of the most popular, despite the championship success their opposition in the tournament enjoyed. A real toss-up, the winner may be decided based on which voters grew up in which eras.


    • Mickie James vs. Torrie Wilson

    If round one voting was any indication, the match-up between everyone's favorite psycho stalker Mickie James and the girl next door Torrie Wilson may not be close at all. In round one, Mickie steamrolled the competition while Torrie luckily received one vote more than opponent Jacqueline.


    • Victoria vs. Molly Holly

    A women's wrestling fan's dream match, Victoria meets Molly Holly in a match of two dominant round one victors. Molly, despite the jokes cracked at her expense on WWE television, has always had a very solid fan base while Victoria may go down in WWE history as one of the most well-rounded female performers. Like Stacy versus Maria above, the outcome could easily go either way.


    • Melina vs. Chyna

    Melina cruised to victory in round one while Chyna upset internet fan-favorite Natalya. Now, in round two, Chyna will have to hope for a stronger showing as she meets one of the most talented, controversial women of the 2000s.


    As was the case with round one, submit your votes for this week's matches in the comment section below. If you do not have a Bleacher Report account, you can tweet them to me @ErikBeaston.

    The winners will be announced in next week's Diva Debate, as will the round three matches. And remember, if your favorite did not make it through to round two, vote and encourage your friends to do the same.

Next Week...

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    In next week's Diva Debate, I will take a look at one of the greatest women's matches in WWE history, Stephanie McMahon vs. Trish Stratus from No Way Out 2001, and how their storyline out of the ring helped fuel their eventual in-ring clash.

    I will also look at AJ Lee's recent heel turn and whether or not there is long-term success for her in that role.

    As usual, I will cover the past week in Divas and Knockouts action, catch you up on any late-breaking news, and recap the second round of Diva Debate's Greatest Diva Ever Tournament.


    The title of this article features the word "debate," and now it is your turn to let your voice be heard in regards to any one (or all four) of the topics discussed in this week's Diva Debate article. Leave a message relevant to anything discussed inside.

    Also, your feedback is incredibly important. If you have any suggestions or constructive criticisms of the article, feel free to let me know in the comment section OR at my personal Twitter account (@ErikBeaston). I look forward to hearing from you all, as together, we build what will hopefully become a long-running weekly article here on Bleacher Report.