Examining Chyna's Legacy as WWE Women's Wrestling Pioneer

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterApril 21, 2016

Credit: WWE.com

From the moment that Chyna first stomped her way onto the WWE stage, it was clear she was going to be unlike any woman the audience had ever seen in the ring.

Goldust had just distracted Hunter Hearst Helmsley to cost him the Intercontinental Championship at In Your House 13: Final Four in February of 1997. The two men then stared each other down, inching closer to each other, a bonus battle seemingly about to begin.

Out of the frame, a mysterious woman reached out from the crowd and wrapped her brawny arm around the neck of Goldust's valet, Marlena. As Chyna choked Marlena, her biceps bulging, her face locked in a snare, Jim Ross asked, "Is that a woman?"

That question may seem odd, but everything from her frame (5'10'', 180 pounds) to her predatory introduction upended the norms for a woman in WWE. Here was a larger-than-life titan, an imposing beast who just happened to be female.

Chyna would go on to upend the status quo for women's wrestling, to blaze a trail for her gender one low blow at a time.

It's that legacy that is suddenly pushed to the forefront of the wrestling fan's conscience. After an often messy and dispiriting post-WWE career, Chyna is gone.

"Joanie 'Chyna' Laurer, a major part of the WWF/E in the late 90s, was found dead in her home today," Dave Meltzer reported at F4WOnline.com on Wednesday.

Her death has stirred up memories of the impact she made on the wrestling industry. Her passing leads one to reflect on her role as one of the precursors to what WWE has dubbed the "Divas Revolution." 

Many of today's female wrestlers took time to recognize Chyna's influence on them and women's wrestling as a whole.

Former WWE star and current TNA Knockout Gail Kim called her a pioneer:

NXT wrestler Dana Brooke commented on how much Chyna inspired her:

Athena Reese, who recently signed with WWE, shared a similar sentiment:

In so many of the messages women have shared about Chyna, the same words come up again and again: pioneer, inspiration, trailblazer. The Ninth Wonder of the World was all of those things.

She was a unique performer, a woman so rugged and intimidating that she clashed with the men, that WWE couldn't stick her in a standard sultry-sidekick role.

Early on, as Helmsey transitioned into Triple H and climbed the ranks as an underhanded, unscrupulous heel, Chyna stood by his side. She wasn't a valet, though, like Marlena and other women, but rather an enforcer. That alone was revolutionary.

The brooding bodyguard who clobbered babyfaces while the referee wasn't looking wasn't a role that went to women.

But Chyna thrived in it. Her physique and power made her a believable threat lurking behind Triple H.

When the D-Generation X faction soon took off in 1997, Chyna was a vital member. Besides being Triple H and Shawn Michaels' musclebound goon, she was an attraction. The merging of power and sexuality that she wielded made her a one-of-a-kind figure. 

As a group that exuded cool and symbolized the rebellious nature of WWE at the time, DX was instrumental in the Attitude Era's surge. And as Denny Burkholder of CBS Sports pointed out, her importance to that period hasn't been fully recognized:

Chyna's contributions to D-Generation X made it clear that women can be major players in the WWE machine, and not just by means of their looks.

The rest of her career became a series of groundbreaking moments. She was the first women to enter the King of the Ring tournament, the first to enter the Royal Rumble and the first (and only) to win the Intercontinental Championship.

These accomplishments, in a way, were played up for shock value. The audience was clearly meant to be surprised by a woman shoving her way into a man's world.

But Chyna made it all much more than a gimmicky ploy; she made the crowd believe that she belonged in the arena with all the other gladiators.

She picked up men above her head. She struck with rapid-fire fists. She clocked men in their testicles with her trademark uppercut low blow.

Chyna was an Amazon in leather. 

Again and again, she was the star of each storyline WWE placed her in. After D-Generation X, she feuded with Chris Jericho over the IC title. She then later become both Eddie Guerrero's love interest and rival.

Of that angle, Guerrero wrote in Cheating Death, Stealing Life, "She was a big part of the WWE image at that time, one of the biggest Superstars of the Attitude Era. I knew that she was the main attraction and I was the second banana."

That was not something one often said about women in the WWE landscape. The roster's females were often sex objects and arm candy. But Chyna kicked down a door as she showed the company how appealing a powerful woman can be.

Jacqueline would go on to wrestle men, too. She won the Cruiserweight Championship in 2004 from Chavo Guerrero.

Beth Phoenix and Kharma would follow Chyna's lead and make their way into the Royal Rumble in 2010 and 2012, respectively. 

Today, women's wrestling plays a far larger role than it has before. Sasha Banks and Bayley main evented an NXT TakeOver event. Banks vs. Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch was one of the more hyped matches of WrestleMania 32. And the NXT and WWE women's divisions now boast an impressive amount of talent and feature a variety of performers, from the ass-kicking bruiser Paige to the monstrous Nia Jax.

It's hard to imagine women's wrestling getting to that point without Chyna. As she said in a 2002 interview with Kevin Eck of the Baltimore Sun, Chyna broke "down barriers and boundaries" in the wrestling world.

Unfortunately, we often wait too long to appreciate performers like her. It isn't until after their deaths that we start to truly examine and acknowledge their parts in history.

Because of the troubled nature of her life after WWE, the company hasn't saluted her accomplishments enough. With her passing, however, that is poised to change, with Chyna likely taking her rightful place in the Hall of Fame before long.