The past year has seen an unprecedented growth in women's wrestling. For the first time ever last October, WWE's women wrestlers were featured in their own pay-per-view called Evolution, a critically acclaimed event filled with the kind of exciting action that forced fans and company executives to take note.
That, it turns out, only foreshadowed the success to come, culminating in a match for the women's championship headlining WrestleMania this April in New Jersey. Powered by the mainstream superstardom of Ronda Rousey and the homegrown moxie of Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, the match proved that women were ready to take their place right alongside men in this new world of wrestling.
The historic firsts continue on Thursday when two women will wrestle in Saudi Arabia for the first time when Natalya and Lacey Evans square off as part of an epic event at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh that also features boxing champion Tyson Fury and former UFC standout Cain Velasquez.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden had a chance to sit down with WWE's Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon to talk about how this match came to be and what it means for the future of women performers in the WWE.
Jonathan Snowden: I woke up to a pretty exciting announcement this morning. As a fan of women's wrestling, I'm please to see you'll feature a match in Saudi Arabia for the first time. How did this all come together?
Stephanie McMahon: It's been a part of our goal since day one when we first announced our deal in Saudi Arabia. It's been a year and a half and now we finally have this opportunity, this ground breaking opportunity, and we couldn't be more proud.
JS: Ultimately, who in Saudi Arabia has to sign off on making this happen? And who was pushing for it from WWE's end? This must have been really important to you and the company generally.
McMahon: I'm not necessarily going to go into the details of it, but again it has been a goal since day one. Obviously, we have the full support of our partners. We've been pushing and now here it is and it's gonna happen.
JS: I know that in other women's matches in the region, in Abu Dhabi, the performers have come out in modified costumes to help satisfy some cultural concerns. What concessions have you made here?
McMahon: I haven't seen the designs but I do know there are certain restrictions and we want to be respectful of the culture. Their costuming will be different than what you would see in a typical WWE show.
That being said, when you mention Abu Dhabi, I just don't want to lose the significance of it. It took six years for us to be able to have a women's match in Abu Dhabi and when we did, the reaction of the audience, both men and women, chanting "this is hope." That's not a typical WWE chant.
Both Sasha and Alexa talked about seeing tears in the eyes of little girls in the front row. When you consider the significance of what it means to be able to see women performing and competing in what was traditionally all men, it really does change the way you look at your future. I think this is a huge opportunity for WWE, for the WWE Universe and hopefully it will have a ripple effect around the world.
JS: Every show in the region has been met with some fierce criticism. Last year we talked to your husband Paul (WWE's Triple H) and he was clear that you thought WWE could be the start of some change and the spread of American ideals and an exchange of ideas. Is this proof of concept? The very existence of this match was impossible one year ago.
McMahon: I think this is absolutely proof of what Paul was saying. You can either sit on the sidelines and there are plenty of companies and brands that decide to do that or you can be a part of hopefully enacting change. You can be a part of progress. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. It takes time. It takes perseverance. Now here we are with the first ever women's match in Saudi Arabia. It's pretty mind blowing.
JS: You have "the Man" Becky Lynch and Bayley as your champions and standard bearers. But instead of featuring them, you'll present Lacey Evans and Natalya. Why that match?
McMahon: Natayla is somewhat of a legend in the women's division. She is the veteran. She has been here for so long, been a part of so many of the changes that have happened. When you consider her legacy and family history, it's pretty remarkable.
You take Lacey Evans, who is fairly new on the scene but who has not been shy about sharing her perspective on overcoming, especially in her life and the things she's been through. She has a young daughter and she wants to set an example and pave the way not only for her daughter but boys and girls all around the world. That's their personal stories.
I can't think of better representatives for WWE. You can go on their social media. They've made some pretty awesome statements. Lacey Evans said 'I never thought I'd have the opportunities to do the things I've done with WWE. Tomorrow I get to show my little girl that hard work can bring you to history-making heights. I'm ready for this.'
JS: Last year we saw the first ever women's pay-per-view Evolution. It felt like a hit. It certainly was critically. Why didn't you guys do a sequel this year? Did you consider it?
McMahon: We did consider it. A lot of our focus has been on having this particular match as a part of this PPV in Saudi Arabia. More to come on Evolution but it's most likely not going to happen in 2019.
JS: How important was Ronda Rousey in opening eyes in the pay-per-view industry to the fact that women could draw a huge audience if promoted in a compelling way? She seemed to be a real game changer.
McMahon: I think Ronda was certainly a part of that, for sure. You can look at Serena and Venus. You can look at any number of female athletes who have been making such significant strides in their respective industries, Ronda being absolutely a huge part of that. When you consider the history of what we call the Women's Evolution, starting with that hashtag that trended for three days worldwide in 2015, called 'give Divas a chance,' which was specifically calling for better character development, better storylines, more athleticism from our women which ultimately led to us rebranding the Divas division to the women's division.
It led to unveiling a new championship belt more akin to the men's but still feminine, announcing that our women would now be called superstars same as the men, which then led to our signing Ronda, our women headlining and maineventing PPVs, including for the first time ever this past April Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch being the first ever women's main event of Wrestlemania at MetLife Stadium in front of over 80,000 people and breaking entertainment revenue records.
That was history, too. We can't wait to make history again as a part of Crown Jewel tomorrow.
JS: All of this has happened so fast. Has this transformation kind of blown you away? And what's next for women's wrestling? What are your goals for the division? The possibilities seem endless.
McMahon: I agree the possibilities are endless. The ultimate goal is parity. We want equality on the roster and everywhere else. I think what's really important to note is not that there's a women's evolution because we think it's the right thing to do. There's a women's evolution because these women absolutely deserve this opportunity.
They've shown it, they've proved it and they deliver every single time and I expect nothing less tomorrow in Riyadh for Crown Jewel. It is time we make history again.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.