It was around Christmas 2013 that I started to get into professional wrestling. My fiance and a friend, whom I love dearly, were extremely invested in Daniel Bryan’s on-going rise in WWE that culminated with his main-eventing Wrestlemania XXX and becoming World Champion. I wanted to understand why they were so taken with this art form and this story so I asked both to introduce me to professional wrestling. I took to it immediately. I watched WWE programming religiously in the first quarter of that year and I fell in love with Daniel Bryan, The Shield and the first incarnation of The Wyatt Family. Still, I was always left wanting with how women were presented in the WWE. It wasn’t the fault of the talent for not making an impression, but something structural and rooted in a history of rampant, toxic sexism that forced those athletes into the singular role of conventionally attractive cannon-fodder.
It’s something WWE still partakes in to this day, even if they’ve now coated themselves in the armour of a self-branded “Women’s revolution”. WWE marketed these new athletes like Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley, as a new breed, as if to argue there weren’t women chomping at the bit to have those opportunities in the past. What these tremendously talented wrestlers overcame was a problem of WWE’s own making. The Four Horsewomen are fantastic wrestlers, but there has always been a history of great female professional wrestling, and WWE wants you to believe that outside of Lita and Trish the only great women’s wrestling has happened in the last four years. When I asked for serious women’s matches back in 2013, my friend sent me a YouTube link to a match that was exactly what was missing in my blossoming wrestling fandom. The match in question was Sara Del Rey taking on Lacey to crown the first ever SHIMMER Women Athletes World Champion in 2007.
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Sara Del Rey became my favourite wrestler almost instantaneously. Watching her unlocked something in my brain: something I didn’t know I needed until she was standing right there in front of me. She defied easy labels of what it meant to be a woman with her strength and toughness. In 2013, we were at the absolute peak of film and television doubling down on the archetype of the “Female Badass” or “Strong Female Character”, but it was always dressed up in conventional looks and storytelling. Sara Del Rey never marketed herself with such a label of self-imposed importance, and even if I am doing that to some degree here, the truth of the matter was that she was just a damn good wrestler. In the mid 2000s, after a wrestling boom period in the late 1990s that was rife with bra and panties matches and a complete disinterest in what women were capable of, the label “damn good wrestler” becomes almost super heroic when applied to women. Sara Del Rey along with many other women from the independent scene at the time like Lacey, MsChif, Amazing Kong, Cheerleader Melissa and Madison Eagles took wrestling back. Wrestling’s true “Women’s Revolution” began here.
When watching Sara Del Rey come to the ring, you’re seeing someone who is all business. She trained for a period of time in the same judo dojo as her peers Bryan Danielson and Samoa Joe, and she brings to the ring the same level of confidence those legends have when wrestling. She has the swagger of someone who knows she has trained and taught her body to do as she pleases. Watching professional wrestlers like Sara Del Rey makes me envious of that level of control and agency they have over their movement, their character and their strength. I’ve always felt like I’ve been at the mercy of the limitations of my own body, but watching Sara Del Rey gives me an outlet to experience total control. Even though I am not strong, she makes me want to become like her. She reminds me of growing up and falling in love with Wonder Woman and Xena the Warrior Princess. It’s a complete power fantasy, one she manages to fulfill with everything her body, her character and her wrestling ability promises.
The climax of Del Rey’s career, before she called it a day and moved on to her passion of training young wrestlers, was full of matches that helped define women’s professional wrestling in North America. Inspired by joshi wrestlers of the 1990s, Del Rey brought a level of physicality to her work that raised the bar for everyone. The matches she had with Lacey, Mercedes Martinez and Amazing Kong in the early days of Shimmer were foundational to the promotion, and later on she became an elder statesman of sorts for young, hungry, stars in the making like Jessie McKay (Billie Kay) and Courtney Rush to test themselves against. Del Rey stood out as someone befitting of the title “the Queen of Wrestling”. After putting Shimmer on her back and shaping its in-ring style into something not so dissimilar to that of Ring of Honor (but without the blood and guts), she made waves in Chikara.
I particularly love the completely absurd spotfest brawl she had teaming with Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro) when squaring off against Mike Quackenbush and certified greatest wrestler of all time Manami Toyota. In that match, the usual expectations of a “mixed” tag fell away and simply became great tag team wrestling. In fact, if there was anyone left wanting for talent in that match it was Quackenbush and Castagnoli who were working a step behind the two women, but anyone would when we’re talking about Del Rey and Toyota.
Manami Toyota wasn’t the only joshi wrestler Del Rey worked with during this period of her career. She challenged others to great success, most significantly Kana (now Asuka in WWE). In one of their two clashes, the ring had been damaged in the previous match, and there was no bottom rope. Both women had to work a mat based match based on submission manoeuvring and hard strikes. It is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of pro wrestling innovation one can ever see. It’s a match that brings me to tears, because of the intensity of it, but also because Del Rey and Kana’s trust in one another makes it feel like they were pro wrestling soulmates. It is a small tragedy that they only wrestled each other on two occasions, but being left wanting more is a noble feeling to have with any artist, because it indicates that the viewer covets the feeling the art gave them. When I watch Sara Del Rey I’m always left wanting to see more of her, because watching her is almost Utopian. She’s not just the best female wrestler, Sara Del Rey is the best wrestler.
- Sara Del Rey vs. Kana (Chikara, 10/08/2011)
- Sara Del Rey & Claudio Castagnoli vs. Manami Toyoto & Mike Quackenbush (Chikara, 09/19/2010)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Eddie Kingston (Chikara, 07/28/2012)
- Sara Del Rey vs. El Generico (Chikara, 04/28/2012)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Meiko Satomura (Chikara, 05/20/2012)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Kana (Shimmer, 10/01/2011)
- Sara Del Rey & Madison Eagles vs. Ayako Hamada & Ayumi Kurihara (Shimmer, 10/02/2011)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Rachel Summerlyn (Shimmer, 09/12/2010)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Mercedes Martinez (Shimmer, 05/21/2006)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Lacey (Shimmer, 06/02/2007)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Amazing Kong (Shimmer, 10/13/2007)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Lacey (ROH, 08/11/2007)
- Torneo Cibernetico 16 Man Elimination Match (Chikara, 10/23/2010)