Die Mad About It: Nyla Rose Is the AEW Women’s Champion

On this week’s episode of AEW Dynamite, Nyla Rose became the company’s second Women’s Champion. We’ll get to the significance of that moment shortly, but let’s begin here: She should have been its first.

Think back to the beginning of All Elite Wrestling as a going concern. The way it went about determining the first challengers to its newly established championships was a mess. Adam Page won a battle royal. Chris Jericho won a singles match. SCU won a tournament. Riho won a singles match. Nyla Rose won a battle royal. Narratively, it wasn’t the most compelling means of introduction in wrestling history, but it’s 2020 and it’s harder than ever to fake a title tournament in Rio de Janeiro, so I’ll give it a pass. 

In all of that mess, AEW blundered into something truly significant: an opportunity to crown a transgender woman as their inaugural women’s champion on the debut episode of their television show. Instead, they went with Riho, a phenomenally gifted wrestler whose experience in the ring stretches back to when she was nine years old. It’s hard to be mad about that decision—Riho may be the best wrestler, pound for pound, on the AEW roster, and the way Rose had been booked to that point made it seem like she was in the title match by accident, someone with all the tools to become champion, but who needed more seasoning before getting there. The match was good, but given what was on the table, Rose’s loss that night was deflating.

After Wednesday night’s title change, I tweeted that the only AEW championship that’s booked well is Chris Jericho’s World Championship. That might be due to the fact that Chris Jericho is a massive performer whose reputation is such that he’s able to leave a mark on anything he does, but I think it’s something even simpler: he’s a heel, and that gives everybody who isn’t also a heel extra incentive to beat him. The AEW Women’s Championship, by contrast, had a set of challenges unique to any other title on its level. With the WWE’s women’s divisions raising the bar for women’s wrestling in the United States higher than it’s ever been, AEW drafted a roster that wasn’t designed to draw comparisons to its competition, leaning heavily on lesser known indie wrestlers and joshi talent who weren’t in World Wonder Ring Stardom and so presumably off of WWE’s radar. In crowning the first champion of that division, AEW was introducing its audience to its idea of how women’s wrestling should be presented, a division willing to take risks and find diamonds in the rough. Maybe the thought process in going with Riho on the debut episode of Dynamite was to put the title on someone capable of having a good match with anybody, somebody whose size engenders audience sympathy and whose skill inspires awe. 

But where do you go with an inaugural champion whose gimmick is that she’s small, resilient, and likable? While AEW’s other divisions proved capable of running more than one story, the women’s division frequently went without one. Its biggest attempt at a sustained narrative thus far is Brandi Rhodes’ Nightmare Collective, which ruined what could have been a starmaking match between Riho and Kris Statlander and has already been derailed via Awesome Kong’s dismissal from the group and the MJF/Cody issue necessitating Brandi play the role of concerned wife. That meant that Riho’s challengers were just challengers, her title defenses just title defenses. It’s a disservice to her skills, but the company’s reliance upon a ranking system meant that, if nothing else, she had someone to wrestle.

As a consequence, there was hardly any build to her third match against Rose. Yeah, Rose powerbombed Riho onto a table, having established the table as her weapon of choice in the weeks prior, but like Statlander, Britt Baker, and Emi Sakura before her, the set-up for the match was that she climbed the rankings and was declared the number one contender. I thought nothing of it. Like, I was excited for the match, but Riho had two decisive wins over Rose, and nothing suggested that it was time for her to lose the title.

This is why Nyla Rose should have been the first AEW Women’s Champion. If you flip the two women and have Riho take the title from Rose, you have a narrative moment that goes a long way towards defining the division. The way things stand now, Rose inherited a title and a division that’s still finding itself. Her title victory felt important, but that has little to do with how it was booked and everything to do with it being a legitimately important moment in the history of wrestling: a major American wrestling promotion has a transgender women’s champion.

I will not lie: just writing that gives me chills. Trans women have won titles before (ASUKA in Pro Wrestling Wave and DDT, to name one), but to the majority of people in this country who watch wrestling, what matters most is the wrestling that happens on television, and the audience that kind of wrestling is most commonly associated with (and, frankly, is pitched to) is not in the habit of affirming or supporting trans women.

Rose has never been secretive about being transgender, but once she debuted in AEW during their Jacksonville press conference, her birth assignment was suddenly a big deal. It wasn’t fair, some said, that a trans woman could compete in a women’s division. Bone density. Muscle mass. Every dumbass, pseudoscientific argument against letting trans women participate in competitive sports was trotted out. Forget that most of the studies those arguments tend to reference are outdated and flawed to the point of irrelevance—they were being cited to defend cis women in professional wrestling, a famously pre-determined enterprise.

To AEW’s credit, they’ve never made a big deal about Nyla Rose’s gender. Nobody has flubbed her pronouns, nobody has called her a trailblazer—she’s a woman, she wrestles other women, and that’s about all there is to it. Her championship victory is important, but the difference between the reality of that win and what it means to the ongoing narrative of All Elite Wrestling is like night and day. In AEW, a heel used her size and strength to get the better of her diminutive opponent, and that size and strength will make her a dangerous champion. In reality, I cried at the finish of a championship match for the third time in my life, though unlike Mick Foley’s first WWF Championship win and Katsuyori Shibata headbutting himself into retirement, I was not crying for the match’s sympathetic figure.

Something I’ll be wondering about my reaction to that finish is whether or not the match told its story successfully. This isn’t something that’s come up much since Dynamite, largely due to the back and forth about Rose’s gender identity. The sad thing about her win is that booking it had to have been done with foreknowledge of this conflict, the elation of its queer audience and the derision of its bigoted detractors. Every single post by the company or an official about the match is a swamp teeming with 40 year old white men with bad haircuts and worse beards who’ve taken a break from Hannity to let it be known that they find the thought of Rose as champion disgusting. This is the kind of thing that follows every major achievement accomplished by a trans person, something Rose has endured by taking up “die mad about it” as her refrain, but as a trans woman who has watched wrestling my whole life, there’s a certain bittersweetness in watching another trans woman do something so meaningful partly because that hatred made the idea feel impossible.

In my Dynamite recap, I said that I don’t know what Nyla Rose’s championship victory means outside of the moment, and that’s still true. Everything about wrestling is a waiting game, and while it’s nice to imagine Rose’s win opening the door for other transgender and gender non-conforming wrestlers, to say nothing about a future where their winning championships isn’t newsworthy, it won’t be fair to ask those kinds of questions for years. I’d like to revel in the now, in the fact that a black, First Nations trans woman won a championship on a network I used to watch Ric Flair, Randy Savage, and Sting on. Nyla Rose is the AEW Women’s Champion. May she reign for a thousand years.