The Extremely Incremental Progress of AEW’s Women’s Division

All Elite Wrestling’s glaring blind spot is (very slowly) being given a sense of purpose. You’d have to watch all four shows to know it, though.

Not to bury the lede before I even write it, but I know AEW’s women’s division is far from perfect. I’m quite aware that in spite of all the lip service and anticipation for it that AEW came in on—there was a feeling AEW would do for joshi what WCW did for lucha libre and junior heavyweight-style wrestling, which seems ridiculous after 103 consecutive weeks of television—WWE is still eating their competitor’s lunch when it comes to how they promote women’s wrestling. None of that is in question, and I want to make that point clear before I’m accused of defending AEW from the incredibly valid complaints about lack of screen time and storytelling depth for its women competitors on its flagship show.

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The fact that this is par for the course for AEW television is especially disappointing if you are able to fulfill the massive time commitment it takes to watch all four weekly shows. I’ve really given myself more time to watch Dark and Dark: Elevation most weeks (partly out of dedication to the job of writing about AEW for this site), and I found myself truly surprised by how much more focus AEW devotes to their women’s division. There are honest-to-god storylines! Showcase matches featuring rising stars in the division! Even some pretty dazzling enhancement bouts! 

While the easy stance as both a fan of both AEW and women’s wrestling is to only cite the company’s failure to prioritize its women’s division—which people are well within their right to do—a promising landscape is out there, finally just beginning to find interesting things for its gifted competitors to do. AEW’s women’s division has a long way to go, and you have to sift through nearly six hours of wrestling to find the good stuff there, but there’s a good amount of it to watch.

The Curious Case of Dr. Britt Baker

AEW

There’s a perception that AEW’s women’s division is flourishing because of the success of its champion. And let’s not shit ourselves, she’s really fucking popular.

There’s no denying the popularity of Dr. Britt Baker, D.M.D. Even though, as far as I can tell, she’s supposed to be a heel—she’s quite cocky, extremely mean-spirited, and has not one but two bodyguards—fans cheer for her relentlessly and go apeshit for her medical credentials in a way no one ever does for doctors, in wrestling or in real-life. I’ve known my physician longer than some of my oldest friends and the most adulation I’ve ever given him is calling him “Doc.”

Dr. Baker reminds me a lot of the rise of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, in that period between his infamous promo at King of the Ring 1996 and Bret Hart coming back from hiatus: a bonafide future top star mired in the building phase with inconsequential wins and very short-term storytelling. I get it, though; it’s not like they’re going to jump into a Thunder Rosa feud immediately.

Dr. Baker, with all the weight of AEW’s promotional power, has taken the proverbial ball and run with it, wrestling uniformly excellent matches, some with real gravitas, even before she captured the title. Before becoming champion, she got her nose broken by Hikaru Shida and her bloody face is now on a t-shirt and an action figure. She reprised her sure to be long rivalry with Thunder Rosa in an unsanctioned main event that was easily one of the very best matches ever on Dynamite. After she won the title, she main evented in her hometown and people swung Terrible Towels in her honor. She’s a draw. Nobody can deny that.

But sometimes the D.M.D. Show makes for a somewhat rote presentation on Dynamite, which seldom features anything outside of Dr. Baker, her crew, and whomever they’re building up for her to knock back down. Occasionally there is an upcoming match featured on a pay-per-view, most often the annual Women’s Casino Battle Royale, which necessitates more women being on Dynamite—or a great, competitive match with little to no character building outside of the match itself. Thankfully, there are stars being built who are slowly matriculating into the ranks of Dynamite. 

An Ode to “Legit Leyla Hirsch”

AEW

One thing you should know about my wrestling fandom is that although I have pretty diverse taste in everything (including this silly art form we spend so much time thinking about), I love the kind of wrestlers old timers might refer to as “shooters.” I’m a very casual MMA fan. I know next-to-fuck-all about the rules of amateur wrestling, competitive judo, or jiu-jitsu outside of the one Gracie Barra class I took and ordered a hoodie—the same one CM Punk wore—right after. But I find so much enjoyment in classically trained combat athletes who can translate their skills to the language of theatrical pro wrestling.

The latest name in this long line of combat sports badasses succeeding mightily in wrestling is “Legit” Leyla Hirsch, a Russian-born 24-year-old phenom who competed in All-State wrestling competitions in her longtime home of New Jersey and started training for pro wrestling at age 14, eventually finding herself enrolled in the CZW Academy. She rocks a singlet to the ring, an intentional and immediate signifier of practically anyone who used to wrestle at the amateur level. 

Her bridging German suplex should be curated by the Museum of the Moving Image. And in addition to having a torturous array of submission holds, throws, and strikes, she has a sense of speed and a penchant for high flying. And she is as quick as anyone in her division.

In August, Hirsch defeated The Bunny—perhaps the most improved AEW competitor of 2021—in a low-key banger of a match for the right to challenge Kamille for the NWA World Women’s Championship at NWA Empowerrr, the promotion’s first all-women’s event. Hirsch brought out a toughness in The Bunny and still managed to stand her ground, tapping her out to the cross armbreaker. For a match as short as it was, it was kind of a rollercoaster of momentum, with Hirsch and The Bunny trading big forearms shots and “Legit” Layla taking to the skies as well as showcasing her formidable mat work.

In her NWA Title match, she fought through an eleven-inch height differential with verve and a willingness to utilize the aerial weapons in her arsenal, catching her much bigger opponent by surprise. Though Kamille dominated the early stretches of the match and pulled off the victory, the thrill of possibility was in the air when Hirsch leveled Kamille with knee strikes.Kamille might have come out with the win, but Hirsch managed to shine brightly in defeat with such a courageous performance in her first (but certainly not her last) big title match.

After being gorilla pressed out of All Out’s Casino Battle Royale by Jade Cargill, a match was booked between her and Hirsch on this week’s Dynamite, after taunts from Cargill saying Hirsch doesn’t meet the height requirements to face her. Though Hirsch started the match with fire and quick strikes, a powerbomb from Cargill out of Hirsch’s signature cross armbreaker was enough to gain Cargill the dominant advantage. As sure as a Category 4 tornado can uproot a house, Cargill spent much of the match demolishing Hirsch. But the guts of “Legit” Layla allowed for her to slip into sleeper holds and deliver nearly knock-out knee strikes.

Jade Cargill was given the first real challenge of her AEW career by Leyla Hirsch, but just like the tornado, Cargill remains undefeated. 

Big Swole vs. Diamante Was Dark’s Most Dynamite-Worthy Feud

AEW

There’s something refreshingly archaic about the recently concluded feud between Diamante and Big Swole. Something old-school and not too complicated. First, you have Swole, easily one of AEW’s most fun-to-watch stars. She’s outstanding in the ring, she has more charisma than perhaps any other competitor company-wide, and her passion coupled with her sense of humor make her promos must-watch. Big Swole is a natural in front of the camera, a character so fully embodied by the woman behind it that it might be impossible to determine where the person ends and the persona begins.

Last year, Swole’s rivalry with “Brittany ‘Basura’ Baker” was arguably the spark which ignited Dr. Baker’s explosion in popularity (though her bloody match against Shida might be what led to her top star status). After a bout with Crohn’s Disease, she returned to a completely changed landscape of AEW, a brilliant star adrift from the spotlight. Diamante, floating in limbo after the departure of her tag team partner Ivelisse, reinvented herself as a chain-wielding hooligan and began to do her best work yet as she began to call out Swole. On the July 14th episode of Dark, Diamante cost Swole a match against the Bunny, snapping her truly impressive singles winning streak.

Swole seems like a very affable, fun person to be around. Just don’t mess with her money. She noted this many times as the impetus to want a match with Diamante, including in an interview featuring the two rivals, moderated by Mark Henry. You know two people have to have a real problem with each other when the World’s Strongest Man has to keep them from tearing each other apart. The rivalry between Diamante and Swole escalated to the point where Nyla Rose and Julia Hart became involved (after Diamante introduced her signature chain to defeat Hart and continued to beat her down after the match). Courtesy of a chain punch, Rose and Diamante won that tag contest, the stakes ratcheting up to untenable levels.

Enter the Three Strikes Match. The rules were relatively simple: a best of three falls match where one fall had to occur by pin, one by submission, and one by knockout. Neither Swole nor Diamante wasted time getting into their main event match on the September 7th episode of Dark. Another old-school element of this rivalry: their blowoff grudge match was heavy on straight-up technical wrestling, with both competitors slyly outpacing each other through the final fall. Diamante scored first with a handful of tights; Big Swole didn’t take too much time to even things out with an ankle lock. With her trusty chain wrapped around her fist, Diamante punched Swole in the stomach repeatedly—with Excalibur reluctant to directly reference Swole’s battle with Crohn’s. 

The match raced to its finish with a battle for the chain, and Diamante’s viciousness coming back to spell her downfall, as she tried to utilize a pair of handcuffs to no avail, as Swole got the jump on her by using her Dirty Dancing (a fierce rolling punch) with the chain wrapped around her fist. Through all of the adversity she faced trying to make her way to the pay window over Diamante, Big Swole finally got her hand raised, the culmination of a feud refreshing in its uncomplicated, focused storytelling, and the fact that it main evented Dark. 

Now we wait for a good women’s rivalry to unfold over the course of several weeks to score even a featured segment on Dynamite. And then another, and then another. Because whatever problems lie in AEW’s women’s division, it’s most certainly not in the storytelling prowess of its talent. All they need is the stage.

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Martin Douglas

A proud adopted son of the Pacific Northwest, Martin Douglas is an essayist, critic, and journalist specializing in the fields of music (KEXP.org, Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork) and pro wrestling (Seattle Weekly, quite a few online zines). He's also a hip-hop beatmaker, fiction writer, disposable camera photographer, and all-around renaissance man.

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