Photo by Matt Roberts.
Trailblazer: a person who makes, does, or discovers something new and makes it acceptable or popular
– Merriam-Webster dictionary
She’s arguably the most popular women’s wrestler in the history of professional wrestling, but there is no arguing that Toronto’s Trish Stratus is the most decorated woman in the sport’s storied history.
Stratus, born in Toronto in 1975, is the only wrestler to become World Wrestling Entertainment women’s champion seven times, she is the youngest to be inducted into the WWE’s hall of fame and next week in Las Vegas, she will be the first woman to receive the Cauliflower Alley Club’s prestigious “Iron” Mike Mazurki Award.
The honour is just the latest for the outgoing wrestler-turned-entrepreneur-turned mommy. Since retiring from WWE a decade ago, Stratus’s legacy has become more evident as time has passed. Inside the ring, she was a freedom fighter, a tough and talented, not to mention beautiful, competitor who, along with a handful of fellow female wrestlers in the 1990s and 2000s took women’s wrestling to new popularity, and new respect.
This particular honour, however, takes on some extra meaning for Stratus, as her trainer and longtime friend Ron Hutchison will be presenting her with the honour, which has never been given to a woman in the club’s 51-year history.
“I’m still waiting for someone to be ribbing me,” Stratus quipped when asked about the honour, which will be bestowed on her as part of CAC’s annual festivities, which begin this weekend. “ It’s crazy. When Ron gave me the news, I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ I don’t even know what to say. I’m completely humbled by it, I think it’s very forward thinking of them to do this.”
Stratus cited the rise in prominence and dominance by women such as Ronda Rousey and Hilary Clinton as examples of how far the women’s movement has advanced.
“It’s a bold move for (the CAC). I’m honoured,” she said.
The consummate competitor in Stratus takes joy in the fact she’s joining yet another historically male-dominated fraternity.
“I look at the list of people and it blows my mind that I’m joining them, mostly because they’re male,” she said. That’s the first (thing) I looked at. And secondly, these guys are just guys I’ve watched in wrestling for most of my life and I’ve enjoyed them and I respect them greatly.”
And having Hutchison alongside her makes the honour even more special, Stratus said.
“He’s my wrestling papa,” she said of Hutchison, who trained Stratus at Toronto’s famed Sully’s Gym. Stratus said she could always count on Hutchison’s advice and mentoring.
“He definitely gave me an opportunity and he was someone I could always come back to and talk to about the business and he would always give it to me straight,” Stratus said. “I had a few people in my life — Ron, Fit Finley, Michael Hayes and (Jim Ross) — who just really gave it to me straight. It armed me with the knowledge of what to expect. There were not too many surprises when I actually got into (WWE).
“(Ron) allowed me hit the ground running once I entered WWE, and, he also let me hit the ground — literally, for the first time,” Stratus said. “He welcomed me into the gym as the only female and I had to show him that I wasn’t just in it for the glam of it.”
A faculty strike at York University derailed Stratus’s ambitions to become a doctor. She would find her way into the world of fitness before fate intervened and Stratus found herself in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling. In 2000, she debuted in WWE and proceeded to dominate the business like few women before her or since. Looking back, Stratus said she always viewed herself as one of the boys, so to speak.
“In a weird way, I love not being viewed as a woman,” she said. “Sounds strange to say — in a quote that might sound strange — but this is what I’m saying. It’s funny because it goes back to me being an athlete as a child and playing competitive rep soccer till 21 and varsity field hockey. We didn’t want to be girls. We wanted to be athletes. We wanted to be known as athletes and our game was just as important as the guys’ game. I always hung out with boys. I was always trying to be a part of the boys’ club. To me, to have the separation, it just felt unwarranted at times.”
In her decade of dominance – Stratus was named WWE’s Diva of the Decade – there was nothing Stratus couldn’t overcome. Along with the likes of her best friend Amy Dumas, a.k.a. Lita, Jacqueline, Molly Holly, Chyna and others, the women of that era pinned the gender barrier and formed the first true rise in women’s wrestling in history.
It didn’t happen overnight, Stratus recalled.
“I think there was a crossover,” Stratus said when asked about the sexual undertones involving women’s wrestling in the early stages of her career. “I remember signing my contract and I remember the first pay-per-view after I signed my contract. I was at home and we’re watching the pay-per-view and The Kat took her top off and I was like ‘Oh, god, did I just sign up for that?”
Stratus admits she and others had to play the political game early on in order to get the opportunities to show the world what they were capable of. The fact that she and Lita and many women from that generation are remembered for their wrestling skills and for reshaping women’s wrestling speaks volumes about their abilities to fight through discrimination and sexism.
“It took us a long time to get there,” Stratus said. “It took me — the tomboy, athletic chick — a while. I had to sort of play the game, develop this sex object persona in order to play the game and I guess that’s what brought me to the dance.”
Stratus’s game plan was a simple one.
“I always had this theory, even from fitness modelling. It was ‘OK, I’ve got your attention now, you may be looking at me for my bikini, but now that I’ve got your attention, I’ve got something to say.’ It would then let me speak about other things and let me have a voice,” she said, adding that she and the others from that era refer to that era of women’s wrestling as the Golden Era.
Slowly, but surely, Stratus and her female compatriots began to capture the imaginations of fans around the world for what they did inside the wrestling ring, and not what they wore.
“There was a very slow crossover, Stratus said, saying everything happened for a reason. “That sexualized stuff had to happen, it was just part the times.”
But then things began to change, she recounted.
“We went through the ‘Show us your puppies,’ chants and then suddenly they turned to ‘Holy shit’ chants and it was like ‘Oh, we got holy shit chants … holy shit!’ I think that was the crossover.”
Methodically, Stratus and the Golden Era women emerged as mainstream stars in a to that point male-dominated world.
“I say this all the time, we had to re-educate the fans,” Stratus said. “Four-minute (matches) became six, which became eight. The more time we got, the more interest was piqued. It took a while to get there, but I think that’s why we refer to it as the Golden Era.”
Following her retirement in 2007, Stratus returned home to focus on her various entrepreneurial endeavours, which includes her own yoga studio, acting, nutrition and more, and to start a family, which she did in 2013 when she and her husband welcomed son Max into the world.
While Stratus never missed a beat following her departure from wrestling, the industry, specifically the women’s movement she helped build, certainly did. Over time, women’s matches again disappeared from mainstream TV and pay-per-views and all of the momentum gained seemed lost.
Stratus believes it was more a lack of character development than it was quality of women in the business.
“There was a lack of character developing and there wasn’t enough care into the psychology of a match,” Stratus said. “Wrestling has been around for a very long time and the wrestling brain is trained to follow psychology and we understand there is a story and there is a set pattern that we as wrestlers put together our matches. Some of that was missing. They were just doing a free-for-all out there and it a lot of psychology was missing.”
Certainly, following the mighty footsteps of the women of the Attitude (and Golden) eras was tough for both men and women. It was the most commercially and financially successful era in pro wrestling history, by a lot, and it’s the gold standard by which all other eras, past, current and future are judged.
Stratus also believes she came into the business at the right time.
“Put it this way, if you had a Trish Stratus from 2000, and you had six of those, they’re not going to be great matches,” she said. “I had the veterans. I had a Jacqueline, Hall of Famer Jacqueline, who led me and taught me and showed me. I also got to be a valet for many years before I actually became a wrestler to actually learn and be ringside and have a front-row seat. I understood the psychology, I understood movements, I understood the little intricacies in the ring, what that did and how it evoked an emotion. I had ringside tutorials every week, I had veterans leading me and I had about two years of character development, so you knew Trish Stratus. I had a really defined character, and so did Amy. I think that was what was missing in the girls.”
It’s something, Stratus added, that she now sees in wrestling again as NXT has given rise to a new generation of talented, main-event women who are taking the industry by storm.
“It’s awesome,” Stratus said, adding that when the women graduate from NXT to WWE’s main roster now, they’re polished and their characters are well developed.
Asked if she could see herself coming out of retirement to work with some of today’s women, Stratus admitted that she has considered a comeback, even if just for one more match. The situation, and the opponent, would have to be just right, she said.
“If I were to go back, on a personal level, it would need to be challenging, and I’d have to have fun doing it. I’d need to put over someone, forward someone’s career, do something or bring up a younger talent so that once I leave, they’re doing something with it.”
While Stratus went out of her way to say she doesn’t believe WWE needs her in a match, she is intrigued by the idea of facing fellow Canadian and women’s wrestling star Natalya, a.k.a. Nattie Neidhart, the daughter of legendary Jim (The Anvil) Neidhart.
“From a selfish perspective, would I like to wrestle? Yeah, I think it’d be cool to wrestle (today’s women). I’m still hung up on wrestling Nattie and I don’t know if that will ever happen now at this point. She’s the one forever and ever I would have loved to work with,” she said, adding that having icon Bret Hart involved would make it even more intriguing to her. “I would totally do it. It would be fun. I feel like Nattie, I want her to have something really awesome before she calls it a day with the company.”
Stratus also jumped at the idea of facing friend and WWE executive Stephanie McMahon.
“I would do that as well, just because it would be cool. Me and Stephanie or bringing back Team Bestie,” she said, referring to her friend Dumas.
If one more match doesn’t happen for the likable Stratus, she’s OK with that, too. I mean why not? She is the most decorated woman in pro wrestling history. She has nothing left to prove. In the meantime, she’ll continue with her business ventures and giving back to the business that has made her a household name around the world.
“I always wanted to help people,” Stratus said. “In my business now, I talk to people who were inspired by my fitness or what I did for a living (as a wrestler) or they tell me about the role model I became to them. I’m so grateful that now, almost a decade after stepping away from the ring, I have a voice and a platform because of what I did, which I now use to positively influence people. I remember my fitness mentor Bob Kennedy made a comment after seeing all the fanmail I got from men and women who were leading healthier lives. And he said, “See, you could only see a handful of people a day in a doctor‘s office (my original desired profession). And look here, the reach you have now‘,” she said, expressing her gratitude to Robert Kennedy Publishing and WWE. “I do a lot of charity work and I try to do whatever I can to use my so-called celebrity to maximize awareness for certain groups that we work with.”
Stratus admits that while she is aware of her legacy and how she’s revered by fans all over the world, because she’s removed from wrestling for a decade, she at times forgets about that admiration.
“You forget this crazy, whirlwind that you created and the impact that it left because you do remove yourself a little bit from it,” she said. “I still watch Raw, I tune into Total Divas once in a while so I’m connected to it, but I’m out of it (at the same time).”
Reminders of that legacy now come in the form of fan mail and being recognized in her everyday life.
”I still get fan mail and I still get letters,” she said. ”You forget the worldwide reach of WWE.”
And 10 years after walking away from the WWE at the height of her popularity and success, Stratus has no regrets.
“It think takes a certain braveness or courage to step away when you’re on top and just confidently walk away knowing that ‘I’m satisfied with what I did’ and I’m ready to start the next chapter,” Stratus admitted. And I haven’t looked back.”
For now, she looks forward. Specifically to this weekend, when she adds yet another chapter to her legacy as one of the most influential and trailblazing women in history.
”It’s a really great time for women, particularly ones that kick butt!” Stratus said, modestly.
For more information of the Cauliflower Alley Club, go to www.caulifloweralleyclub.org/. For more information on Stratus, go to http://www.trishstratus.com/
Trish Stratus: a trailblazer.
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