Why Mae Young Classic is a tipping point in the WWE women's evolution

ESPN Illustration

Shayna Baszler, left, and Kairi Sane will meet in the Mae Young Classic finals.

Shayna Baszler climbed out of the ring after defeating Mia Yim to advance to the quarterfinals of the WWE's inaugural Mae Young Classic. Sitting ringside were three women who had supported the former UFC fighter through all four of her tournament matches: Ronda Rousey, Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke. Together, the group that dubbed itself the Four Horsewomen of MMA shared an embrace.

Of course, this wasn't the Octagon, it was the squared circle. Which meant this wasn't just an organic moment between Baszler and three of her friends and fellow fighters who had helped usher in a new era for women in MMA. This was a well-manufactured moment, because seated directly opposite the quartet were three of the WWE's own Four Horsewomen, who have been at the forefront of a new era for women in wrestling: Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Bayley.

The two sets of self-proclaimed Four Horsewomen began taunting one another -- their shared namesake (inspired by the 1990s wrestling stable that featured Charlotte's father, Ric Flair) at the heart of the conflict.

But beyond whatever plans may or may not have been set in motion for a good, old-fashioned wrestling feud between the two groups, the symbolism of the moment was significant. With Baszler as one of the two competitors in the final of the WWE's first all-women tournament, and with an athlete as iconic as Rousey seemingly testing the waters herself, they each seem ready to join another movement that's changing combat sports -- the women's evolution in WWE.

The Mae Young Classic was the next big step in that evolution, arriving a little more than two years after #GiveDivasAChance, a social campaign inspired by fans who were dissatisfied with the treatment and casting of women in WWE. Instead of being featured as second-class competitors, at Mae Young, women have been the entire event.

"We've blown out the glass ceiling, but now it can become what it really needs to become," Paul Levesque, the executive vice president of talent, live events and creative for WWE, told espnW.

Better known to wrestling fans as Triple H, Levesque has been a central figure in the women's evolution as the founder of NXT, WWE's developmental division. Since its formation in 2012, NXT has been the breeding ground for some of the WWE's most-recognizable talent, from any of the Four Horsewomen (completed by Sasha Banks), to current Raw women's champion Alexa Bliss, to Asuka and more. Women were given better storylines and longer match times through NXT, offering them a more genuine chance to develop into superstars.

And fans bought into it. It was at Full Sail Live in Winter Park, Florida (the home of NXT), where fans championed chants like "Women's wrestling!" and "This is wrestling!" before the evolution spilled over to Monday Night Raw, SmackDown Live, pay-per-views and, of course, the Mae Young Classic.

"They went from being afterthoughts to being 30-minute ironman matches and stealing the show at every TakeOver event and taking their rightful place," Levesque said, alluding to the ironman match between Sasha Banks and Bayley that headlined NXT TakeOver: Respect just eight months after the #GiveDivasAChance moment. "It was amazing to watch that transformation."

The ongoing evolution has taken women's wrestling from an "afterthought" to the main event. It wasn't long ago that the women were called Divas, and not long before that when they were booked as supplemental pieces to the over product. Now, they have a standalone tournament.

"A few years ago, that would never even be considered," said Toni Storm, a competitor who lost to finalist Kairi Sane in the semifinals. "As much as we're in competition with each other, we're all working together. We're all working tirelessly together just to put on something special and make women's wrestling extra special."

The natural next step in the women's evolution is to diversify and expand the pool of talent. That was a central idea behind recruitment for the Mae Young Classic. Twelve of the 32 women are from outside the United States -- including Kavita Devi from India, Piper Niven from Scotland and Dakota Kai from New Zealand.

"The tournament opens this up globally to women all over the world," Levesque said.

We're all working tirelessly together just to put on something special and make women's wrestling extra special.
Mae Young contestant Toni Storm

With the recruitment of international talent comes the natural diversification of in-ring styles, but overall, Levesque and Co. were very intentional in recruiting women with different backgrounds. The end product was a diverse field, with everything from high-flyers and powerhouses to lucha libre-style competitors and those with experience in Brazilian jujitsu.

Ultimately, this type of recruitment of diverse talent will lead to better storylines and the globalization of the brand -- which is all part of Levesque's master plan for the WWE talent pool as a whole. It's as simple as bringing in new audiences and, in the process, hopefully inspiring men and women around the world to dream about becoming a superstar, thanks in part because they can see themselves represented.

The tournament field also opened the door to women who have spent their entire careers working on the independent circuit, including quarterfinalists Abbey Laith and Candice LeRae.

"It's such a big deal and such a different world than they've come from working on the indies," said Sara Amato, the first female trainer at the WWE Performance Center who has worked with many of the women who have come up through NXT, including the Four Horsewomen. "A lot of them just love the sport of it, but WWE was never a place they could see themselves."

The pool of available talent, while limited compared to what Levesque one day hopes to have, ended up being so strong that what had started as a 16-woman field ended up being doubled, Levesque told ESPN's First Take.

"[This is] validation from the largest company in the world, saying, 'You guys matter. What you're doing has been noticed and your hard work is recognized,'" said WWE Hall of Famer Lita, who announced the tournament alongside Jim Ross.

Moments after taping for the first round of the Mae Young Classic wrapped at Full Sail Live in mid-July, Levesque ran into WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels in a hallway backstage. Michaels looked at him and just said, "Dude, I had no idea." Levesque didn't really, either.

"I said, 'I thought it would be good. I knew it would be good. But I didn't know it would be this good,'" Levesque said after watching all 32 of the women perform. "Sometimes I try to think if I were to take this and go back in time 20 years and show a casual fan, 'Hey this is what the women are going to do in the future.' They would be like, 'No way.'"

The Mae Young Classic will be remembered as a marquee moment in the women's evolution; the start of the next chapter. But it likely won't be the last. Because as Levesque said it, "The future of women's wrestling is unlimited."

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