Equal Fights Movement

Equal Fights Movement

The optics of intergender wrestling can be shocking. But those who participate say pitting women against men in the ring is a step toward equality.

In the middle of the night, at a quarter 'til 2, the audience fends off exhaustion and cold. The main ballroom in the Pontchartrain Center is cavernous, and as the thermostat dips into the low 60s, the men and women (mostly men) and children (two of them) lean forward, waiting for the show to go on. The venue is set up to house 2,500 people, but just 300 tickets have been sold. In the end, only about 170 fans have shown, so the faction that's here feels sparse, the event a little clandestine.

There's a bald man sitting ringside in a black shirt with bold white letters that blare: "POLITICALLY INCORRECT ... AND DAMN PROUD OF IT!!!" A group of seven friends who look to be in their mid-20s sit clustered together eight rows up in the bleachers, a sea of vacant blue seats in front of them. The room is mostly dark, save for the ring in the center illuminated by spotlight. There are no windows to the outside world here, and even if there were, the vista beyond, to Kenner, Louisiana, wouldn't offer much. An expanse of green fields. A smattering of shade trees in the distance. Downtown New Orleans is nearly 15 miles away, but with those fields and those trees blanketed in a velvety night, the city feels farther. This might as well be the ends of the earth.

Inside, as 2 a.m. draws near, the music picks up, a rhythmic pounding that crescendos in sync with strobing lights. It's a neon pink and green and yellow rave-like affair, and it's through a colorful cloud of smoke that Kimber Lee, royalty in the independent wrestling circuit, emerges. She's here in a homecoming of sorts -- returning to the indies after more than a year away in the WWE ranks -- to face "Hot Sauce" Tracy Williams at Lit Up. The show, hosted by Beyond Wrestling, is the promotion's first card featuring just men versus women, intergender matches from the opening bout until the final bell.

Kimberly Frankele, who goes by Kimber Lee in the ring, has been wrestling men since the beginning of her professional career in 2009.

Kimber Lee runs the perimeter of the guardrails, reaching out to fans pushed up against the metal gates. She leaps over the turnbuckle and raises her arms, her sequined jacket and purple-and-black, bedazzled bikini set glinting in the spotlight. "Welcome back" chants break out. And when she squares off with Williams -- a svelte 192-pound man in miniscule black trunks -- the fans are unmistakably in her corner. For five minutes, they grapple and slam each other onto the canvas and trade kicks and expel grunts. Then Kimber Lee climbs to the top rope, launches herself through the air and slams her feet into the chest of a staggering Williams, sending him flying upon impact. Williams retaliates, picking up Kimber Lee and flinging her over his shoulder before spiking her to the ground. "Death Valley Driver!" the announcer hollers.

Seconds later, Williams clutches Kimber Lee in a headlock and the two wind up tangled, head to head, shoulder to shoulder. Kimber Lee punches Williams on his side, once, twice. A third time. After the fourth swing, a convincingly desperate heave to get him to loosen his grip, Williams stands straight, keeps Kimber Lee bent forward and winds his right arm back like he's wielding a hammer. He lets swing and his palm, wide open, collides with flesh. You hear the slap, the smack of broken skin, almost before you see it.

And then you do see it. You can't not see it. Between Kimber Lee's shoulder blades, just below her tattoo of a rose in bloom, blooms something new: a throbbing, bright-red handprint.

"You're going to bruise. You're going to get hurt," Frankele says of professional wrestling.

PHYSICAL RUIN IS part of this job description, and for the remaining weekend after Lit Up, Tracy Williams' open palm strike -- the evidence of a man physically beating up a woman while an accepting crowd looked on -- will burn a deep crimson on Kimber Lee's back. Depending on your vantage point, that handprint is either a token of honor and, perhaps, progress -- or a radioactive badge of shame, nothing but spectacle masked as progress.

Their match concludes after Williams locks his forearm around Kimber Lee's neck and yanks backward to submit her via a crossface; he keeps his belt, then gets booed for his efforts. A vanquished Kimber Lee staggers around the mat, raises her arms to salute the Kimber Lee chants, then ducks beneath the ropes to leave the ring. She hobbles along the path to the exit, clutches her jaw and steps through the thick black curtain that divides the public from backstage.

And there, on the other side, she stands up straight.

Kimber Lee, who goes by Kimberly Frankele when not in the ring, finds Williams and, like wrestlers do after every match, they huddle. They assure each other that, yes, they're both unharmed; yes, they both feel good about the how the match went. And then Williams explains himself, and that back slap.

"It was there," he tells Frankele. Her back was exposed; he seized an opportunity. "I'm sorry."

Frankele waves him off, assuring Williams that she would have done the same. It's their job as performers to leave safe spots open -- their chest, their back -- where opponents can deliver strikes carefully. "You're going to bruise," says Frankele of her chosen trade. "You're going to get hurt."

She laughs, because, really, she has been at this since 2009 and it's just one more bruise in a decade replete with them. And besides, she knows Williams. They both trained under the same mentor; they know the lines they can and cannot cross with each other. "He wasn't supposed to hit me in the back like that," Frankele says, then shrugs. "But that happens. That's a move that's not fake."

Spend enough time backstage, and a kind of governance emerges. Everyone is on top of everyone back here, and between the embraces and the pleasantries, it feels closer to a high school reunion than a space where they're prepping to batter one another. There's the women's dressing room, where an array of carry-on suitcases are splayed open. ("PRO WRESTLING IS NOT A CRIME" trumpets a sticker on one black bag.) The wrestlers' makeup, their costumes and their snacks spill out onto a faux granite countertop. There's the men's dressing room just across the way. And there's the hallway. In this sterile, narrow corridor that stretches the length of the convention center, the wrestlers conduct their pre- and postmortems. Before their matches, they hammer out the storyline and moves they agree they want to execute. Afterward, they dissect how those storylines and moves played out. They are forensic analysts in Lycra and sequins.

Walk through the hall in those final, harried moments before Lit Up begins, and you'll find them convening, two by two -- wrestler vs. wrestler -- like Noah's Ark. Frankele and Williams practice their steps, knowing their story arc is a simple one. Williams owns the title belt; Frankele will try to wrest it from him. "Boom!" Frankele yells, then pretends to whip her head back. She mimics a series of punches; Williams pretends to sustain the blows. "Boom!" Williams says, and Frankele pretend-staggers for a few steps.

Down the corridor, about 20 feet away, another pair of performers, Deonna Purrazzo and Matt Riddle, go through their own paces. Neither has performed in an intergender match before tonight, and they decide their action will lean into that inexperience. Purrazzo will be the early aggressor, needling Riddle to fight. Riddle, the former UFC fighter, will be hesitant at first, knowing the power imbalance, until she frustrates him so much he swings back and outmuscles her. "Maybe it's like this," Riddle motions, and practices kneeing Purrazzo with his right leg. She nods and pretend-lurches a few steps.

"It's like a live-action movie," Frankele says. "We're stunt athletes."

In the moments before their matches, wrestlers convene to discuss, practice and agree on moves in their upcoming bouts.

Ask any intergender wrestler why he or she feels comfortable with the performances they're putting out in the world, why they don't balk at a man and a woman wreaking violence on one another, and they'll inevitably land here. Women will question the logic of being able to train and practice with men wrestlers but not actually face them in a match. They'll laud the empowerment they feel or the equality they seek to promote; Kimber Lee's catchphrase of choice is that she's the princess who'll save herself, thank you. But the heart of Frankele's argument is that she's just playing Kimber Lee. Frankele has seen the script and signed off on it, and afterward, she will even provide notes on the execution of that script, and so why wouldn't she feel comfortable? Why wouldn't she take up the intergender mantle?

"Wrestling is not fake. I hate that word," she says. Yes, the winner is preordained and the athleticism is choreographed, but it's still athleticism. "The moves are real. The bruises I have are real. I'm really landing on the concrete.

"But we're telling a story."

To a wrestler, they maintain this point. Frankele's trainer, Drew Gulak, calls professional wrestling "the craziest form of acting." Joey Ryan, another wrestler on Lit Up's all-intergender card, deems it performance art. "Everybody's in on it," he says. "Everybody knows."

And to those who would scream a woman could never beat a man? It's a moot point, these wrestlers insist. For one, they fashion their storylines to make room for that reality, that size and strength imbalances might exist. Midway through their match at Lit Up, Williams throws Kimber Lee to the floor; she lands in a split, then wags her finger in rebuttal. Her point: Flexibility can counter brute power. For another, there's a transaction with the audience, wrestlers say. Even if it's an unspoken contract, the audience knows what this is and accepts it as such. They're in on the act. The fans walk through the doors of the Pontchartrain Center and suspend their disbelief to take in a performance. Like a Broadway show. Or a blockbuster movie. Or any work of fiction.

In this work of fiction, one man faces one woman. They've learned their lines. They've practiced their steps. At times, there are miscues -- say, a slap to the back that leaves a welt -- but that's merely part of the live-action extravaganza. Come on in, the water's fine!

When Williams' hand smacked Kimber Lee's back, the 170 fans drew a sharp, collective breath. She was a crowd favorite; the prodigal daughter returning. The masses were on her side, and so they responded in the only way that felt right. They gasped. Then they booed. But what if Kimber Lee hadn't been a crowd favorite, nor a prodigal daughter? What if they hadn't been moved by that fleet delivery of violence at all? Or what if they had been moved ... but reveled in it?

After a year in the WWE, Frankele returned to the indie circuit in April 2018.

BEFORE SHE DREW adulation, Frankele faced a firestorm.

Three years ago, she stepped into another Beyond Wrestling ring, this time in Providence, Rhode Island, against another intergender opponent. Chris Dickinson picked up a folding chair while Kimber Lee kneeled in front of him. Dickinson lunged back, seeking leverage, hoisted the chair over his head, then swung down -- a wrecking ball set on demolition -- crashing it over her skull. He picked up her limp body, swung her onto his back, took off on a run -- Pazuzu Bomb! -- then threw her to the ground. She skidded toward the turnbuckle, a collection of beaten bones more than a whole body. And a fan in Providence that night captured the mauling on video.

The blowback was swift, and it was unrelenting. Angry viewers called the venue, then the city. Dickinson lost bookings and gained death threats. Fellow wrestlers joined the lynch mob too. "Guys that I trained with were like, 'Oh, you're gonna wrestle that Dickinson guy?'" Matt Riddle says. "'Try to hurt him.'"

Frankele, for her part, was floored.

"I was 100 percent fine. Neither of us had any idea it would go viral," she says. "We got to the back and it's, 'Oh my gosh, that was amazing! Thank you for taking care of me,'" she remembers telling Dickinson.

And that Pazuzu Bomb? She and Dickinson had wanted to push the boundaries even further -- a powerbomb from the top rope -- a notion that Drew Cordeiro, Beyond Wrestling's owner, vetoed immediately. "Absolutely not," he told them. "Way too dangerous."

The chorus was unswayed. At best, it insisted, intergender wrestling normalizes domestic violence. At worst, it glorifies it.

The optics, after all, are shocking. A petite wrestler such as Kimber Lee doesn't just fly through the air, they rocket. Against Dickinson, her head looked to ram into the ring bell -- though she and Cordeiro insist it didn't. Independent wrestling venues are small and private, and the events they house feel fringe, by extension. Illicit, even. And Beyond Wrestling's calling card as a promotion is an audience unrestrained by guardrails, so the fans are flush against the ring with no barriers. What this moment looks like, then, is a furtive congregation of gawkers bearing witness to, perhaps even sanctioning, a man pummeling a woman.

It's chilling. It's also incomplete.

Beyond Wrestling hosted its first all-intergender card in April, featuring wrestlers including Toni Storm and Timothy Thatcher.

To label intergender wrestling and the brutality it portrays as domestic violence is to fundamentally misunderstand what domestic violence -- against men or women -- can look like. "It's about a pattern of power and control," says Erica Olsen, a deputy director at National Network to End Domestic Violence. "It's physical violence. It's controlling their technology. Controlling bank accounts. Ruining credit. It's a much larger, complex picture."

Weeks after Lit Up, Olsen watched video of Kimber Lee wrestling Williams, took in the moments when Williams grabbed Kimber Lee by her hair and when she retaliated with a kick to his jaw. "I have watched, unfortunately, so many videos of violent acts being committed against individuals. Some of those have been in the context of domestic violence in a partner. Some have been stranger assaults," she says. "This felt nothing at all like that for me." It was presented as performance, she says, and seemingly consumed like one.

But even art can create permission structures. Why doesn't this show of brutality open the floodgates to a more permissive, forgiving climate for violence against women? Consent, Frankele says. She not only agreed to get in those rings with Dickinson and Williams, she did so because she trusts them. When you train as a professional wrestler, you learn the right ways to roll and to fall and to brace yourself against the ropes. And you learn how to protect the person who steps into the ring with you.

"We have to challenge ourselves to respect the fact that consenting to be in this profession does not open the door to allow anyone to be abusive to you in any other space of your life," Olsen says.

“The moves are real. The bruises I have are real. I'm really landing on the concrete. But we're telling a story.”

Kimberly Frankele

It's why Stephanie Bell, who is an intergender wrestler and a survivor of domestic violence, feels she can be both.

Bell did not consent to physical abuse in her home. But she has consented to be in that ring, and she is exhaustively selective about who joins her there. "It's not just men, it's everyone," says Bell, who wrestles under the alias Mia Yim. "Who can I trust? Who's going to keep me safe?"

It is hard and it is complicated and it is fraught because two things can be true at once. It can be true that these women and men consent to be in a ring together and agree to inflict damage on one another's bodies. It can also be true that it is unsettling to see and hear it happen. Especially with children looking on, young people who are still forming their world views. Especially with potential survivors of domestic violence looking on, people whose worldviews already know abuse. But the root of the conflict is that violence is not a bug in the professional wrestling ecosystem. It's the feature.

"Research does suggest that exposure to violence as a form of entertainment can desensitize us to it," says Anastasia Powell, an associate professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, whose area of study has focused on policy concerning violence against women. "So there are some concerns to be had about entertainment that normalizes men's violence against women or displays it as not serious. But I think those same concerns apply to the glorification of men's violence against men."

And so maybe the reckoning isn't whether intergender wrestling normalizes or glorifies violence against women. Perhaps the reckoning is that professional wrestling normalizes and glorifies violence. Period.

Beyond Wrestling sold about 300 tickets to its April show, and about 170 fans attended.

IN THE MIDDLE of the afternoon, just a quarter after 3 o'clock, the crowd fidgets with anticipation and cold.

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is cavernous, and as the thermostat dips into the low 60s, the men and women (in roughly equal proportion) and children (thousands of them), lean forward, waiting for the show to start. Exactly 78,133 tickets were sold, and as "RUSEV DAY" chants ring out from the upper decks, the assembly feels charged, raucous. It's mostly dark, save for the towering -- hundreds of feet high -- fluorescent pink, orange and green Mardi Gras mask at the top of a runway. There are no windows here, but if there were, the vista beyond would reveal a river of humanity flowing through the streets of New Orleans, spilling into the crevices and cracks of the city, making its way to this mecca. WrestleMania 34 might as well be the center of the universe.

It's three days after Lit Up, in the same city but a world away, and the WWE's annual Super Bowl-meets-papal-visit-meets-Comic-Con spectacular is in full swing. The sheer size and scope of WrestleMania -- it grossed $14.1 million this year and drew fans from every state in the country -- sheds light on one basic truth. The WWE is so ubiquitous and takes up so much oxygen in the professional wrestling kingdom that until the organization embraces intergender wrestling, intergender wrestling will stay relegated to the fringes.

There was a time when the WWE did not shrink from it. Chyna was the first woman wrestler to enter the Royal Rumble in 1999. Lita and Jacqueline and Jazz, all prominent women wrestlers in the early 2000s, squared off against men in the ring. But when the organization ushered in its "PG Era" in 2008, the mandate that came with its new family-friendly TV rating was clear. No bloodshed. Less gratuitous violence. Fewer edgy storylines. Intergender wrestling? Not welcome in this newly sanitized WWE.

"The thing that's troubling to me," says Beyond Wrestling's Cordeiro, "is intergender wrestling shouldn't be inconsistent with a PG era."

He chose WrestleMania weekend to host the promotion's first all-intergender card because, on the biggest wrestling weekend of the year, he knew it would be a special attraction -- and, by extension, an opportunity to showcase intergender wrestling with the nuance and consideration he thinks it should be afforded. Before Lit Up, Cordeiro sent a warning to all performers: "Absolutely no sexist humor will be tolerated." He doesn't view intergender wrestling as spectacle or taboo. He doesn't want others to consume it that way either.

One of the two children in the audience at Beyond Wrestling's April show were there to see Thunder Rosa, right.

Still, there are signs the WWE might yet come around to Cordeiro's doctrine, that the wall that presently divides the WWE and intergender wrestling might still crumble. WWE hopefuls have long feared that intergender experience would be a disqualifying mark on their résumé, but Purrazzo signed with the WWE in May with an intergender match and before her, Frankele, with a career full of such matches, signed too.

And then there was the brief interlude, a full 60 seconds, when intergender wrestling returned to the biggest possible stage: WrestleMania in New Orleans.

Just an hour and a half into the five-hour show, and 10 minutes into the night's most gripping match, Paul "Triple H" Levesque -- WWE's sculpted, Hulk-shaped 14-time champion -- throws Kurt Angle over the announcer's table. In his American flag singlet, Angle cuts a red, white and blue flash through the air, while Triple H goes back into the ring to check on his real-life wife and mixed tag-team partner, Stephanie McMahon. She's writhing on the mat, and just as he bends over her, behind his back, someone steps into the ring. And the crowd loses its collective mind.

Ronda Rousey waves her hands in a taunt toward Triple H -- come here, come get me. The UFC Hall of Fame champion doesn't want to fight Triple H's tag partner. She wants to fight Triple H. For half a minute, Triple H puts her off. He stares her down. He scans the audience -- the 78,133 fans who, at this point, have reached a shrieking boil. He smiles, then nods. It's an invitation. Rousey charges, and she's nothing but a flurry of punches and strikes, a tornado that leaves Triple H cowed in the corner. After the hailstorm, she turns around and beelines for the ropes. She slingshots off them to charge at Triple H again, blocks his kick, throws him to the ground, then rolls over him, jumps to her feet and lifts him over her shoulders.

Perhaps it's a thawing of the ice. Last November, Becky Lynch took on James Ellsworth on SmackDown; three months after WrestleMania, SmackDown would again feature Ellsworth in another intergender match on July 3, this time pitting him against Asuka. Perhaps it'll remain an anomaly; when discussing the state of intergender wrestling in the WWE, Levesque, the company's executive vice president, will downplay its viability. "It's funny, people ask me about that all the time, about intergender wrestling, and I'm a proponent of it when it works [like] Mixed Match Challenge or WrestleMania last year with us," he says. "But I don't believe that it should be the norm. The women don't need a man in the ring with them to become a prime spot on the card. They don't need that to be the main event [in WWE]. They just need another woman in there that's as great as they are."

For now, though, there is intergender wrestling on the sport's biggest stage. Or at least a flirtation with intergender wrestling. When Asuka and Ellsworth meet on July 3, and then battle again a week later in a rematch, the shows prove more farce than physical feat. The first ends in a double count-out when Ellsworth flees and Asuka chases him over the barricade; the second sees Asuka make quick work of a comically overpowered Ellsworth. Much like last November versus Lynch, the physical mismatch is presented as much -- if not more -- about Ellsworth's failings as an athlete as it is Asuka's prowess.

Frankele isn't watching on July 3, nor a week later for the sequel. She was released from the WWE in March -- she says the WWE didn't provide much explanation, just told her to keep working hard -- and she doesn't keep close tabs now that she's on the outside looking in. But she catches wind of the match online, and it leaves her cold.

"Yes, it's cool that they're making the woman look like somebody who could be that intimidating," she says. "But for someone like me, who works places where you see full-length matches of women really given time and a chance to put in some effort? It's a little disappointing.

"It's one of those things where you're just like, 'Oh, yay.' Then you're like, 'Oh. Kind of not yay.'"

Still, intergender wrestling remains the biggest fight, the biggest cause, of her career, Frankele says. "Maybe the reason everything lined up in the universe like this is because I'm supposed to go out there and make intergender an even bigger thing," she says. "And then I'm going to come back and be one of the people that wrestles the dudes in WWE.

"Never say never."

Hallie Grossman is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @TheHallieG.

Tim Fiorvanti contributed to this story