Wrestlers who deserved a #DivasRevolution: Wendi Richter
“Before there was Trish Stratus and Lita, there was 1980’s squared circle sensation Wendi Richter.”
So begins the WWE.com Hall of Fame page for Wendi Richter. It also conveniently sums up the whole company’s approach to the history of women’s wrestling, which mostly involves picking the few faces you know you can sell and building a narrative around them.
In the 1980s, there were very few people who sold like Wendi Richter. She was one of the leading lights of what was called the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” – an era which brought the music and wrestling industries closer and resulted in a massive surge in the popularity of wrestling. There was some other guy around to help with that, too, but he kept going on about prayers and vitamins.
She was respected, she was popular, she sat at the very top of the industry.
In Richter’s case, the big musical connection was Cyndi Lauper, because nothing says “rock” like ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. The video for everyone’s karaoke staple saw wrestler Lou Albano playing Lauper’s grumpy father, and this somehow parlayed into an actual feud. Each of them chose a wrestler to represent them in a match; when Albano selected The Fabulous Moolah, supposedly 28 years into the longest title reign of all time (actually seven years – WWE is bad with facts), Lauper’s choice was Richter.
At The Brawl to End It All, a show on MTV of all channels which drew substantially higher ratings than any episode of Raw to this day, Richter defeated Moolah and won the WWF Ladies’ Championship in the process. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Richter might not have needed a #DivasRevolution. She was respected, she was popular, she sat at the very top of the industry. But even then, her WWF career never allowed her to showcase the full extent of her talents – certainly not in the ring, at least. In fact, two matches sum up her career.
Wendi Richter vs Jaguar Yokota (c) for the WWWA Championship, 10/5/82 (All Japan Women’s Wrestling):
As is often the case in the history of women’s wrestling, the best stuff is from Japan. Richter enjoyed stints in Japan both before and after her WWF run, but this was probably the peak of her career there – a title shot in what was, at the time, one of the biggest promotions around, against one of the best wrestlers in the world.
You should look up Jaguar Yokota, but this match demonstrates that Richter could really go. She’s rocking an arrogant heel persona, selling the damage from her opponent well and as a Texan native, she’s really pulling off a cowgirl hat. Little touches, like “Hell no!” when she’s asked if she wants to submit, really make this impressive work.
Fast forward two years to this.
Wendi Richter vs The Fabulous Moolah (c) for the WWF Ladies’ Championship, 23/7/1984:
It will always be one of the matches for which Richter’s most famous. It’s equally infamous, as the first ever winner of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Worst Worked Match of the Year award. I think you can see why. Moolah – Richter’s former trainer – was fêted as one of the all-time greats, possibly because it felt like she’d been around for all time. She was pretty much booked like a god, despite the fact she was never actually that good at wrestling. She had just turned 61 when this match took place and most of the audience had probably never really known anyone else at the top of the women’s division – it must have been like a dystopian future where John Cena is still going over promising newcomers as he approaches retirement age.
Watch closely and you can see how slow and messy Moolah’s movements are – when she does moves at all. She’s barely wrestling, but Richter is taking quite a few bumps and selling her injuries to make Moolah look strong. Even when Richter wins, it’s because the two women are basically pinning each other and she manages to get her shoulders up before the three-count. They couldn’t even give her a definitive win against someone nearly three times her age.
But then, Moolah was to represent the defining feud of Richter’s career. By late 1985, Richter had lost and regained the title, but her relationship with WWF management wasn’t exactly great. Reports differ – some say Richter refused to sign a new contract because she didn’t like the terms, while she herself claims that she regularly complained to the company’s top brass that she wasn’t being paid enough. For whatever reason, the company felt that Richter could no longer be trusted to carry the title, so they screwed her out of it.
Moolah was to represent the defining feud of Richter’s career.
Richter was asked to defend her championship against a mysterious disguised competitor, known only as ‘The Spider’. In the middle of the match, The Spider suddenly veered away from what was planned, grabbed Richter and pinned her – thanks to a fast count from the referee, who was in on it all along. One of the most popular female wrestlers of her era had been cheated out of her title, and the woman under the mask was Moolah.
Furious, Richter left the building without getting changed and went straight to the airport. She never spoke to her former trainer again, nor did she wrestle in WWF.
Whatever her issues with the company may have been, if pay and conditions – and the thorny issue of royalties from merchandise sales – were indeed sticking points, she was probably right. It’s part of a bigger issue surrounding the status of women in the wrestling industry. Women have virtually always been paid less than their male peers in WWF/E – see AJ Lee’s controversial tweet from last year – and Richter was clearly valuable to the company thanks to her crossover appeal.
It took 25 years before Richter could resolve her issues with WWE, in which time she was occasionally very critical of the ways in which the company treated and represented women. When she eventually took her rightful place in the Hall of Fame in 2010, she summed up her career quite nicely:
“All I ever really wanted was respect… I always felt like a woman wrestler had to work twice as hard for half the recognition and half the pay as a male wrestler… I feel so honoured to have paved the way for today’s women wrestlers.”
This was long before the #DivasRevolution. I hope she loves Sasha Banks as much as the rest of us.