World Wrestling Entertainment, better known to the general public as WWE, frames itself as family-friendly entertainment -- a paradoxical label for a company that books predetermined fights.
Families, however, comprised a massive chunk of cheering fans at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday. They were there to watch WWE Evolution, the first all-women's pay-per-view event in the company's history. Professional wrestling is typically the domain of young men and boys, perhaps because WWE performers are the closest thing that'll get to real-life comic book superheroes, right down to the costumes.
But Sunday night, there was an unprecedented massive number of mothers and daughters, and fathers and daughters, who turned out to watch the main event between Nikki Bella, a former WWE world champion and reality TV star, and UFC Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey, the current Raw Women's champion. Before that, there was an undercard of seven other matches -- three-and-a-half hours of sports entertainment led by women. And for many of the families in attendance, that was the point and the appeal.
"I think it's nice seeing women being tough and overcoming obstacles," said Ethel Dehoyos, an Islip woman who attended the show with her 10-year-old daughter and husband. "We're not used to seeing women in that kind of way. It shows you that girls can be tough. Women having strength and doing big things is good for girls to see."
"I really like it! I'm excited to see who wins the championship!" her daughter chimed in. She was wearing a t-shirt for Rousey, although she told SNY that she would be cheering for Bella.
It was not an easy road to this point. For decades, WWE women's wrestling was treated as little more than a sideshow for the male audience - perhaps a bikini contest or a lingerie pillow fight to provide some light entertainment. Even the women who took their craft seriously would never be a featured match on the card, let alone the main event of a PPV.
But in 2012, the culture began to change. It began backstage, when WWE unveiled its brand new WWE Performance Center, a state-of-the-art training facility in Orlando where young men and women could learn the professional wrestling from the ground up. The company hired Sara Amato, one of the best independent wrestlers in the world, as a trainer. She would teach the first crop of women, who would eventually lead the WWE-named "Women's Revolution."
The spark to that Revolution occurred in February 2015, on weekly WWE television show Monday Night Raw. A women's tag match that pitted the Bella Twins against Paige and Emma (two of Amato's star students) lasted 30 seconds, prompting an outcry on social media. The hashtag #GiveDivasAChance (WWE referred to their female performers as "Divas" until April 2016) trended on Twitter, forcing the company to re-examine its priorities and treatment of its female performers. Since then, it's been a succession of small, incremental steps to get to where things are today.
The main show opened with a tag match: Trish Stratus and Lita vs. Mickie James and Alicia Fox. Stratus and Lita are both WWE Hall of Famers, two fan favorites who came up in the company during a less progressive time. The New York crowd treated them like conquering heroes; they received some of the biggest cheers of the evening.
New York is the unofficial home base for WWE; back during the territory days, before professional wrestling became a global corporate business, WWE was the World Wide Wrestling Federation, based out of the northeastern United States. And New York -- specifically, Madison Square Garden -- was considered by Vince McMahon, Sr. (and current Chairman Vince McMahon, Jr.) to be the spiritual home of WWE. The first WrestleMania was held in Madison Square Garden, so it's somewhat fitting that the first Evolution PPV took place only 20 miles away.
New York was, and is, a traditionally rowdy wrestling crowd. It's a 'smart crowd': they treat what they see in front of them as a performance, rather than playing along and treating it like a legitimate sports competition.
But at Nassau, the mood was distinctly lacking in irony and cynicism. A few fans tried to hijack the show early on and make it about themselves, but they were quickly shouted down and shushed by the rest of the crowd. Everyone played along -- they cheered when they were supposed to and they booed when they were supposed to. Most people in attendance felt the importance and weight of what they were seeing: The latest in a series of small steps towards equal treatment.
The best match of the night, which brought the crowd to its feet, was a Last Woman Standing match between Charlotte Flair (daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair) and Smackdown Women's champion Becky Lynch. They both left everything in the ring, attacking each other with chairs and kendo sticks, jumping off ladders, and putting one another through tables. It was wince-worthy stuff, and refutes the notion that everything these performers do is "fake."
When it came to the main event, between Rousey and Bella, WWE stuck to a traditional good guy versus bad guy setup. Nikki had her twin sister Brie Bella by ringside, and whenever the referee turned his back, Brie got a shot in. The crowd booed lustily, and cheered all the louder when Rousey locked in her signature arm bar for the win.
The women closed the show with a moment of solidarity. All of them gathered at the top of the entrance ramp and took a bow together as the crowd cheered. For WWE Hall of Famer Ivory, real name Lisa Moretti, who participated in the evening's Battle Royal and wrestled for women's promotion G.L.O.W. (currently a fictionalized series on Netflix), it was a confluence of circumstances that made this possible.
"I think the timing is exactly right, and I would expect nothing less from the WWE, because they've got their finger on the pulse," said Moretti. "The cultural time period is evolving for women and exploding, and the talent on the roster is impeccable. So it's, 'Hey, why wait? Let's do it now.' And have you been let down? These matches are unbelievable."