- Bob Croslin
- WOMAN ON TOP: “I’m the first and only champ, so far,” says Rain (real name Bonnie Maxon).
There was a time when “women’s wrestling” conjured up thoughts of the salacious, tacky, and downright exploitative. Or, several times — like the time Janet Boyer Wolfe died in the ring after a bodyslam from 1950’s Florida Women’s Champion Ella Waldek, or the time Andy Kaufman offered to wrestle women as a highbrow/lowbrow stunt, or the time a “Bra and Panties Match” was a thing that existed.
Shine Wrestling, Tampa’s home-grown, all-women wrestling promotion, doesn’t shy away from the risqué or lowbrow. Costumes like those of faux-cheerleader tag team the American Sweethearts vault the line between athletic practicality and unrepentant pandering, and scattered among the crowd at Shine’s monthly shows at the black-walled Orpheum are male gawkers who look like they got lost on the way to a circa-1973 peepshow. There’s a trashy-glam vibe that’s right at home in Tampa.
But over-the-top costumes have always been a cross-gender part of wrestling’s carnival appeal: “Bret Hart was pink and black and sparkly,” says current Shine champion Rain, sounding wistful when reminiscing about the glamour and showmanship of one of wrestling’s all-time greats. Rain (real name Bonnie Maxon) insists, “In Shine, girls wear what they feel comfortable in,” and indeed, truly skimpy outfits are in the minority. Instead, Shine pushes serious wrestling technique, a hint of goofiness, and big doses of rough-edged girl power, ending up with a show that’s no less (and no more) respectable than the men’s.
Shine is co-owned by Dantay Brown and Sal Hamanoui, both veterans of the Florida wrestling circuit. They’re motivated by what they see as the flawed presentation of women by World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, the national company that dominates televised wrestling. “We ran our first [Shine] show in July 2012,” says Hamanoui. “We felt that there was a need for a serious all-women’s wrestling promotion. The WWE ‘Divas’ focus on the entertainment aspects of pro wrestling, where SHINE focuses mostly on in-ring athleticism.”
That means Shine downplays both the worst kinds of sexist exploitation, and the smack-talking and plot twists that most wrestling fans eat up like narrative cotton candy. But if you’re wondering whether pro wrestlers are athletes, a Shine show will leave your doubts dispelled and your jaw on the floor. At Shine 15 back in December, you could have seen Mia Yim flip off the top rope and wrap her legs around former WWE performer Ivelisse’s head on the way down, using her momentum to flip Ivelisse and throw her against the opposite turnbuckle. (It’s the kind of thing you have to see in person to really appreciate).
Of course, it’s not all finesse — Shine 15 also saw leather-clad Mad Max refugee Jessicka Havok getting bounced out of the ring onto a set of metal stairs, ripping her black fishnets and the flesh underneath. Havok rolled right back into the ring, streaming blood, to get another piece of her opponent. “We believe that the action speaks for itself,” says Hamanoui. And how.
Few Tampanians get to see the action up close. Shine 15 was more sparsely attended than your average Friday night rock show, and a good portion of the crowd was made up of friends, family, and fellow wrestlers. This has got to be the most undersold weird-kitsch night out in the Bay. I mean, who doesn’t want to drink PBR while watching someone get strangled with a “sleeping bag chokehold” as part of a “Friday the 13th Match”? I pity the majority of the crowd, watching from around the world via Internet Pay Per View, sinking into their couches.
Women haven’t gotten many chances to put on these sorts of performances in American pro wrestling, and for some, Shine is a line in the sand. Rain, who will wrestle Ivelisse to retain the Shine championship at Shine 16 on Jan. 24, was always enthralled by wrestling’s big leagues — but seeing women relegated to mud wrestling and pillow fights warned her there might not be much place for her there.
“I didn’t find any of that interesting. My goal has never been to go to the WWE.” Instead, Rain has spent 13 years wrestling for Total Nonstop Action and other independent promotions.
“In the WWE, it’s all about showing T&A,” says Ivelisse (full name Ivelisse Velez, sometimes aka Huntress), who doesn’t bother hiding the bitter aftertaste of her time at the top of the game. “My whole life and career have been against that.” Ultimately, she lasted about a year in the big show, and blames the brutal politics of the entertainment business. “When I was in the WWE, I had my eyes opened about how the whole business works. I learned to always smile, no matter what.”
The WWE seems like it would be an even worse fit for Havok. Billed at six feet tall and 170 pounds, Havok is ranked Number 4 on Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Top Female Wrestlers of 2013. Her contagion-themed character, complete with gas mask and Resident Evil references; her seriously dirty, sometimes bloody fighting style; and a mouth foul enough to make the Iron Sheik’s Twitter account blush, all have her shaping up as a dark badass in the mold of greats like the Undertaker. But that’s not the kind of woman much sought after by WWE.
Just like serious male wrestlers, most of Shine’s stable has done time in other promotions. That includes a few other all-women companies, such as Women Superstars Uncensored (WSU) in New Jersey and Shimmer Women Athletes in Chicago. Ivelisse is candid about the trials of existence in that complex ecosystem. “I’ve always gone from promotion to promotion, and I finally made it to the WWE, and then after that, it’s like, what’s next?” Nearly a decade into her wrestling career, you can hear the doubt in her voice. “It’s what pays my bills. Even if I wanted to get out, I can’t. I just want to stay strong and give quality wrestling, no matter how disappointed I am with certain things.”
Rain seems satisfied with where her career has taken her. “I’ve done everything I’ve set out to do. I’ve had a great time with Shine, being able to do what I want, being able to wrestle top talent in the area. I’m the first and only champ so far, actually.” For Ivelisse, shadowed by struggle and disappointment, Shine seems to mean something more. “I started out with nothing, knowing nobody, and I overcame every single obstacle that was ever put in front of me. Somehow I was able to make it into this beautiful group of people that I feel comfortable with, and for me that means more than anything.”
Two different women, with two different stories. One on top, happy, successful. The other struggling, a little angry, and grateful to have found a home. Now, dear reader, you must answer the most important question of all:
Who are you rooting for?