By Tracy Perlman

In a sport dominated with big muscles, little spandex and a lot of smack talking, the culture of World Wrestling Entertainment is changing. No longer are women a pretty face to escort men to the ring. Now they’re getting between the ropes to take care of business.

Throughout professional wrestling’s history there have been few female wrestlers. Those who did train, rarely got credit for being more than a side act. That’s no longer the case. Pro wrestling’s fan base is growing in ways it never has before — 35 percent of the fan base is now women, according to WWE. And a big reason is because more women are stepping into the ring.

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Proving It

Natalya Neidhart is a proud, third-generation wrestler, or as she’s known in the WWE — a Diva. The reality is, she’s far from the glamorized connotation of the women’s division name. Neidhart comes from a long-line of excellent wrestlers. The patriarch of her family is WWF Hall of Famer Stu Hart. Her father Jim was a tag-team champion with her uncle Owen, and her other uncle Bret is a former WWE Champion and Intercontinental Champion. He still frequently appears at WWE events.

Neidhart, who is a former WWE Divas Champion, is the first woman in her family to wrestle professionally. When she decided to follow her passion and become a pro wrestler, the only person who questioned if she should do it, was her dad.

“Once I had my first match, I was able to show my dad I was willing to work really hard for it. He ended up becoming my biggest fan,” Neidhart said.

Having proved her place in the WWE, as one of the most technically-skilled Divas, Neidhart is contributing to her family’s legacy and blazing her own trail. In a recent match, she faced off against Charlotte, the daughter of WWE legend Ric Flair. It was the first time two generational Divas entered the ring with their respected families in their corner.

“I think it opened up a lot of eyes to the fact that women are very, very prominent in WWE right now,” Neidhart said. “We set a standard and pace that’s breaking down doors and barriers about how women are perceived in this industry. I’m proud to be a part of that.”

To step into the ring, you not only have to be athletic, you have to thrive under pressure. For decades, a woman’s role in pro wrestling was purely eye candy. Nowadays, the women not only have to walk the walk, they have to talk the talk. Divas, Neidhart said, can do it all.

“They’ll say to me, ‘can you walk a red carpet?’ Sure. Want me to do a swimsuit shoot? Great. Want me to tear the house down on a main event in pay-per-view? No problem. I can do it. Want me to star on a reality show? You’ve got it. There’s nothing we really can’t do. It’s a very empowering feeling,” she said.

(credit: WWE)

(credit: WWE)

Inspiring The Change

One of the biggest catalysts for that change is likely Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s chief brand officer. On camera, she portrays the megalomaniac boss who fans love to hate. While McMahon is Neidhart’s boss, she’s also an inspiration.

“When she’s on, you don’t want to take your eyes off the screen, you want to see what she’s doing next. You don’t worry if she’s a woman or a man, you don’t care she’s Vince McMahon’s daughter. Whatever she’s doing is really, really good,” Neidhart said.

Behind-the-scenes, McMahon is an ambassador for the company. She runs meetings, attends public events and participates in charity events. McMahon’s versatility as a leader within the company has inspired all of its employees to be good role models, too.

(credit: WWE)

(credit: WWE)

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WWE’s wrestlers are on the road three-five days a week at live events. When they’re training, traveling or performing, many use their time to do charity work. Neidhart is currently working six days a week — wrestling, training and filming. She’s mindful of the responsibility that comes with being a public figure and role model.

“The events we do on the side, I wouldn’t get a chance to do anything else if I worked anywhere else,” Neidhart said. “Those events are more important to me, as far being a role model for young women. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win the Divas Championship, but the stuff I do on the side is way more fulfilling to me than I can put into words.”

The Power of TV and Social Media

When professional wrestling matches were first broadcast on national television in the 1950s, its fan base grew. Until then, people could only see matches in person, when the events came to town. Wrestling reached new levels of popularity in the 1980s, with the addition of cable and pay-per-view. The WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) and World Championship Wrestling were dominated with wrestling icons like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Jesse Ventura and Randy Savage.

As the next generation of superstars and divas make a name for themselves, they’re more accessible than ever. Many have and maintain their own Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

WWE’s reach is global. Its live events and broadcasts are viewed by 650 million households worldwide each week. The WWE says just 15 million of those fans are in the United States.

The change in perception of women wrestling is symbolic of the way the WWE is changing outside the ring. The company recently launched WWE Network, providing 24/7 WWE coverage, from live events, to classic matches and development programs.

A reality show about the behind-the-scenes lives of the divas is also growing in popularity. “Total Divas” on the E! Network reaches a new cross-over audience of potential viewers. While wrestling is entertainment, Neidhart joked the most entertaining place in the WWE is in the diva’s locker room.

“E! really shows the imperfections in all of us. That’s what should be embraced. We all go through stuff. It’s a cool message we get to share as divas,” Neidhart said.

“Additionally, we get to show people what we do, how hard our schedules are. All of the costumes, hours and hours of training, hair and makeup, you know, what really goes into the five to ten minutes we spend in the ring.”

(credit: WWE)

(credit: WWE)

Succeeding Under Pressure

With more fans, comes more pressure. While parts of the match are scripted in professional wrestling, the action can’t be faked. Submission holds, aerials and being slammed into the mat are going to hurt, with or without proper training. Professionals, whether man or woman, have to be athletic and physically prepared to perform. The better the performer, the more successful the match.

Neidhart is among the best. Not because she’s poured her heart into this profession or because the Neidhart family is behind her. Perhaps Neidhart’s success comes from not only knowing her physical strength, but her strength in character.

“As far as pressure goes, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I think the pressure is good and I like knowing I have a lot to live up to. As long as you put the work in, you’re good.”

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WWE Raw will be live at Target Center on Monday, June 9. To see more upcoming live events, visit WWE’s website.