A single act of defiance to a school administrator may have led to Beth Phoenix’s hall of fame career.
Phoenix became the first female inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame on Saturday, July 27. She competed on the varsity wrestling team at Notre Dame High School in Elmira, N.Y., but it almost did not happen.
During her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, she shared the story of how she grew up idolizing professional wrestlers and wanted to be one herself. In her mind, at that time, wrestling was like any other sport that has both amateur and professional levels.
In her junior year of high school, there were registration sheets posted with girls’ sports on one side and those for boys on the other. She signed up for wrestling and was called into the principal’s office. The athletic director said she made a mistake. She caved in and went out for basketball.
But the following year, she signed up for wrestling again. The same thing happened, but this time she stuck to her guns and said she wanted to wrestle. With few high school girls wrestling in 1997, her opponents were boys.
“It was awkward,” she said as part of a panel at the Hall of Fame weekend festivities. Though it was at times uncomfortable putting adolescent boys and girls on the mat together, she says, “My teammates were wonderful and supportive.”
Phoenix “caught a lot of flack” for her involvement in the sport in high school, but all she wanted to do was participate. Though there were challenges, she persevered and worked her way into professional wrestling. She is also a member of the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.
Phoenix was a WWE Divas champion and a three-time WWE Women’s champion. She was the first person to compete in both the men’s and women’s Royal Rumble, and previously recognized by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame with the Frank Gotch Award in 2015.
At the time she broke into the WWE, female wrestlers and other entertainers on the show were seen as little more than eye candy.
“That was our brand,” she said. “We were very sexualized at the time.”
Her trainer with WWE, Fit Finlay, told Phoenix that their matches did not have to be trash. He encouraged Phoenix and the other women to take advantage of what time they are given on television and give it their best.
During a podcast hosted by “Big Ace” and Wes Brisco the same day, Phoenix recalled a story in which she took advantage of a small window of time. Gerry Brisco was booking the show. He told Phoenix and opponent Maria Kanellis had 30 seconds available to them or nothing.
They both wanted the 30 seconds. Phoenix proceeded to beat Kanellis down in that time, in front of the crowd to demonstrate what women’s wrestling can be. On another occasion, she felt good about a match, followed it through as planned – only to find out she had three extra minutes that she did not use.
Gerry Brisco, during the same podcast, said he became a fan of women’s matches during this time. They were doing so well, he wanted to give them more time.
“Beth, you earned that respect and you earned that time,” Gerry Brisco said.
“I consider her the best of the best,” Wes Brisco added.
Today, women’s professional wrestling is getting more respect. Many are seen as athletic equals to their male counterparts and have the opportunity to do more than just look pretty. Phoenix believes this is because the culture has changed and women have become more powerful in every aspect of society.
“Males are also ready for the change,” Phoenix said. There has been growth in the recognition of girls’ high school wrestling. In January, Iowa hosted its first all-girls’ state tournament, in which Pleasantville’s Sayde Mull and Brynn Miller Participated.
For Phoenix, now 38 and a mother of two, she wants her daughters to have every opportunity in life to find their passion and live it.
“I have a vested interest in making sure women are seen as equals,” Phoenix said. She hopes that some day girls and women won’t feel the glass ceiling. “I’m very, very proud to have been a part of that.”