On Saturday night, fans packed the former ECW Arena in Philadelphia to see Chikara's season finale, an event dubbed Top Banana. What they didn't know was that they'd also witness history.
At the end of the night, KimberLee won Chikara's Grand Championship, the company's top title. It was the culmination of a yearlong team competition that saw her lead a squad of underdogs to victory, thereby granting her and her teammates a golden opportunity: A chance to challenge for any belt. After the main event, which featured a triple-threat match between three of the longest-tenured wrestlers in the company, she cashed in, locked Hallowicked in a submission hold and won the championship – becoming the first woman to hold the big belt in a major non-female wrestling promotion.
She's been a mainstay on the independent circuit since 2011, and won several titles in women's wrestling promotions like Shimmer, Shine and WSU. But she's never been afraid to step into the ring with men, and that's part of what brought her to this precipice. As Chikara founder Mike Quackenbush put it to Rolling Stone, "The historical significance is a consideration – but it's more about what we believe about our art form."
While she's still having a hard time believing she's the Grand Champion, it turns out KimberLee has plenty to say bout the state of that art form, what it means to make history and WWE's so-called Divas Revolution.
What was that moment like when you first held the championship belt?
It's really hard to put into words. I was just thinking about when I started and was looking up to all the people who held the championships, just the women, much less the men. Being there and capturing one was completely overwhelming. I was crying in the ring, I was crying afterward. I was crying in the days since. All I ever wanted to do was make a change and make a difference. I wanted to show that women are just as tough as the men. This is a huge step in doing that.
When you were first told that you were going to win the title, what was your reaction
Just complete shock, honestly. I was like, "Whoa, really, me? You trust me with that?" Knowing the weight behind that decision, I was shocked and I don't think it really hit me that I was winning the title until I was actually in the ring winning it. I knew about a month or two ahead of time – it was extremely difficult not to say anything about it. It was really important to not to, though. I knew that.
Did you even think about the fact that you were about to become the first woman to hold the top title in a company as big as this?
When it was first presented to me, all I thought was that I was about to become the first woman to win the Chikara Grand Championship, which is a huge accomplishment. It was after the fact, when one of my trainers, Drew Gulak, pointed out to me that there has never been a woman champion of a wrestling company that's not a women's company – ever. Once he said that, I was stunned. I hadn't thought that big. There's a lot of weight that comes with it. I have to prove that I deserve to be that first woman and that I deserve to be a woman that represents a whole company: women, men, ants and ice cream cones alike.
Did you ever think you could win a title that's traditionally held by men?
I never really thought I would. Somebody who influenced me a lot when I was younger was Chyna. I never was allowed to watch wrestling when I was younger – my mom didn't like it. So I had to sneak and watch it, and when I did, she always stuck out to me. She had the Intercontinental title at one point. So when I started to wrestle, that's who I looked up to, and that's what I wanted to do. Even from the beginning, I was saying that I wanted to wrestle men – I wanted to be looked at the same. I didn't want to have to wrestle just girls. I didn't want to have to do girly stuff. I wanted to do the same things that all the guys got to do. That's how I've always been talking.
Have you ever felt any backlash for thinking like that?
Absolutely. You always run into people who think that this is completely unbelievable and that this ruins professional wrestling. Nobody is going to believe that this small girl can do anything to a man twice her size. I've even had some backlash from women who say that it's hurting women's wrestling. But there's also people who are completely on the same focus as me. There are other women who want to tangle with the men like me. Women like Heidi Lovelace, who is also at Chikara, Candice LeRae and Mia Yim, or Jade. They have been able to do it too, and it can be made to be believable. A woman can do what a man can do, our approach just has to be a little bit different. Am I going to be able to stand up to a man and realistically go punch-for-punch with him? Absolutely not. But, if you approach it the right way, a woman absolutely could beat somebody bigger than her. I don't back down to anyone. I don't care how big you are or any of that – I don't back down.
What do you say to people who don't think intergender wrestling has a place in the business?
I'm sorry that's their opinion, but not everybody is a fan of every single wrestling company. Everybody has their flavor of choice. I think that intergender is becoming more popular and is becoming a bigger entity now. Not everybody is going to like the same artist; everyone has their own opinion. But I want to get as many people as I can to like intergender wrestling. That's my goal, to turn everybody's opinion around.
You mentioned Chyna as an influence. Obviously, from your in-ring style to your appearance, you're nothing like her. Who are some of your other influences?
I watched a ton of Sara Del Rey when I first started. She is everything that I could have wanted to be. There's lots of LuFisto influence. I liked Lita a lot. I also watched Kana [Asuka in NXT] a lot.
One of the other real notable things about your win is that you are just the fourth Chikara Grand Champion. The other three were all there from day one. You made your Chikara debut just over a year ago. What does that mean to you that they trusted you with the belt that quickly?
That's a huge thing too. I did not expect to be so successful so quickly. Mike [Quackenbush] has just really put his faith and trust in me. It shows that they're willing to give women the opportunity they deserve. They're willing to give us a chance to show that a woman can represent a company that's not predominantly women. There's all this talk about the "Divas Revolution" – but something like this is the real Divas Revolution. Sure, some things are changing at WWE, and you see the changes in NXT, but it's still not what I would like it to be. Places like Chikara are really making a revolution for you.
So what do you think of the WWE's Divas Revolution?
At first I really hoped that they'd actually make it so the women could be viewed as wrestlers instead of simply models. I was excited because it opened up the potential for all the women I know who are gorgeous and talented to possibly make a mark there, instead of them just picking the models. To me, it feels like it fell flat in some ways. There wasn't anything that really changed, except that they called up some of the women from NXT. That was the only major change, and they haven't really capitalized on what they could have.
Is it a goal of yours to get to WWE one day?
Absolutely. That's the biggest platform that we have to perform. It's a way to reach more people. It's also one of the only avenues that you have to do this as a full-time job, which would be amazing. But I don't want to go there to be what the Divas have been, I would want to make a change.
Have you noticed any changes amongst the fans in how they view women's wrestling since then?
I think there's definitely been an increase in interest. It seems like a lot of people, through social media and other stuff, have been paying more attention to us as a whole. Even at Shimmer, when it was the 10-year anniversary, it had a lot more hype than it usually does.
You've reached this huge moment in your career, what comes next?
How cool would it be to win a men's belt in a company that has TV? I just want to keep going as far as I can and inspire as many people as I can to not just conform to what society says you're supposed to be.
Do you view yourself as a role model for fans – especially female fans – now that you have this title?
I definitely try to see myself as one. I want to show them that they should never give up on anything, because anything is possible. This is so far beyond my wildest dreams of where my wrestling could take me. Whenever you're at a down point in your life, it's only because you have to start climbing up. Everything happens for a reason. Just keep pushing, because if you keep your heart in it, it'll happen.