When WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon climbed into the ring in mid-2015, she claimed the "Women's Revolution" had begun with the debut of WWE's four horsewomen: Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Bayley. But it may have in fact started when the company hired Sara Amato, its first female trainer, to train them and the next generation of women's wrestlers.
Now, the inaugural Mae Young Classic tournament has introduced 32 more women to WWE – the biggest influx of female talent the company has ever seen. The single-elimination tournament will air its finale on the WWE Network on Tuesday, September 12th at 10 p.m. ET.
Women's wrestling has come a long way in the WWE since the company's interest in hiring models over athletes around the turn of the century. Recent years have seen many milestone moments, from the first women's Hell in a Cell Match, iron women matches and even ousting the Diva's Championship in favor of the Women's Championship.
"The stigma of what it was is kind of washing over," Amato tells Rolling Stone. "Women's wrestling, with a pop culture push from shows like Netflix's GLOW, has more momentum than it ever has before."
While the Mae Young Classic feels like a pinnacle, Amato also believes it's a taste of what's still to come, debuting new athletes and testing the waters for an all-women's show on the WWE Network. Before Tuesday's tournament final, Amato reflects on the evolution of women's wrestling and what's next for women in the WWE.
A few wrestlers in the Mae Young Classic are people you faced when you wrestled in Shimmer as "Sara Del Rey." How involved were you in recruiting for the tournament?
Not heavily involved. It was kind of a team. William Regal goes out and scouts and they have their pulse on what was happening in the independent scene. It was really important that we get the ladies who just bust their butts at Shimmer yearly and get representation because I know how hard they work and what a great promotion that is. The promoter of Shimmer, David Prazak, is really the one who put women's wrestling on the map. He brought people like me and Mercedes Martinez in and believed in us and gave us a lot of time to just wrestle our little hearts out.
In your eyes, do you believe Shimmer changed women's wrestling?
I think so, yeah. It showed that there was a market and that people were interested in women's wrestling. For so long it was kind of a specialty match on a show full of men.
The "Women's Revolution" in 2015-2016 felt very marketed by the WWE, but the Mae Young Classic feels like a natural, genuine push for women's wrestling. Is that how you felt watching this tournament?
I think so too, but I think it started a lot longer ago when they hired me. I think that was the beginning of it – Triple H and Stephanie seeing the need for a female trainer to train the women. We had so much potential and ability, they just needed a voice and one direction to follow. The men who worked with the women in the past did an amazing job with them but it's just a lot different. It really started with them giving me the opportunity to lead the girls like Paige and Charlotte and Emma and give them the platform and kind of be their voice behind and fight for them behind the scenes a little bit.
What were some of the first things you noticed needed to be changed when you first got to the WWE?
Once Bayley, Sasha, Becky and Charlotte all left, it was kind of like, "Oh, we need to rebuild here. We have some work to do." But man, the girls of NXT really stepped up again. It was always my dream to have this position, but it just wasn't a thing before. I performed because I loved wrestling but I didn't really love performing, so I just always wanted to train. So, when I came into what was FCW – we just started NXT at the time – we got our own ring and just bubbled ourselves into training. The girls I worked with at the time – Paige, Emma, Summer Rae – they just worked so hard and we kept ourselves in a little bubble.
In terms of company roadblocks, what did you think needed to change to show the WWE that women's wrestling was something to focus on?
Triple H really believed in the girls. When it really started changing was Charlotte and Nattie [WWE's Natalya] had a match in NXT at one of the Takeovers. You couldn't follow them. It should've been the main event. It opened a lot of people's eyes. Being in production meetings and speaking up and knowing what the women were capable of and saying they could definitely pull this off or we could do this with them or they could be here – kind of speak their ideas and pitch for them.
Jim "J.R." Ross has called some of the most iconic and important matches in the history of pro wrestling. How important was it to have him do play-by-play?
Yeah, I thought it was pretty cool. And the people that were there in attendance, like Beth Phoenix and all the main roster girls that came down and to have Alundra Blayze doing backstage. Even watching Mauro [Ranallo] do some of the voicing and having Lita, who was amazing.
Do you think Lita will continue with an announcing role?
I hope so. I thought she was great. We just haven't had a women's voice on commentary in a long time, if ever, regularly. I'd be interested. It's such a different perspective, especially with our audience right now. It's so diverse and probably over 50 percent women at this point, so it's important to get that perspective heard.
Where are you hoping the momentum from the Mae Young Classic takes women's wrestling?
I think from the viewership, which I understand was very good for the Mae Young Classic, hopefully we'll do it again, if not get our own women's show on the WWE Network.
The Four Horsewomen of the WWE faced off against the Four Horsewomen of UFC. Are you training Ronda Rousey & Co. for a run in the WWE?
No. Shayna came down to train for the tournament and Marina (Shafir) is married to Roderick Strong, so she's been at our TVs and stuff and I did meet Jessamyn (Duke) and Ronda. They're huge fans and super cool people, so I'd be interested. I thought (the faceoff) was awesome at the taping and I'd be so interested as a fan to watch if it did come to fruition.