By now, most of us have heard that Joanie Laurer, a.k.a. Chyna in the World Wrestling Federation, has passed away. Like so many, I spent a great deal of time watching Chyna on television, and following her various exploits online. She had a unique journey, to be sure, and she’ll clearly be missed by many.
We’ve lost so many of our wrestling heroes prematurely over the last two decades that some of us have become numb to it. Just last week, we lost Jonathan Rechner, a.k.a. Balls Mahoney. It’s all so tragic, and it’s all too frequent.
Laurer’s death strikes a personal note with me. She dealt with mental illness in a way that, intentional or not, was very public. Her battles with drugs and alcohol were fodder for reality TV shows. Apparently she was also estranged from many of her family members, and she would eventually be estranged from the organization that made her famous.
All this being said, she always had a certain aura of kindness to her. She was a buff chick would could probably kick your ass…but she seemed so nice! It was a bizarre contradiction, but it was part of what made her so special.
As a wrestling personality, special is exactly what Chyna was. In the wake of her passing, WWE is using terms like “ground breaking” and “trail blazer” to describe Laurer. But that’s not just corporate propaganda. Pro wrestling, WWE in particular, had never seen anything like Chyna before. When she was introduced to WWE audiences in February 1997, she was a bodyguard for Triple H. In other words, she’d attack his opponents when the referee was distracted, knocked down, etc. The idea of a woman playing that kind of an assertive role against men was unheard of. But Laurer was believable in the role, and she played a large part in elevating Triple H’s career. More than he’d ever admit, I’m sure.
Later, Chyna would become a wrestler herself. And for most of her career she wasn’t competing with women. While not necessarily a great wrestler, Chyna was in there against the likes of Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Mick Foley, and Jeff Jarrett. She was believable, and she was taken seriously as a competitor. This wasn’t in the Ronda Rousey era, folks. This was the late ’90s. This was the precursor to the so-called “revolution” we’re seeing now, in which women are allowed to perform at a higher level. This is what people mean when they call Chyna a “trail blazer.”
In the eyes of many, the highlight of Chyna’s run with WWE was when they gave her the Intercontinental Championship. While it may not seem like much to non-wrestling fans, from an in-story perspective the Intercontinental Title is one of the most prestigious championships the company has. To this day, it’s associated with wrestlers who can put on five star performances, and matches that stand the test of time. So it meant something for that title to be associated with Chyna. It made a powerful statement that resonates to this day.
More important than any of this, Chyna was a star. In an era where wrestling was more popular than ever, she was mixing it up with the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mankind, and of course, Triple H. It spoke volumes, and gave both women and girls a role model in a place they might not have been looking for one.
Chyna isn’t exactly a household name. But she made an impact on our culture. How do I know? Because all day I’ve been hearing and reading reactions from people who don’t watch wrestling. People remember Chyna, and for good reason. WWE did some pretty sleazy thing with women during the “Attitude Era,” and Chyna wasn’t necessarily immune to that. But by and large, Chyna is an example of the impact a wrestling character can have when done well.
As for Laurer? I can only hope she’s managed to find some peace, wherever she is.
Image 1 from cdn.com. Image 2 from WWE.com. Image 3 from bleacherreport.com.
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