Last week marked the sudden death of women’s wrestling pioneer Joanie Laurer, better known as the “9th Wonder of the World” (Andre the Giant was the eighth), Chyna. Considering the women’s wrestling revolution has been on the lips of many over the past year, and particularly in recent weeks with the introduction of WWE's Women’s Championship and the term "Divas" abolished, Laurer’s death is at once eerily topical and tragic.
Laurer broke onto the wrestling scene in 1997 as a bodyguard for current WWE Chief Operating Officer Triple H, with whom she founded legendary wrestling stable (wrestling speak for squad) D-Generation X and dated for a time.
Laurer’s large build and unconventional looks worked in her favour as she was often pitted against men in intergender matches, becoming the first woman to qualify for the King of the Ring tournament, the first female entrant in the Royal Rumble, the first female No. 1 Contender to the World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) Heavyweight Championship and the first woman to hold the Intercontinental Championship (twice), all in The Year of Our Lord 1999.
In 2001, Chyna won the Women’s Championship for the first time at WrestleMania X-Seven against Ivory.
Not one to be pigeonholed, Laurer debuted a more feminine look around the same time, which coincided with her Playboy cover and pictorial, a feat which she repeated in 2002. Being only the second WWE employee to pose for the magazine in one of its best selling issues, for better or for worse Laurer helped usher in the Divas era, one which valued women largely for their looks.
It was this disregard for anything women wrestlers could offer other than their appearance that lead to Laurer’s erasure from WWE history. It is alleged that while Laurer was with Triple H, a relationship that spanned from 1996 to 2000, he was cheating on her with his current wife and WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon and that this led to her departure from the company in 2001. Laurer dabbled in wrestling elsewhere, such as New Japan Pro Wrestling (where she was their first female competitor) and TNA, but she was subsequently perhaps best known for her later careers in reality TV and adult entertainment.
While neither realm of pop culture is alien to wrestling (the WWE Network, a streaming service, hosts plenty of reality shows in addition to E!’s Total Divas while wrestlers such as Gangrel, Candice Michelle and Sunny, amongst others, have been associated with sex work and the adult industry), Laurer’s previous accomplishments in wrestling had been unfortunately largely erased up until her death last week.
Also unfortunately, like a lot of wrestlers, Laurer struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse problems which she seemed to be getting under control in recent years (although a no show at a recent wrestling convention due to disorderly behaviour preventing her from boarding the flight and a seemingly dodgy manager may have indicated a relapse), a feat to be chronicled in her Kickstarter-funded documentary, The Reconstruction of Chyna.
In the website’s description of the film, Laurer had apparently completed a Masters degree in education and taught English in Japan. Prior to her career in wrestling, Laurer graduated with a degree in Spanish Literature from the University of Tampa and worked in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.
An outpouring of grief from her former colleagues and those she inspired has emerged since Laurer’s death, a sampling of which are below.
It’s unfortunate the recognition Laurer deserved for revolutionising not just women’s wrestling but the industry in general that eluded her in life will finally be granted to her in death.