American Joshi: Celebrating 15 Years of SHIMMER Women Athletes

American Joshi: Celebrating 15 Years of SHIMMER Women Athletes

On November 1st, 2005, World Wrestling Entertainment presented the second annual Taboo Tuesday, a pay-per-view event in which fans were given the opportunity to go online and vote on stipulations for every match on the card. Wedged firmly between a Batista/Jonathan Coachman street fight (yes, really) and a cage match between Triple H and Ric Flair was the “Fulfill Your Fantasy” battle royal for the WWE women’s championship. If you can even call it that. In the heyday of the original brand split, Taboo Tuesday was performed exclusively by the Raw roster, so the “battle royal” involved a total of six women, including the champion, Trish Stratus, the long-time face of the WWE women’s division. It was also the sort of battle royal that WWE, until recently, reserved for that division specifically, where instead of having to go over the top rope to be eliminated, you just had to go through the ropes, and it lasted about five and a half minutes. As for the fan vote, that was to determine what kind of outfits the wrestlers wore – the “lingerie” option ultimately beat out “cheerleader” and “leather and lace.”

Five days later, a very different kind of wrestling event took place at the Eagles Club in Berwyn, Illinois. The debut show from new all-women promotion SHIMMER Women Athletes did not draw a terribly large crowd, and several of them were hecklers. But it was a momentous occasion, nonetheless. At a time when Stratus was nearing retirement and Vince McMahon’s interest in women’s wrestling as anything more than a five minute titillation segment was fading, SHIMMER presented female wrestlers as legitimate athletes, masterful ring technicians, and bad-ass fighters, and that first show was only the beginning. For 15 years, this promotion has provided the bedrock for the wholesale revitalization of American women’s wrestling, despite the fact that many fans still have no idea it exists. WWE has taken credit for “the women’s revolution,” but the women of SHIMMER have been, and continue to be, the true revolutionaries.

SHIMMER was hardly the first all-female wrestling promotion in the United States, but it was the first to present itself with the realistic, athletic wrestling aesthetic often associated with the American independents. Many fans were familiar with David McLane’s take on women’s wrestling, most significantly in the form of GLOW, and perhaps a smaller cross-section had come across explicitly erotic takes on the genre like Women’s Extreme Wrestling and the Naked Women’s Wrestling League (yes, really – it was hosted by Carmen Electra). ChickFight was a year older than SHIMMER, but it always took the form of a one-night tournament, while SHIMMER provided a more traditional format for long-term wrestling storytelling. And Women’s Superstars United (WSU), which ran its first show six months after the November tapings that produced SHIMMER Volumes 1 and 2, was an offshoot of Combat Zone Wrestling and thus built around a more hardcore style. SHIMMER, on the other hand, looked a lot more like Ring of Honor, and there was a reason for that. It was founded by two people with extensive Ring of Honor experience: ROH play-by-play announcer Dave Prazak, and Allison Danger, who had come to prominence at ROH shows as the manager of Christopher Daniels’ villainous stable, The Prophecy. As it happened, the duo also served as SHIMMER’s original announce team.

Looking back at SHIMMER Volume 1, Prazak and Danger seem to represent two distinct elements of the promotion at its inception. Though his name often flies under the radar, Prazak is one of the best commentators in wrestling history, and his work on that first show infuses it with an air of serious legitimacy as he provides an endless and apparently effortless stream of knowledge about each and every performer on the card. The opening match, for example, featured Ontario-based wrestlers Shantelle Taylor and Tiana Ringer, who had kicked off their nascent careers by wrestling one another across the Canadian independents for the entirety of 2005. Prazak, it was clear, knew everything there was to know about their rivalry and contextualized them for the SHIMMER audience, which gave the match itself more meaning while simultaneously connecting the participants to the broader world of independent women’s wrestling. He did this time and again, match after match, explaining who each wrestler was, where they came from, and why we should care. He didn’t just want his audience to know about the wrestlers on the show – he wanted them to know where the wrestlers came from, to understand that women’s wrestling already existed on the independent scene, even if it was hard to find. As a result, his commentary on that first volume is almost a mission statement. Despite the fact that SHIMMER has never strayed from its original home at the Eagles Club, it has always aspired to be more than just another regional promotion. SHIMMER served, and continues to serve, as a nexus point for women’s wrestlers, initially across the continent and eventually across the globe.

Allison Danger represents a different side of SHIMMER, one best encapsulated not by Volume 1’s opener, but by its main event. The hippie heroine Daizee Haze and her manipulative rival, Lacey, along with Danger herself, were the only three women wrestling for Ring of Honor at the time on anything resembling a regular basis – and wrestling wasn’t even their primary function in the company. Despite the fact that they were going to war against one another in promotions like IWA Mid-South throughout 2004 and 2005, ROH mostly used them as managers, with the occasional match thrown in. With SHIMMER, Danger constructed a platform to elevate not necessarily herself (Danger has never held a championship in the promotion she founded) but an entire corner of the wrestling industry that wasn’t receiving its due. And Lacey and Haze got to show what they could do as in-ring performers, leveraging their personal history and the exposure they had received via ROH into a main event grudge match, the first of several times that one or the other of them would wrestle at the top of a SHIMMER card. Their match on SHIMMER Volume 1 lasted more than 23 minutes – longer than any women’s match that has ever taken place at Wrestlemania.

SHIMMER Volume 1 has two other things in common with your typical ROH show of the era. For one thing, there wasn’t a gimmick match anywhere on the card – every contest was a straightforward wrestling match. Even tag team wrestling was a rarity; seven of the eight matches on Volume 1 were singles matches, and Volume 6, taped in May 2006, was the first volume to feature more than one tag match.  This emphasis on no-nonsense singles wrestling, combined with low-budget production, gave SHIMMER a gritty, old-school feel, which helped legitimize it in the eyes of independent wrestling fans in the 2000s. While the promotion did eventually place more emphasis on tag team wrestling, it remained resolutely opposed to gimmick matches, far more so than even Ring of Honor; for example, in the 15-year history of SHIMMER, there has only been one cage match, and no ladder matches at all.

The other commonality between SHIMMER and Ring of Honor is that their rosters have historically reflected the future of mainstream American wrestling. Almost a decade before NXT revitalized women’s wrestling under the auspices of Vince McMahon, Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling, now known as Impact, was building an all-star women’s division called the Knockouts division, and a good portion of that division was composed of SHIMMER originals. The aforementioned Shantelle Taylor, who wrestled in the first match in SHIMMER history, went on to become early TNA star Taylor Wilde. The second match on Volume 1 featured a wrestler known to SHIMMER fans as Nikki Roxx, who became an early staple of the TNA as “The Voodoo Queen” Roxxi Laveaux. Another midcard contest saw the first SHIMMER appearance of the legendary Cheerleader Melissa, who performed the TNA characters Alissa Flash and Raisha Saeed. And Saeed, of course, was most notable for her affiliation with Awesome Kong, who went by Amazing Kong during her runs in SHIMMER and Ring of Honor. In recent years, the Knockouts division has again taken center stage in Impact Wrestling, and this modern resurgence has again been fueled by SHIMMER talent. Of the 28 women who have held gold in TNA/Impact, 15 have also passed through the Eagles Club, and eight of the last 12 Knockouts champions had previously risen to prominence as part of the SHIMMER roster.

But despite SHIMMER’s impact on Impact, it had an even more profound (though slightly delayed) effect on the mainstream wrestling world of WWE. While Volume 1 features the odd NXT/WWE adjacent name — Krissy Vaine would later be a staple of Florida Championship Wrestling, NXT’s predecessor, and Beth Phoenix appeared on that first card as Danger’s opponent— the real link between SHIMMER and NXT, and thus, between SHIMMER and the future of women’s wrestling, was the semi-main, a match between Sara Del Rey and Mercedes Martinez that ended in a time limit draw after 20 minutes and received a standing ovation. Almost immediately, Del Rey became the undisputed ace of the promotion, with Martinez as her primary competition. Martinez was the first to pin Del Rey after the latter had gone undefeated during the first year of SHIMMER’s existence — Del Rey would ultimately lose a singles match by pinfall only four times in her entire SHIMMER career, and by technical submission once (she never tapped out). She would also win the tournament to crown the first-ever SHIMMER champion in 2007.

Trained by Ring of Honor’s Bryan Danielson (later known as Daniel Bryan), Del Rey was in the same position as Danger, Haze, and Lacey — she was primarily a manager in ROH, notably working with Chris Hero and Claudio Castignoli, the Kings of Wrestling, even as she was tearing through anyone in SHIMMER foolish enough to face her. And ironically, she would exert her influence most resoundingly in a likewise non-wrestling capacity. In 2012, she was hired as the first female trainer for NXT, which was in its infancy as a true developmental promotion. Under her guidance, NXT would become a breeding ground for some of the best wrestlers ever to lace up their boots. Some of her students, including Bayley and Emma, had previous SHIMMER experience. Paige, the first NXT champion, had made her American debut in SHIMMER in 2011 as part of a tag team with her mother, Saraya Knight. They were managed, almost incidentally, by a semi-retired wrestler named Rebecca Knox, who had competed against both Danger and Haze on some of the early SHIMMER cards in 2006, and who would go on to definitively unretire and become one of the biggest superstars in modern wrestling history under the name Becky Lynch. And Del Rey is directly responsible for the training of Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and numerous other women who came up through the NXT system.

When NXT started seriously dipping into wrestling free agency in 2014 and 2015, signing almost every independent superstar they could get their hands on, the women’s division was no exception, and most of these female free agents had experience in SHIMMER. The first big one was Asuka, formerly Kana, the woman responsible for Del Rey’s one technical submission loss, and she embarked on an unprecedented reign of terror over the NXT women’s division. In the years after her signing, the floodgates opened. Ember Moon, Shayna Baszler, both members of the Iconics, Ruby Riott, Sarah Logan, Candice LeRae, Mia Yim, Dakota Kai, Tegan Nox, Toni Storm, Kay Lee Ray, Shotzi Blackheart — the list goes on and on. With NXT providing the pipeline between independent women’s wrestling and WWE, the WWE women’s division is now almost entirely made up of SHIMMER and/or NXT alumni. Six of the ten NXT women’s champions had previously spent time in SHIMMER, and only two performers (Naomi and Ronda Rousey) have held an active WWE women’s championship, singles or tag, without ever appearing on an NXT Takeover. That’s how thoroughly NXT, and by extension, SHIMMER, has redefined American women’s wrestling. (This narrative has only been reinforced by NXT rival All Elite Wrestling’s incredibly poor handling of their own women’s division —  though even that sparse roster is populated by SHIMMER alumni Hikaru Shida, Britt Baker, Kris Statlander, Big Swole, Allie, Leva Bates, and new NWA women’s champion Serena Deeb.) In January 2020, the connection came full circle when NXT hired none other than Mercedes Martinez, giving her a national television platform as a wrestler for the first time in her iconic 20-year career — something Sara Del Rey, for all her accolades, never achieved.

Fifteen years ago, SHIMMER fundamentally and permanently altered the course of history. The competitors on that first show were all American or Canadian, charged with demonstrating that North America wasn’t just a women’s wrestling wasteland. As the promotion grew, it brought in British, Australian, and Japanese wrestlers, enhancing its product and introducing its audience to a whole new group of international stars. It became the gold standard for independent women’s wrestling outside Japan, a concentrated hub for an entire generation of future performers. And it set an example, kicking off a women’s wrestling boom that has seen the creation of all-female North American promotions like Shine, Rise, Femme Fatales, and Queens of Combat. You could build an all-star women’s division out of current and former SHIMMER wrestlers that haven’t even been mentioned in this article — MsChif, LuFisto, Nicole Matthews, Portia Perez, Madison Eagles, Wesna Busic, Jennifer Blake, Christina von Eerie, Kellie Skater, Veda Scott, Nicole Savoy, Ashley Vox, Delmi Exo, Hyan, and Kimber Lee, just to name a few. But the promotion’s most enduring legacy is that it fertilized previously barren ground, opening up an entire new universe of possibilities for women in the wrestling industry.

Which is, of course, exactly what SHIMMER set out to do. From the very beginning, Allison Danger was clear about what she wanted to create: American joshi, a place where women in North America could be afforded the same degree of respect they were in Japan, without being relegated to managerial status, without having to fulfill anyone’s fantasies but their own. The fact that she succeeded so completely makes her closing statement at the end of Volume 1 both inspirational and prophetic.

“November 6th, 2005, will go down in history,” Danger said. “Tonight was the debut show for SHIMMER Women Athletes. Eighteen women went in there. Heart, soul, body, mind, spirit, blood. We proved that women’s wrestling is possible in the United States of America. You know what, people tear us down all the time. We’re just a bunch of eye candy. We don’t take this seriously. Every single one of us takes this seriously. We eat this business, we breathe this business, we live this business. This is our life. This is our soul. This is what keeps us going every day. And we’ve proven tonight that American joshi is absolutely possible.”

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