A generation ago, Teal Piper (shown here) recalls, wrestling didn’t seem like an equal-opportunity workplace.
“Women were really accessories to the men,” she said. They were there for sex appeal.
She once expressed that opinion to her father – possibly in a snarky, teenager way. “He just let me have it.” He slammed his fist, broke the table, and lectured that women work twice as hard.
It should be mentioned that her dad, the late wrestling star Rowdy Roddy Piper, had table-thumping strength plus social consciousness. “He had three daughters and he was a feminist at heart.”
And in the two decades since then, the world has changed. At 34, Teal Piper is in training to become a new WOW villain. “I’m really enjoying this – unleashing my dark side,” she said.
That’s Women of Wrestling, which returned to TV after a 17-year gap. “I remember listening to Teal’s father and how upset he was about what women had to go through on the road,” David McLane said.
McLane started GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) in 1986, but left after the second season. He created WOW in 2000, finding a tough road – one year of TV syndication, a 12-year pause, four years of streaming-only and then a fresh boost from two pro-basketball owners: Jeanie Buss (Lakers) bought WOW and put it on AXS, the cable network owned by Mark Cuban (Mavericks).
Beginning Sept. 7, AXS will fill Saturdays with two wrestling shows. A month later, other wrestlers will fill Wednesdays (TNT) and Fridays (Fox). That’s at a time when wrestling women are on the rise:
— For the first time, women were the main event of WWE’s “Wrestlemania.” Ronda Rousey, the mixed-martial-arts champ, faced the tag team of Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. It was “the pinnacle of the woman’s evolution (in wrestling), which is not just going to stop there,” Flair said.
— A new league, All Elite Wrestling, has Brandi Rhodes as a wrestler and Chief Brand Officer. “We’re not looking for a cookie-cutter,” she said. “We’re not looking for a blonde who’s 5-foot-4 because we need a blonde who’s 5-foot-4. We’re looking for Kia Stevens because we need Awesome Kong.”
Rhodes knew the old days, when wrestling bosses simply called a modelling agency, asking for anyone who might be athletic; she got the job because she was a former figure-skater. “It’s kind of a bygone thing now,” she said. “We usually select independent wrestlers who have trained for a long time.”
An exception to that trend is Teal Piper. She’s a natural performer — “I was a pretty gregarious child” — but wasn’t wrestling. Using her real name (Ariel Toombs), she sang and acted, but got only modest roles in things like “Psycho Sleepover” or “The Portal” or “Hell’s Belles.”
Her dad, who had started treatment for lymphoma in 2007, died of cardiac arrest in 2015, at 61. “My father’s death pushed me forward” toward wrestling, she said; she adopted his professional surname.
It’s a late start: Jim Brown and Rob Gronkowski retired from sports at 29; she’s starting at 34.
But isn’t wrestling fake? Won’t she just be doing more acting?
First, she said, it’s a different kind of performance: “Wrestling is explosive; acting is implosive.” No more pregnant pauses and sweet subtleties; wrestlers must reach the back bleachers.
Second, even fakery requires real execution. “You can’t fake falling 10 feet,” Piper said. “My dad said, ‘You may not think wrestling is real, but I can convince you that I’m real.’”
So she’s been doing serious workouts with Selena Majors, one of the GLOW originals. For now, she’s confined to promos and talk and such – something she’s good at … just as her dad was.
And yes, she wants to continue another family tradition: “He (portrayed) a heel and I really like being a heel …. I love exaggerating who I am and becoming a character.”
— Saturdays: “WOW” and “New Japan Wrestling,” 8 and 9 p.m. ET, AXS; reruns of those hours alternate until 2 a.m. On opening day, Sept. 7, the previous WOW season reruns from noon to 8 p.m. ET.
— Wednesdays: All Elite Wrestling debuts on TNT, starting Oct. 2.
— Fridays: WWE moves to Fox, starting Oct. 4.