Eighteen years ago, Trish Stratus walked into the ring every day with one goal in mind: to redefine the way female wrestlers were being perceived. She was instrumental in showing the world that women can throw punches, too. Her era represented a major landmark moment in women's wrestling.
Now, 12 years after her retirement -- seven WWE women's championships and a Hall of Fame induction later -- she is back to prove to fans that she still has what it takes.
At WWE Evolution, the company's first all-women pay-per-view event on Sunday, Stratus will be featured in a tag team match alongside fellow Hall of Famer and longtime rival Lita against Alexa Bliss and Mickie James, a star who straddles both eras.
Bliss was just 9 years old when Stratus made her wrestling debut, but the central conflict between Bliss and Stratus driving the story in this match is similar to that of a Jedi vs. Padawan relationship. Bliss looked up to Stratus growing up, and she molded her wrestling style after what Stratus did in the ring.
Stratus, too, became aware of Bliss. Even as she was busy birthing and raising her two children, Stratus saw tweets and reporters calling Bliss "the next Trish." The first time she saw Bliss, she could see it as clear as daylight: "Alexa was channeling her inner Trish," she remembered thinking to herself.
"She has the same drive and the same passion for wrestling that I did and she has come up the ranks so quickly," Stratus said. "I think pairing us and seeing this generational faceoff, I think, is fantastic, but you know, I always want to show her, umm, I am still the queen, though."
Beyond all of the entertaining trash talk that's come up between Bliss, Stratus and their respective compatriots since the latter has returned to the WWE airwaves in recent weeks, Stratus is thoroughly pleased to see how far women's wrestling has come. When she walked into the ring every day during her career, all she wanted was for fans to realize that women are athletic, strong and powerful, that they were important characters with story arcs, emotions and powerful sucker punches. They were not just a sexy sideshow at WWE and people needed to see that, she said.
Back in the day, the expectation for women's matches were not high; women were thrown into the ring and had to learn the tricks of the trade as they went along, and Stratus included herself in that mix. But over the years, the efforts of many women along the way helped slowly push women forward. One of the key developments came with the launch of the WWE Performance Center in Orlando in 2013. From the day training began in that facility, women were treated just like the men, as their skills were honed, their characters were developed and each was given a clear purpose to drive for.
By the time #GiveDivasAChance happened in 2015, there was a generation of women trained at the Performance Center and a hungry roster of women on Raw and SmackDown ready to step up and prove everything they were capable of.
"Only a handful of people in this world can do what we can do, and when the well-developed characters were presented to the people, boy, were they ready for it," Stratus said.
This means that come WWE Evolution, Stratus will step into a much different circumstance than what she left behind. Stratus, Lita and James had to fight for every moment they had in the ring early on, and they helped change the WWE landscape in a way that paved a road for Bliss to walk on. And while Stratus would love to get regular training with the current crop, she would have to ask her children for permission to be away so much, she joked. That means that Stratus will be stepping into the ring for her first tag team match since 2011, and she and Lita will have to keep up with James and Bliss, who are working in matches multiple times a week.
While some would have to worry about conditioning, Stratus' dedication to yoga and a variety of fitness pursuits wipes away any of those fears. As for any trepidation about stepping back into the ring, a lot of those fears were alleviated back in January. When Stratus received a call to come back for this year's women's Royal Rumble match, she was convinced she had forgotten how to wrestle.
But the minute she got inside the ring, on the first day of practice, she knew all was good.
"Wrestling is in your blood -- it's like when you ride a bike, you remember to always ride a bike," she said. "There's this adrenaline rush."
At the Royal Rumble, Stratus realized she could still do it, be a wrestler. She also learned that the best part about wrestling at this point in her life and career was to train alongside the current crop of women. "What I've always wanted to do as a performer was to work with new people and take in the skills they have and meshing them with what I bring to the table -- and that's where the magic happens," she said.
When Evolution was announced, Stratus wanted to be a part of the historic moment in some way -- it was her (and the female wrestlers of her era) "baby, we made it" moment. Stratus said she'd have been thrilled to just receive tickets to watch the show and see it with her own eyes.
When she was called in for a match, she was shocked. Stratus had to pinch herself several times to make sure she was hearing them right, and even though the match was subsequently changed from a one-on-one against Bliss to the tag team match now set for Sunday, she was thrilled to have another chance to be a part of history.
And after her responsibilities for the night are all said and done, Stratus will be happy to enjoy everything that women's wrestling has become in the WWE.
"Once my match is done and I've kicked Alexa's butt, I can't wait to wait to sit back and watch the rest of the show and enjoy how far we have come as a group of strong women, as a team -- and I'm thrilled to be a part of it."