While it often feels like a marketing plan and they are always quick to put themselves over, WWE has done a lot to change the perception of women’s wrestling in the United States. While there has always been a small pocket of the fanbase that loved women’s wrestling and wanted to see it be taken seriously, the reality was that a large percentage of the fanbase merely saw women’s wrestling as either a punchline for bathroom break jokes, or as pure sexual entertainment.

WWE did a lot to change that; starting in NXT and then on the main roster, WWE evolved and changed the way they marketed their talent and pushed the women for the most part as athletes equal in caliber to the men. The result was that during a time period where the popularity of the male-side of the roster was flattening, women’s wrestling in WWE entered a boom period, and today many fans would say that women are the best part of the company.

When AEW arrived as a true alternative to WWE, it was paramount that the company not only have a women’s division, but it also had to be taken seriously and deliver at a high level. AEW was quickly able to assemble a men’s roster that could realistically compete with WWE’s talent, but the same could not be said for the women’s roster.

There was no female version of Chris Jericho, or Jon Moxley, or The Young Bucks, etc. that AEW could bring in and build the division around. The industry did not provide the necessary depth for a start-up company like AEW to build an elite roster of women’s wrestlers that could rival WWE. AEW was going to have to build the division from the ground up, and that was always going to take time. The pandemic that removed several key veteran workers from traveling to America for shows and untimely injuries to a few rising stars (Britt Baker and Kris Statlander) made things even more difficult.

The result of those troubles was that the women’s division became an obvious weakness for AEW. The company in turn became cautious about exposing that weakness for long periods of time on AEW Dynamite, so unfortunately women did not get the screen time that a lot of fans thought they deserved. The women’s division in AEW became an easy target for critics and also frustrated loyal fans who wanted to see a bigger investment from AEW in the women.

Since the new year started however, AEW has shown more commitment to women’s wrestling. According to data crunched on March 3 by the Red Leaf Retrocast, AEW’s women’s matches lasted for an average of 10.28 minutes, longer than any of the average women’s matches on RAW, SmackDown, NXT or Impact. While they were maybe not as frequent as the women’s matches in other promotions, the matches and names that AEW were pushing were getting more time to shine.

On Wednesday, with Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa having a wild, bloody main event match that will end up being one of the most talked-about matches of the year, AEW finally put its own stamp on women’s wrestling. Since the company started, they have been playing catch-up to WWE when it came to women’s wrestling and for a long time were unable to put on a display that could really rival the best of what WWE could offer.

By putting on a women’s match that was so bloody and violent, AEW pushed women’s wrestling into a new direction. There has never been a women’s match in major American wrestling, shown on a major cable station, that had so much blood and featured such violence.

The key takeaway is not that AEW put on a women’s match that was better than anything WWE has done, because there are WWE matches that rival this one in quality. The key is that AEW put on a women’s match that was so different from something WWE would ever do. That puts AEW in the position of being the company that will put out a product that WWE will not be willing to match.

In addition to having the kind of match WWE is not willing to have on their programming, the way the match was promoted was a nice change of pace from what fans are used to seeing. As they hyped the main event on Dynamite, the announcers did not mention that this was the first women’s main event, or the first women’s Lights Out match in AEW history. Instead they hyped it up as the first Lights Out match on Dynamite, and it was only a mere coincidence that it women were the people who happened to be in the feud that had grown so intense that it could only be settled in this style of match.

WWE has done a ton for women’s wrestling, but fans have also been pelted with a relentless series of “historic firsts” for women over the past few years that it feels patronizing. Oftentimes WWE used the fact that it took them decades to actually recognize women’s wrestling as a way to promote certain matches as “historical.” If AEW had gone that same route and heavily promoted this match as the first ever women’s main event on Dynamite, it would actually reflect poorly on them since it immediately makes fans think about why it took 77 episodes to let women close the show.

At the end of the night, the match was an enormous success for both AEW and the women who were involved in the match. Thunder Rosa and Britt Baker went out and had a complete banger in a match that had a lot of pressure to deliver. If the match was bad, it might set the division back instead of elevating it. They both worked extremely hard and took a bunch of punishment to not just have a great match, but alter the image of women’s wrestling in AEW and the industry as a whole. There have been plenty of women’s death matches in smaller promotions in the US and in other countries, but to have a match like that on TNT, this was a legit first for women’s wrestling in the United States.

Thunder Rosa and Baker are also clear success stories within AEW’s internal development of women’s wrestling. Thunder Rosa was already a very good performer but had been overlooked for a variety of reasons, but AEW wisely got involved with Billy Corgan and the NWA to garner her services and the result is that she is the most complete performer in AEW’s women’s division. Her in-ring ability stabilized matches with inexperienced opponents and her charisma was key in giving Britt Baker a strong personality to work off of and set the stage for this kind of match.

Baker was originally signed by AEW as a prospect who lacked experience but had obvious potential while having a great personal story that could be marketed to news outlets. Since she has come into AEW she has greatly improved at all phases and has become one of the most dynamic personalities in the company.

AEW was always going to need to build a major women’s star from the ground-up and now, not even two years since the launch of Dynamite, Baker feels like she is making that jump into superstardom. Even though she lost the match, her thumbtack bumps, bloody face, and sadistic demeanor were the highlights of the match and what had social media buzzing after the match was over.

There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to AEW’s women’s division, but the company has made strides over the last few months in really elevating the status of the women and the long-term efforts to get certain talents over are starting to pay dividends. At the same time, AEW was able to put their signature on women’s wrestling in this country by allowing the women to be more violent than anything on WWE’s programming, which gives them their own pedestal to stand on.

In the latest edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss the end of the WWE Network. Jesse and Jason go over what watching old wrestling was like in the before times, how the WWE Network changed WWE booking patterns, the move to Peacock and concerns about the video archive.