When the WWE's "Smackdown Live" returns to New Orleans Tuesday night, its Women's Division is one of its strengths.
Two Mack trucks in Spandex at war with each other has long been the signature match-up for the WWE and particularly its flagship show, Raw.Since before the days of Hulk Hogan, it presented big men in big fights, the bigger the better in either case. On Tuesday night, Raw’s companion show, Smackdown Live, returns to the Smoothie King Center, and for the last year, it has been the stronger show. It pits human-sized humans against each other, so the actual matches have relied more on drama and athletic ability. The most compelling matches have come from the Women’s Division, and three of the top four competitors—Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Asuka—are on the Smackdown Live roster. Since 2015, the Women’s Division has changed from a leering, bikini model sideshow to match-ups that engage fans with their storytelling. Flair and Sasha Banks worked a feud in 2016 that included the first time two women were Raw’s main event, and at last year’s Wrestlemania, Flair’s match with Asuka stole the show, with a former MMA champion Ronda Rousey coming a close second in her mixed tag match with partner Kurt Angle against their bosses, Stephanie McMahon and Triple HHH. Last year, the WWE presented “Evolution,” a pay-per-view featuring only female performers, and Lynch is the hottest commodity in the company.
Right now, the WWE is working across brands to build toward a Lynch vs. Flair vs. Rousey match that will likely headline this year’s Wrestlemania—another first—and the attention that these Superstars (as the WWE refers to them) and their matches have brought to the Women’s Division has had a trickle-down effect. According to WWE Superstar Mandy Rose, the other women in the company are feeling the attention and the opportunity.
“It’s a great time to be a woman in the WWE. Not just in the WWE but in sports entertainment in general,” Rose says. “People are watching. There are high expectations. There is more pressure and more expectations.”
Rose is a work in progress. In Sunday’s Elimination Chamber match for the inaugural Women’s Tag Team belt, she and partner Sonia Deville were one of the last two teams in the six-team match. They lost to Bayley and Sasha Banks, but they were in the match from beginning to end and earned the respect of the announcers, who started the match talking about how Rose was the first woman eliminated in last year’s Women’s Elimination Chamber match. They got the opportunity to showcase themselves at length, but they’re not yet distinctive. Unlike the top women in the division, you can’t see their personalities in their wrestling.
Rose splits the difference between the Women’s Division’s past and present. She’s attractive in a way that would have made her a stand-out when the women were “Divas,” but she has wrestling chops that many Divas lacked. She started her career with the company in the WWE’s competition reality show, Tough Enough, where contestants go through a professional wrestling boot camp and the winner gets a WWE contract. Rose—born Amanda Saccamanno—didn’t win but was signed anyway and became part of the cast of the WWE-produced reality show Total Divas, which focused on the lives outside the ring of the women in the WWE. She also moved to NXT, the WWE’s developmental program and the other must-see WWE program. After not quite two years later at NXT, the WWE called Rose up the Raw roster in 2017 where she and Deville debuted as part of the heel crew Absolution with the established star, Paige.
Seeing the WWE from top to bottom has given Rose a perspective on the company that some of its biggest stars don’t have. “I went into a lot things not knowing what it was about, but I think with hard work and determination, you can make it,” she says. “With hard work and determination, I’ve got through things even if at the beginning I wasn’t totally mentally prepared for it.”
Paige’s experience and ability to command the spotlight promised to give Rose and Deville time to find their in-ring voices and establish themselves, but that changed when Paige retired six months later due to neck injuries. Suddenly, the muscle that helped Paige disrupt Raw had to be stars on their own, and they semi-succeeded. Rose and Deville got enough response from fans to keep getting TV time, and they were involved in high profile matches like the first Women’s Elimination Chamber match, but their stock wasn’t really rising. Despite that, Rose remained motivated.
“It gave us the opportunity to step up,” she says. “Paige was our leader and then we’re going to be by ourselves. We had less experience than she had, but then it was our opportunity to showcase ourselves more and step up and show everybody that we belong here. That we can do it by ourselves and don’t need anyone.”
Rose and Deville have turned to the Internet to help develop their following in much the same way that The New Day’s Xavier Woods has successfully done with his gamer YouTube channel, “Up Up Down Down.” Rose and Deville went another direction with the “Damandy’s Donuts” vlog that they started six months ago. On it, the two take viewers inside the road life of WWE Superstars as she and Deville review glazed doughnuts while sitting in the car in parking lots of donut shops across the country. It’s a subject you don’t expect from someone who puts in an hour and a half in the gym each morning including on show days, and the two appear without makeup in some episodes. That kind of openness is appealing in a company built on fabricated images, but the episodes don’t reveal their personalities as much as they might like. Viewers will know more about where and where not to get donuts, but they won’t know a lot more about Rose and Deville.
Looks are unquestionably a part of Rose’s professional life as they are with every other woman in the company. On show day, “hair and makeup takes at least an hour, maybe longer depending on how many girls have to get ready,” Rose says. She played homewrecker in February in her highest profile solo storyline to date when she tried to lure WWE Superstar Jimmy Uso to a hotel room to indirectly attack his real-life wife, Naomi, who is also a part of Smackdown Live’s Women’s Division. The storyline required acting chops that Rose and Uso have yet to grow into, but it also got Rose talked about as many fans thought it felt like a throwback to the WWE’s “Attitude Era,” one of the company’s high points and a time when it pushed the borders of what people expected from professional wrestling.
“I feel like it works with me and I feel like we’re very careful and I don’t want to push that envelope [too far],” she told The New York Post’s Joseph Staszewski. “Obviously, we’ve [the women] come a long way. What we do is entertainment and, you know, I’m really enjoying our story. And I think that it gives me a lot of different opportunities and showcases my character. So, it’s been a lot of fun. I kind of like beating up Naomi. So that’s been a lot of fun, too.”
Now that there is a Women’s Tag Team title to be won, women’s tag matches that once felt like vehicles to get more women on to crowded programs will have stakes, and teams like Rose and Deville and Raw’s Riott Squad appear poised to have their matches matter in ways they didn’t always before. Since Rose has tagged with Deville since their days at NXT together, Rose feels ready for the opportunities that will likely come. “We have definitely been working on our tag-team moves,” she says. Whether as a tag team or on her own, Rose says, “I’d always want to showcase and be the best that I can be. You want to stand out.”