“It Changed the Way I Saw Myself”

At the International Wrestling Syndicate in Montreal, women dropkick wrestling’s glass ceiling.
Melanie Havok, chair in hand, takes on Dani Leo at the IWS show Scarred 4 Life on July 15. Photo: Rose Cormier

I didn’t know women wrestlers were even a thing.

My perception of the world of pro wrestling was drawn from the 10-second bits I’d seen flipping through the channels or when a show came on at the bar I once worked at. As a hostess, it was my duty to call the manager to change the channel whenever that happened, in keeping with the establishment’s no-wrestling policy. So all I knew was from snippets of buff men in shiny outfits, lots of folding chairs, the occasional woman wearing next to no clothes, and throngs of unkempt men in the crowds. 

Then Erika Santori, the comms person for the International Wrestling Syndicate (IWS), a promotion based out of Montreal, contacted my editor Chris Curtis with an invitation to their July 15 show, “Scarred 4 Life.” 

Allie Katch, left, fighting with Effy, right, as Tag Team BUSSY against PCP Crazy Manny, centre at the IWS Scarred 4 Life show on July 15. Photo: Rose Cormier

The story was an enticing one: as sports culture in North America has been drawn into the transphobic and queerphobic trends of late — and has never been known as a bastion of equal representation between the genders — here was IWS putting on a show with a lineup that didn’t skimp on the girls and gays. 

In pro wrestling, of all places. 

“I think it’s interesting to cover wrestling from the perspective of someone who’s not into the culture,” Chris told me in his spiel to get me to agree to take it on.

That’s how I found myself at Théatre L’Olympia on the evening of July 15, sipping on a coke, trying to act natural as I waited for the show to start. 

I’ll confess I felt some trepidation on my way to the event. I didn’t manage to find a friend to go with me, and what little I thought I knew about wrestling culture made me think I might not appreciate my experience attending a show alone as a woman. And yet, I sat unbothered by unwanted attention as the seats around me gradually filled up with groups of guys, couples, and groups of girls too. 

Suddenly the lighting shifted and a disembodied voice blared overhead, announcing that the show was about to start, and would be broadcasted live on Fite TV. The headliner, Dark Sheik, a pioneering trans woman wrestler, hadn’t made it across the Canada-US border in time, the voice informed the crowd. Disappointed hollers and grumbles filled the auditorium.

The matches started, and I began to see what Santori was talking about: what I was watching did not fit with my notion of pro wrestling as a macho, racist boys’ club. 

The winning Death Match tag team was literally called BUSSY, for one thing — a very conspicuous signal of queer representation for those familiar with the lingo. 

Karl Jepson steps out into the ring at the Scarred 4 Life show on July 15. Photo: Rose Cormier

I was captivated by Karl Jepson from Thetford Mines, Quebec: “the Black québécois,” who entered the ring sporting a shirt depicting the Fleurdelisé flag behind a Black fist. In today’s political climate, in the aftermath of an election that divided Quebecers along cultural, racial, linguistic and religious lines, it was inspiring to see him represent himself and our province in that way. He lost his match but won the crowd’s admiration.

But there was something special about seeing so many women entering the ring.

There were certainly more women than I thought I’d see. And man, these girls were tough. They exuded confidence when they stepped out from backstage, with such tenacious expressions on their faces that any guy on the street would surely think twice about telling them to smile. They slammed into each other with as much force as the men, loud cracks echoing through the auditorium when they hit the floor. They were beautiful and feminine, but not in the subtle, gentle ways those words are often used — more like the roaring ocean, a sight to behold but a force you best not mess with.

Watching them, I was struck by how visceral a reaction their presence incited in me. They were steadfast in the ring, basking in their fame and infamy, in front of a crowd that showered them with love or scorn, and they looked as if not a thing in the world could throw them off. It spurred feelings for me, emotions so muddled that I couldn’t parse out their names. 


The week after the show, I caught up with the IWS women wrestlers at their Montréal-Nord dojo.

This time they were without the makeup and cute-yet-functional uniforms, but their faces were recognizable. There were five of them there, a strong showing of women within an indie wrestling promotion, they said. 

“Here is the best place to train to be a professional wrestler in Montreal, especially for women,” said Melanie Havok, the IWS Women’s Champion. “We are all a team and we support each other.”

Melanie Havok, left, and Dani Leo, right, at the Scarred 4 Life show on July 15. Photo: Rose Cormier

Melanie Havok, like many of the others, had watched wrestling as a kid, but for years it wasn’t something she thought she could do. Back then, women wrestlers were few and far between and were usually praised more for their appearance than their in-ring capabilities. It wasn’t until she saw women given the space to be successful in wrestling that she realized it could be a place for her, too. 

Dani Leo shared a similar experience.

“When I would have those thoughts that I want to be a wrestler and I would vocalize them, and then my parents would look at the women on screen and they were half naked and sexualized, it’s not something that a parent wants to hear, and it’s not what I wanted to do either. It took years for me to see that representation on TV — I saw a woman of colour, a petite stature woman — for me to be like, ‘Oh my God, if she can do it, then I can do it too.’”  

That representation, when women’s fights went from “bra and panties matches” or “popcorn matches” to actually being taken seriously, was a game-changer.

“I remember distinctly seeing this match between Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair,” said Katrina Creed, who, just like her teammates, had grown up on wrestling and saw how women wrestlers were stunted. “I was like, ‘What the fuck, they’re doing this now? I want in on that.’”

Indeed, things have come a long way since the mid-2000s wrestling these women had seen in their youth. It was a time when models were hired and sent into the ring with hardly any training because producers wanted to prevent them from looking too tough.

Things have been changing for the men, too.

“If you listen to any stories about older wrestlers, there’s a really big culture of bullying and hazing,” Santori said. “Depending on the companies you work for, the dojos you train with, that’s still there, trying to break someone to make sure that they’re tough enough to be a wrestler.”

Their trainer, former wrestler Shayne Hawke, was privy to that culture in his 20 years of pro wrestling.

“I grew up in the era of bra and panties, and beatings and drugs and guns backstage,” he said. “I literally grew up in this. So it’s very important for me to change that culture.”

“(Shayne’s) not trying to bully you, he’s not trying to break you and make you leave,” Santori said. “The more people that join the IWS gym is a testament to how good they are.”

But it’s an intense environment all the same. They train Tuesday and Thursday evenings, doing drills and practicing moves in the hot, humid gym. They practice hurling themselves into the ropes at full speed, “bumps” — how to fall hard without injuring yourself — and an array of wrestling techniques that range from basic holds to high-flying suplexes.

Kristara, right, and Alex Maze, left, fighting together as IWS Champion Tag Team Amazingly Sweet against Casanova Productions at the Scarred 4 Life show on July 15. Photo: Rose Cormier

“I often say there’s no cardio like wrestling cardio,” Kristara, one-half of the IWS Tag Team Champions team Amazingly Sweet, explained. “You can run on the treadmill all you want, but being in the ring is very different. You go out there, it’s humid, there are lights on you. You have no breath but you have to scream, and you have to run. You have to push through those few minutes.”

They’re five women training at the IWS gym, but it took time to get to that. 

“It was intimidating,” Dani Leo said, recalling a mock show for IWS’s students she was invited to attend when she considered getting into wrestling. “I distinctly remember Kristara, after her match coming up to me and being like, ‘Hey, it’s really cool to see another girl here. I’m so excited now I’ll have another girl to train with.’ I think those little things, they make a really big difference. I really think her coming up to me that day is what made me come back.”

“Every girl here helped in one way or another,” said Sam Kelly, the newest addition to the team. “All the women right here, everyone made me feel strong because they are strong.”

Sam started wrestling just one year ago. Yet on July 15, she went up against Katrina Creed, live on Fite TV, and streamed worldwide. 

“At that time (when I started), I was in a very bad place, mentally, physically, all of that. I was 50 pounds heavier. I love to tell the story because it’s a big difference,” she said. “Now, it’s like everything is in place. My life has never been good like it’s been good right now. I have some battles that I have to have, anxiety and everything. But it’s the first time that I feel like this.”

Sam never misses a practice, the others pointed out. Since she got into wrestling, the dojo is where she wants to be. 

Listening in on the conversation going on between us, Shayne Hawke came forward with a correction to a misconception he had heard during our interview when we talked about how the fanbase for wrestling skews male, just like it always has.

“The WWE Network statistics show that 65 per cent of the people who watch it are women,” he said, to exclamations of disbelief from the wrestlers. “The majority of network subscribers now are women.”

But as women find more representation, perhaps that fact isn’t so surprising. In 2019, Wrestlemania had its first-ever women’s main event: Becky Lynch versus Ronda Rousey versus Charlotte Flair, a match that has been lauded by women and men alike as one of the best Wrestlemania fights in recent memory.

“I always say, I never watched wrestling shows when they didn’t have women on them,” Kristara said. 

Suddenly, I was able to put names on those emotions that came over me after watching these girls do things in the ring I could never conceive of being able to do myself. 

Maki Itoh, centre, up against Vanessa Kraven, right, at the Scarred 4 Life show on July 15. Photo: Rose Cormier

“I can feel that little kid in me that had her heart broken because I wanted to be a wrestler, but I never thought it was possible,” Santori said. “But now I’m seeing, I know so many girls who do this and they’re amazing at it. I want other people to see that they can do that too.”

It’s catharsis, a purging of all those sexist notions we as women navigate before we can even understand what they are and where they come from.

I was reminded how, as a teenager, my younger brother had a later curfew than I did, much to my frustration at the time. From my parents’ perspective, this wasn’t punishment but protection. I’m a girl, and girls need to be protected, to be shielded from harm. 

Because we are harmed. Indigenous women have long experienced high rates of violence, a harrowing convergence of racism and misogyny. The COVID pandemic brought with it a jump in femicides. As crime increased in Canada in 2022, women were 11 times more likely to be murdered than men. On July 20, the day I visited the wrestlers in the dojo, Toronto declared intimate partner violence an epidemic. While I was working on this piece, a woman and her daughter were killed by their husband and father, at their home in Lachine. 

There’s anger, always lingering in the background from that accumulation of little moments over a lifetime, those reminders that the world isn’t set up with your safety and your prosperity in mind. The constricted nature of it all. Being torn between feeling that anger, and wanting to express it, but also just wanting to be at peace, to live without getting held down by the unfairness of the world. I couldn’t help but feel more in tune with that anger, which in turn made me wistful. Is it not sad that seeing tough women feels this novel, this special?

“It does feel like I was wronged, I feel stripped of something. It changed the way I saw myself as a girl and what I was capable of. Now we’re collectively healing that,” Santori said. 

“If a young Indian girl can see a girl like [Katrina Creed] or Dani out there in the ring, they both represent two different styles, but they’re there. We didn’t have that growing up. But now it’s here, it’s happening.”

I wasn’t expecting to be so affected, and that was perhaps the most intriguing thing I experienced at my first wrestling show. I wasn’t expecting to say this, but I just might go back again.


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