Professional wrestling (and combat sports in general) are enjoying something of a renaissance in popularity in recent years, with MMA fighters and pro-wrestlers gaining mainstream media attention and being courted for major film and television roles in increasing numbers. Particular attention has been paid to the rising prominence of female athletes in such sports, with UFC fighter Ronda Rousey enjoying worldwide fame and the WWE recently rebranding its often-criticized "Divas Division" to the more official-sounding Women's Division and placing a spotlight on rising female talent like Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair (nurtured through their NXT developmental program).
Sadly, this era has now seen the end of one of the pioneers for women in modern combat-sports. Joan Marie Laurer, better known under her professional wrestling psuedonym "Chyna", was found dead in her home on April 20, 2016.
A bodybuilder who had competed in women's fitness competitions, Laurer underwent training in professional wrestling under the legendary Wladek "Killer" Kowalski in the early 1990s before making a name for herself on the sport's east coast independent circuit. There, she encountered WWE (then WWF) performers Paul Levesque (aka Hunter Hearst Helmsley or "Triple-H") and Shawn Michaels, who were impressed with her abilities and lobbied WWE owner (and Levesque's future father in-law) Vince McMahon to bring her into the company to portray a bodyguard/enforcer character who would shadow Triple-H during his appearances. Dubbed "Chyna: The Ninth Wonder of The World" (ninth because WWE had previously labeled the late Andre The Giant #8), she became a fan-favorite even as many male performers were at first uneasy about being portrayed as intimidated by a woman.
In 1997, she was promoted to a full-fledged in-ring performer as part of the "D-Generation X" heel (wrestling villain) team that also included Michaels, Triple-H and Sean "X-Pac" Whitman; there, she continued to rise as one of the company's most popular new stars. With her unusually powerful physique and formidable in-ring performances ably selling fans on the idea of her being as strong if not stronger than most of her male counterparts (she wrestled almost-exclusively in the men's divisions), Chyna became the first female WWE wrestler to enter events such as The Royal Rumble, the King of The Ring Tournament and (in a career high-point) became the first woman in WWE history to hold the Intercontinental Championship title. She would go on to win and hold the Women's Championship as well in 2001, but would vacate the title and exit WWE soon after under contentious circumstances.
Chyna would wrestle for several other promotions internationally and in the U.S., but was unable to recapture the same level of fame she'd enjoyed in WWE. Attempts to parlay her fame into film and television roles yielded little further success; though reportedly a top contender for the highly sought-after role of The Terminatrix in Terminator: Rise of The Machines, she ultimately lost out to Kristanna Loken. Her highest-profile mainstream film appearance, in terms of pop-culture notoriety, was in Illegal Aliens; a low-budget sci-fi comedy made briefly infamous as the final film appearance of Anna Nicole Smith.
In recent years, the subject of Chyna having yet to be inducted into WWE's Hall of Fame had become a issue of mounting outrage among wrestling fans and also key figures within the sport itself, with many crying foul at the popular star being denied entry when others with similarly difficult personal histories had been inducted without controversy. The cause of Laurer's death has not immediately been revealed.
R.I.P. Joan Marie Laurer: December 27, 1970 – April 20, 2016