Wendi Richter And The Swerve That Set The WWE Women’s Division Back Three Decades

Moolah has seen her day. They couldn’t even put her face on a can of dog food to sell it and she knows it! – Wendi Richter

Captain Lou Albano was on a plane to New York, headed back from Puerto Rico. The longtime wrestling manager struck up a conversation with the people sitting next to him on the flight, talking shop and discussing ways they could work together on something. The two people, 2-time Grammy Award Winner Cyndi Lauper (who was on the cusp of releasing the smash record She’s So Unusual) and her manager, David Wolff, enjoyed Albano’s banter and seemed interested in seeing what might come of a working relationship.

When it came time to do a video for the first single off the record, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Albano was cast as her stepdad. The song was massive, reaching #1 in 10 countries (including the U.S.), leading to a partnership with the World Wrestling Federation that set off the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” era, a boom period for wrestling seen just one other time since.

At the same time, 23-year-old Wendi Richter had just re-signed with the WWF after stints in Japan, the AWA, Mid-South and Stampede. Now a 4-year veteran of several territories, she was being brought back to the WWF, thanks in no small part to her former trainer, Lillian Ellison, aka The Fabulous Moolah, the longest reigning wrestling champion in the history of the business.

“Rock ‘n’ Wrestling”, however, was about to put the women at odds in a very big way, leading to one of the biggest feuds, and, ultimately, shoot matches in the history of North American women’s pro wrestling.

She Bop

Wendi Richter first broke into pro wrestling in 1979 at the age of 18 when she joined the Lillian Ellison School of Professional Wrestling, making her in-ring debut the same year. At 5’8” and “150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal”, Richter came by bookings easily (provided Moolah allowed it). At that time, women’s wrestling ran almost entirely through The Fabulous Moolah. She controlled bookings and paydays, meaning she also controlled how much money ended up in her pocket prior to the other women receiving their money. Her upfront rate was 25%, but Richter always assumed she kept more.

Wendi had extended runs in several Midwest and Deep South territories, often working with Joyce Grable, the pair twice teaming up to win the NWA Women’s Tag Team Championship. A 2-week booking in New York in the Spring of ‘82 (including a tag match in Madison Square Garden with Moolah as her partner) gave Richter a taste of the WWF. After spending the remainder of the year working all across the U.S. and Canada, the Dallas, Texas native made her way back to New York just after Christmas, finishing out the year with five tag team wins with Moolah again as her partner.

Her star on the rise, Richter signed a deal with Vince McMahon in late-’83, finished up her bookings and joined the WWF roster in late-March of ‘84, immediately teaming up with Peggy Lee, a fellow student of Moolah’s school. Three weeks later, on April 19th, she had a Dark Match vs. Moolah for the women’s title. She lost, but the message was clear: Richter was about to get pushed to the moon.

Money Changes Everything

When Richter signed with McMahon, she told him her pay was to go directly to her, not Moolah. Vince agreed, cutting off one of Moolah’s major streams of revenue. Wendi Richter was on the verge of becoming a breakout star and with the help of MTV and Cyndi Lauper, Vince McMahon had designs on making her the Hulk Hogan of women’s wrestling. Using MTV’s growing mainstream appeal, the WWF shot Richter out of a cannon, featuring her in vignettes with Cyndi Lauper promoting her July 23rd Main Event bout with The Fabulous Moolah on a show that would air on the music channel called “The Brawl To End It All”. The program drew a 9 share, meaning 9% of all televisions in the U.S. tuned in to see Wendi Richter become the new WWF Women’s Champion. The match was a massive success for MTV, the WWF and women’s wrestling. Everyone involved was ecstatic. Well, everyone involved except Moolah (despite the massive payday from Vince).

By putting Richter over, without complaint, she, according to legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette, “got Vince McMahon’s loyalty for life”, but Richter tells a different tale. “Moolah was jealous of me because I was younger than her,” said Richter. “When I won that championship, everyone was up on their feet and cheering. Someone had finally beaten her after 28 years.”

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Wendi and Moolah wrestled no fewer than 20 more times over the next three months with Richter winning each time. The Women’s Champion had become a household name and was a featured wrestler on WWF merchandise, reigning supreme for seven months. Richter, however, didn’t believe she was being paid like a champion. “The men were being paid far more than the women, but I was the only one saying anything,” said Richter.

“Every time I saw (Vince) I brought up payoffs,” she would later say. “I wasn’t ugly or yelled or anything like that. I always told him, ‘Vince, I need to make more. I’m not bringing home enough to justify being on the road like this.’”

McMahon, in an effort to take Wendi down a peg, took the title off her, Richter losing it to another one of “Moolah’s girls”, Leilani Kai, whom also had a hand in training Richter. The women wrestled 8 more times prior to the first WrestleMania with Kai winning 7 of the matches. Leilani, however, was not going to be the face of women’s wrestling, not in Vince McMahon’s eyes, at least. Having served her time in Vince’s doghouse, Richter (w/ Cyndi Lauper in her corner) was given another run with the WWF World Women’s Title, defeating Kai (w/ Moolah in her corner) at WrestleMania I.

Wendi again held the title for seven month, defeating Kai and Moolah on multiple occasions. She was the biggest name in women’s wrestling, but still didn’t feel like she was being paid accordingly. Without Moolah in her corner, Richter was on an island. Yes, she was talented and gorgeous and everything McMahon wanted in a women’s champion. She was also making too many waves at a time when Vince was positioning Hulk Hogan as the face of the industry. Unable to come to terms on a new contract, a decision was made to take the belt off Richter, this time for good.

True Colors

Penny Mitchell became a professional wrestler in 1982. Yet another of Moolah’s “girls”, she was booked in several territories, gaining experience and honing her skills. The WWF was one of the territories she worked, signing with the promotion on a full-time basis in July of ‘84. Less than a year into her WWF run, Mitchell was repackaged as The Spider Lady, working under a mask to conceal her identity. The new look put her on a collision course with Wendi Richter, the two women engaging in a month-long feud that reached its apex on November 25th, 1985.

Before a capacity crowd in Madison Square Garden, The Spider Lady was getting her shot at the title against the recently unbeatable Richter. In those days, heels and babyfaces still dressed in separate locker rooms. When The Spider Lady entered the ring, that was the first time Richter had seen her that day, but after having worked with her eight times prior to this night, she knew something seemed off. Penny Mitchell was the same size as the champion. The woman standing across the ring was noticeably shorter. “I knew at that time I’ve gotta protect myself,” said Richter. 

When the bell rang, Richter repeatedly went for The Spider Lady’s mask, trying to remove it. The quality of the contest sailed downhill quickly. When The Spider Lady finally got the champ in a pinning predicament, everything went off the rails. “The referee counted ‘1’, I kicked out, had my shoulder up and he counted ‘2, 3,’” said Richter. The now former champion had just been swerved, but things were about to go from bad to worse.

Knowing she’d been double crossed, Wendi Richter went for The Spider Lady’s mask, ripping it off her head and revealing The Fabulous Moolah. Grabbing her by the hair as Moolah attempted to run away, Richter went into a series of odd-looking work/shoot moves, throwing the new (old) champion around the ring, slamming her down to the mat, then hooking and pinning her in much the same way Moolah had just done her. 

Furious, the former champion left the ring and went back to the locker rooms, searching for McMahon. When no one would tell her where he was, she grabbed her things, left the arena for the airport and didn’t return to the WWF/WWE until 2010, when she was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.

Change Of Heart

Richter disappeared from the wrestling business for a time, resurfacing on the Independent scene in ‘87. She also worked for WWC in Puerto Rico and the AWA, winning those promotions version of the women’s title. Her feud with Madusa Miceli in late-’88/early-’89 was one of the hottest angle going in the AWA during that time. By the end of ‘89, however, Wendi Richter was all but done with professional wrestling.

It’s impossible not to wonder what might’ve been for women’s wrestling had Richter continued working for the WWF. Would she have become the Hulkster of the division? Would Hollywood have come calling the way it did for Hogan? What would a feud between Wendi and Sensational Sherri have looked like? What about Wendi and Madusa on the WWF stage?

Richter was the “chosen one”. Had she and Vince been able to reach an agreement and continued to build the division, I can’t help but think we might have been able to avoid the six and a half years (2/21/90-12/12/93, 12/13/95-9/14/98) the women’s championship title was either deactivated or simply forgotten.

Regardless, the former 6-time women’s champion is fine with how everything turned out. “It changed my career; it changed my life,” said Richter concerning her ending in the WWF. Speaking to Sean Mooney on his Primetime with Sean Mooney podcast, she would go on to say, “I started going to college and I just thank the Lord that I did that. I make far more (as a physical and occupational therapist) than I ever made in wrestling and I get to sleep in my own bed. I couldn’t have that when I was wrestling on the road.”

Oh, and what became of Penny Mitchell? She wrestled for another two years, but never again as The Spider Lady.

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