Joanie Laurer, known to wrestling fans worldwide as the ninth wonder of the world Chyna, passed away this week at the age of 45. Details are still sketchy about a cause of death, although police have officially ruled out suicide and are working on the theory that she either accidentally overdosed on or had a bad reaction to new anxiety medication she had recently started taking.
Laurer began her wrestling career as a trainee of the legendary Killer Kowalski, with The Fabulous Moolah lending input. She had already had legitimate training as a bodybuilder. In 1996, Kowalski introduced Laurer to Shawn Michaels and Paul Levesque, who had caught on in WWE under the ring name HHH. HHH had been in the market for a valet or manager and he felt Laurer could fit the bill as something unique and different. WWE owner Vince McMahon didn’t agree, but after several attempts at finding HHH a manager backfired, he finally agreed to give Laurer a shot.
Rechristened Chyna, Laurer was certainly a revolutionary figure in the world of wrestling. She was the first female valet who not only looked legitimately tough, but could dish it out as well as she could take it. Some men flatly refused to take bumps for Chyna, most notably Ahmed Johnson. But stars like Mick Foley, Goldust, The Rock and Kane willingly bumped for Chyna, helping get her over as an extremely tough threat outside the ring.
At the 1999 Royal Rumble, Chyna made history as the first woman to enter the Royal Rumble match as an active participant. In June 1999, Chyna once again made history as the first woman to participate in the then-annual King of the Ring tournament, losing in the first round to Road Dogg. She also briefly became the first woman to ever become the #1 Contender for the WWE World Championship, although the following week she lost her #1 contender ranking to Mankind in a match on Monday Night Raw that was better than expected.
On October 17, 1999, Chyna made history by becoming the first- and so far only- woman to win the WWE Intercontinental Championship, defeating future Ponzi Scheme enthusiast Jeff Jarrett in a “Good Housekeeping” match. Unfortunately, her first title reign was not the success WWE had been hoping for. Her first title defense against Chris Jericho at Survivor Series 1999 saw the heel Jericho get heavily cheered. The quality of her title defenses wasn’t great either, especially since in those days, the Intercontinental title was known as the workhorse title whose matches often stole the show.
However, WWE wasn’t ready to give up on Chyna as a singles star within the male wrestling division. Despite losing the IC title to Jericho at Armageddon 1999, a double pin finish on the final Smackdown show of 1999 saw Chyna sort of regain the championship, albeit with a gimmick that she and Jericho would co-exist as IC co-champs. For obvious reasons, that dynamic didn’t work either, so at the 2000 Royal Rumble at Madison Square Garden, the IC title was put up for grabs in a Triple Threat also featuring Hardcore Holly. Jericho emerged as the sole IC Champion in a good match.
Yet this wouldn’t be the end for Chyna as IC Champion. Fast forward eight months to SummerSlam 2000. In a mixed tag team match in which the winner of the fall would become the Intercontinental Champion, Chyna pinned Trish Stratus to win the title for a third time. Her third reign would come to an end in yet another triple threat match eight days later.
The following year, Chyna found herself moved over to the floundering Women’s division. She was said to be very reluctant about the move, preferring to work with men. At Wrestlemania X-7 on April Fools Day 2001, Chyna won the Women’s Championship, defeating Ivory in a match a lot better than expected going in. She would be the dominant Women’s champion of 2001, only losing the title when she left the company in November 2001. Some say it was amicable, others say it was a contract dispute. Many believe her exit was the delayed fallout from a year earlier, when her then-boyfriend HHH left her for now-wife Stephanie McMahon. Whatever the case, it was the last we’d see of Chyna in the WWE forever more.
In 2002, Laurer signed with New Japan Pro Wrestling, wrestling under her given name. She was featured in key matches against such distinguished male talent as Masahiro Chono, Gedo, Jedo and Jushin Liger. She even scored a win over a rookie Hiroshi Tanahashi, who would go on to superstardom in the 2010s. Despite the megapush designed by then-owner Antonio Inoki to get Laurer over as a top attraction, she never was accepted by the Japanese wrestling fans. She would part ways with New Japan by the end of the year.
After a failed attempt with Total Nonstop Action in 2004 that ended when she balked over putting woman wrestler Trinity over clean, life took a dark turn for Laurer. Drug addiction had a firm grip of Laurer’s life at the time. The horror stories quickly spread, including a disastrous appearance on the Howard Stern Show. Interviews were rife with off-the-wall statements and outright lies with little bearing on reality. Her on-and-off relationship with Sean “X-Pac” Waltman often resulted in public outbursts, including one infamous incident in which she stripped naked and dove into a tank full of fish at a restaurant in New York. They sold a sex tape for the money, which gained the couple further infamy with the general public.
Yet in recent years, it appeared as if she was finally conquering her demons. In 2011, Laurer brought Chyna back to pro wrestling, making a one-off appearance at TNA’s Sacrifice PPV. She teamed with Kurt Angle against Jarrett and his wife Karen (who used to be Angle’s wife- LONG story there we won’t go into there). Chyna looked to be in good shape, but the match wasn’t very good primarily because Karen Jarrett was not a trained wrestler and every time she tagged in, the match went to the toilet.
She made a few professional porn films, most notably portraying She-Hulk in a XXX Avengers parody that led to a solo spinoff feature. Some have criticized Laurer for “resorting” to making porn films, but none of those critics ever bothered to think that perhaps this was the only paying work Laurer could get that paid well enough for sheer survival at the time. She did make a return to Japan not as a wrestler, but as an English teacher in recent years.
Last year, Laurer had made overtures about making amends with WWE, with a possible Hall of Fame induction. Sadly, WWE chose to look the other way and ignore her. Now the public reconciliation is too late. No doubt WWE will induct Chyna posthumously.
I admit that I was never a big fan of Chyna. However, there is no denying that she was an important figure and top star of the much-lauded WWE Attitude Era. Laurer had effected positive change at a time when women were little more than eye candy outside the ring. Her achievements paved the way for the current wave of intergender matches that has taken wrestling by storm today, specifically in the Chikara and Lucha Underground promotions. So she was a flawed human being. Who isn’t, these days? Laurer deserves our respect for the positive contributions she gave pro wrestling. At least I wish to remember the good, at least on this cold, gloomy day.