By Chuck Carroll

History continues to be made in WWE, where the women’s division remains a priority. Nay. The priority. For the first time ever, a women’s match was the main event at the Royal Rumble. It had to be. Even without the debut of Ronda Rousey, the 30-woman over-the-top-rope battle royal had been built up to an epic level. In a world known for outrageous storylines, it’s clear that there’s no scripting the emotions felt by the female superstars who are finally getting their due. As Stephanie McMahon stood in the middle of the ring and made the momentous pay-per-view announcement, the enthusiasm shown by the women who flanked her was genuine.

At a time when WWE is susceptible to the possibility of eroding television audiences, the women’s division continues its upward trajectory. The reach has extended beyond the flagship Monday Night RAW and its counterpart SmackDown Live! The division has spawned bonafide celebrities who have transcended the squared circle. Nikki Bella became a worldwide household name after John Cena proposed to her at WrestleMania last year. She then parlayed that recognition into a spot on the “Dancing With The Stars” roster. She and twin sister Brie are also maximizing the exposure by launching the beginnings of a business empire that includes a wine venture and clothing line.

And every woman in the locker room is benefiting from the popularity of a reality show devoted exclusively to the division. Total Divas enables them to build fans who otherwise would shun professional wrestling. The mainstays of the cast have built loyal followings thanks to the show’s longevity. The season finale was the show’s 100th episode.

But back to the Ronda Rousey thing. The women’s revolution was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of its performers. Many, like Natalya, have been there many years and are finally seeing the fruits of their labor create parity in the locker room. Sunday night was supposed to be bigger than the first-ever women’s Money In The Bank ladder match. It was supposed to be bigger than the inaugural women’s Hell In A Cell match. This was the prestigious Royal Rumble, an event fans circle on the calendar a year in advance. This was the culmination of everything they had been working for.

And then Ronda Rousey happened. The debut of the UFC megastar overshadowed the 59-minute brawl. The reemergence of Trish Stratus, Lita, Molly Holly, Kelly Kelly and others has been forgotten. Pushed to the back burner was Asuka’s win and her continuing Goldberg-esque undefeated streak. The night belonged to Rousey, who has been training secretly at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, but is yet to compete in the ring. It’s a wise move for Vince McMahon and company. They’re kicking off the Road to WrestleMania with a signing so shocking that it dominated mainstream media headlines. It’s what’s good for business.

But is it what’s good for the women’s locker room? One could think that there are sour grapes and hard feelings among those who have been blazing the historic trail. But Natalya and Lana tell me that’s not the case.

I had the opportunity to speak with the two Superstars, whose feud outside the ring is as well known as any match they’ve had.

>>MORE: From the world of Pro Wrestling

This has really been just a boom time for the women’s division. What do you think is driving that interest among fans?

Natalya: Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen this huge evolution with the women and this growth in the sense that women are really taking charge… front and center in the WWE.

Numbers don’t lie. WWE has given us an opportunity to prove ourselves, and we are doing awesome numbers for the company as far as people who are tuning in to view, not only the product, but the women segments on the show with Total Divas and with Total Bellas and with even just what we did last Sunday at the Royal Rumble. It’s just caused this huge surge of interest with the women in our company and we are embracing it.

What emotions were you feeling leading up Sunday’s Royal Rumble match?

Lana: To be honest, just gratitude, [it] so overwhelmed my heart. I was so excited. It was literally a dream. I’ve wanted always to make history with the women in WWE, so to be able to have that opportunity, to be a part of history, literally a groundbreaking moment, words can’t express how grateful I am to be a part of history with all the women.

Natalya: Last Sunday, being a part of the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble Match in the WWE, it was surreal because we were competing with women from the past, women from the present, women from NXT. It was just this incredible group of women coming together, empowering each other and competing for a chance to perform at WrestleMania and have a title match at WrestleMania. It was just this huge opportunity for all of us to prove ourselves.

Of course, in WWE what we do in the ring, it’s very competitive. But, at the same time, last Sunday at the Royal Rumble, we all really came together as well, and that’s something that’s huge in the WWE, as far as our women’s evolution is going. It’s very cool. It’s a very, very good time to be a woman in the WWE.

Nattie, you’re the veteran backstage, and this was a first-ever event. It’s a huge deal. How was the mood backstage? Were there a lot of jitters there?

Natalya: There always are jitters, because we perform on live TV, and it’s in front the whole world, but this was on a whole new level. Everybody was just excited in a good way. It was that nervous energy that drives you. It was so exciting and groundbreaking, and not only did we all enjoy ourselves, but we really hit a home run. It’s just a testament that when women come together, we can do anything.

How were you leading up to that, Lana? Jittery? A lot of nerves?

Lana: Oh, my gosh. I was so nervous. I literally … Oh, my God. That day, I had to find a corner to just sit down and meditate and stretch and just remind myself, I can do this. But I was with some of the greatest women competitors of all time. Some of the greatest current women on the roster, the history-making women, who are some of the greatest competitors and then legends coming back. I was so nervous because I’m like, “I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to go out there and fail and not be impactful.” I had to really find a corner to calm myself and just meditate, because I wanted to do a great job.

One thing I finally realized is we all bring something different to the table. We’re all unique characters. We’re all unique women. And that’s the great thing about WWE is that we can bring our individuality and we can shine and, hopefully, inspire lots of young girls out there to be your own person. Dare to the be different.

There was some criticism, it seemed like among the women that the night seemed to be overshadowed a bit by Ronda Rousey’s debut. Did you feel that way?

Natalya: Well, for me Ronda is a close, personal friend. I understand everybody has a perspective and a point of view, and that’s the great thing about being in the WWE is that we’re all entitled to feel however we want. But for me, seeing Ronda backstage, I just felt so happy to see my friend.

Another great thing about WWE, which we already touched on, is that competition breeds a better product. Competition breeds excellence. Every single woman in our division wants to be better, and they want our division to be better. We continue to strive to make it better.

If Ronda is gonna drive competition and drive us to want even more or to want to shine even more or is she going to … be a part of our division. It’s one of those things that, at the end of the day, everybody wants to shine, but if it creates an even more exciting environment in WWE, great.

Like I said, I was just so happy to see her and give her a big hug and welcome her to the WWE.

Lana: I welcomed Ronda. I was excited to have her. Competition is great… I personally love competition, because it just makes me work harder. All of us thrive on competition, so we welcome… I personally welcome people with open arms. I believe there’s enough opportunity for all of us.

Will WWE ever reach a point where we see women on top of a Hell in a Cell, jumping like we’ve seen with Mick Foley and Shane McMahon?

Natalya: Well, that’s just for Shane to do. I always say to Shane, I’m like he’s like a cat. He’s got nine lives and more. I don’t really…

Lana: Nattie likes to keep her feet on the ground.

Natalya: I keep my feet on the ground. Knock on wood. That’s why I’ve had a very lengthy career in WWE ’cause I’m really strategic about jumping off the second rope. But I you’re just gonna continue to see us evolve and grow and all of us girls, we always just want more and more and more. It’s like women. We want more, but you’re gonna see that in the WWE, and one day, we’re excited about main-eventing WrestleMania. That’s our next goal.

A lot of this season of the show has been focused on your feud; Nattie and Lana. That’s what people are tuning in to see. But it seems like you’ve got a good harmony going at the moment. How much of that feud and that friction was played up for the cameras?

Natalya: We both had coffee today. That’s why we’re feeling good.

Lana: Yeah. Well, you’re gonna have to tune in to see what happens and why maybe we’re smiling right now, but Nattie is… I love Nattie with all my heart, and we’re like sisters. Just like with family members, you’re gonna fight. The closer you are with each other, the more you might ruffle each other’s feathers.

That’s my relationship with Nattie, but I love her so much. I come to her a lot, for a lot of advice in life and wresting. Well, we do fight… Actually, Nattie personally drives me insane.

I’m pretty sure I drive her crazy, too, but that’s what I love about our relationship is that we work through it. I hope people see that and girls will see that and women will see that your close friends, you are gonna have fights. But it’s what you do with those fights that is going to really determine what your relationship’s gonna be.

Are you gonna take responsibility for your actions? Are you gonna apologize? Are you gonna forgive? Those are key things to having, to all your relationships in life, if you want long-lasting, healthy relationships.

Nattie, would you say that the relationship is on solid ground right now?

Natalya: Today everything’s situational. Lana’s not a bad… We’re like sisters. We have moments when we do drive each other crazy. Sometimes, I just have to tune her out, but at the end of the day, I respect her. I admire her in so many ways.

I’ll tell you one thing, on Total Divas, they weren’t able to capture all of the drama. We get that question a lot. Were things exaggerated? Did you guys just do that for show? It’s like the show wasn’t able to capture every bit of drama and some of it was even played down a little bit. We’re around each other 300 days a year, so there’s gonna be moments when I legitimately want to bodyslam Lana on my grass at my house.

We just learned that the third season of Total Bellas has been given the green light. When do we expect to hear about the next season of Total Divas?

Natalya: I don’t know the particulars on that, but the show continues to be successful, so I’m excited for the future. Tonight marks 100 episodes of Total Divas… It’s gonna be… I get emotional thinking about it ’cause I’ve been on the show since day one, but the show is all about women and strong women and women having a vision and girl power. Hopefully, we can see many more seasons to come.

Pretty confident that there are more seasons to come then?

Natalya: Yes. I believe so. Just when I think that my life is boring, something incredible happens and you’re like, “I need to capture this.”

Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.

Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.

More From CBS St. Louis

Weather
Download The App
Watch CBSN Live

Listen Live