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Athena, others react to historic ROH PPV main event

All Elite Wrestling

For much of Ring of Honor’s existence, the influential indie didn’t even really have a women’s division. They’d have a quarterly Sara Del Rey match — and whether those were singles or mixed tags with Kings of Wrestling those were often very good, because Sara Del Rey (aka WWE producer & NXT coach Sara Amato) is very good — and an occasional Shimmer showcase, but there wasn’t even a belt for the women to fight over until 2018.

The final years of Sinclair Broadcasting’s ownership weren’t ROH’s finest, and the Women of Honor division was no exception. None of this was due to lack of effort by the performers, of course. They were joined by Maria Kanellis & Bobby Cruise, who were working hard to help the wrestlers build the division up when the company was sold to Tony Khan last year, and paved the way to where we are now.

Where ROH’s women’s division is now includes an Athena title reign that’s been a highlight of the past year of ROH programming. And that helped secure her & Willow Nightingale the final spot on Death Before Dishonor last night (July 21).

It was not only a great showing, it was the first time women have main event-ed an ROH PPV — and obviously therefore the first time two women of color have done so. That was enough to get the badass heel champion to break character at the start of her appearance on the post-Death Before Dishonor media scrum:

“I’m just very thrilled right now and it’s very hard for me to articulate things. I’m trying not to cry, I’m trying not to be a sad sap, but this meant the world to me. I’ve never gotten to main event in my entire career on a pay-per-view.And when Tony approached me a couple of weeks ago about like, ‘Hey, we’re giving you the ball...’ It just — it meant so much to be given that opportunity because it felt like me and Willow earned something.”

Asked about the importance two Black women getting this spot, Athena replied:

“I’ve said it before, representation is key. When I was starting out on the independent scene, I remember being the only African American woman on every show I was on, and they were like, ‘No, you’re that person, you’re our African American woman on this show,’ and it was just a niche thing. And to see how much it’s blossomed — it’s not about race, it’s about your ability, and your talent in the ring. It’s awesome.

“And to be given that platform, not only as an African American woman — as a woman, as a performer, and being able to deliver, that’s what matters. Everyone that’s looking at home, whether you’re Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, I want everyone to take this opportunity and look and say, ‘I can do it. I can do anything I set my mind to.’”

Athena talked about all the women she & Willow paid tribute to in their match with moves and callback spots as a way to thank them for blazing the trail they took to the main event, wrestlers like Del Rey, MsChif, Alexis Laree (aka Mickie James), Daffney, Allison Danger, Sumi Sakai, and Daizee Haze, She also spoke about what her historic match with Nightingale means going forward:

“I haven’t really processed that yet. There were several moments where I came backstage, and I wanted to cry because I was so happy because of the first time in my career I did have that main event. And I was extremely emotional because the pressure was on, not just for me, but for the division, for the AEW women’s division — to show that women’s wrestling matters. And me & Willow, we went out there and proved that tonight.

”It puts a chip on my shoulder, absolutely. Like, there was already a chip there, let’s be honest. But it’s humbling to think that we can go out there and still entertain the fans after all the amazing athletes on Ring of Honor across the board, to still get the crowd invested, still be able to get everyone behind what we’re doing and just be able to entertain people. So have I processed it yet? I’ll probably go to my hotel tonight and have a nice good happy cry about it. But I’m immensely happy about the work that we put in. I said it before, we’re living up to the legacy that was upheld before we got here while creating our own. Not only that, we’re creating the standard for women to come — whether it be AEW or Ring of Honor. We’re setting that bar and just showing the world what we can do.”

Kanellis, who Athena also recognized, reflected on the moment on Twitter:

As did play-by-play voice Ian Riccaboni, in a series of tweets:

We had two women of color main event our Ring of Honor Pay Per View. It was the best women’s match ROH has ever had, period. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.

It was easy to get lost in the moment. I’m so proud of the history made.

There are a few reasons this is extra-special to me.

Athena and Willow have been absolutely undeniable. To see them rise has been incredible.

And... I have a black sister in law and black brother in law. They rule but racism still exists and it sucks.

There are still weird looks. Their family is treated different sometimes. I can’t begin to put myself in their shoes. It’s 2023.

It makes my heart explode that Ring of Honor and AEW is for everyone. Come as you are and enjoy wrestling. It’s a culture thing.

Proud to be part of that.

Second, I saw Maria Kanellis Bennett and Bobby Cruise work REALLY, REALLY hard to change the perception of how women’s wrestling was treated in ROH before the sale. They wanted, needed to move a mountain. They did.

The tributes, call backs, and special moves done to honor the women that started to pave the way? Awesome. But make no mistake, it took special talent to do what Willow and Athena did last night. A trail can be blazed but you can still be a pioneer.

I’m honored to have been a part of history last night. It is not lost on me what we saw. We have some special talent in ROH and AEW and I’d put Athena and Willow at the top of the list.

It hasn’t been a consistent upward trajectory for women’s wrestling over the past decade, but it is important to note the milestones we’ve seen. Hopefully the ROH women’s division can continue to lead in that regard, both for the performers who are there now & who will be there in the future, but also for those who kept going even when they weren’t getting similar opportunities in the past.

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