Joanie Laurer, the WWE star known to a generation of fans as Chyna, died Wednesday night at the age of 46, leaving behind a legacy as a performer who redefined the role of women in wrestling.
Billed as "The Ninth Wonder of the World," Chyna was truly a pioneer in wrestling. An imposing physical presence, she joined WWE in 1997, as Triple H's silent bodyguard, and later became part of the famous D-Generation X stable. She almost didn't get the role, as people behind the scenes were pushing for Curtis Hughes, while Triple H and Shawn Michaels wanted Chyna. They got their way, and from there, she became a major player in DX, both as an enforcer and a sidekick in their brash antics.
While it would take a while for her to get into the ring for an actual match, Chyna always made her presence known whenever one of her DX mates was in the ring, often getting involved with her trademark low blow. Then, in 1999, with her popularity on the upswing, she became a regular in-ring competitor, earning a spot in the Royal Rumble — she was the first woman ever to compete in the match — by eliminating Vince McMahon in a Battle Royal. After that, she started to compete regularly on Raw, getting involved in the ongoing war between DX and McMahon's Corporate faction, even betraying Triple H and Co. by siding with McMahon in an infamous swerve.
It wouldn't be until later, in 1999, that she had her greatest in-ring triumph. Jeff Jarrett, the Intercontinental Champion, had been working a misogynistic gimmick where he would berate and even physically attack women — until Chyna beat him for the title at the No Mercy pay-per-view. With the win, she made history as the first woman to hold the Intercontinental belt, and would go on to feud with Chris Jericho over the title, even becoming co-champion with him at one point. She would eventually drop the championship for good at the Royal Rumble, and spent 2000 involved in an angle with Eddie Guerrero, which began as an on-screen relationship and quickly devolved into a high-profile feud. That same year, she posed for Playboy, and her issue quickly became a bestseller.
Her final year in WWE would see her win the Women's Championship for the first time, defeating Ivory at WrestleMania X-Seven. She was gradually phased out of TV a few months later, a move Chyna would later say was due to the real-life romance between Triple H — whom Chyna had previously dated — and Stephanie McMahon. While she would later appear briefly in New Japan Pro-Wrestling and TNA, her in-ring career would never again reach the heights it had in WWE.
Her life after wrestling was marked by well-publicized battles with drugs and alcohol and appearances in several pornographic films. Last year, Triple H intimated that her "lifestyle choices" had prevented her from being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Yet despite that, Chyna's impact on the business — and women's wrestling in particular — cannot be overstated. Her physique set her apart from many of her contemporaries, and she was one of the first female performers to willingly get in the ring with men. In fact, many of the stars currently elevating women's wrestling cite her as a primary influence. Chikara Grand Champion KimberLee, upon hearing the news, stated, "Chyna was the reason I started wrestling," and rising WWE star Sasha Banks paid tribute hours after Chyna's death was announced.
When many wrestlers talk about their influences, it often corresponds with what their idols looked like. Smaller guys want to be like Eddie Guerrero, or Shawn Michaels. Larger guys want to be the Undertaker or Andre the Giant. With Chyna, her body type didn't matter — her desire to compete was her defining characteristic. By stepping inside the ring, working an unapologetically strong style, and achieving honors that had previously seemed impossible, she inspired a generation of women to do the same.