At the center of Capital One Arena, packed with more than 14,100 people, were two women.
On one end of the ring was Riho — a petite 5-foot-2-inch Japanese wrestler weighing 98 pounds. Towering over her on the other end was Nyla Rose, 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds.
“It’s like David versus Goliath!” a man shouted from his seat.
It was a classic wrestling story line, pitting size and strength against a plucky underdog. But a nationally televised professional wrestling championship had never before seen anything quite like this.
Nyla Rose is the first openly transgender woman to be signed by a major U.S. wrestling promotion. And here in her hometown of Washington, Rose was competing in the first Women’s World Championship on the debut episode of a new show, “Dynamite,” from All Elite Wrestling, an upstart promotion that aims to compete with WWE with a message of inclusion.
When Rose signed with AEW earlier this year, the company and the wrestler played down her gender identity, focusing the story line on her strength in the ring, her imposing size and her Native American heritage.
As her fandom grew, so did the backlash. Angry messages from wrestling fans emerged in online chat rooms and on Twitter threads, bringing the usual outrage that comes from a transgender woman competing in female sports. Even in a sport that is scripted and performative, some still questioned whether Rose’s placement in women’s matches is fair.
“I’m actually a little concerned about how she is with the other wrestlers, because for most of her life, she was stronger, proportionately, by a lot. But now she’s something else,” said Adam Fried, a plumber from Silver Spring, one among the scores of mainly male wrestling fans who had waited in line for Wednesday night’s show.
Joshua Szafran, 28, a real estate agent from Baltimore who was wearing a Bluetooth in his ear and a T-shirt with the words “Eat Greg Eat,” said he felt it was a “politically motivated” and “polarizing” choice for AEW to promote Rose so soon.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” said Szafran. “It definitely feels more like virtue-signaling than anything else. . . . They want to virtue-signal and say they’re checking all the boxes they have to check.”
But for Chris Hirsch, a 32-year-old who goes by the name “Fuzzy” and drove 2½ hours from Harrisonburg, Va., with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, it really wasn’t “that big of a deal.”
If it had been a mixed martial arts fight, Hirsch said, “then I’d have an issue with it. But wrestling is entertainment.”
Hirsch said he doesn’t personally know anyone who is transgender. “Everyone has their own opinions on it,” he said. “To me, it’s wrestling. Leave it alone.”
Die-hard wrestling fans like Hirsch didn’t come to make a political statement. They came to see punches thrown and bodies flipped. They came to be entertained.
And that was exactly what Rose said she had hoped for.
Rose knew there might be fans watching who have never known a trans person. With Rose in the ring, “they can see another way someone lives their life. Something they’re not normally used to,” she said in an interview Wednesday before the show. “So it eventually becomes not a big deal.”
For Rose, fighting in such a major ring, in her hometown, is a big deal. A formally trained actress and martial artist of Oneida heritage, Rose grew up watching wrestling on TV with her grandmother in a lower-middle-class home in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
She attended T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where she was on the wrestling team for one week and “hated it.” “It was not as theatrical as I hoped it would be,” she said. “I thought they were going to let me get a crazy costume and get some entrance music and be all flashy.” She stuck with the drama club instead and eventually entered the independent wrestling scene to pursue a career that combined her love of both.
“I’ve always known who I was,” she said about her gender identity. But she didn’t start medically transitioning until she was in her mid-20s, once she had already started wrestling at smaller independent shows.
She assumed the wrestling world would reject someone like her. But six years ago, she was given a chance to fight with a promotion owned by Cody Covey, Rose recalled to Sports Illustrated. She decided to tell the owner that she was transgender. “He was like, ‘That’s cool; I don’t care. Can you wrestle?’ ” After the match, Rose broke down in tears. “For him to have that vote of confidence and just not care, it was incredibly emotionally overwhelming,” she told Sports Illustrated.
In the years that followed, she continued landing spots in independent promotions on the East Coast and in Japan. In February, she signed with All Elite Wrestling.
On Wednesday night, she faced a roaring crowd in her hometown.
“Nyla! Nyla! Nyla!” fans shouted.
“She’s the Native Beast!” a commentator said, using her wrestling moniker, a nod to her Native American heritage.
A commanding figure, with tattooed tributes to the Legend of Zelda and “General Tso’s chicken” — in Chinese characters — Rose grabbed Riho like a rag doll, flinging her around. She lifted the tiny wrestler up in the air, Riho’s legs kicking around.
At one point in the match, Riho kicked Rose out of the ring and tried diving on top of her. But Rose caught her easily in her arms like a baby.
Later, back in the ring, Riho tried picking up Nyla for a “power bomb” but failed.
“Her body just collapsed,” a commentator on the live broadcast said.
“No shortage of spirit, of pluck, moxy or grit from Riho, but Nyla Rose just with a distinct, overwhelming advantage,” a commentator said.
Riho had been training to be a professional wrestler her entire life. And as she drop-kicked and punched Rose, the fans around the ring got onto their feet. It was clear Riho was the “babyface” of the match, the crowd favorite.
And it was clear that, at least according to the AEW script, Rose’s size didn’t matter all that much after all.
“The fans are really into this one. . . . No matter who wins this, we have been impressed with both these ladies,” a TV commentator said.
“It’s been a hell of a match,” said another.
At the match’s climax, Riho sprinted across the ring, kneeing Rose in the face, stunning her and pinning her down.
“One, two, three!” the crowd chanted.
Riho was crowned the winner, the first AEW Women’s World Champion.
“Un — be — lievable!” the commentator on the TV shouted.