How Chyna blazed a path for the modern WWE Divas Revolution

When the Ultimate Warrior died of a heart attack in 2014, just three days removed from his induction to the WWE Hall of Fame, there was an almost biblical quality to the redemption angle at play.

Estranged for two decades from the company that made him a star (and later profited from a DVD defaming him), Warrior saw his life, career and relationship with the WWE come full circle -- the prodigal son was home. It was a feel-good story, but one quickly offset by the shock and sadness of his death.

Joanie Laurer, who wrestled as Chyna at the peak of the WWE's "attitude era" and was found dead in her apartment Wednesday at 46, never got the chance to have her feel-good, comeback moment.

The reasons, of course, make sense from a public relations standpoint.

Chyna, the wrestler billed as "the ninth wonder of the world" because of her impressive muscular build, is noticeably absent from the WWE Hall of Fame -- and it's a reality that correlates more directly with the public image of Joanie Laurer, the person, and her falling on bad terms with the company since her 2001 exit during her lone reign as WWE women's champion than the character she portrayed.

Sadly, the aftermath of Laurer's in-ring career mirrored the journey of many former pro wrestlers -- depression, substance abuse and early death. It's an ongoing epidemic that has been widely publicized and criticized.

Laurer, who stayed in the public eye through appearances on a gantlet of reality television shows including "The Surreal Life" and "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," certainly didn't help her cause for WWE redemption in the years since her departure. By starring in a series of adult movies that, by glancing at the titles, played up her famous pro wrestling character's name, Laurer may have sealed her fate in that regard.

It probably didn't help matters that Laurer was once in a very public relationship -- both on screen and behind the scenes -- with WWE superstar and executive Triple H, who went on to marry Stephanie McMahon, the WWE's chief brand officer who also happens to be the boss' daughter. McMahon and Triple H, for their part, tweeted touching tributes following Laurer's death.

In a media release Thursday, WWE described Chyna as "a true sports-entertainment pioneer", and the tragedy of her untimely death goes deeper than the struggles in her personal life that ultimately threatened to tarnish her legacy. Chyna's impact inside the ring has never been more visible in the WWE's current product than over the past 12 months.

The launch of the "Divas Revolution" in 2015 brought women's wrestling to the spotlight, giving them more time and higher placement on the card than they'd ever received. Last month at WrestleMania, the movement hit its apex with the WWE officially retiring the butterfly-shaped Divas Championship and the term "divas" altogether, rebranding the title as the WWE Women's Championship. The title was up-for-grabs in a triple-threat match between newcomers Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair (daughter of Ric Flair, the 16-time world champion and two-time WWE Hall of Fame inductee) in a match that many pundits deemed to steal the show on wrestling's biggest night of the year.

All of these developments have their roots in Chyna, who was a game-changer in terms of physicality for WWE women, and as a presentation of muscular beauty and sex appeal through a pair of highly publicized appearances in Playboy in the late 1990s.

The history of women's wrestling (with WWE by no means the exception) has been mostly regarded as a sideshow variety, in terms of its reception. The same can be said for carnival intergender matches -- something not seen in today's WWE, mostly because of the poor message it sends to a PG audience about the validation of men striking women. It is worth noting that rival organization Lucha Underground has recently booked intergender matches in a tasteful manner, to mixed reviews, and several acts on the independent circuit -- most notably Candace LeRea and Joey Ryan -- regularly square off with all-male tag teams to mostly positive reactions.

Effectively serving as the bodyguard (or "muscle") for the beloved faction D-Generation X, Chyna was an incredible exception to the rule at a time when physicality from women was rare. In an era when "bra and panties" matches were often the only way a female wrestler could get booked high up the card, Chyna made scripted matches against male opponents believable and proved that women could work a stronger style.

With the kind of muscularity and in-ring technique that rose above the classifications of gender, she was the first women to compete in the Royal Rumble and remains the lone female in WWE history to win the Intercontinental Championship.

But Chyna did so much more than prove she could dish out high-risk bumps against male opponents just as well as she could receive them. Along with WWE Hall of Famers Trish Stratus and Lita, who helped lead a temporary surge in the women's division around 2004, Chyna laid the groundwork for the style of physical women's wrestling on display today. It took a great deal of time, but women's wrestling now looks similar to the traditional men's product, thriving through a new generation of female superstars -- many of whom honored her impact on social media.

At 5-foot-10 and a chiseled 180 pounds, Chyna remains a character that has never quite been imitated or duplicated -- which speaks volumes to how unique and ahead of her time she truly was.

As the WWE enters this new era of treating women's wrestling with the respect it deserves, by portraying its tops stars as athletes instead of models, a great deal of credit -- some 15 years after her final WWE match -- points back to doors Chyna kicked open, and the ground-breaking chances she took.

Joanie Laurer may have never gotten the chance to shine bright one last time in the WWE, recognized for what she accomplished as a sports entertainer, but considering the current climate of women's wrestling and the visible fingerprints of Chyna's contributions, there's no denying her memory deserves to be given a final resting place it deserves -- in the WWE Hall of Fame.