No sugar-coating this rivalry

VISALIA, Calif. -- Melina struck her usual pose and preened for the popping cameras of the paparazzi as she left the Visalia Convention Center. She made sure the cameras caught every side -- because every side of Melina is the best -- but refused to acknowledge the fans who screamed her name. But one fan's sign froze the A-list Diva.

"I want to be a Candy-Coated Champion like Candice," the sign read.

Melina's jaw tightened and her round brown eyes became small slits behind her shades. She remained transfixed on the sign until a camera flash snapped her out of her trance. Melina resumed her posing before abruptly disappearing into her awaiting limousine. Once hidden behind the tinted windows, the former WWE Women's Champion removed her Aviator sunglasses and sighed. She rummaged in her Louis Vuitton bag, pulled out a DVD labeled "Vengeance, 6-24-07" and popped it into the vehicle's DVD player. Melina shook her head as she relived the night she lost the Women's Championship to Candice Michelle.

But don't be fooled; the rivalry between Candice and Melina is more than about the Women's Championship. Their rivalry is more than a cat fight between women who are envious of each other's beauty. It's about "paying dues" and the different routes both Divas took to the top of the women's division in WWE.

"I honestly believe that she [Candice Michelle] didn't have to pay dues," Melina said. "Sure, she won the championship from me. But it will never mean as much to her as it means to me, as it means to Mickie James, or anyone else who has won that championship, or any of the girls who have been competing for years."

What? Melina praising Mickie James, the Diva she defeated to win the Women's Championship and an ally of Candice? It may not be as odd as you may think. Melina has never had nice things to say about Mickie, whom she considers a "D-lister." But she respects Mickie because, unlike Candice, she trained many years to make it to WWE and ultimately win the Women's Championship.

"I see so many girls that have been wrestling for years," Melina said. "They really bust their butts. I remember being one of those girls. They go through so much. … Just to be signed by the WWE, that was an honor. That meant a lot. So, to finally make it on the roster and to actually wrestle means a lot. And then to actually win the championship -- I can't believe I made it here, after all I've been through."

Since her WWE debut in 2005, our fans have best known Melina as a Hollywood-hobnobbing Diva. But our fans may not realize that it took her five years to make it to sports-entertainment's big time. She spent years training in different fighting disciplines on the independent wrestling circuit before signing with Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE's developmental territory.  It was there that she first became familiar with Mickie James and current close ally, Beth Phoenix.

That Candice, a relative in-ring newcomer, was able to defeat her for the Women's Championship kills Melina. Candice never toiled on the independent wrestling scene; she was a model and actress before her career in WWE. It did not take Candice five years to make her WWE debut. She first garnered attention as GoDaddy.com spokeswoman, and first appeared on WWE programming as a Diva Search contestant in 2004, a year before Melina.

For two years, Candice appeared in the occasional Lingerie Pillow Fight Match and any other Diva specialty match, unfairly making it easy to dismiss her as a serious contender to the Women's Championship. But after WrestleMania 23, she began to turn heads when she scored victories over former Women's Champion Victoria and then Melina in non-title matches. When Candice defeated the A-list Diva for the championship at Vengeance: Night of Champions, she showed the world that she was for real.

But despite Melina's claims, Candice is training hard and honing her skills every day. Candice acknowledges that she is still learning, but she also believes that her rival is fueled more by jealously and not the female wrestlers who fight for years to get an opportunity in WWE.

"I respect her in-ring abilities. I don't respect what she's about," Candice said. "I don't respect her heart. I don't respect her ways, and she's going to come in with a different agenda. She's willing to do anything to get back to where she was. She's coming in with a very negative energy, but it's a strong energy. I'll come in with a positive energy, knowing that I'm training and prepared and ready to defend that championship."

Melina implied that Candice does not appreciate the true meaning and legacy of the Women's Championship. But Candice's role model is Trish Stratus, who was a fitness model before she evolved into a seven-time Women's Champion.

"I kind of look at my life as the same way hers was," Candice said. "She did not come in as a trained wrestler and she ended up being one of the best Superstars, if not the best Women's Champion. And [besides] being beautiful, she just had every angle of it covered -- having the charisma, the personality, and learning all those in-ring skills. She really put it all together. And to be able to work by her side and not really know how much I was learning until now … she was a great champion, and I would like to be a great champion like that."

Though she has yet to defeat Candice in singles competition, Melina still doesn't respect her abilities. In her eyes, the Candy-Coated Diva has been repeatedly lucky.

"It's a fluke. No matter how much this fluke happens, unless I see otherwise, I still believe it [the Women's Championship] is not going to mean as much [to Candice] as it does to those who are really toughing it out, and getting bones broken and stitches and everything."

But is Melina more concerned about collecting "dues" from Candice than regaining the Women's Championship?

"I want my championship back, but I really just want to cause a lot of pain to Candice Michelle," she said. "It may not be all the beatings that all the female wrestlers have gone through over the years. But I want to give her the beating of her life to initiate her into women's wrestling."

Still, Melina may be once again underestimating Candice. That's what's led to her downfall to begin with. And Candice is more than happy to give Melina a lesson in respect and in what being a champion is about.

"Having experience is one thing, [but] to me, heart is more powerful than experience," she said. "The power and the passion that I can bring from my heart, the experience of learning -- it's going to be more than just her [Melina] being a skilled competitor in that ring. My hard work has only just begun, and that's for the fans to see. You can talk the talk -- I can talk it, Melina can talk it. But walking the walk, that's what everyone sees."

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