Wow wow wow. The past two weeks have produced some of the best women’s wrestling I can remember seeing in the last 12 months. For both WWE and AEW, my critiques are mostly nitpicky details from a critic invested in keeping this momentum going. It can’t be denied that the women have been an integral factor in holding these pandemic-era shows together.
I must forewarn you all, however, that this post is going to Sasha Banks and Bayley-heavy. As these women have been on nearly every weekly TV show for WWE the past two weeks, it would be difficult to talk around the (mostly great) work they’ve been doing. Such rich discourse to get into!
NXT/AEW: The creme de la creme of the last two weeks have been the awesome women’s matches featured on these two brands.
I quite enjoyed the women’s world championship match between Hikaru Shida and Penelope Ford at the first night of AEW Fyter Fest. After watching this match, I saw more clearly the hope there is for All Elite’s women’s division. This was Penelope’s coming out match; her offense is finally precise and innovative, and her in-ring style has matured into something fascinating to watch. I couldn’t believe her roll-up pinning counter to Hikaru’s Falcon Arrow! Also doing a backbend to avoid a missile dropkick?? Trish Stratus is blushing! I loved that Penelope proved she didn’t need her lover Kip Sabian to assist her in this bout, a strategic booking move that served to establish her as a credible threat on her own.
Hikaru was no stiff as well, continuing to impress with her physical strength and valiant-but-vicious technique. The final booking decision was unsurprising, but that isn’t a bad thing. Hopefully, this feud blossoms into a convincing rivalry that culminates in Penelope’s crowning at the top of the division.
In NXT, the women’s excitement continued. While a bit of an afterthought given the matches that took place the following week, I really liked the match between Dakota Kai & Raquel Gonzalez and Kayden Carter & Kacy Catanzaro. This could have easily been a squash, but instead Kacy and Kayden made a surprisingly competent tag team! As I’ve talked about a little in previous editions, I think WWE should work harder to develop women’s tag teams early, while in NXT. I was reminded of this thought while watching Kacy and Kayden go; I think there’s real potential for them to create something we haven’t yet seen in the (nearly nonexistent) women’s tag division.
At the Great American Bash, fans were once again delivered fantastic match-ups. The fatal four way for #1 contendership to Io Shirai’s belt was nearly two matches in one. Candice LeRae, Mia Yim, Dakota Kai, and Tegan Nox all played their roles to a tee. Specifically, I really thought Mia Yim had a swagger in this match that told a story about her character. Her smirks and cheap shots fell in line with how you’d expect a proclaimed “HBIC” to act.
The second half of the match, between Tegan and Dakota, was such excellent wrestling between two women with undeniable chemistry. It is great to see timeless feud reignited in situations like these, and the booking decision is one we can’t really be mad at. As a last small note, Dakota’s Chiropractor finisher is sick.
Saving the best for last…Io Shirai vs. Sasha Banks. Whew. Everything about this match was brilliant.
This match was a masterclass in what an entertaining, balanced, convincing match-up looks like. One of the reasons I love Sasha Banks so much is her unparalleled ability to make anyone she wrestles look like a million bucks, whether they are face or heel. She sells, she throws herself around the ring, she works with her opponents rather than against them or to simply further her own interests (ahem, Charlotte). And she still manages to make herself look good. That is a fantastic wrestler.
As much as I would love to tell you some of my favorite spots from this match, I can’t — I couldn’t bear to pick up my phone to take notes if it meant taking my eyes off the action. I can only try to relay to you all the feelings I had while watching this match.
Io is electric in the ring. From her entrance, her frenetic yelling, the way she wrestles with both intensity and grace remind us why she is the crown jewel of the NXT women’s division. Watching her wrestle is an experience unto itself.
And then there’s Sasha. Outside of what I described above, Sasha — when she is trusted with the ball — is simply a star. Her flashy entrance (with her corgi Ryu!!!), her eye-popping ring gear, the smugness with which she throws her opponents around the ring are elements of detail that you just don’t often see in the modern day women’s division. Even as a fan of hers, I was rooting for Io in this match, because both Sasha and Bayley played their parts so well.
Both Sasha and Io telegraphed down to the smallest details. An example of this was Sasha laying face down on the mat to hide her green-misted face (courtesy of secretly interfering Asuka) to take Io’s finisher, and Io strategically hiding Sasha’s face for the pinfall. In other matches, we’ve seen Asuka mist her opponents or foes behind the referee’s back, only for said opponent to reveal their face during the pinfall for the referee to see, but for some reason not question. Here, an attention to detail corrected this often-overlooked plot hole in interference.
I am only left to say: go watch this match. It’s worth 15 minutes of your time.
RAW and Smackdown: Again, it would be difficult to overlook the role that Sasha and Bayley have played on these shows these last two weeks, so I’ll get them out of the way first.
Continuing the above discussion of attention to detail, Sasha and Bayley’s character building, as well as the relationship between them continues to be entertaining. For example, during the Extreme Rules contract signing with Asuka, Sasha signed her name to the contract not with a pen, but a rhinestone-studded signature stamp. I cackled. Of course Sasha Banks would have a stamp handy for such occasions!
To discuss in-ring action, I do have to commend Bayley and Asuka for their match on RAW this past Monday. Asuka has no first gear when she wrestles — she’s high octane from bell to bell! Although I wish she used her hip attack less (there were so many in this match) I never fail to be amazed every time I watch Asuka wrestle. She’s definitely a world-class talent.
Bayley, on the other hand, played a different role in this match. It has taken a while, but Bayley is really living inside her heel character, and it is translating into her offense. She completed such vicious moves as slamming Asuka into the barricade on the outside and flinging her throat first into the ring ropes. And when she wasn’t doing those things, she took a little break to commentate on her own match, snatching up a headset and talking trash. She is fully obnoxious, and I get the sense that she’s actually having fun being given a level of freedom with her character.
I also loved the video package that she and Sasha made for themselves on Smackdown; a hilarious satire of their career accomplishments and of course, their friendship. Even though we know they’re going to feud, the fact that these two are best friends outside the ropes really comes through in every promo they cut together. It is a camaraderie that is more common in the women’s division and, when leaned into, makes for more convincing storytelling.
In other places, I have to commend Zelina Vega for her manager role. She’s really out there doing the best manager schtick I’ve seen since the Ruthless Aggression era in my opinion. Having seen Zelina in more casual settings thanks to the internet (specifically Xavier Woods’ gaming channel, UpUpDownDown), I just know her character, while bad, is an extension of herself. This isn’t to say that she’s a mean person in real life, but that she is pulling her attitude from a place within herself and simply enlarging it for our entertainment. Her Bronx, New York background gives her a sharp tongue you don’t want to mess with, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Calling Charly Caruso “Two Buck Chuck?” Oh honey. I have to laugh. She’s just so….well, it rhymes with “witchy.” And the best managers must be to get their clients over the way Zelina does.
Lastly, while the match itself was forgettable, I am glad to see Billie Kay’s improvements in the ring, courtesy of her match with Ruby Riott. Ruby herself deserves better, and I hope her return to action recently means significant things for her. She’s yet another woman who is clearly underutilized. But, it was still refreshing to see Billie — the weaker of the two IIconics in the ring — display some creative and well-executed offense for once. If she and Peyton keep improving, they could really be everything that Sasha and Bayley are right now, but exclusively to the tag division.
AEW/NXT: NXT is off the hook this week…for the most part.
I watched a match and segment with Rhea Ripley, Aliyah, and Robert Stone that tickled me. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: how did Rhea get here?
We have to look backwards to WrestleMania, wherein she lost her NXT women’s title to Charlotte in what we can now generally consider yet another power move for Charlotte. Rhea held the NXT women’s championship for about 4 months before losing it, and the majority of her reign was spent either passively or actively feuding with Charlotte. She could have done so much more as champion, after one of the most straightforward and inspiring builds of the modern era. She could have had a reign as legendary as Asuka’s or Shayna’s, and feuded with the women currently in NXT to fanfare. But now, especially given everything that’s happened in the world since she lost the title, it just seems like a distant memory. (Note: I know the situation surrounding Rhea’s work visa complicates this perspective, but from my recollection this wasn’t the primary logic behind strapping Charlotte.) Let’s hope this feud is a rest stop in Rhea’s journey back to main event prominence.
For AEW, let’s get right to the point. On the June 24 episode of Dynamite, there was less than five minutes of screen time given to women. Between a squash match with the women’s champion and a short Britt Baker segment, women were simply a blip on the show. I say, if you’re going to devote such little time to them, why not save everyone the time and just keep them off the show? I suppose including them briefly is better than nothing, but only in quantity. If you have the capacity to book with intention a feud that Cody Rhodes is involved in, you can put that same energy behind your women’s champion.
We have women’s wrestling promotions in 2020. Focusing intentionally on women can be done, and it is being done elsewhere. Turn it around, AEW, or you’ll lose your female fans for good.
RAW and SD: It is time to get down to the nitty gritty of Sasha and Bayley’s writing. I have many thoughts.
It is clear that with Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair gone, that WWE is putting their stock in the last two Horsewomen. With her stellar NXT match and upcoming high-profile match with Asuka, it seems that Sasha is becoming the primary star of the division, with Bayley by her side. More casually as well, I’ve seen more praise for Sasha in recent weeks than Bayley.
The first thing I’d like to discuss is my frustration with this very clear pecking order in the women’s locker room. Becky and Charlotte are at the top, Sasha and Bayley are backups, and everyone else is a free-for-all. Sometimes, Alexa floats between the two top tiers. Becky and Charlotte are gone, so then and only then it seems WWE will allow Sasha and/or Bayley to be the faces of the division. There’s also something to be said about the fact that, more or less, these women have to share the spotlight. I enjoy their relationship portrayed on screen. I also wonder why the two of them are worth one of Charlotte or Becky. The fact that they are women of color is not lost on me. I’ve seen more unequivocal praise of Sasha in the last two weeks than I have since she returned last summer. That’s a testament to how short of a leash she’s been on with WWE for years, and how Charlotte and Becky’s absences are defoggers for fans to see other women’s talents.
Second is the way WWE is portraying Sasha and Bayley as heels. I have already explained the problem with strapping the tag titles on them. Now, Sasha is also challenging for a women’s title. I have a bad feeling they’re going to book her to win the gold, so they can gradually have her and Bayley fall from grace by losing all of their titles. Outside of the stupidity of this potential move, it also speaks to the way WWE often portrays female heels like Charlotte. WWE sees bad women as those who want too much, more than their fair share. Women who want what they shouldn’t want. I’m thinking of the whore stereotype, where a woman seeks to either steal or seduce a man for her own power gain; for example, what Mandy Rose tried to do to Jimmy Uso in front of Naomi’s face. Or, women like Charlotte who want titles and accolades as collectibles, not herself needing them for sustenance but rather as an attempt to satisfy unquenchable thirst for dominance.
Men that are misogynists often believe women want “too much” and that we are never pleased with what we have. There is merit to this if being discussed through the lens of capitalist consumerism, but if that is the case it would be better discussed as a people problem rather than a female one. However, this is not usually what male misogynists mean when they assert this. Indeed, they feel that women who have ambitions for themselves, either personally or professionally, are threatening to their own version of manhood, and that this is a bad thing. So, it seems that WWE is attempting to fit Sasha and Bayley into this mold, as they’ve done to Charlotte. Booking Sasha and Bayley to win all of the gold is the cheapest way to get them heat and drive home the point that women, when they feel themselves too much, are power-hungry wenches that must be stopped.
Could it, perhaps, be possible to characterize women as bad in other ways? And in ways that don’t actively take away opportunities for other women? Why must we perpetuate the same hierarchies that disenfranchise so many other women under contract? For two great female wrestlers to be portrayed this way is disappointing.
You may be picking up on the fact that I have more compassion for the tag champions being complicit in this than I do for Charlotte, despite WWE’s tactics being the same. Why is that? Well, because the contexts are different. Put simply, Sasha and Bayley were never given the luxury of their best interests being considered like Charlotte always has. The former women were booked terribly and meekly for years before finally being given as much trust as they have now. And even that trust, as discussed above, has an asterisk because it has only come as a third choice.
Not only this, but the way Bayley and Sasha telegraph their matches make clear that they are interested in making everyone they interact with look better. The last two or so years of Charlotte’s matches and booking speak differently. What I hope Charlotte’s absence and Sasha’s rise has made clear is the true mark of a great performer is not just making yourself look good, but doing the same for your opponent(s).
So when I express dismay at Bayley and Sasha being molded as heels in Charlotte’s likeness, I do so not to entirely absolve them of involvement but rather to say that the characterization itself is bad. On any woman. This portrayal, when taken to its logical conclusion, yields Charlotte Flair. And we do not want nor need more Charlotte Flairs. Through their wrestling and interactions with other women on screen, it is a shame to make the Golden Role Models complicit in taking opportunities away from other women. This does not need to be the culmination of their heel personas.
I myself am surprised that I am devoting this section to a wrestler I otherwise wouldn’t discuss, and yet here we are. Let’s talk about Shayna Baszler.
Now, I won’t recap the three months of storyline for Shayna that led up to her WrestleMania match with Becky Lynch. What ultimately matters is the end result of said storyline, that being Shayna losing her match with Becky in confusing, abrupt, and unconvincing fashion. The so-called “Submission Magician” lost by submission because she couldn’t escape a submission pinfall.
Several days ago, news broke that Becky actually suggested that Shayna go over her in that match. And this week, it was revealed that Shayna was also supposed to win the Royal Rumble. After hearing this, I felt even more terrible for this woman. These pieces of information came after weeks of discussion about how Vince McMahon just doesn’t “get” Shayna. And as yet another person of color has been shoved down the card because Vince didn’t understand them (like Ricochet, Cedric Alexander, Humberto Carrillo, Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka, etc.) here we have one of the most insidious problems that won’t seem to go away: WWE is run by the sensibilities of a singular, old, wealthy white man.
It’s no wonder Vince doesn’t care about NXT: there are too many Black and Brown people killing it down there. The main roster is notoriously where talented NXT Superstars of color are whitewashed, meaning that they become all but invisible to the few white faves Vince likes on RAW and Smackdown. Only recently have we seen an uptick of Black men on the main roster, but let’s try harder to remember how white things where before nationwide protests broke out.
But back to Shayna, it boils my blood to know that this woman, however talented she may be, was not given a chance because she wasn’t Charlotte or Becky. The biggest determinant of whether or not you will be pushed in WWE is if you fit into a mold Vince either already likes or is familiar with. Shayna does not fit the mold of any of the Four Horsewomen or Alexa, so in Vince’s mind she falls short of being a star that can make him money. This is why stars that have crazy unique gimmicks seem to be the ones that are given the worst storylines (if they’re given any at all); they don’t fit established molds.
Most frustrating about this narrow-minded view of the Superstars that WWE all but holds hostage is the fact that Vince runs his business like a dictatorship. The only collaboration allowed is with Vince’s permission and involvement, but even then he has the final say on everything and everyone. Like other ultra-rich white men in society, Vince subscribes to cutthroat individualism. He seeks to assume nearly singular responsibility for the direction of his company to protect his wealth and status, while promoting bootstrap ideology among his wrestling talent. Collaboration and equity are the enemies of capitalism. There is a reason wrestlers don’t have unions — having such would imply that hierarchies in the locker room don’t exist and everyone was given equal opportunity (and of course, pay equity).
I am unsure of what will become of WWE when Vince dies; the hope would be that this sort of inflexibility and out-of-touch sensibility would die with him. This isn’t a guarantee, though. We must be persistent in not only expressing sadness for Shayna’s story, but finding ways to hold WWE (really, Vince) accountable for this behavior. When we all have open discussions about these things and connect the dots, we may begin to see that it is one piece in a larger, corrupt puzzle.
I hope everyone is staying safe out there. Wear your masks!
Stay legit bossy,