I’m laying all the cards on the table early this week. We have some major news to discuss in our Thorny section, ranging from very problematic to downright insidious. The lack of care for AEW’s women’s division is getting more attention recently with the pathetic build to Hikaru Shida vs. Nyla Rose at Full Gear. In WWE, things are despicable both on and off screen: Rey Mysterio’s 19-year-old daughter Aalyah is involved in a love angle with 32-year-old Buddy Murphy, and Zelina Vega was released just last weekend for refusing to relinquish autonomy over her Twitch account.
We could say hope is on the horizon, with a Democratic president-elect finally being declared after a grueling week of news coverage. In the big picture, I do believe Joe Biden’s win puts some bigots on notice: your time is coming to an end. But with Biden’s own centrism to contend with, combined with his determination to “unite the nation” as white supremacists rage in the streets, we have to remember that his win will not be a fix-all. We still have an uphill battle, and although politician Andrew Yang has talked a big game about what he’d do to humble WWE’s exploitative business model, we have to imagine that investigating this singular company is likely low on the list of priorities for the incoming administration.
So here we are, yelling into the void for the foreseeable future about how terrible things are in the wrestling world for women and worker rights at large.
All of that being said, wrestling is going to have to take a back seat this week. I’ll be discussing a handful of highlights from the last three weeks from AEW and WWE, but not as broadly as usual. Simply basking in the goodness of wrestling action while ignoring the hard realities of the corruption going on backstage at both promotions only benefits those that work to uphold the systems of subjugation that keep women from thriving. We’re fighting that today and always.
For now, let’s briefly examine some smile-worthy moments in the last few weeks.
AEW: Not much to discuss here as I’ll explain in the next section, but the new, promising faces in the women’s division were great to see. Serena Deeb, the new NWA women’s champion, faced off against newbie Leyla Hirsch in a non-title match. Leyla was impressive in this match, if not a little too generic with her amateur moveset. But basic isn’t bad; it’s what you do with it. I liked the early goings of this match that saw Leyla ground Serena with a headlock, and each time Serena tried to escape the hold, Leyla rotated her body 45 degrees to keep it intact. Leyla also used her short and stout stature to her advantage, using her hefty thighs to great effect in an armbar submission, as well as to deliver double knees to a grounded Serena in the corner. Serena came out on top, but I do hope that they continue to develop Leyla in the months to come; her amateur wrestling style adds texture to the division.
Red Velvet got some back-to-back weeks of exposure, which is great to see! I like the fact that Brandi is managing her – the two of them look like Black Barbie doll twins, it’s cute. She didn’t get much of a showing in her match against Nyla Rose ahead of Nyla’s match at Full Gear, but she got some lightning quick kicks in before Nyla completely squashed her. I was glad to see her in action again last week, a rare show of continuity in AEW allowing a woman to redeem herself immediately after a quick loss.
Velvet was in action against Tay Conti, still being courted for membership into the Dark Order by Anna Jay. Both Tay and Velvet got some good spots in this one: Tay’s armdrag into a swift donkey kick; Velvet hitting a running stunner, and both women roundhouse kicking each other simultaneously. Anna attempted to get involved by sliding Tay a chair during the match, hoping Tay would use it illegally to secure victory, but Tay rejected the help. She ended up winning, which I thought was a sound move if only for the fact that it isn’t done that often when outside interference fails. As an aside to the booking and head-scratching dissension between the two after the match ended, I hate Tay’s finisher. It’s a Gory Special swung into a knee to the face. Sometimes, adding onto moves is unnecessary. If she’s going to keep that finisher as is, she has to work on making that swing more seamless.
NXT: I’ll only be commenting on Halloween Havoc here, which seems like 50 years ago at this point (so strange how Election Week erased all memory of Halloween).
First, I have to shoutout Raquel Gonzalez for wearing Selena-inspired gear at the show! I squealed as soon as I saw that iconic red and white beaded boustier famously worn by the beloved Mexican-American singer. It was such a charming tribute, and she looked great!
Onto her match against foe Rhea Ripley, it was wonderful to see two hyper-muscular giants of the women’s division go at it and test each other’s strength. They exchanged a healthy number of slaps and forearms to begin this one, and progressed to more impressive shows of strength later on. Raquel’s big moments included a punishing torture rack submission and an amazing throw from the top rope launching Rhea across the ring. Rhea on the other hand finessed some newer moves for her arsenal, including a leg sweep into a basement dropkick and a head scissors!
Rhea predictably picked up the win, and it looks like she’ll finally be feuding with Io Shirai. The two have a match tonight for the championship, and I’m curious as to which way the result will go. Io has had an impressive reign, so I could see it coming to an end. Part of me also believes, however, that they’ll want to get the most out of this feud before strapping Rhea.
Speaking of Io, it seems she’s wrapped up her feud with Candice LeRae by vanquishing her on the spooky show. However, not before one heck of a bout. In their Tables, Ladders, and Scares match, Io showed her comedic chops when she slapped Candice with a bloody plastic arm! I had a good cackle with that one. Io really shone in this match with a creative display of suplexes, one of which caused Candice to land back-first on a chair! She also executed a sickening anklebreaker to Candice with her ankle wedged in a chair (she delivered the move in a corkscrew motion as one would a swinging neckbreaker). Candice had an answer for many of these moves though, proving resourceful in her own right. In fact, many of the high spots of this match were either initiated or taken by the Poison Pixie. She launched herself and her opponent to tables on the floor below with a swinging neckbreaker off the apron, and often escaped Io’s clutches by ducking at the last possible moment.
Indi Hartwell as Ghostface got involved in this match and tried to hand a victory to Candice, but host Shotzi Blackheart made the save so Io could secure a clean victory. Io did so by pushing the ladder holding Candice over, sending Candice careening into a ladder down below. Yeowch! Candice sold that fall like death, as she should have – the ladder broke in half! That woman is a champ, no wonder Johnny fell for her.
I will be satisfied no matter the outcome of tonight’s title match; Io will either continue to impress as a champion, or she will end her reign with the satisfaction of delivering the highest possible quality she could with every defense.
Smackdown: I won’t be discussing RAW this week, but I would like to quickly discuss Sasha Banks’ first successful title defense against Bayley on Smackdown a couple of weeks ago. Besides relief at the end, what I felt throughout this match was how magical the chemistry is between these two women. Their wrestling becomes like a puzzle finally coming together, and everything melts together like butter.
As we’ve come to expect, this match was all about one-upsmanship. Both women countered the other’s offense with their finishers, with Bayley at one point giving a beautiful backstabber to Sasha’s skull, and later locking in The Boss’ own Banks Statement. Once again, we saw a callback to previous matches of theirs, with Bayley thwarting Sasha’s attempts to reach the bottom rope by pushing said rope out with her foot — as Sasha’s done so many times in the past. Other great moments included a high crossbody from the apron by Sasha and a swift back body suplex by Bayley.
The match finish saw a chair diversion by Bayley allowing her a momentary advantage; it was soon thwarted by Sasha’s swiftness in cinching in her finisher. For good measure, Sasha looped her leg around Bayley’s arm before Bayley tapped out. What I love about Sasha’s finisher is that she is consistently debuting more creative ways to either transition into the move, or to spice the crossface portion up when it is applied. The best finishers are the ones that the performer knows how to finesse so as to prevent them from becoming stale, and as Sasha enters her prime, she is learning to do just that.
We’ve arrived at the main courses for this week. Allow me to introduce course number one.
I’d like to firstly acknowledge that I did not order Full Gear on pay-per-view, so I did not see the women’s title match between Hikaru and Nyla. I do know, however, that before the big show, these two were given approximately 8 minutes on Dynamite to build tension for the match. On the episode of Dynamite where HIkaru extended the challenge to Nyla, she was given maybe 15 seconds of screen time to do so.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment. Imagine Kenny Omega and Cody Rhodes in Nyla and Hikaru’s positions. Imagine seeing Kenny cut a 15 second promo, and then the following week watch on the sidelines as Cody destroyed an up-and-coming performer. Then, imagine that they had a little cat fight for good measure after Cody’s match. Imagine that being the only hype we got for their pay-per-view match, transpiring over not one but two episodes of Dynamite. Open your eyes. You couldn’t imagine it, could you? Therein lies the problem.
We would never do this with the “top guys” of All Elite, so why does it continue to be acceptable to do for the women? I am happy that Britt Baker gets her airtime every week. I am even happier to see a new Black female acquisition in Jade Cargill appear on Dynamite last week, and to see her interact with another Black woman. I never realized how rare that was to see in wrestling television until it was in front of my eyes. These are the things that give me hope that we can care about the women’s division as a whole.
But when I see AEW give more airtime to another promotion’s women’s championship on their product that they do their own, it reminds me that they are not invested in building worth for that title.
What they will invest in is an online community for female wrestling fans, AEW Heels; but you have to wonder how much female fans of their product have to talk about on a weekly basis. Why create this online community if you rarely give the women under contract anything substantive to do? When you have not developed more than two or three continuous storylines for the division in the year plus it has existed? I run a women’s wrestling fan blog on Tumblr, and rarely do I feel compelled to reblog AEW women’s content. I simply don’t care about most of the characters.
I’ve seen some folks online try to blame Brandi for the lack of women’s representation on the product, and I want to remind fans how problematic it is to do so. Yes, let’s blame the only Black woman in an executive position in the company – a role she only has because she is married to one of the owners – for the failures of an entire division. There are so many other men of equal or higher position in the company that we could blame, chief among them Tony Khan. Brandi, like Stephanie McMahon in WWE, is merely a female face for the company for public relations. I doubt either woman, based on their CBO titles for their respective companies, have any serious say in the booking of the women’s division.
I’d like to argue that Brandi and Stephanie being tokenized in leadership is largely the problem of why the women wrestlers in both promotions feel like afterthoughts, particularly in All Elite. How about we hire women for reasons other than nepotism; let’s hire women because women have salient suggestions and leadership skills when it comes to booking women’s wrestling. It seems moreso in AEW that letting women have a seat at the table may threaten the reputation that the company is building for itself: a non-respectable boys’ club where WWE rejects can write their redemption arcs. I am very happy that Miro, Pac, Shawn Spears, Matt Hardy, Brodie Lee, Jon Moxley, all the way up to Chris Jericho get to exercise greater creative control in their careers. But if that’s all AEW is going to be, I may have to reconsider my fandom of the brand altogether.
The second course of this crap meal is perhaps the most repulsive. Over in WWE, a storyline is being pushed between Rey Mysterio’s daughter Aalyah and wrestler Buddy Murphy. The repulsive piece? That Aalyah is 19 years old. Freshly 19. As in, turned 19 in August. She’s a sophomore in med school. She was raising her hand in someone’s high school classroom 18 months ago.
And Murphy is 32 years old. Really classy move for a promotion that has alleged sexual abusers (Matt Riddle) and alleged pedophiles (Velveteen Dream) on the payroll.
Where to even begin. How about the fact that Aalyah was the pursuant in this storyline. She consistently defended and protected Murphy from her family’s wrath (Murphy being a former disciple of Seth Rollins in that neverending story), and a couple of weeks ago she planted a kiss on him. I suppose this is better than the alternative of Murphy going after her, but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Let’s clarify a few things. The most important is that it doesn’t matter if Aalyah is “legal.” Legality of age/age of consent are arbitrary laws created by adults who’ve forgotten how underdeveloped we are as humans at 17-19 years old. The adult brain is not fully matured until around 25 years. Up until that point, it is harder for youth to reason logically the long-term consequences of their actions, and the closer to teenage-dom a person is, the easier it is to manipulate and influence their mind. This is why “relationships” between adults and barely-not-teens are predatory, particularly if the age difference is more than 3-5 years. Someone in their 30s like Murphy should have zero interest in someone who is still effectively a child. There are too many famous and unfamous stories of people who were predated upon as teens by adults that could only recognize in their own adulthood that they were being manipulated at best or abused at worst. So encouraging this behavior on a product largely marketed to children is not okay. Period.
Also, it is absolutely imperative we slam WWE for this storyline for all the reasons described above. At the same time, they are not the only ones to blame. It hurts my fangirl heart to say this, as Rey Mysterio is my second favorite wrestler of all time, but this is just bad parenting. Historically, Rey has not only never shied away from having his family invoked in his storylines, but he’s also been happy to involve them directly. We remember the Dominik custody storyline, and how often his family was featured in his first reign as world champion. This year he basically secured full-time employment for his son who only started wrestling training a couple of years ago. As the year has gone on, he has now fully integrated his wife and daughter into the WWE Universe. Surely Rey has enough clout in this advanced stage in his career that he could stop any suggestion that his teenage daughter be involved in an egregious storyline like the one she’s in now. It is clear that he had no interest in doing so. Most wrestlers make it through their careers without their spouses or children ever appearing on screen. Before anything, Rey is a father. He had the power to stop this, and he didn’t. For Rey to whore his own children out for a company as exploitative as WWE is unforgivable.
Which brings us to the dessert course for this week. The wrestling world was shaken last Friday when news of Zelina Vega’s release made headlines. The reason for her release is speculated to be that she refused to give up Twitch streaming as she had done for months before WWE’s bogus mandate to either cease use of the platform or allow them to take it over (and reap the profits). Zelina stood up for herself, and in the process was made into a martyr by WWE when they fired her for it.
For casual fans or those outside of wrestling fandom, it seemed that WWE released Zelina shortly after she tweeted “I support unionization” on her Twitter account. Those of us who read wrestling news regularly know better. Reputable outlets in the wrestling world have reported that Zelina’s release had been decided before she tweeted her support for unions. We can assume, however, that her pro-union mindset (whether adopted in response to her release or long before it) definitely made her unfavorable to Vince and co. I like to look at her tweet as Zelina being just as petty on her way out as WWE was in releasing her: surely she knew that tweeting such a thing on the day of her firing would spark media attention. Complicating the story of her release with a quippy tweet in some ways allowed her to have the last laugh on her way out. I had friends who don’t even watch wrestling putting the pieces together of her release. Anytime WWE’s corruption travels outside of wrestling circles, it’s a small win inching us closer to the entire bubble bursting.
But as for the firing itself, whew. I was livid when I got this news. I had a flashback to two or so weeks ago when Paige was in the news for breaking down in tears on one of her Twitch streams, declaring how exhausted she was with the company’s determination to take the only outlet she had left to connect with wrestling fans. Yet, it was a woman of color that was the first to go. We’ve already discussed how these exploitative policies would have the starkest effect on the female Superstars, since they rely more heavily on third-party income to achieve pay parity with men. Zelina’s release cleared any doubt about that.
I am incensed with this news for so many reasons. One could say that if a “bigger” star had done what Zelina did, say AJ Styles, that it would have been a different story. WWE would have tried to be more accommodating to acquiesce him, because he makes the company a lot of money. That’s just it, though – because he makes the company a lot of money, he himself makes sizable bank being with the company. AJ ceasing use of Twitch, while temporarily sad for him, ultimately won’t hurt him financially. For him, this wouldn’t have been a story; in actuality, it wasn’t. And that’s the reason.
There are likely people at the top of the company, or even at the top of the women’s division, that don’t find rules to be a big deal because as long as their big checks clear, they’ll be financially secure. Just follow the rules, they might say, neglecting to remember all the while that said rules often don’t apply to them. For example, Sasha Banks is breaking into the mainstream with an acting role in Disney’s The Mandalorian. Following her on social media, I saw this week that she had a sneaker collaboration with Puma debut at Foot Locker stores. She has done other sneaker collabs in the past as well. You have Charlotte using a management company now. Xavier Woods seems to still have his UpUpDownDown channel going (although I have a sneaking suspicion WWE has some sort of ownership of that brand now…). And the top white guys in the company rarely if ever do third-party gigs, because their salary downsides guarantee that they won’t need it. For those in the middle or bottom of the card, that frankly isn’t the case. They have to get a side hustle to pay for the same things everyone else does: food, healthcare, housing, and when on the road, flights, hotels, and rental cars. A guy like AJ won’t miss his Twitch money. A woman like Zelina would.
As we can see, it is usually women and BIPOC in the company that look to sponsorships, ads, and streaming to supplement the income they aren’t getting because of sexism, racism, and misogynoir. But even when you look at marginalized folks doing that within the company, it is very clear nepotism or perceived marketability is what determines whether the rules bend for them or not. Zelina, despite having immense potential and incredible mic skills, was not a favorite to Vince. In his eyes, she was expendable. All of us, including the privileged wrestlers in the company, should care about what happened to Zelina. Because if it happened to her simply because Vince didn’t value her, it can happen to anyone that Vince is indifferent to.
It is clear that WWE released Zelina as a flex. They thought they were making an example of her. For the moment, they might have. But more eyes are watching now. Various labor unions replied to Zelina’s tweet last Friday. Andrew Yang is determined to expose WWE and is willing to listen to any whistleblowers that come his way – my half-baked hope is that that whistleblower will be Zelina.
I believe in my bones that the morally horrific acts WWE have committed this year are immediately preceding a huge reckoning for the company. Wrestling and its bogus labor conditions, exploitative pay models, lack of healthcare, racism, sexism, homophobia, nepotism, and so much more have lain in the darkness of our society for decades. What is done in the dark will always come to light. In a year of great exposures, it always comes to wrestling last. As fans, we must keep talking. Keep raising our voices until we are heard.
And maybe one day, when the next generation of wrestling stars want to stream on Twitch, it doesn’t cost them their dream job like it did Zelina.
Stay legit bossy,