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The Boss: Bayley's Journey, Part 4

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Click here to read Part 3 of Bayley's Journey, and follow along with our StoryStream of the whole series!

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During the spring and summer of 2015, Sasha Banks elevated the NXT Women's Championship into perhaps the most prestigious title in the company. At the same time, Bayley ran a parallel story of overcoming all her greatest critics. (As far as I can tell, Banks and Bayley did not interact on camera from the minute Sasha threw Bayley out of the ring at TakeOver: Rival until moments after Bayley won the #1 contendership on August 12, 2015.) Both were placing themselves on pedestals unrivaled by any other wrestler in WWE.

But why exactly was their battle in Barclays such a hotly-anticipated affair? Why does their relationship always seem to be more than just any other wrestling feud?

In politics, we often see intra-party squabbles where nominal ideological allies fight fiercer with each other than against their actual opponents on the other side of the aisle. These fights are often less about policy and more about method and tactics—the age-old battle of idealism versus pragmatism being one such dispute.

So it is with Bayley and The Boss.

A Familial Foe

Their rivalry is often described as a blood feud—vitrolic, mutual loathing. But this is a fundamental misreading of their relationship. The characters don't hate each other: frankly it's impossible to imagine Bayley hating anything or anyone. Sasha Banks, however, also doesn't hate Bayley. Instead, she vehemently disagrees with Bayley on how to be a wrestler. When Banks praises Bayley—as she does during the Iron Man match promo, but even before—there's no reason to believe she's being disingenuous. But her acknowledgment of Bayley's talent gives Banks' criticisms an even-sharper edge.

For Sasha, the world of wrestling—especially for a woman—is tough and unforgiving. She is deeply passionate about women's wrestling, and deeply protective of what she believes to be the only way to have it treated equally. One understands her zealotry—she's fighting for a worthy cause, no doubt. But her tactics, and reasoning, are beyond what most would countenance.

When she sees what she believes to be Bayley's naivety, she resoundingly rejects the Hug Life. She believes her way is the best and only way for women to succeed: that Bayley's method will only result in "nice tries" and "good jobs" without actually bringing women's wrestling the respect it deserves. Banks' cruel, vicious streak is a shield against the hard realities of the industry.

"Remember yourself as a little girl, she is counting on you to protect her." Banks has used this phrase on her social media accounts several times, usually including the hashtag "womenswrestling." She has taken it upon herself to force others to treat women's wrestling with respect—and she is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. She remembers what it was like growing up in a time when women's wrestling was bra and panties matches and Playboy spreads. She is determined to make sure no little girl—or boy, for that matter—will ever again grow up with that impression of women in wrestling.

Bayley is no different. "Remember why you started" reads one of her Instagram posts—a picture of a little girl adorned in Bayley attire. She wants to be an inspiration, to be a role model, to lift up little girls into believing in something greater than themselves. She wants to show that being honorable is no detriment—in fact, it makes success that much better.

Though Bayley shares her biggest goal, Sasha believes Bayley is settling short, not going the extra mile needed, because she is unwilling to bend the rules. Sasha considers herself the true revolutionary to lead the movement for women's wrestling. Sasha's methods make her an anti-hero, but her motivation is, in fact, pure—just like Bayley's.

There's a reason why the two repeatedly refer to one another as sisters—they see themselves in each other.

Their foundational goals, in fact, are the exact same. As the Respect promo makes clear, they both want to prove themselves the best women's wrestler. They both wanted to do this since a very young age, as their respective childhood essays proved. They both chafe against the common treatment of their gender in professional wrestling.

I can not be clearer: These two women are clearly feminists, and their characters are fighting for overtly feminist goals. There is zero other interpretation to conclude after the Iron Man promo. The worldview they both espouse is distinctly radical, and actually revolutionary.

When Banks smiles at Bayley's over-enunciation of "women's wrestler" before quickly reverting to her hardened glare, it's because she understands that Bayley is coming from the same place as her. They chose different paths—but the genesis and motivation of the two are nearly identical.

In many ways, their story is a tragedy—how can two people so alike, with such common beliefs and goals, be so opposed to each other?

Sasha Banks is, in essence, the younger sister of Bayley, who hated the fact that her older sister was beloved and appreciated—despite them both believing strongly in and working for the exact same cause. Sasha chose the quicker and easier path, and it brought her great success. It brought her what she always wanted: to be recognized as the best—and to have people appreciate women's wrestling.

Before TakeOver: Brooklyn, Sasha doesn't view Bayley as a threat because Sasha knows that herself was no threat to anyone until she evolved. She views Bayley's innocence as a weakness, because she believes it to be a past weakness of her own. This is a hard business, and especially hard for women. There's no room for niceties.

She cannot imagine the Hugster beating her because she believes Bayley is the lesser version of Sasha. Bayley's failures up to that point only reinforce Sasha's belief— in her view, Bayley was good, but because she remained innocent, never quite good enough.

Sasha even admits the commonalities between her and Bayley. Before Brooklyn, she signifies the biggest difference between the two by tapping on her NXT Women's Championship title: Sasha is a champion, and Bayley is not. She castigates Bayley by saying, "There's a reason I'm on Raw and Smackdown and you're not." Sasha is distinctly claiming the biggest difference between the two isn't motivation, or hopes and dreams, or desires—it's success, period, and her success is because, unlike Bayley, she's willing to do whatever to reach the top.

For her part, Bayley understands Sasha almost better than Sasha does. She knows exactly what motivates Sasha, and she knows that Sasha's overconfidence is both her strength and weakness. Chip away at that shield and it quickly reveals the insecurity it masks. Sasha's hunt for success is a desperate fight. Why else does Banks constantly kick the mat during pinfall attempts? Why else does Sasha fret and lose her cool when her opponents continue to resist? It's because Sasha's greatest fear is that she's not good enough—and Bayley knows that it's Sasha's greatest fear.

Bayley has always been a vessel for Sasha's insecurity to manifest itself outwardly. In response, Bayley is utterly magnanimous. She understands Sasha, and accepts her. She sees that while Sasha is often a complete jerk, she's ultimately coming from the right place—and she knows that deep down, Sasha loves her. Sometimes we're the meanest to those with whom we actually feel closest. Every time Sasha gives Bayley even begrudging respect, the knowing smile is written all over Bayley's face. Sasha simply has very different ideas of how to reach greatness, and how to elevate women's wrestling.

Of course, Bayley also retains the fear of not being good enough. It's written all over her face: during promos, before matches, during matches, after matches. Bayley's vulnerability is overt—but unlike Sasha, her acknowledgment of it allows her to turn it into a weapon. When she proves to herself that she is worthy, that she's just as good as any other, it builds her strength. She gains power from sheer resiliency.

One should note that this characterization of Bayley is a perfect embodiment of the archetypical WWE face—the underdog that overcomes through finding some personal truth. It's a repeating Hero's Journey. The character must be seen as believably vulnerable while also (usually) emerging victorious. Very, very few can successfully pull this off.

(Their multi-layered relationship is why it would make sense in kayfabe for Banks to ask Bayley to be her tag partner next Sunday at Battleground—or for Bayley to volunteer when Sasha is unable to find a teammate. Despite claiming that she doesn't want to tag with her, Sasha knows there is no greater talent available. And it would add a wonderful wrinkle to their relationship, establishing them as friends and allies—making Sasha's possible return to darkness in the distant future even more powerful. I still think WWE should wait and debut Bayley in Barclays at Raw after Summerslam: one year to the day since she beat Sasha for the NXT Women's Championship. But it would also make sense in D.C.—and if it does happen, you can be sure I'll lose my mind on the floor of the Verizon Center.)

It's notable that Bayley convincingly defeated Sasha in two number one contendership matches in August 2014—but Banks steadfastly refused to give Bayley any credit. Bayley, at that point in time, was superior to Sasha. But still Sasha believed her to be insignificant, a non-factor. And she wasn't entirely wrong—the Hugger may have beaten The Boss twice, but Bayley's losses to Charlotte proved that the Hug Life would never result in success. As long as the NXT Women's Champion came from the Rae-Banks Doctrine, Sasha's credo held true.

Bayley's story, and her relationship with Sasha Banks, would make the evening of August 22, 2015, a very special night. It also proved, as Bayley had predicted, that Sasha Banks was wrong about her—her goodhearted approach was not an inherent weakness, and she was worthy of holding the championship.

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Brooklyn

Bayley defeated Emma, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch on her road to Brooklyn, leaving only Sasha Banks unconquered. The champion's moniker fit rather perfectly for their match in Barclays—she was The Boss in Bayley's career arc. The concept of a "final boss" is an idea common to anyone who has ever played a video game, and the names of various bosses are famously known: Doctor Robotnik. Ganondorf. Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn. Bowser.

Sasha Banks.

Yes, Bayley had beaten Sasha Banks before, several times. Their ultimate confrontation is far from the first interaction between the two—but so is the case with video game villains. Bosses frequently flit in and out of storylines, in lesser forms, attempting to push the hero back down and fleeing when their attempts are unsuccessful. There is no satisfactory result for the hero—no conclusive, lasting victory—until the end.

During the contract signing before TakeOver: Brooklyn, Sasha is full of brash confidence, stating that "Becky and Charlotte were threats, not you, sweetheart." Only women who had followed Banks' lead and stopped being "sweet" could possibly challenge her for the title. While Bayley faces Sasha straight on, Banks is dismissive, first keeping her back turnedlaughing at Bayley, and then angling herself away with a disdainful look.

Banks specifically says that she is the role model that girls should emulate, not Bayley. Sasha continues, saying "fairy tales don't have a happy ending"—that Bayley would only find a path to success by abandoning the idea that being nice, and good, and "loved" by the fans, was a virtue. She rejects what she views to be Bayley's pandering to the crowd—they were just saccharine words, whereas Banks had the championship.

But after beating Emma, Charlotte, and Becky, (women who Banks had just claimed were threats to her) Bayley knows what others, especially Sasha, still failed to see—she was no longer the naive little girl, but instead a cauldron of righteous babyface fire.

As Banks walks up the ramp, Bayley shakes her head slightly, a wry smile on her face. She slowly walks around the table, and then charges Banks, who was looking the other way. She repeatedly punches Sasha before being separated by referees, but Bayley maintains her fire as she stares down the champion. On her face is a mixture of anger and fear: She had to prove Sasha wrong, for putting her down so crassly and mocking her worthiness of being champion. But she was afraid that she would fail, as she had before.

The hype package for their match in Brooklyn hits the nail on the head: it intersperses clips of the other three Horsewomen attacking Bayley with video of their debut on Monday Night Raw the previous month. All three had succeeded, and all three had done so in part by assaulting the Hugger. Sasha, Charlotte, and Becky had reached the top level because they were willing to do whatever it took. Bayley, though, remained in NXT.

Early in the match, Sasha stands over Bayley and shouts at her, "You think you're better than me Bayley? Because all these people love you?! You're a loser! You're pathetic!" Of course, Bayley had never suggested such a thing. All Bayley had said in their contract signing was that Sasha was wrong about her—that she did indeed have the will and heart of a champion. Banks was projecting her deep-seated vulnerabilities once again, and Bayley kicked her strongly to shut her up.

The first realization that we were amid something special was the early loud and extended dueling chant in Barclays. It lasted probably twenty seconds but felt like forever, and its intensity even apparently caught Bayley somewhat by surprise.

The bout was an even battle, fought at the appropriate pace to allow for the character work of both performers to shine: Banks' viciousness, and Bayley's babyface spirit. It's far and away my all-time favorite match, and I'm hardly the only one. Witnessing that contest was special.

Late in the match, Banks came close to retaining her title after hitting a kneeling Bayley with double knees from the second rope. When Bayley kicks out of the double leg cradle, Sasha throws her hands open—as if she was asking "WHY WON'T YOU QUIT?"—while nearly crying. She proceeded to place Bayley on the top rope, and we all know what happened next. The astonishment and excitement in Barclays grew over a several second span, as more and more fans realized just what Bayley and The Boss were about to attempt.

Following the poison Bayleycanrana off the top rope, and knowing her moment had arrived, Bayley aggressively threw a scrunchie away, tightened her pony tail, charged Banks, grabbed her in "embrace" and hit her with a second Bayley-to-Belly.

Catharsis was at hand, as the entirety of the Barclays Center wildly shouted: 1. 2. 3.

Bayley is overcome with emotion, visibly tearing up as she looks at her NXT Women's Championship—right in front of her mom, who was sitting in the front row. As I noted last year, the slight nod she gives referee Danilo Anfibio when he asks, "Are you ready?" (to have her hand raised in victory), is magical.

It's often said the best wrestling characters are extensions of the performer, dialed to 11. This was never truer than in the moments after Bayley's win in Brooklyn. Ms. Martinez was not acting—it was clearly her legitimate reaction to a lifelong dream. She is such a good performer, and such a believable babyface, because she is her character.

Bayley had defeated Sasha Banks, and had finally asserted the supremacy of the Hug Life over the Rae-Banks Doctrine. Goodness and virtue had overcome cynicism and opportunism. Even more impressive is that in the process of defeating her, Bayley converted Sasha Banks.

As Becky Lynch and Charlotte celebrated with the newly-crowned champion, Banks rolled back into the ring, and hugged Bayley.

Sasha Banks. hugged. Bayley.

The woman she'd relentlessly criticized and belittled for two years. The woman who not twenty minutes before she called "pathetic" and a "loser." Who she had just relentlessly mocked and viciously slapped.

One three count later, and Banks capitulated in her quest to hold Bayley down.

The hug, after all, is Bayley's symbol.

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Their match in Barclays famously ended with a curtain call from the Four Horsewomen. It was the perfect moment to close out NXT's biggest ever show—there could be no clearer statement that the brand was radically different than the main roster. It was an iconic image, to last in perpetuity.

Unfortunately, Bayley vs. Sasha Banks wasn't the main event in Brooklyn. It was, to be blunt, a clear error and enormous missed opportunity. It was already branded as the "co-main event" along with Finn Balor and Kevin Owens' ladder match for the NXT Men's Championship—and in terms of match quality, emotional impact, and crowd investment, it absolutely should have gone on last. (As many, many, many fans said so when filing out of Barclays.)

Their due would come soon.

Next Week: Making History