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A year is a long time in a character arc. By the end of 2014, Bayley had been decisively beaten twice by Charlotte in NXT Women's Championship matches, received several vicious beatings at the hands of Sasha Banks, and been betrayed by her good friend Becky Lynch. She was, in kayfabe, a distant fourth among the Horsewomen.
I state again: A year is a long time in a character arc.
In 2015, Bayley saw her greatest rival and ideological twin, Banks, capture the NXT Women's Championship at TakeOver: Rival and usher in a new golden era in women's wrestling. She was betrayed by yet another old friend, Emma, who put her on the shelf with a broken hand. The other three Horsewomen were called up to the main roster, leaving her in Florida.
But along the way, she conquered Emma, Charlotte, and Becky, and then captured the Women's Championship from Sasha Banks in the U.S. Match of the Year at TakeOver: Brooklyn. She retained her title against Banks in a 30 minute Iron Man match—the first women's match to main event a WWE pay-per-view—at TakeOver: Respect. She successfully defended the Horsewomen's legacy by decisively beating Alexa Bliss, overcoming the nefarious corporate influences backing Eva Marie, and slaying the giant of Nia Jax at TakeOver: London.
Along the way, she'd etched herself into the hearts of an untold number of fans around the world. The Hug Life reigned supreme in NXT.
The new year would both affirm that truth—and shatter it fully.
True friendship is rare in kayfabe. Betrayal, misunderstandings, and conflict are too strong of narrative devices to keep any such lasting bond in story. I've noted that several of Bayley's foes saw part of themselves in her—something to reject. But there's a flipside: her friends and allies see something in Bayley to embrace.
Many expected that upon Carmella winning the number one contendership in a battle royal on January 13, 2016, their friendship would be strained. Corey Graves says as such several times—including when Bayley came out to celebrate her friend's victory ("Carmella should clothesline her, right now").
The following week, champion and challenger teamed to defeat Alexa Bliss and Emma. Usually this sort of tag team scenario is awkward, dissension is teased, and often outright hostilities break out. But Baymella work together without incident. When they celebrate their victory—Carmella tapping out Bliss—it's an opportune time for the number one contender to attack, given that Bayley's ribs were kayfabe injured during the match. Instead, they hugged several times.
Notably, Baymella remain devoted to each other throughout their program; one even gets the impression that their friendship is significantly strengthened by the spirited competition. It makes sense that Carmella wouldn't turn, because she's best friends with Bayley. No one that close to Bayley would turn on her (well, except her "sister")—if that were the case, they wouldn't be a person close to Bayley in the first place.
Carmella reminds Bayley of who she was—the upstart friend, who wanted to impress and earn the respect of those she looked up to. Someone like Charlotte found that attitude irritating, at best, when The Hugger tried to befriend her. Bayley, unlike just about any other pro wrestler, views it as virtuous and honorable.
In turn, The Princess of Staten Island never once imagined abandoning her friendship with The Hugger. This is a key difference between pre-champion Bayley and Ace Bayley: friends betrayed Bayley or displayed viciousness toward her because they believed she was not worthy of respect. But after she overcame those doubters and emerged with the title—and assumed her role as NXT Ace—she became the model to emulate.
Since her path to the top contained zero duplicity, cynicism, or cruelty, it makes sense that those who wished to follow in Bayley's footsteps remain loyal. The Hugger took no shortcuts—so why would anyone else pure of heart?
What's more, Bayley no longer needed to surround herself with anyone willing to betray her trust. While an adherent of the Rae-Banks Doctrine held the NXT Women's Championship, Bayley operated in an environment that preached reaching the top—whatever way possible—as the ultimate, solitary goal. But once she captured the title, once The Hug Life ruled NXT, a corollary was added: winning the championship with virtue intact was worth so much more than merely winning.
Despite controlling much of the match, Bayley never hesitates to demonstrate their camaraderie—at one point instructing the referee to check to make sure her friend is all right after hitting a knee drop. Bayley has such love for her friend that she pats Carmella on the back after the challenger hits her with a dive to the outside.
Anyone else, and the gesture would come across as extremely condescending. Bayley, though, truly wants success for her friend. Not in some dumb Stark-like, self-harming manner—she's not going to lay down, intentionally or not, for her friend. But her friend's performance is in some ways a reflection on her: if Carmella was a mere pushover, it would look like the champion was surrounding herself with amiable flunkies.
Bayley is well tuned to her friend's offense—preventing a bronco buster by popping up and clotheslining the challenger. And when Carmella attempted to use her modified figure-four headscissors finisher, the champion immediately countered it into a pinning predicament. Bayley knows her friend; she had done her homework.
The champion was demonstratively technically superior, and, knowing this, found a way to win without her finisher. Surely it would have been easier to win with a Bayley-to-Belly, but doing so would entail possibly hurting her friend. Instead, the match ended on a sunset flip reversal.
After the match Bayley is (unsurprisingly) a gracious victor, telling her friend, "One day, this will be yours." But as Carmella walked off, she was ambushed by Nia Jax and Eva Marie. Bayley took a headbutt from Jax when she went to defend her friend, and Jax carried Carmella into the ring, where the two heels continued their assault. (The pair had beef with Baymella, with Nia still steaming over her loss to Bayley in London, and Eva being eliminated last by Carmella in the number one contender battle royal.)
An unlikely savior arrived in the form of Asuka, and Jax and Marie abandoned the ring. After running off the villains, Asuka sharply turned toward the champion. The look of fear on Bayley's face was obvious, and as Asuka brushed the NXT Women's Championship with her hand, transitioned into a state of near-panic. It wasn't hard to imagine the thoughts flashing through Bayley's mind.
The Empress had come.
A Beautiful Disaster
Bayley's greatest test as champion, and the one that would eventually cost her the title, was versus Asuka at TakeOver: Dallas.
There was surprisingly little build to the match before Dallas. Bayley only spoke on camera once about Asuka—and the challenger, not at all. Before teaming with Carmella against Nia Jax and Eva Marie on February 4, The Hugger is asked by Alex Reyes what she made of Asuka's intentions. The champion can only mutter, "As far as her intentions go, I think we saw it in her eyes—she wants this NXT Women's Championship," before abruptly leaving.
She was terrified.
Bayley teamed with Asuka versus Jax and Marie on March 16, and the duo handily defeated the heel pairing. Afterward, NXT General Manager William Regal appeared to announce that Asuka would be Bayley's opponent in Dallas. As soon as Regal's music hit, Bayley glanced down at her title. She knew what was coming. Despite clearly presuming Asuka would be her next opponent, The Hugger is unable to mask her worry.
The pre-match hype package, including tug at the heartstrings musical score, detailed Bayley's work to advance the stature of women's wrestling. Her other three Horsewomen, as well as Carmella, endorsed her as the ideal, and best, women's wrestler. Certainly, she had done much to help bring greater respect to the division.
On the flip side, Asuka received no heartfelt endorsements. Instead, Emma and Dana Brooke simply explained how Asuka beat the hell out of them.
Their match had the extremely unenviable task of following a certain Match of the Year candidate in Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura. Any other competitor following that match, and the crowd would be dead. But Bayley and Asuka not only immediately brought the crowd to life, but sustained and grew their interest throughout the bout.
Asuka was full of confidence, while Bayley nervously fiddled while the challenger was introduced. The champion then took an especially long look at her title before handing it over to the referee. She tried to keep her usual good cheer, but, like usual, her face told the story.
She was rattled before the bell rang.
To say that this match crushed the soul of Huggers is not an exaggeration. Read my Cageside Seats liveblog of the end of the match:
- A big kick dazes Bayley, and the armbar is locked in again. Asuka almost has the Asuka lock on, Bayley fighting it!
- THE ASUKA LOCK IS ON TIGHT, BAYLEY IS FIGHTING
- Bayley is fading. The crowd tries to rouse her back.
- Bayley fades out, Danilo calls for the bell, and we have a new champion. The crowd reacts in shock.
- Asuka celebrates, the crowd cheers. A worthy champion and successor to the Horsewomen.
Maybe those words don't seem overly upset. But read them with the idea that the author is growing increasingly deflated, and you'll see the bleakness inherent in them. I felt literally nothing inside when writing that last sentence. Compare it to how I began the match:
- Asuka in new gear, including a new mask. Corey Graves calls her "the future champion."
- Phillips calls the mask "A beautiful disaster." That fits pretty well.
- Turn it up!
- And the crowd does, with a MASSIVE pop for Bayley, even after that last match.
- "MAKE HUGS NOT WAR" reads a sign in the crowd.
- "BAYLEY BAYLEY BAYLEY BAYLEY"
- TO ALL THE PEOPLE ACROSS EVERY NATION, TURN IT UP AND GIVE ME SOME MORE
- I'm a totally objective journalism
A fairly stark difference, no?
While it was hard to assess in real-time, as everyone was wiped from Zayn-Nakamura, there's a clear story to the match: Bayley, clearly aware of the dangers Asuka posed, sought to eliminate the power of Asuka's reverse roundhouse kick, through both targeted strikes and submissions, and mere avoidance. On their own, Asuka's various submissions (kneebar, ankle lock, armbar) could be escaped or countered. But if Asuka connected with a roundhouse kick, it was certain to spell the end for Bayley—even if didn't directly cause the finish.
Like she did versus Emma in London, Asuka went for an early knockout blow. Bayley, clearly expecting this, easily dodged, and pointedly walked off, but showed signs of her worry by again puffing up her cheeks. Throughout the match, Bayley dodges or counters several more kicks, and works Asuka's legs with kneebars, ankle locks, dragon screws, and more, in order to deprive her of the necessary power to land a knockout blow. (She also used a back suplex, a possible homage from NXT's Ace to the former Ace of All Japan Pro Wrestling, Jumbo Tsuruta—thanks to Vidence for this tidbit.)
Contrary to popular opinion headed into the match that it would be a reprise of Lesnar-Cena from SummerSlam 2014, Bayley and Asuka basically worked even. The first half was a feeling out process for two opponents who'd never faced before, but the intensity ratcheted up during a quality sequence of a missed double dropkick, simultaneous forearms, and a sharp slap from Asuka—which absolutely enraged Bayley, who threw two very-shoot looking punches that Asuka ducked—and eventually ended with Bayley turning an attempted spinkick into a kneebar.
Unfortunately for the Hugger, Asuka had an answer for everything she offered. When Bayley applied a Guillotine Choke—the move that beat Nia Jax in London—Asuka countered into a submission of her own. When Bayley went for a omoplata armbar—the submission that scored the final fall over Sasha Banks in the IronMan Match at TakeOver: Respect—Asuka blocked Bayley from locking in the hold. When she rolled out of it, Bayley transitioned into a pinning combination which garnered a two-count. Frustrated that she had failed to win the match with the move that ended Sasha Banks' NXT career, Bayley shouts and pounds the mat in frustration.
Bayley attempted to grab Asuka for a Bayley-to-Belly, but is blocked by the challenger, who had her opening to hit a crunching roundhouse kick. It should be noted: this kick had either led to immediate pinfalls in matches, or kayfabe knocked the opponent out. Bayley took the kick, and stayed on her feet—dazed, and likely on the road to a loss, but remained upright after a move that literally knocks people out in story. Asuka immediately followed with a snap suplex (almost a snap brainbuster).
The challenger applied an armbar, but as Bayley broke free, Asuka quickly transitioned into her Asuka Lock submission finisher, prompting Bayley to frantically reach for all four ropes. She failed, as Asuka dragged the champion to the ground. The crowd chanted "Bayley" to rouse their icon, and she momentarily recovered, reaching her feet. But it was not to be, as her strength gave way and she collapsed once more onto the mat.
After the audible shock following the finish, more than a few boos can be heard coming from the crowd. Remember, this is Asuka we're talking about: an asskicker, getting a very mixed, and muted, reaction to winning the title. What's more, most believed that Bayley would lose—that a post-Wrestlemania call up was in the cards. Dallas still booed the result despite this common assumption. Corey Graves admits to the crowd reaction, stating that the crowd was "in shock." This was no ordinary reaction to a wrestling match.
People liked Asuka. People love Bayley.
There are no other moments I've witnessed in wrestling that hit me this hard. As she came to her senses, referee Danilo Anfibio informed her of what happened. In one of the most devastating bits of character work in recent memory, a crushed Bayley slowly sinks to the mat. As Asuka celebrated, Danilo continued his explanation to the former champion, who could only respond with the slightest of nods to express her acknowledgment.
And she had lost.
Was I mad? Not really. I wasn't even necessarily sad. Rather, I was ... empty. Seeing Bayley pass out, lose her title, and come to the realization voided all energy and emotion I had. The feeling reminded me of a war movie, when a mortally wounded soldier receives a large dose of morphine while bleeding out on the battlefield: darkness is onrushing but the pain is dulled until the end is reached—and then it's the end.
Judging by Dallas' reaction, I was far from the only one shaken by the result. This is the honest truth: I've watched Bayley-Asuka from Dallas only three times in my life—as it aired, a few months back when initially preparing for this series, and two days ago. I simply can't stomach viewing it any more than necessary.
When Sasha Banks loses matches, I get upset; when Bayley loses matches, I die inside.
Think back to the aforementioned pre-match hype package: Bayley's endorsements were about what she had done, whereas Asuka's were about what she would do. The Hugger was still living in the old division, but The Empress had changed the game. Thanks to Bayley and the Horsewomen, she didn't need to make a big deal about gaining respect. During the Wrestlemania 32 pre-show, two days after Asuka won the title, (and long, long overdue) WWE rebranded its main roster "Divas" Division into the new Women's Division, including a stunning new Women's Championship title—again, in large part because of the extraordinary efforts of the Horsewomen.
But Asuka wasn't in NXT to start a movement or make a statement. She was in NXT to destroy all before her—and Bayley was unprepared for this new reality.
Despite her setback, The Hugger was determined to regain what was rightfully hers. But before she could confront Asuka again, Bayley fell even further down the hole.