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New Realities: Bayley's Journey, Part 9

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Author's Note

Due to a whirlwind of a week, this piece was delayed several days. Sorry for the wait. The series finale will indeed go live Monday morning.

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The Road Back

It's impossible to remove the Horsewomen from Bayley's career arc. They shaped her into the wrestler, and champion, she became. But by the time TakeOver: Dallas rolled around, they were long gone. The division had changed. Bayley admitted she was unprepared for Asuka—she was stuck in the mindset of fighting past battles for respect, while Asuka was fighting a present battle for dominance.

Bayley had reigned as NXT Women's Champion for 223 days, defending it against a record six different opponents (no other champion having defended it against more than four competitors)—until she ran into the buzzsaw of Asuka in Dallas.

Losing the NXT Women's Championship deeply affected Bayley. Like usual, she didn't shirk from responsibility—in fact, she placed a burden on herself that never existed. She claimed to have let down her little Huggers and her family, which was patently untrue. Bayley simply being Bayley, regardless of wins or losses or titles, is the most important thing she can offer. Her spirit and purity shine through regardless of scenario. Though she made a good show of saying that she'd soon again challenge Asuka, and that she would rise to the occasion, her disappointment was clear—ending the interview with a half-smile and a pained look in her eyes.

Though she defeated Liv Morgan the following week, and told the assembled crowd that she would "stand for each and every one of you," it was clear that her spirit had slightly dampened. Corey Graves noted, "She’s missing something, not just around her waist, but in her eyes, in her soul. That’s how much the Women’s Championship meant to Bayley." His broadcast partner Tom Phillips agreed, also claiming that "it just didn't feel right" seeing Bayley removed from the top of the ladder.

But not just commentary noticed the change in Bayley's demeanor. Elsewhere in the NXT Women's Division, the vultures were circling.

Nia Jax proved as such on May 11, 2016, when she told Bayley in a backstage segment, "When you lost the NXT Women’s Championship, you became weaker." Bayley, the confident ex-champion, quickly proclaimed that she would choke Jax out again. But Jax had learned the error of her ways in London, whereas Bayley's loss to Asuka had indeed lowered her sharpness. On May 18, Jax offered no overly-cocky reprieves—absolutely decimating the former champion and injuring her in storyline.

Due to her injury at Jax's hands, TakeOver: The End ... was the first TakeOver Bayley failed to appear on since R-Evolution in December 2014. She was determined to ensure her absence would not become a recurring fact.

On her second road to the championship, Bayley tapped into a growing swagger—an awareness of, "Damn right, I'm the Ace." She was determined to get her title back. She deserved to win it back because she was the best—and she knew it. She carried a hint of arrogance, acting more than a bit badass.

Of course, it's a bit easier to portray that swagger when your road to the title consists of Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax instead of Emma, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch.

Alexa Bliss was handily dispatched by Bayley in a November 2015 Women's Championship match, but her ring work had significantly improved since that bout. Unfortunately for Bliss, she was still no match for Bayley. Despite some impressive looking offense, including a disturbingly violent right hand, she fell again to The Hugger on July 6. After the match, Bayley grabbed a microphone and did something rare—raise her voice.

Bayley angrily shouted, "I had to sit back and watch Nia Jax take my opportunity at TakeOver," prompting Jax to stroll to the ring. Their confrontation would lead to a de facto number one contender's match July 20, and once more The Hugger emerged triumphant.

Bayley had beaten the best of the rest—but this hardly seemed adequate preparation for Asuka.

The Boss And Hug Connection

While she clawed her way back toward the NXT Women's Championship, her sister was attempting to make her own mark on the main roster. Sasha Banks, long denied a Women's Championship match against rival Charlotte, came up short in a triple threat match at Wrestlemania thanks to interference from Ric Flair. It would be another several months until she would reappear into the title scene—an interim period that saw the momentum of the "Women's Evolution" sputter, to be honest—but still a singles championship match eluded her. Though she constantly battled against Charlotte and her new protege, Dana Brooke, she was only granted a tag team match against the pair at Battleground, in Washington D.C.

Gee, I wonder who Sasha's partner would be.

The answer was especially obvious when observing Sasha's body language prior to her partner's arrival: a hilariously large smile after the fans began chanting for Bayley, and a continuous head nod signifying how happy she was. Banks was facing away from my spot on the floor of the Verizon Center, so I couldn't see these obvious clues—nor could I see the wacky waving flailing arm inflatable tube men being wheeled into position. But I, and many, many others, had assumed that Bayley would be the mystery partner as soon as the match was announced.

Some claimed that it was contradictory to their story. This was, to be plain, wrong. Of course Bayley would agree to be Banks' tag team partner—by July 2016, their relationship had tossed aside all the bitterness of their past struggles, and was rooted in the purest form of mutual respect, admiration, and love. And Bayley would find special pride in being asked by Banks to help her out—her arch-nemesis for so long once again admitting that she was not merely her equal, but her kin.

The reaction in the Verizon Center to Bayley was nuclear—it's in the conversation, along with AJ Styles' from Royal Rumble, for pop of the year. They weren't just cheering Bayley, though—they were cheering the idea of Bayley and Sasha. It's a winning dynamic: the crowd loudly cheered the post-match hug between Bayley and Banks, despite The Boss having initially shied away from the gesture. That very brief tease of uncertainty was just that, though—a tease. The pair embraced, and their story gained one more chapter.

Almost a year ago, in Bayley and The Boss, I wrote:

It's not just that the story of Bayley and Sasha Banks can be a future foundation for the biggest wrestling company in the world.

It's that the story of Bayley and Sasha Banks should be the future foundation for the biggest wrestling company in the world.

The last year has only deepened that truth.

Banks received her coveted one-on-one match with Charlotte for the WWE Women's Championship the very next night on Monday Night Raw. After paying homage to her idol Eddie Guerrero and getting Brooke tossed from ringside, The Boss made Charlotte tap out to the Bank Statement. The Pittsburgh crowd congratulated her with chants of "YOU DESERVE IT" while Banks claimed this was now "the era of change, the era of women's wrestling."

Once backstage, who did Sasha immediately FaceTime? Her sister, obviously. Bayley had tweeted shortly after Banks' championship win that she was crying, alone on her couch, and that Banks was her hero.

At Battleground, they furthered the story of what could go down as one of the greatest rivalries in wrestling history, by tying Bayley and The Boss closer together. She finally received her title match because Bayley had helped her to tap Charlotte out—she owed the opportunity, at least in part, to Bayley. It's a wonderful bit of friendship and love that Sasha will completely ignore, and resent—she had to rely on Bayley to fulfill her dream—when it's brought up by The Hugger some point in the future.

My God, the night Banks turns on Bayley should be a glorious piece of professional wrestling.

One Last Chance

After defeating Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax, and making a main roster cameo to help out her sis, Bayley had only one thing in mind—to reclaim her NXT Women's Championship from Asuka. But despite her newfound assertiveness, The Hugger would come up short.

The Doctor of Hugonomics had every right to feel confident—she defeated many top opponents on her path to the championship and during her reign. She believed a little more edge, that had served her well against Jax, could put her over the top against Asuka.

On August 3, Asuka attempted to play mind games with The Hugger before Brooklyn, placing a ringside seat on the entrance ramp for Bayley to watch The Empress' match with Aliyah. Bayley wasn't interested in playing Asuka's games, instead merely folding up the chair and tossing it aside, and stood ringside with her arms crossed.

Was it all an act? Was this newfound confidence masking a deep fear? It's important to note that unlike her interactions with Asuka before TakeOver: Dallas, Bayley did not display the same overt worry before her rematch. When she said during the August 10 contract signing for the Brooklyn II match that "for me, the Asuka mystique is gone," it wasn't a lie. Undoubtedly, these fears were tucked away in her subconscious—it's no accident that she reacts strongly to Asuka's suggestion that she didn't "have what it takes." People had been telling her that her whole NXT career, and she'd proved all of them wrong—but it was forever her fear that at some point it would prove accurate.

But for a performer who so readily demonstrates her emotions, Bayley showed not even a glimpse of wariness. She believed she would win. Moreover, she was angry—furious at the suggestion that she wasn't good enough, believing that her lengthy and successful title reign had proved that very fact.

Asuka worked more on top in Brooklyn than Dallas, representing the kayfabe power shift between the two. She took the advantage early with a thumping knee strike, and hardly let up from there. Bayley, meanwhile, relied on her wits and innovation—using a springboard crossbody as a bit of misdirection, since the first time she came off the top rope she was smacked in the face— to try to record a surprise victory. She nearly won the match multiple times on reversals into pinning combinations, including a bridge variant she'd never used before. She even hit a flash Bayley-to-Belly, but only garnered a near-fall—again frustrating the former champ. Whereas their first match was more even, working under in Brooklyn allowed Bayley to give a textbook, never say die, babyface performance. The crowd reaction to Bayley powering out of the Asuka Lock is particularly electric.

Her spirited display and babyface fire—after being struck several times on the body, she demanded Asuka hit her in the face—managed to fully engage a crowd that was well-aware she would lose. But Asuka's claim would come true—Bayley wasn't good enough.

Toward the end, The Hugger once again displayed her perseverance. Deliberate no-selling is rarely used well as a storytelling device, but when Bayley immediately popped back to her feet after taking a reverse roundhouse kick, everyone took notice. Her massive slap to Asuka wasn't a show of disrespect, but instead a demonstration of her resolve. Several more big kicks from Asuka finished the job. She went down fighting—but fell all the same.

Journey's End

In all our endeavors in life, sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Luck, circumstance, context—in our preparations, we can only account for so many things. We do the best we can, put forth our greatest effort possible, and let the chips fall where they may.

Bayley is not invincible. Maybe she's The Ace, The Guy, but she's not an indestructible force of nature. Sasha Banks was wrong when she said that "fairy tales don't have a happy ending," because the truth is merely that they don't necessarily have a happy ending. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

During the 1980s, Hulk Hogan was near unbeatable. He was the product of the last days of the Cold War, when America was on the verge of standing triumphant in one of the greater ideological struggles in human history. He would win, just as we won, because that's simply how things worked. When Hogan "Hulked Up," the usual would soon follow: big boot, leg drop, 1-2-3.

Bayley's two biggest ever "fighting spirit" moments were staring defiantly in the face of Charlotte at TakeOver: Fatal Four-Way, and no-selling Asuka's reverse roundhouse kick in Brooklyn. But unlike the days of yore, immediately after she "Hugged Up" in these two matches, she promptly lost. Within seconds, even.

This is a clear departure from the sort of Hulkamania-like inevitability we've come to expect from top faces. And it's why Bayley's the perfect babyface character for the cultural zeitgeist. When she takes a humbling, you feel that she has actually been humbled. She sells defeat through her body language and words better than any other pro wrestler I've ever seen.

Sometimes our best is good enough, and sometimes it's not. We give our best not because we expect it to lead to rewards, but because it's what we must do to feel meaningfulness. To paraphrase The Brian Kendrick, if we aren't giving our all, we're just living.

Instead, what Bayley teaches us is to live with purpose, but without falling sway to the dangerous notion that we're owed anything. Nothing is inevitable in life. You can be told your whole life that you can do anything you want, and you go to a good college, and do well, and be poised for success—and then the stock market crashes in front of your eyes, crippling the land of opportunities you'd heard so much about.

We live with purpose, with a mission, because it's what we must do to be alive. And we remember that taking our losses in stride, with humility and grace, is just as important as any victory we achieve.

Because while the hugs, the wristbands, the colors, and the smiles all suggest a permanent happiness, the truth is more complicated. Bayley's not permanently happy—rather, she's a fully rounded being with a preternatural gift for dealing with failure. This is her true power: not that she wins because she's so skilled, not that she can stay the happy warrior no matter what, but because she maintains at all times the human quality of acceptance. She takes nothing for granted, knowing it can all fall apart oh so fast—because she's experienced just that. She assumes nothing, knowing that at any time a new challenger can change the game in an instant.

It seems slightly doltish to suggest that Bayley's greatest quality is that she's human. But that's the truth of both the character and what we know of Pamela Martinez—she is such a wonderful talent because of her immense relatability. Somehow, the most larger-than-life quality imaginable is simple humanity. It actually makes perfect sense—in a world torn asunder in innumerable ways, the greatest gift our heroes can give is a sense of commonality, of familiarity, of universality.

By the time the last piece in this series is released on Monday, I'll have spent over 25,000 words trying to nail down just what makes Bayley so special. "True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written," noted Pliny the Elder—and Bayley had, during her time in NXT, done something immense, and wonderful, and important.

But it's not whatever results discovered, or whatever truths unearthed, that made this project worthwhile. No, it's the journey itself that's mattered. That somehow an adorkable 27-year-old stranger can remind me, remind us, that unless we're doing something we love, we're just living.

After losing to Asuka at TakeOver: Brooklyn IIBayley was serenaded by the 15,000 plus in the Barclays Center. She stood in the ring, awash in appreciation—and, despite suffering a crushing defeat, and facing the emotional rollercoaster of her NXT graduation, allowed herself a slight smile. She hugged Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, her mom, and Izzy—who had tears in her eyes—as she made her final walk backstage as part of NXT. As she passed over the TakeOver: Brooklyn II symbol, she gestured down to the three letters in the middle. NXT is, and forever will be, part of her. This is what we can best hope for in life—something that makes us feel alive, makes us feel as if we're something greater than just flesh and bones.

No, her time in NXT wasn't perfect. There were arguably more roadblocks than triumphs. But it was the journey of a lifetime. There was beauty and growth, in both victories and losses. In her heartfelt, tearjerker, farewell to NXT on Instagram, she wrote, "I'll miss the proud feeling of being a part of it all. But I know it will continue. And I will never stop chasing that feeling." The chase continues, the quest everlasting—the journey of somehow, by the grace of talent, effort, and luck, living your dream and inspiring others to theirs.

Bayley started her time in NXT as just another Average Jane, and ended it as the future of professional wrestling.

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In the series finale, I'll look back at Bayley's journey as a whole (including what I believe to be some of her most unheralded, but important, moments), the prospects for her future, and just what Pamela Martinez means to the world of wrestling—and the world, period.

Series Finale, Next Week: Hug Life