Follow sports long enough and inevitably you'll stumble upon heated debates over most valuable player awards. In baseball especially, there's an interpretive difference of whether most valuable means "best overall" or "best player on a winning team" or "most important player at a pivotal moment in the season for a winning team."
Many have made the case for The Miz and Dolph Ziggler's battles over the Intercontinental Championship as wrestling's most compelling struggle in 2016. But there's a better option for "feud of the year":
The Boss and The Queen's battle for supremacy.
This feud snuck up on us, because while the wrestling community complained about the booking and inconsistent storytelling (and with reason) the two performers were putting on a literally classic series of Big Matches that just kept getting better—and bigger.
Yes, the non-match television for The Miz and Dolph Ziggler's battle over the Intercontinental Championship was worlds better, and their matches were no slouches either. When viewed through those lenses, that's a more appropriate choice for best feud of the year. In the Sasha-Charlotte feud, there are very few (if any) talking segments as good as the "Dolphumentary," or the bombshell in Cleveland when Ziggler put his career on the line, or Miz being loudly serenaded as a coward, something straight out of the 1980s, by thousands of fans.
So how can this be justified as the feud of the year? Yes, this has been a great series of matches: brutal, intense, and downright compelling. By late November, their contests had taken on such a visceral rawness that they more or less came across as shoot fights. The pair were so convincing that it seemed they were no longer engaging in a scripted performance to tell an intended story; the story was the aftereffect of two competitors wanting to win matches for real. In particular, their Falls Count Anywhere match on November 28's Raw wasn't necessarily one of the absolute greatest matches of the year, but it was undoubtedly one of the most engaging matches of the year. But that alone is not enough.
There's one thing that truly makes this war stand out: Sasha Banks and Charlotte is the most important pro wrestling feud of the year. It's not that Miz and Ziggler or DIY and Revival will be forgotten. Their quality stands on its own. But they didn't help fundamentally change the landscape of professional wrestling in a way that will be remembered for all time.
The Boss and the Queen did.
Here's the story that's been told between Sasha Banks and Charlotte:
They both want to prove they're the top female wrestler (though for very different reasons). They are incredibly evenly matched in this struggle, so much that they continuously trade the championship back and forth. They both have massive egos and desperately want to be acknowledged as the best, making their matches consistently more destructive and chaotic.
Unfortunately, the history outlined above is ostensibly stripping out some 90 percent of the actual content in the feud. In video packages, this feud looks dope. But there's a lot of weekly television that occurred, and didn't make those packages, with reason: it wasn't all that good. There's been more than plenty nonsensical booking decisions, blatant retcons (watch the women's championship match at Clash of Champions, and then listen to Bayley's promo the following night), and narrative incoherencies (why did Banks wait months to demand a singles championship match when she had beaten Charlotte the week before WrestleMania?).
But that just makes the performances of Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado and Ashley Fliehr that much more transcendent. In the face of ... uneven creative, they still managed to produce an everlasting feud simply through the authenticity of their matches.
That is not to say that there is no story outside of their matches—it's just that it wasn't always entirely clear as it unfolded week-to-week. But the benefit of assessing the year as a whole is that we aren't forced to delve headfirst into all of the chaff—we can simply view the wheat as it was intended.
First, though, we need to examine the players.
Sasha Banks is a revolutionary that wears her heart on her sleeve and so, so badly wants to be the hero of the women's wrestling movement. Over the summer months there was much consternation that Banks' frequent paeans to history making were merely WWE's attempts to cynically present itself as progressive and enlightened—and that the narratives on camera were in essence being presented by Ms. Kaestner-Varnado, not Sasha Banks. We're all well aware of her passionate feelings (there's an understatement) about advancing women's wrestling—but it seemed like the focus on being #progressive was causing the story to veer in and out of coherency.
The problem with that reading is it ignores that Banks—not just Kaestner-Varnado—is avowedly feminist, and has openly been so all the way back through her NXT women's championship run. Wanting to be seen not just as "the good guy" but as a revolutionary hero to be remembered for all time is the core driving force of not just the performer, but the character as well. "Well, this is Mercedes' goal in real life so that's an interesting twist"—no, it's Sasha Banks' goal, in storyline.
Wrestling fans have reached a point where their inability to accept the show in its entirety as kayfabe hurts creative's ability to tell good stories, and in the rush to mock WWE for being relentlessly PR focused, many chose to ignore the kayfabe development of Banks' persona.
Banks' goals are nearly as lofty as her ego. Claiming she was "born to do this" and "she is counting on you to protect her" (referencing herself as a little girl, and by extension, all other little girls) borders on a messiah complex. And as we saw in NXT, if that goal proves temporarily unattainable, she will do whatever it takes to reach that success. In Banks' mind, advancing women's wrestling—with her at the forefront—is a goal so noble and enticing that the ends will always justify the means.
There's reasonable justification to wonder why Banks' asked for a Hell in a Cell match, or an Iron Man match, instead of getting to that place in the feud more organically. Some have called it lazy creative ... but on the flip side, it actually makes perfect sense for Banks to merely request to be put in these history making moments. Yes, she believes strongly in breaking down these barriers—but she's also extremely self-important.
Banks doesn't want to wait to break down the gender barriers because they've been up far too long already. But she also doesn't want to wait because someone else might tear down the walls before her.
Sasha believes she needs her crowning moment to gain her proper recognition: The revolutionary hero needs a grand triumph, on a big stage, in a big moment. And she keeps coming so. close.
- She thought her place would be cemented at SummerSlam, in the building in which she first launched herself to mega stardom. But when Charlotte reversed the Bank Statement into a pin, her back gave out.
- She thought her legacy would be enshrined in her home town at Hell in a Cell, in the first women's pay-per-view main event and first ever women's Hell in a Cell match. But when she attempted to carry Charlotte across the ring to powerbomb her through a table, her back gave out.
This is a neat little detail in the story, referencing the real life perception of Kaestner-Varnado as being "injury prone."
In fact, Banks is developing a history of coming up short on the big stage—she hasn't won a singles match on a pay-per-view main card since TakeOver: Unstoppable in May 2015. In storyline, her spine has proven both physically and metaphorically unable to stand up to the pressure.
She has one last chance at Roadblock, in Pittsburgh, the town where she first won the women's championship. Will her back hold up?
For Sasha, making history and advancing The Cause—with her as the hero—is the end goal. While that's important to Charlotte as well, she has the alternate motivation of trying to prove that she's worthy of the Flair name.
Charlotte claims to be "genetically superior" to all other competitors because she’s the progeny of her legendary father Ric. Understandably, that sort of lineage can severely skew a person’s sensibilities. Charlotte’s mix of petulance and entitlement has melded into a wonderful heel character—so thoroughly unlikeable for so many reasons, yet able to maintain a complex persona.
Her driving force is an overriding insecurity that she’ll never live up to the family name—and that her equals will never respect her because her lineage gives her an undue leg up. This is more than understandable, and helps ground the character in a sort of commonality with the audience.
It's not the hardest thing in the world to mimic entitlement—but it is extremely difficult to do so while avoiding veering into "rich kid" cliché. Ms. Fliehr accomplishes this with aplomb, imbuing Charlotte with a level of humanity that makes her sympathetic without lessening her unpleasantness. She's made it so that the audience can understand why Charlotte acts the way she acts, but without excusing her behavior.
Charlotte's two greatest talking segments were, unsurprisingly, the two in which she was charged with building the character in opposition to her father. Despite her crude arrogance when first dismissing Ric—claiming she no longer needed him when in storyline she had needed him to win matches for many months—there was a universal, true expression of pain that demonstrated how damaged the character had become as a result of Ric's absenteeism and party lifestyle. Many people at some point in their lives define themselves in opposition to their parents in some manner—and given what we know of Ric's history, it seemed perfectly in keeping with a level of maturation on Charlotte's part. Yes, she was partly delusional (again, he had helped her win for months on end), but that also is a common expression of legacies—deliberately ignoring any advantages they've received.
The second, when she feigned a public apology before slapping Ric for endorsing Sasha's championship victory, doubled down on Charlotte's brokenness. It is yet another betrayal in a long line of grievances she holds against her father. Rather than invoking introspection, she is outraged that her dad would acknowledge her chief rival. That is her greatest fear, and motivating force—that even if she is as good as her peers, she'll never receive proper recognition for being so. It's a trait that leads her to look down on all others (calling fans and opponents "peasants") as a defense mechanism.
Sasha's claim that she was "born to do this" is a direct shot at Charlotte's legacy status—which greatly rankles the new, self-proclaimed "dirtiest player in the game." It's no accident that during their matches Charlotte repeatedly pleads with Sasha to "respect" her. It's an subconscious admission that legacy Charlotte is desperate for vindication from the self-made woman Banks. The Nature Girl is worried that no one will ever hold her accomplishments in high stead, because of course she should win all the accolades—she's Ric Flair's daughter.
She fears that all success she gains is tainted and lessened by her advantages, whereas someone like Banks has managed to "push it all out the way" to make her way to the top. Charlotte's combination of extreme arrogance and utter fear—both as an obviously direct result of her heritage—that's so readily present in her matches with Sasha is one of the most compelling current heel traits in wrestling.
Their goals—Sasha wants to lead a revolution, and Charlotte wants to prove herself worthy of her "genetically superior" boasts—first collided on the main roster in January 2016. To reach the respective heights they’ve set for themselves, one must finally vanquish the other. But this was far from their first shared history.
Though this piece is only truly assessing the events of 2016, it helps to know how we got to this year.
Flair and Banks brought a storied NXT rivalry with them to the main roster upon their call up in July 2015. In November 2013 Charlotte joined the pairing of Banks and Summer Rae— the Beautiful Fierce Females (BFFs)—by turning heel on Bayley. The group "ran" NXT women’s division as its resident Mean Girls until July 2014, when tension between Charlotte—who in May 2014 had won the NXT women’s championship—and Sasha passed the point of no return.
The dissolution of the group led to a long quest by Banks to capture the women’s championship, initially to no success—twice losing number one contendership matches to Bayley, and then three times losing to Charlotte in title matches (the last by disqualification) in December 2014 and January 2015. The old BFFs grew increasingly embittered toward each other, but Banks ultimately captured the championship at TakeOver: Rival in February 2015. She would successfully defend her title against Charlotte in both March and June, and the two were called up to the main roster in July 2015 along with Becky Lynch.
Clearly seen as the money match by higher ups, the pair shared virtually zero physical contact in the second half of 2015. Despite crowds baying for a Banks push ("We Want Sasha" chants echoing during virtually every women’s segment), it was Charlotte who took the "Divas" championship from Nikki Bella in September 2015. She would hold the title until it was retired at WrestleMania 32.
Meanwhile, Banks was largely an afterthought on Raw. She won her share of matches (and notably was never pinned nor made to submit) but was never given an actual storyline to work with. This was a peculiar decision made by creative for the woman who would finish 8th for "Wrestler of the Year" in the 2015 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards—the highest placement by a woman since Manami Toyota finished fourth in 1996.
Entering 2016, rumors abounded that Banks was slated to get a push into the championship picture, to culminate (as the speculation went) in a match with Charlotte at WrestleMania. She was taken off TV for several weeks in preparation for a relaunch at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, held in NXT’s home of Orlando.
In reality, the expected singles match at WrestleMania was turned into a triple threat match to include Becky Lynch—and deservedly so, as Lynch's all-star performance in her feud with Charlotte at the end of 2015 and early 2016 likely saved the entirety of the women's wrestling "revolution." Charlotte won the match, and the brand new WWE Women's Championship, because Ric kept Sasha from breaking up his daughter's Figure Eight submission hold on Lynch. The next night, instead of continuing her feud with Banks, or the division being shook up by a Bayley debut, Charlotte started a program with ... Natalya.
Banks was off TV for nearly two and a half months (and only a small portion of that time was due to injury), finally returning on June 20 to save Paige from a beatdown by Charlotte and Dana Brooke. The former BFFs have been at war with each other ever since, but Banks was not to receive her title shot until a month later.
At the July 24 Battleground pay-per-view in Washington, D.C., Bayley made her main roster debut as Banks' surprise tag team partner versus Charlotte and Brooke. The Hugger's intervention proved vital, and allowed Banks to force Charlotte to submit, earning her a championship shot the following night on Raw.
To the surprise of many, Banks emerged victorious with the title and proclaimed it as "the era of women's wrestling." It's no accident that Sasha loudly announced this to the world only after she won the championship.
But Banks' reign was short lived, as she lost the championship the following month to Charlotte at SummerSlam. The rumor mill flowed with reports that Banks dropped the title because of an expected long injury layoff, but she was back wrestling again within only a few weeks (and if her injury situation was so severe, it seems unlikely that WWE would have her further compromise her health by performing in Brooklyn). Only a little over a month later, she recaptured the title on the October 3 episode of Raw ... only to lose it again at the end of the month at Hell in a Cell.
The frequent title changes have been criticized, but that criticism seems out of place—both performers are in a dramatically better place than they were before the feud began, and the Raw Women's Championship is now arguably the most prestigious title in the company. What's more, it has hammered home the idea that these are two equal competitors, far above the fray from all others. This deliberate differentiation has worked, because Sasha and Charlotte are now legitimate must-see TV.
Certainly their November 28 Falls Count Anywhere match was must-see TV. It was expected that Charlotte would win, ending the feud on a dour note, and then start a program with Bayley. But instead, after a grueling, violent brawl, Banks cranked Charlotte's back against a railing in the aisle (an instantly iconic image, as seen at the top of the article) and forced her to submit, making The Boss a three-time Women's Champion.
"Iron sharpens iron" claimed Charlotte after she lost the title to Sasha for a third time. This is undoubtedly true for the two—each successive battle has grown more and more intense, and Sunday's Iron Man match is sure to raise the bar yet again. This is how it should be—the battles continuously build until the final blowoff. Many modern wrestling feuds quickly grow stale after only a few matches, but the fact that these contests keep evolving heightens the stature of the feud in its entirety.
Turning extraordinary into ordinary
Mock WWE’s "history makers" narrative all you want. (And if it were mere faux-progressiveness for public relations purposes, why on earth did the first ever women’s match to main event a pay-per-view get basically zero press push out of the ordinary?) It turns out that if you repeatedly claim a pair of performers are making history, and in fact they actually do repeatedly make history in compelling ways, then fans will completely believe that they are, indeed, making history—and will respond accordingly with heightened interest.
Funny how that works.
Still some will say this is an affirmative action case, that people are overhyping the performers and feud simply because they’re women. But even if we lived in a world where gender played no role (which we very much do not), there’s still the overt truth that this war came across as far and away the most personal, intense feud we’ve seen this year. (See the kendo stick damage Banks left on Charlotte’s body from their November 28 match.)
No one will ever claim their matches are crisp displays, but that’s a good thing. A blood feud shouldn’t be displayed through ballet-like choreography and pretty sequencing—it should look like a brutal fight. And these two fight in a way that you just can’t look away from. Their battles are simply spellbinding.
When the books are written about the Horsewomen era—and they’ll start appearing sooner than you think—inevitably the questions that will arise are which wrestler, which match, which feud was the most important to the advancement of women’s wrestling. In truth, it’s a fool's errand to make any blanket claims—it’s all important. But it wasn’t until the series of matches between Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair in the second half of 2016 that it was definitively proven that women’s wrestling was no mere sideshow. In the December 5 edition of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, Dave Meltzer made the case:
Raw on 11/28 had good ratings news as the show built around the Sasha Banks title win over Charlotte did 3,107,000 viewers, actually up from the day after Survivor Series and the second highest of the fall season. And that number was drawn against a Green Bay Packers vs. Philadelphia Eagles game that did 13,062,000 viewers, one of the best numbers of the season.
This is the first time you can conclusively say the expanded push of women’s wrestling has been a ratings draw. (emphasis mine)
The key is that the rating held up better than most weeks in hour three, which was built around the women’s title match, so even though the show opened stronger than usual, it also maintained the audience very well...
No longer was it a novelty attraction, at best—it was more and more frequently, in fact, the main attraction. As noted above, publicly available ratings numbers (in addition to the 11/28 episode, their match from July 25—for which we actually got quarter hour breakdowns—spiked the ratings dramatically, including peaking the whole show with Sasha’s victory) demonstrate that not only can women gain and keep as many viewers as the men, but can clearly do superior numbers to their male counterparts when given the chance.
It wasn’t down in developmental, where the flimsy excuse could always be made that it "wouldn’t translate" for main roster crowds. It wasn’t in front of the permanent hometown crowd at Full Sail. This wasn’t NXT—this was Monday Night Raw, and WWE pay-per-views. The last vestiges of disagreement are now forced to confront the reality—try turning the clock back, and you’re costing the company serious money.
And WWE has realized. For 12 years, women hadn’t main evented Raw, nor ever main evented a pay-per-view. In under two months, Banks and Flair main evented Raw twice and a pay-per-view once. There is no going back to the bad old days after this.
Are there more battles to be won? Clearly. If the hottest, best-drawing angle on your show is in a feud-ending Iron Man match on a pay-per-view, how on earth can it not be the main event? There's zero legitimate justification for not putting Banks and Flair on last at Roadblock. They've had their one main event, which indeed was history making—now WWE needs to acknowledge that the company has actually progressed by making it normal.
But that fear held by Banks that "one bad match" would result in the plug being pulled on the women’s wrestling experiment should be gone forever. The amount of evidence is too glaring; the body of work just too damn good. We’ve seen now in rapid succession women not just hold the crowd’s interest in major spots on the card, but clearly be the hottest angle.
These things take time, and they take constant pressure. But there’s little disputing that WWE is in a "moment in history." Big events are occurring quicker than expected—the rate of change seems agonizingly long at times, and rapid fire at others. But Ms. Kaestner-Varnado and Ms. Fliehr have been dead set on forcing the switch to rapid fire, even in the face of uneven creative and a weekly narrative that’s hard to pin down.
Sasha Banks and Charlotte have greatly succeeded in changing the game not just for women's wrestling, but wrestling as a whole—and in the process, made themselves 2016's feud of the year.