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Hugging Your Way to the Top: Bayley's Journey, Part 1

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Author's Note

This was originally intended to be a standalone piece, but it spiraled, and spiraled, and spiraled, and spiraled, and ... So over the next 10 weeks, I'll be presenting an in-depth history and analysis of Bayley's time in NXT. I hope you check back every Monday morning for each edition.

And thank you, Bayley.

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The hug is the ultimate expression of love. It can symbolize family, friendship, romance. It's a universal commonality offering comfort, support, endorsement. It is both the most innocent and mature statement a human can make to another. The amount of hugs a person gives and receives are in some way a measure of how much love exists in that person's life—the more hugs someone gives and receives, the more beloved they are.

I think it's safe to say that Bayley is very beloved.

To be clear, Bayley's character isn't actually based on hugs. It's based on what they represent: love. Love of wrestlinglove of her competitorslove of her fans (this last picture, also seen above—just, wow). Love is the most meaningful quality that humanity seeks—and Bayley provides it in spades. She positively radiates with an outpouring of love, that this is what she loves doing more than anything else—and that it is clearly what she should be doing with her life.

It's easy to imagine a character of this sort being rejected by today's jaded, cynical fanbase. Without the right performer, the character would be scoffed at by smarks. Bayley manages to overcome this hurdle because there's a preternatural sincerity to her that cuts through any negative front we can possibly offer. In a world in which cheering the heel is commonly the "cool thing to do," Bayley got extended chants and songs for her in the main event of Wrestlemania.

Researching this piece was substantially more complicated than any of my prior work on Sasha Banks. For one, there's a vast difference between assessing a heel and a face. The little real-life information we know about Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado says that while she does possess the same relentless ambition to be the best as Sasha Banks, she clearly doesn't harbor the same vicious callousness that her character can so wonderfully wield. That separation makes it easier to assess the performance and the character.

The thing about doing Bayley research, though, is that I can't tell the difference between Bayley and Pamela Martinez.

No, really. I literally cannot extract the moments of reality from kayfabe during Bayley's performance. There is no suspension of disbelief: I feel like I'm rooting for a real person, in a real battle, and the people opposite her are mean and awful and why would anyone want to try to beat Bayley she deserves all the success and wins and titles. Bayley is, quite simply, Bayley.

And Bayley is a complete performer and the most natural babyface alive. She is either not a character at all—but simply a real-life personality presented whole—or is presenting the best character work on the planet. Yes, my gimmick might be "makes sweeping, grandiose statements about women's wrestlers" (though Sasha Banks' placement in the 2015 Wrestling Observer Awards would seem to back my arguments—also, what a bizarre gimmick), but my God. There are many, many reasons why Bayley is the Ace-in-waiting of the WWE women's division, and, just maybe, WWE as a whole. But it is her ability to get everyone to completely believe in her—to a level that only wrestlers like Hogan and Austin have accomplished before—that makes her truly stand out.

Moreover, it's hard to watch hours and hours of Bayley consecutively because she wipes me out: mentally, and especially emotionally. She has this innate power of taking all the energy from viewers and draining it from them as they watch her. Even watching old footage—in which I already know what happens—is taxing, in the best possible way. You can't watch Bayley and not be completely invested in her struggles.

Look at all these little kids in the audiences (look at the smile on the girl on the right) and on social media. They adore this woman. They might even know it's "fake," but my God, what happens to Bayley absolutely matters to them. You get the impression that if one of her devotees saw her lose a big match, their entire month would be ruined. (See: Izzy after TakeOver: Dallas.)

A grown man like myself stopped watching NXT for five straight weeks after TakeOver: Dallascan you figure out why? Even the (kayfabe) jaded soul of Kevin Owens noted, during a TakeOver: Brooklyn panel last August, that when Bayley enters a room, "the genuine happiness of people in the room is infectious. It even gets to me."

Bayley turns even the most cynical adults into little kids—she doesn't ever break kayfabe but instead is so utterly believable that she convinces you kayfabe is reality. She has an unparalleled authenticity that hooks the viewer without them fully realizing. She grows on you.

Her journey is so relatable because the character is unendingly familiar. She's a good person, passionate about her goals and loves, and struggles against those who doubt her. We all want to believe this is our life—that we're the hero of our own story, and that we will overcome our critics.

This is a transcendent talent, and I cannot even imagine a purer babyface.

The Genesis of Bayley

Bayley debuted in NXT on March 20, 2013, in a loss to Paige. Over her first year, she quickly became a fan favorite of the NXT universe despite being, well, kind of a dolt. When assessing from summer 2016, it's legitimately uncomfortable to go back and watch 2013 / early 2014 Bayley: This shouldn't be. But that context is what makes her journey so special—from cringeworthy to great heights, due to human reactions to events that happen in her narrative.

(I should note that due to pre-network NXT being unavailable online, this overview of early Bayley is unfortunately truncated.)

When we first meet Bayley, she is an overawed doe. She is so unaccustomed to her surroundings and so lacking in self-awareness that her hugs are off-putting rather than endearing, as the reaction of A.J. Lee showed. In her over-the-top enthusiasm and yearning to be accepted, she comes across as pathetic and a little bit creepy.

This weakness is targeted by the resident Mean Girls of NXT: Summer Rae and Sasha Banks, aka the Beautiful Fierce Females (BFFs). While the bullying by the BFFs is overtly cruel and belittling, initially Bayley largely fails to take notice—even once very sincerely calling them "cool" as they mocked her literally to her face. Early in her NXT run, we sympathize with Bayley against her foes, but, well, it's not all that surprising the BFFs treat her so poorly: She's overly naive, in a way that borders on, "You had that coming." Still, the BFFs viciousness is unduly harsh—why would anyone want to hurt someone like Bayley?

It's a cruelty that we're all familiar with. In life, everyone experiences a moment in which an adversary targets them for unknown reasons—and almost certainly at some point, we've engaged in it ourselves, even if we knew what we were doing was wrong. There was nothing overt Bayley had done to deserve this bullying. But neither did that less cool kid you decided to pick on in elementary school instead of defend. Maybe they had weird clothes; maybe they had weird interests. You wanted to get in with the popular kids; you didn't want to get picked on yourself.

The remarkable thing about Bayley's character is that no matter who betrays her, no matter how viciously someone attacks her, she never once turns vindictive. She never responds to pettiness with pettiness. Along her path, she begins to stick up for herself more frequently, but she never does something that makes us feel bad for liking her.

Bayley responds to adversity by becoming the best version of herself.

Yes, for a very long time Bayley lacked self-awareness of how she came across to other characters. Maybe she was more loser geek than lovable dork. Maybe we were sometimes encouraged to laugh at her, rather than sympathize with her, as evidenced in her first-ever NXT promo. But even in these early days she was always completely genuine, making fans gravitate to her. She is so painfully sincere that she captures our hearts and we can't help but root for her.

When some argue that Bayley's character is not suited for the main roster, these early overly-naive episodes are to which they're referring. They fear she won't translate well—but that fear is misplaced, because Bayley began her radical evolution into what she is today all the way back in summer 2014. Her character has changed significantly since her early days, from something of a dweeb into an incredible John Cena and Daniel Bryan hybrid.

But it takes a long time to alter our perceptions of someone, especially when they're well established. Bayley, after all, has an incredible ability to always make herself memorable. Shaking our first impressions of her is difficult, especially because the hugs, the headbands, the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men, remain. It makes it all the more impressive that despite keeping those trappings, her character has matured so clearly and so realistically.

Thankfully, she is now far, far removed from her early state. But it took some hard doses of reality along the way to toughen up sweet, naive Bayley.

Next week: The Horsewomen