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Bayley had come up just short of accomplishing her ultimate goal—being beaten to the punch by her top rival, Sasha Banks. It was another setback for our heroine, but as always she resolved to keep on fighting. (It's hardly an accident that she's a fan of pogo sticking—one wonders whether she's also a massive Chumbawamba fan.)
This title chase was special for a number of reasons. It was a long-awaited payoff that delivered a greater emotional impact than any of her fans could have imagined. It was a victory of good over cynicism—a reminder that doing things "the right way" was a prize all on its own.
Perhaps most beautifully, it represented an evolution in both kayfabe and reality. Bayley had grown up, had bettered herself, had proved herself worthy of being champion. And so had Ms. Martinez.
Remember this: Bayley's entire "Road to the Title" arc in summer 2015—victories over Emma, Charlotte, and finally Becky Lynch—was filmed in one night. Three matches against different opponents, with different stories in each match and unique relationships with all her opponents—completed in a span of a few short hours. It's a remarkable demonstration of wrestling aptitude.
We often grow without realizing: we internalize a range of experiences, but until faced with similar situations, we can't know if we've in fact learned anything. Before she could begin to chase down Banks, Bayley would be sidetracked by an unpleasant blast from the past—and a warning of what her future could have been.
Emma was Bayley. Not merely in the sense like Sasha, Charlotte, or Becky, who were "good" for a brief period of time before turning. Emma had an awkward, terrible dancing gimmick and came out to a sea of bubbles during her entrance. She was bright and cheery. She was a total geek—well liked by NXT fans, but still a geek.
When she moved up to the main roster, she was paired with Santino Marella and her character died a death. Everything that made her a joke, a punchline, was accentuated, and the one quality that kept the character's balance—sure, she's a geek, but also a phenomenal wrestler—was completely ignored. (A shame, too, since she was far and away the best worker in the main roster's women's division upon her call up in January 2014.) She was in dance offs on the main roster.
Instead of layering the character as a geek who can seriously go in the ring, she remained just a dancing geek. The Aussie's main roster run bombed, to put it lightly, and her banishment back to NXT in March 2015 destroyed the character's confidence. Emma's failure reinforced the fear among fans that Bayley's character wouldn't work on the main roster—a fear that would be incorporated into kayfabe.
Emma returned to NXT March 4, 2015, running into Bayley backstage. She shot down Bayley's suggestion that they go use the Bubble Machine for old time's sake, and mocked Bayley after the Hugster asked her to watch that night's main event match between Sasha Banks and Charlotte. She notes that she had been "really nice" while up on Raw, and that all it got her was being placed back in NXT—"just something to think about." Though she was initially happy to see Emma, Bayley's expressions quickly change after Emma made her new attitude clear. She had wanted to give Emma the benefit of the doubt, but Bayley wasn't buying the "lesson" being offered to her. It's an example of Bayley's maturation—a year earlier, she likely wouldn't have recognized how overtly Emma was insulting her. But by spring 2015, Bayley had been through enough wars—and been betrayed enough—that she saw what Emma was trying to do from a mile away.
Three weeks later, Emma again approaches Bayley backstage. Our heroine still rejects Emma's advice that the fans are "not gonna be the ones who get you where you want to be." Bayley has had enough, responding indignantly that "We are totally two different people—I know we're friends and kinda came from the same thing, but the NXT Universe helped me get to where I am. They got me the number one contender spot, twice, they helped me ..."
Believing her "helpful hints" weren't getting across, Emma responded in a different fashion—an absolutely brutal slap that floored Bayley. Emma walks off, and Bayley can barely maintain her composure.
The two faced off in the ring a week later, with Emma pretending to be friendly and Bayley making clear she hadn't forgiven Emma. Bayley's usual pre-match routine was subdued, demonstrating how angry she was at her "friend." The Australian lost when she nonchalantly tried to pin Bayley, and afterward approached the Hugger with what seemed a genuine apology. Bayley is sympathetic to her old friend, and seemed to believe the matter resolved—not realizing that Emma had a psychopathic look on her face after Bayley turned away.
Emma would reignite their struggle when she appeared during Bayley's match against Dana Brooke on April 29. She distracted Bayley long enough for Brooke to take advantage, giving her the upset victory. One week later, Emma—clad in Bayley's signature "I'm A Hugger" shirt—lost to Charlotte, and Bayley returned the favor: ostensibly giving Emma a hug, but in reality delivering her finisher.
"Fool me once, shame on you"—and Bayley showed she would not be fooled again.
Though Bayley and Charlotte were victorious in a tag match over Emma and Brooke at TakeOver: Unstoppable, Bayley's feud with Emma would continue. On May 27, the Australian forced her to submit, and then attacked her after the match. Bayley would soon break her right hand in real life, and in kayfabe her injury would be attributed to the beatdown, giving the feud extra juice.
On July 8, while laid up with her broken hand, Bayley stated that the time off had made her remember her ultimate goal: to become the NXT Women's Champion. She warned Emma she would be the first stop on Bayley's quest.
Bayley would once again get her hands on Emma July 22. Before the match, Emma mocked Bayley, suggesting that she would "break her childish spirit." There's good reason for the Australian to feel confident—Bayley had faced adversity many times, but never before had been quite able to put herself over the hump. With Emma's muscle Dana Brooke at ringside, why would this time be any different? Brooke offers her a hug, which Emma accepts, sarcastically saying it "Makes everything better."
The implicit suggestion is that Bayley was infantile—that she lacked any depth beyond "hugs." It was up to Bayley to prove her wrong.
Emma uses an early distraction via Brooke to gain the upper hand on Bayley. But when she attempts to slam the Hugger's head into the turnbuckle, it backfires. Bayley "hugs up," finally snapping after Emma's third attempt, angrily shouting in the Aussie's face. Emma is literally taken aback—it's an unusual display of unbridled fury from Bayley; a stark departure from her usual attitude toward opponents. (Brooke's reaction face is particularly great as well.)
Despite targeting Bayley's injured hand, Emma is unable to put the Hugger down. After Brooke is caught interfering and banned from ringside, Bayley catches Emma with a flash Bayley-to-Belly and pins her.
Emma had broken Bayley's hand, had beaten her down, and made her submit previously. But her goal of breaking Bayley's spirit was always doomed to fail.
It's possible to beat Bayley. It's not possible to break her.
Earning Her Way
After beating Emma, Bayley announced she had returned to renew her push to become the NXT Women's Champion (an idea Full Sail cheers wildly, prompting a sly smile). She challenges Charlotte to a match, saying that she has to beat the very, very best in her quest. She knows she would have to prove herself over and over again before her doubters would ever take her seriously as a threat—there were no shortcuts for Bayley.
There's a poignant moment before the match with Charlotte, when the Nature Girl offered her hand as a matter-of-fact: they were equals. Bayley, noting this, smiles and grasps her opponent's hand in both of hers. Her use of both hands is a very small thing, but represents the character's appreciation of the gesture. Whereas the year prior Charlotte had dismissively offered a hand—which Bayley rejected—there was substantial evidence now that Bayley was on her level.
Charlotte controls much of the match, but is unable to put Bayley away. However, Charlotte also kicks out of all of Bayley's offense, including a top-rope Bayleycanrana and a Bayley-to-Belly (which was set up by a neat bit of ring awareness), the latter absolutely stunning the Hugger. Just when it appears Charlotte was going to hit a top-rope Natural Selection, Bayley counters and hits her Super finisher instead. She had finally, finally, beaten Charlotte.
After her victory, Bayley yells, "Thank you," while walking up the ramp. It's a sentiment that can be interpreted outside kayfabe as Ms. Martinez' appreciation for Charlotte putting her over. But it's also distinctly characteristic of Bayley. She knows Charlotte's betrayal two years prior was the first step toward becoming the best version of herself; she knows her title losses at Charlotte's hands in 2014 were a pivotal moment in her wrestling career. Charlotte helped make Bayley better than she was prior.
Bayley then cuts what is one of her most defining promos. She approaches William Regal in his office, to humbly ask whether she could be granted a title shot versus Sasha Banks.
Rather than demand a title match, or aggressively claim that she deserves one, she lays her case out—she was on a roll, having defeated Emma and then Charlotte—and wanted to see where she stood in the general manager's eyes. She is willing to accept any judgment—there is zero pretension or arrogance in her request.
It's akin to a person doing a great job at work and humbly asking their boss for a deserved raise.
This simultaneous demonstration of growth and humility is immense. She was starting to best those who had beaten her, but she never strayed from her true self. Regal responds by setting up a number one contender match against Becky Lynch—whom, as I noted last week, she also had a notable history with.
The entire promo is wonderfully in character, but one small bit right at the end is particularly on point. After she shakes Regal's hand and thanks him, she reaches for the water bottle she'd come into the office with. She grabs it tightly—producing a familiar crinkling sound—as if she is clenching her first in celebration. She is incredibly amped for the opportunity, and more than just her verbal reaction, more than her body language, it's this tiny detail that denotes her joy and excitement at the decision.
It's noteworthy that Lynch is her final stop before Sasha Banks—the Irishwoman having become Banks' protege in 2014 by assaulting Bayley. But like Bayley, Lynch found that the only path to actual growth was discovery through failure. Lynch took her former "mentor" to the limit at TakeOver: Unstoppable in an instant classic—but lost. After submitting, Lynch is given a standing ovation by the Full Sail crowd for her performance. They sang her theme to her as she sat in the ring, crying. It's wonderful and defining moment for the character.
Before her match at Unstoppable, Lynch had defeated Charlotte and Bayley in a number one contender's match by pinning Bayley while she was locked in the Figure Eight. This time around, Becky and Bayley would square off one-on-one for the right to face Banks.
Banks sat on commentary for the bout (at one point foreshadowing her strategy in Brooklyn of attacking Bayley's broken hand). Prior to the match, Bayley had stared her rival down and signified that the championship would soon belong to her (with a little dance, too, which is just wonderfully dorky—these goofy dances she does are honestly my absolute favorite thing about Bayley, and demonstrate the character's confidence in being herself). Despite this playfulness, Bayley is well aware of the threat Lynch posed, visibly puffing her cheeks to signify her worry. Late in the match, Becky nearly locks on her armbar finisher. In a desperation move, Bayley rolled her opponent—who still had hold of her arm—onto the mat and managed to apply just enough pressure to keep Lynch's shoulders down for a three-count. She is barely able to stand afterward, selling the mental and physical exhaustion by bracing herself against the ropes.
Bayley's moment in the sun was nearing, and she would once again fight for the NXT Women's Championship. Only one person still stood in the way of her ultimate goal.