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A Very Brief Word on Battleground
Well, I can't not address last night.
I'm glad I didn't, because the rest of the show was pretty good, but about twenty percent of me was all for walking out of the Verizon Center after the opening match. I got exactly what I had paid to see. Many hours later, I still can't wipe the smile off my face.
As I noted last week, it makes perfect sense for Sasha to ask Bayley, and for Bayley to immediately accept. They've been through wars with each other, but came out the other side acknowledging each other as sisters. Sasha's smile before "Turn It Up" hits is so, so genuine, and their post-match interview, in which they again playfully squabble over mutual friends, is just delightful and perfectly captures their current storyline relationship. Debuting Bayley as a one-off was a great idea, as it allows her to finish her NXT story arc but also satiated fans that were growing increasingly restless from being deprived of The Hug Life on the main roster.
I couldn't be happier for her. For both of them.
(And now, back to your regularly scheduled article.)
TakeOver: Brooklyn heralded a changing of the guard for NXT and its women's division. Bayley had defeated Sasha Banks, becoming the fourth-ever NXT Women's Champion. She had even converted Banks to the Hug Life, as the former champion embraced her post-match along with the other two Horsewomen. But before she could properly begin her reign, she had to overcome one last hurdle from her past—her rematch with Banks.
The People's Champion
Bayley returned to Full Sail September 16, 2015, as the NXT Women's Champion. Instead of entering the ring, she impromptu rounded the barrier and rushed into the crowd, celebrating with whom she would later describe as "her people" to Eva Marie. The excitement was infectious, and the energy palpable. Everyone in the arena was jubilant—it's a special moment, and the best sort of feeling that wrestling can provide its fans.
She handed her title to a little girl, and instructed her to raise it high above her head. It's a moment the girl will always remember, and it's a moment that her parents will always remember. It's the sort of thing that makes fans for life. (Bayley seems to do this sort of thing quite a bit.)
But the segment reached the next level when Bayley carried Izzy over the barrier and walked her to the ring—it's hard not to well up. Yes, sometimes ("sometimes") the Full Sail crowd can get annoying. But it's awesome to see how excited they were to watch Izzy partake in Bayley's usual pre-match regimen.
After the festivities, when Izzy's mom thanks Bayley and hugs her, the moment truly hits home. Bayley doesn't have to do any of this. This is well above and beyond how wrestlers—or performers or athletes of any kind—acknowledge the appreciation of their fans. This is responding to a stranger's adulation—a child, no less—not with discomfort nor wariness nor hesitation, but by repaying it tenfold.
(And it makes Banks' mocking of Izzy at Respect that much more diabolical.)
Her connection to the fans is paramount. Yes, her adoration among children do give the "Joan Cena" jokes some truth.
But she's more than that. She's somehow a combination of John Cena and Daniel Bryan, and a completely believable one, too. Unlike Cena, who gets a mixed reaction in virtually every arena, Bayley is adored by all crowds—reminiscent of Bryan's run to the title in 2013-2014.
All wrestlers have retweets and likes and Instagram pictures with fans. But with Bayley, it's ... different. For one, it's the sheer volume. There are a lot of them. But more importantly, it's the intensity.
On her birthday, Bayley retweeted a series of essays that fans had written, detailing what she meant to them. It must be a surreal feeling for Ms. Martinez, who wrote school papers as a teenage girl about how she wanted to be a pro wrestler more than anything. Her determination and motivation and effort made it a reality, but she was inspired by those who came before her. Now, she was the inspiration.
It reflects her enormous amounts of very unique charisma. Whereas Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado uses an overt swagger to great effect, Ms. Martinez is instead understated. Her charisma, her likeability, stems from her genuineness—that we can envision her as the cool older sister, or the girl next door, or the college classmate that you never really knew but always thought was really smart and sweet. People of all ages and backgrounds positively gush about Bayley.
The admiration is reciprocal: Bayley loves her fans just as much as they love her. (I mean, she constantly hugs random strangers.) And she consistently reminds herself on social media to "remember why you started."
Wrestling has never really had a character that was tailored to bring in little girls by the thousands and thousands. Bayley has managed to accomplish that because of her sincerity and enthusiasm. Just as impressively, she simultaneously retains her allure to every other segment of the fan base. The other group of fans that is just as devoted to Bayley as her legions of little female huggers are the cynical "smarks" who normally reject top faces.
A Tremendous Opportunity
After Bayley wins her match, she grabs a microphone and prepares to address the crowd. She manages to say, "Holy moly, guys," before a familiar song played.
(Also, how adorkable is "holy moly"—it's not the only time she's used it on TV, and she also used it in her "Talk Is Jericho" interview, suggesting that it's a phrase she uses in her daily life. It's not hard to imagine this phrase as an eyeroll-inducing affectation, but somehow for Bayley, it works.)
In an instant, Bayley's mood changed from celebratory to uncertainty. She was basking in the adulation of the crowd, she had made such a beautiful statement by bringing Izzy into the ring—and when "Sky's the Limit" hit, she suddenly remembered how fleeting it all can be. We can be certain that her reaction is actual character work (since she clearly knew Sasha was there and what was going to happen), and it is masterful.
When Banks noted that she came out to "congratulate you," Bayley shifts her title from over her left shoulder to her right—slightly further away from her rival, as if she were protecting it from her. At the same time, her eyes dart every which way, displaying how thunderstruck, and how uncomfortable, it made her to finally hear Banks give credit where it's due.
It is not until Sasha says that she "came here to be the best" that Bayley finds her footing. Upon hearing this line, she immediately gives a half smile, steps toward Banks—facing her head on for the first time in the segment—and glances down at her title. Sasha was speaking Bayley's language, and had directly addressed their common goal: to be the greatest women's wrestler. Now Bayley was eagerly listening.
Sasha notes that Bayley was good, but still not her—that Bayley was only better for three seconds in Brooklyn.
In response, Ms. Martinez, well ... kinda flubs her line.
Now, for anyone else, this mistake would damage the segment. But we're aware of Bayley's nervousness—it makes sense for the character to be totally rattled, and indeed she was selling that feeling the entire segment up to that point. It's a perfect representation of the whirlwind Bayley was feeling at that moment. Again, Ms. Martinez is her character, so this sort of fumbling is actually kayfabe appropriate.
Bayley recovers to tell Sasha that if she was asking for a rematch, "Sister, I have no problem with that." Sasha instead continues on about how she had a point to prove (to which Bayley gives a massive eye roll)—that she would let everyone "in the back" know that she was "the best female wrestler in this company." She wanted to "send a message."
The Hugger, clearly understanding Sasha, very slowly and very deliberately asked Banks if she wanted to see which of them was the best "Women's. Wrestler." Sasha dropped her business-like pretenses and hardened edge for a split second and acknowledges their joint motivation with a knowing, loving smile, before quickly retrieving her game face. Bayley asked her rival whether she wanted a two-out-of-three falls match—something more definitive than a one fall contest.
But Banks was seriously stung by her loss in Brooklyn. Even more than wanting to beat Bayley in a simple stipulation match, she wanted to prove her will greater than Bayley's. That despite temporarily losing the championship, her way was the right way. She wanted to beat Bayley "again and again and again and again, until everyone here realizes that fairy tales don't have a happy ending."
The Rae-Banks Doctrine was in its death throes—and indeed Sasha's vicious, opportunistic attitude in the match reflected her ideology being near its end. But it was not dead yet.
NXT General Manager William Regal emerged (completely unable to keep the smile off his face), noting that he "had heard enough to realize we've got a tremendous opportunity here."
He announced the rematch for the following TakeOver, and declared it would be a 30 minute Iron Man match.
And the main event.
Ms. Martinez and Ms. Kaestner-Varnado looked at each other and smiled.
As Banks left the ring, "Turn It Up" came on. Bayley allowed herself a slight smile, and a small shake of the head—she couldn't believe what was happening.
They would make history, together.
"1! 2! 3!
Bayley's done it! Your new NXT Women's Champion!
YOU DESERVE IT. (clap clap clap clap clap) YOU DESERVE IT. (clap clap clap clap clap)
Is the ultimate honor. It transcends the spectacle. The rivalries. And the championships.
Respect must be earned, before it is given.
It can heal old wounds. Forge unlikely friendships. And can bond together the fiercest of rivals."
Above is the transcription of TakeOver: Respect's opening vignette. Interspersed throughout the video are iconic wrestling moments: Daniel Bryan winning the title at Wrestlemania 30; Ron Simmons becoming the first-ever African-American World Heavyweight Champion; The Ultimate Warrior celebrating winning the WWE Championship from Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania XI—and Bayley holding her title aloft after TakeOver: Brooklyn. It put Sasha-Bayley I in its proper place—in the top echelon of all-time great wrestling moments. No doubt, Bayley and Sasha Banks had given themselves a very tough act to follow.
It's hard to imagine a more apropos name for the October 7, 2015, TakeOver than Respect. The meaning is twofold—Sasha Banks told Bayley on September 16 she had "earned her respect," but that Banks would still prove to be the greatest women's wrestler alive. Moreover, it's a very pointed shot at the decades-long treatment of women's wrestling as an afterthought at best, and softcore pornography at worst. The wrestling world was being put on notice—women's wrestling was worthy of the main event.
Before the match, the Full Sail crowd hit the right notes. Chants of "WOMEN'S WRESTLING," "THIS IS AWESOME," "YOU DESERVE IT," and "MAIN EVENT" reinforced the significance of the contest.
The difference in attitude heading into the match was enormous: Banks was all smiles, while Bayley was visibly full of nerves. When announced as the NXT Women's Champion, Bayley shook her head—again signifying she had not yet come to grips with the fact. Right before the bell, Bayley's eyes quickly glanced nervously in several directions, a remarkable display of hesitancy, fear, and awe. (Remember that this is the same reaction she had when Sasha praised her on September 16.)
In all likelihood this was Ms. Martinez' real reaction to the fact she was in the first ever women's PPV/live special main event in WWE history—how could she have known she would be on camera that very second? It's yet another reflection that Pamela is Bayley, that Bayley is Pamela—and we feel doubly great about rooting for someone so strongly in both kayfabe and real life.
It's a credit to how Bayley maintains her vulnerability when she's on top—even as the champion. (And also a credit to how convincing Banks' is in projecting superiority, even as the dethroned challenger.)
Bayley matures, grows up, becomes the leader and champion—but you can still see in her face the same nerves. We know where Bayley has come from, how far she has evolved. But when people grow up, they don't lose their tics—they learn to adapt to them and overcome them.
Whether the Iron Man match was as good as their Brooklyn bout is largely irrelevant. This was special for entirely different reasons.
The final salvo of the Rae-Banks Doctrine failed to stop Bayley from retaining her title—though it came close. Banks was especially vindictive and malevolent, apparently believing she failed in Brooklyn because she hadn't unleashed her full viciousness. She yelled at Bayley that once she was defeated, the Hugger would "never be champion—I'm going to be champion, you loser!"
Sasha had worked for two years to prove her way was the best, that she was the true franchise player of women's wrestling. Despite her momentary lapse in Brooklyn, she had no intentions of giving in lightly. She had come too far. She was in too deep to back down.
After scoring the first fall off an eye poke and roll up, Banks' expression was of total shock and betrayed her true feelings—she desperately wanted to win, yet did not believe she would. But she would stop at nothing in her attempt.
Izzy is perhaps the foremost symbol of all the Huggers around the world. The Boss had taunted her throughout the contest, but stooped to dastardly lows halfway through the match. After Banks violently threw Bayley into the LED screen upstage, she approached Izzy, berated her again, and smoothly snatched the headband right off her head. It wasn't just any headband, though: it had been given to Izzy by Bayley, who also wore a carbon copy. As Bayley was counted out, putting Banks up 2-1, Izzy began to cry in her dad's arms.
Banks, now wearing Izzy's headband in the middle of the ring, mocked Izzy by pretending to wipe tears out of her eyes, all the while keeping a malicious smile on her face. The crowd was agape and aghast—this was well beyond anything Sasha had ever done before. To compound her cruelty, she fell down to the mat, stared Izzy directly in the eye and asked her, "DO YOU WANT THIS BACK?" She then threw the headband into the crowd, over Izzy's head.
(This. Was. Perfect.)
In addition to the larger, ideological struggle, it was a beautifully told in-match story about two competitors who knew each other so, so, so well, and were ready for virtually anything the other could offer.
The amount of counters in the match was abnormally high, hitting home their shared extended history. There were numerous direct callbacks to the match in Brooklyn, with the spots merely reversed this time.
One particularly great counter was very late in the match, with the pair tied at two falls a piece, when Sasha had Bayley in the Bank Statement. Bayley reached for the rope, Sasha kicked the rope and rolled backward, and Bayley attempted, like she had in Barclays, to reverse the move and put Sasha in the crossface. Sasha was ready for it this time, though, and dodged Bayley's attempt and slammed her right back down into the mat, reapplying her submission. There was barely a minute left in the match, and multiple people in the crowd appeared utterly bewildered—was Sasha actually going to win the title back?
But Banks (as Corey Graves brilliantly noted on commentary) was unable to lock the submission in tight.
In Brooklyn, The Boss had targeted Bayley's broken right hand relentlessly, smashing it into the ring steps, stomping it on the floor, and then wedging it between the ring and ring steps before kicking the steps against the ring—thereby crushing Bayley's trapped hand.
During the Iron Man match, Bayley was presented an opportunity to throw Banks into the steps. Instead, she slammed Banks' hand into them, a callback to the punishment Banks had doled out to her in Barclays. Throughout the match, she continued to work Banks' hand and fingers. The damage paid dividends when Sasha was applying the Bank Statement—because her left hand was in extreme pain, she grabbed her wrist instead of locking her fingers together. It lessened the force of the move, and allowed Bayley, when all hope seemed lost, to grab Sasha's injured hand, bend her fingers back—causing Sasha to break the hold—and then slam her hand onto the mat.
But Banks still had the advantage, with a scant thirty seconds remaining. She prepared to hit another backstabber and relock her submission finisher. But Bayley rolled through the set up, and forced Sasha into an omoplata armbar (shout out to Reverend Kain for the hold's name). As the clock entered the final 15 seconds, Bayley again grabbed Banks' injured fingers, bent them back as far as they could go, and then proceeded to stomp on The Boss' head for good measure.
With three seconds remaining, Banks verbally submitted, handing Bayley a decisive third fall.
Bayley, once again, was three seconds better than The Boss.
After the match, the entire NXT locker room comes out to congratulate the pair. (I absolutely bawled when the camera cut to the entryway.) Both are given flowers by Triple H; Sasha is serenaded with chants of "Thank You Sasha" from the Full Sail crowd; and Triple H finally gives Bayley his stamp of approval in the ring, raising her arm in victory. The NXT Universe chants "YOU DESERVE IT" as both Bayley and Banks cry—their names forever engraved in history.
WWE has few female legends. Making matters worse, its most famous example, Fabulous Moolah, was an absolutely vile person and in no way should be venerated—and should in fact be immediately removed from the company's hall of fame. (Read her Wikipedia page if you're unaware.)
The problem, though, is that removing the woman you've held as the pinnacle for so long is difficult, especially without replacement—without acknowledgment that yes, we had endorsed a terrible person for a very long time, but the human quality of these new examples are reflective of what we actually honor.
Luckily, on October 7, 2015, two worthy replacements officially became legends.
After defeating Sasha Banks at TakeOver: Respect, Bayley was the undisputed champion. But she would quickly learn that her fight had just begun.