Click here to read Part 1 of Bayley's Journey, and follow along with our StoryStream of the whole series!
The Four Horsewomen of NXT dominated the developmental Women's Division for two straight years. One of the four carried the NXT Women's Championship from May 29, 2014, all the way until April 1, 2016. No one other than a Horsewoman even challenged for the title on a TakeOver after Charlotte defeated Natalya in May 2014, until Nia Jax faced Bayley in December 2015.
What made the NXT Women's division so special in 2014 and 2015 was that there were multiple major players, and all were believable challengers to the throne. What's more, everyone had stories with everyone else—it was representative of reality, when things aren't neat and orderly and feuds don't start and finish in such a linear fashion. It also didn't hurt that it included some of the best performers on the planet.
The Horsewomen's real-world impact is undeniable, and massive. They are clear trailblazers for the future of wrestling. While they are presented as friends in reality, there existed a massive ideological struggle among the four in kayfabe.
There are two narratives of the Horsewomen Era. The first was their shoot goal—to have women's wrestling taken seriously and respected. The second, kayfabe narrative, was the debate over how best to achieve that goal. The struggle goes all the way back to September 2013.
The irony of the Great Horsewomen Debate was that its instigator wasn't even a Horsewoman.
Sasha Banks struggled early on to make a name for herself in NXT. Ten months into her career, she'd accomplished little of importance. She worked hard, tried her best—and always came up short. It was not until Summer Rae gave some helpful advice that she began tapping into her potential.
Summer's advice to Banks was that to make a name for yourself you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. Working hard and being nice would never be enough to become relevant. Ambition requires cruelty and viciousness and shortcuts—dedication, heart, soul, and toil would never be sufficient.
Banks, of course, famously heeds Rae's advice, attacking Paige after losing to her September 11, 2013. The Beautiful Fierce Females (BFFs) are officially born two weeks later, after Banks defeats Bayley. But Banks' goal was never to merely become relevant, but to be the champion. To be the best women's wrestler alive. To make people respect women's wrestling. To be the best wrestler alive.
It's a neat coincidence that Banks' first match as The Boss is against Bayley, the representative of the competing ideology to the Rae-Banks Doctrine. The Bayley Doctrine rejects the cynicism that Rae and Banks chose—but shares in common with Banks the desire to make women's wrestling great, and to be its champion. Most importantly, the Bayley Doctrine holds that being a role model and a positive example is just as important as success.
What's interesting about the Bayley Doctrine is that all of the Horsewomen at one point at least try to subscribe. But the only one who manages to adhere longer than a few short months is Bayley. She's the only one pure enough to stay in the light—she is singular.
Banks was the first to reject Bayley's philosophy, but another Horsewoman soon followed.
Bayley is established as a total mark early in her NXT career. That she was starting her run at the same time as the daughter of Ric Flair was, in her mind, too good to be true.
Because it was.
Bayley immediately sets out to befriend Charlotte—it's Ric Flair's daughter! Though Charlotte begrudgingly accepts the Hugger's friendship, she never particularly seems enamored with her new devotee. It is not long at all until Charlotte shows Bayley how little she thought of her—a moment that hurts Bayley deeply.
The total casualness of Charlotte's turn is not lost on Bayley: Charlotte slaps Bayley, hits her with Natural Selection, and joins the BFFs. That's it. Charlotte isn't embittered toward Bayley—there's no visible emotion on Charlotte's face whatsoever. She simply doesn't respect Bayley, at all. Bayley is nothing to her. She sees no value in Bayley.
Our hero sells this moment as absolutely crushing. She idolized Charlotte because of her famous lineage—and in response, Charlotte betrayed her trust. After Bayley is forcefully slapped as she went to make a tag, she sits on her knees, holding her face in her hands. More than physical pain, she is in shock. Why.
What makes Bayley special is that her response isn't anger or malice. She just wants to know why. Why was she so taken for granted? Why did Charlotte join up with people she'd belittled only a week before? Why was she so unworthy of respect?
It's not that Bayley was mad at Charlotte for betraying her. She's most frustrated because after her turn, Charlotte continuously dodges giving Bayley any reason why, instead relying on the BFFs to run interference. She just didn't understand, and it was wrong for someone she considered to be her friend to so completely ignore her and treat her as a nobody.
This becomes Bayley's driving force. From this moment on, her character arc became a quest for respect—she needed to prove to all others that she wasn't just some geek, but their equal. Just as importantly, she was determined to stay true to herself—not seeking any shortcuts or underhandedness to get ahead.
Most importantly, she was driven to prove this to Charlotte.
Charlotte achieved success as part of the BFFs, who remained thorns in Bayley's side. The Hugster was forced to find various tag partners to combat the numbers game, but was never truly able to gain momentum against her foes. This was made clear when Charlotte won the tournament to become the second NXT Women's Champion in May 2014; Bayley lost in the first round to Charlotte's stablemate, Sasha Banks.
Though the BFFs had Bayley's number, the group was a mess internally: Summer was up on the main roster, Charlotte became increasingly arrogant after winning the championship, and the massive (and justified) chip on Banks' shoulder grew weekly. The dissolution of the group in summer 2014 would provide Bayley with an opportunity to challenge Charlotte for the title. In August 2014, Bayley twice beat Sasha Banks for the #1 contendership—a humbling Banks would not forgive.
The video package for her TakeOver: Fatal 4-Way title match versus Charlotte represented Bayley as passionate and strong-willed while simultaneously undermining those attributes—the musical score for the video borders on the ridiculous. While Bayley was not her doltish 2013-self, there remained an immaturity in presentation that blemished the character's growth.
Fatal 4-Way proved a massive turning point in Bayley's evolution. Charlotte halfheartedly offers Bayley a handshake to start the match, but Bayley rejects the insincere gesture. She wanted no part of a false respect. She was determined to force Charlotte into respecting her—by taking her championship.
Gaining respect from a foe is a nebulous goal. Winning the title, though, is a tangible, specific aim. Unfortunately for Bayley, her dream remained elusive, as Charlotte defeated her (and again in a rematch a few weeks later). She took the champion to her limit, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
We don't always achieve what we want, when we want. Sometimes we must better ourselves before reaching our goal; we must go backward before we can go forward. So it was with Bayley's battles with Charlotte.
In the face of imminent defeat at Fatal 4-Way, Bayley discovered a fighting spirit that would prove invaluable in the year to come. We were witness to Bayley shedding her naivety, bit by bit—a universally identifiable process that binds fans to the character. Bayley's setback was grounded in our notions of reality.
Her moment in Brooklyn isn't anywhere near as special—for herself and her fans—without her failure at Fatal 4-Way.
As if losing to Charlotte wasn't enough a blow, Bayley is assaulted by Sasha Banks after the match. Banks shrieks, "You lost!" among other insults before pummeling the fallen challenger. Charlotte, watching this on the big screen, turns around and pulls her former BFF off Bayley. It's a clear sign that through her efforts in the match, Bayley has earned Charlotte's respect. Banks flees the scene, and Charlotte walks back up the ramp before turning to look again at Bayley—who has an incredible mixture of hurt, disappointment, and appreciation written on her face.
There are multiple ways to respond to this sort of defeat. You can let it cripple you and lose all your progress, or you can resolve to overcome the hurdle. Bayley distinctly chooses the second option in her post-match interview with Renee Young: "I feel like I should have won, I should have won. And I feel like I kinda let down a lot of people here. But, but that doesn't mean it's gonna stop me."
We're then privy to a moment demonstrating the wonderful authenticity in Bayley's performance. Young asks, "You represent so many of the young girls that are watching at home ... how did it feel to come out and be able to show these girls that they can fulfill their dreams and come out here and be a role model for so many women?"
Bayley is unable to muster words in response. All she can offer is a sigh, slight head nods, and a short smile, as she nears tears. She's overcome by what has just been said to her—that the innocent girl Bayley once was with dreams of being a pro wrestler is now someone that little girls today view as a heroine. That she meant something—maybe not to Charlotte, maybe not to Sasha Banks. But to little girls who wanted a good and decent role model.
I don't know if this was a scripted response or if Ms. Martinez was simply overawed for real. Either way, this is babyface perfection.
Young continues, mentioning that Bayley's mom was here (to which Bayley responds, "My mom was here, she drove me crazy"—again, an incredibly natural response). But Bayley gathers herself, and notes that, "There's this little girl named Izzy that had tears in her eyes after I lost, and she is who I'm gonna fight for when I BEAT YOU Charlotte. I'm gonna beat you Charlotte, and you too Sasha, I don't know what that was about, I'll take you too!"
Charlotte and then Sasha appear, Charlotte offering that Bayley had earned her respect ("I'm glad I showed you that you need to respect me," responds Bayley) and granting her a rematch, and Sasha to belittle both. While Bayley had won over Charlotte, Banks was more embittered than ever toward the Hugger.
It's no surprise that a Flair stabbed a true-blue babyface in the back. But Charlotte was far from the only friend to prove their disloyalty to Bayley—thanks, unsurprisingly, to Sasha Banks.
A "Forever" Friend
Banks may have lost Charlotte as an ally, but her war against Bayley continued unabated. She noticed that Becky Lynch, the newest of the Horsewomen, had quickly befriended Bayley—the two were kindred dorks, given that Lynch debuted with an Irish Riverdancer gimmick, and had teamed together against Banks and Charlotte in the past. Before tagging with Bayley, the Hugster had called Lynch "my own BFF: A Bayley Friend Forever"—a sentiment Lynch endorsed.
Though Becky had some singles success in NXT—notably beating Summer Rae, the founder of the BFFs—she continually came up short in matches against the champion. Her patience, and goodness, were soon to be tested.
After assaulting Bayley (again) on October 9, 2014, Banks was approached the following week by Lynch backstage. Much as Rae had to her a year prior, The Boss put a massive seed of doubt into the Irishwoman's mind: "I will do whatever it takes to make it to the top. Unlike you! Unlike people like Bayley, who want to be nice and shake people's hands. Where's that gonna get you? Nowhere. You lost twice now to Charlotte, is it? Twice? Maybe you need to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, 'what do you need to do, to make it to the top?'"
A week after Banks accosted Lynch, The Boss defeated Bayley in a singles match and continued the beatdown post-match. Lynch ostensibly makes the save—only to show that she'd taken Sasha's words to heart by turning on Bayley. Team BAE—"Best at Everything"—was born.
It's one thing for the daughter of "the dirtiest player in the game" to betray Bayley. You expect a Flair to be a garbage friend. But Becky Lynch is like Bayley. She wanted to be a wrestler since she was a little girl. She faced real adversity—retiring from the ring for several years due to injuries. She displays the same fighting spirit Bayley does. She's a dork.
The corruptive influence of Sasha Banks, who worked tirelessly to keep Bayley down, is the answer. Lynch had bought into the Rae-Banks Doctrine—the case for which had grown even stronger, as good and pure Bayley had just been defeated twice for the championship. Bayley's failures have the effect of growing her own backbone and being an extended teachable moment in her evolution, but they also encourage others to abandon her. She's a loser, proven time and again. Why would anyone want to follow that path?
Over the next several months, Team BAE proceeds to make Bayley's life a living nightmare. They continuously assault her, even injuring her knee in storyline, and they do it while loudly proclaiming themselves to be her superior. Lynch's repudiation of Bayley is total—she doesn't even try to hide her complete dismissiveness. She can't believe she ever thought sticking with Bayley was a good idea.
In a backstage interview December 18, 2014, Lynch makes clear just how little she thought of Bayley's philosophy: "The only thing that's changed, is my ability to see what's in front of me. Sasha Banks opened my eyes to what it takes to get to the next level of NXT. My eyes were opened, to the fact that smiling, and having the fans cheer, doesn't mean anything when I am losing week, after week, after week... And so I hope Bayley's little starry eyes are open, so that way she can look into my big brown eyes and see the person that's gonna end her career—permanently." Lynch could not be clearer or more complete in her rejection of Bayley's way.
Later that night, Lynch viciously targets Bayley's injured knee, eventually forcing her to submit to a reverse figure-four leglock—and she does it all with a wicked smile on her face. Her victory over Bayley is in her mind yet one more piece of evidence proving Banks is the wrestler to emulate.
In early 2015, Bayley would have the opportunity to prove once and for all to the other Horsewomen that they were wrong about her—that she was just as good as them, and that her way was no less effective than their callous cynicism.
Bayley returned from her injury January 21, 2015, to save Charlotte from a Team BAE beatdown. After Banks and Lynch scurried from the ring, Bayley grabbed and held, for the first time ever, the NXT Women's Championship. She is utterly transfixed by the title. The reverence she gives the belt would later become a hallmark of her tenure as NXT Women's Champion—when she looks at it, you can tell it means the absolute world to her.
Charlotte snatches the title away from Bayley, and the Hugger is incensed. While Charlotte and her were on OK terms, the Nature Girl was still the competitor who'd first betrayed her, and had later defeated Bayley twice for the championship. There was a lot of pent-up emotion.
Bayley grows increasingly agitated, and the crowd reacts with audible anticipation. (Look at the fan with the black "NXT" shirt.) She grabs Charlotte, spins her around, and hits her with a Bayley-to-Belly. She immediately shows the whirlwind of emotion inside her, trying to come to terms with her aggression.
When NXT General Manager William Regal comes out, Bayley looks like she's afraid to see the principal. She's legitimately struggling with what she did—but also confident it was something that needed to be done.
Bayley was given one last chance at Charlotte's championship in early 2015, in a Fatal Four Way match at TakeOver: Rival vs. the champion, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch. She came into the match noting that she "didn't have any friends" in that ring.
The match is a back and forth bout between all four. While Team BAE attempted to work together—and did manage to temporarily remove Charlotte from the equation—that alliance is quickly thrown out the window when both try to pin Bayley simultaneously. The action is non-stop, and all four have their periods of dominance. The contest showed that these four women were evenly matched—though none of Charlotte, Sasha, or Becky would acknowledge the fact, Bayley had long since proven herself just as good a wrestler as any of them. She just hadn't gotten the right break—yet.
In the dying moments of the match, she was once again befallen by another's opportunism.
The cruel irony is that this Fatal Four Way signaled the end of Bayley's feud with Charlotte—and the feud ended with Bayley triumphant. She had hit a Super Bayley-to-Belly on Charlotte. This was her moment. Vindication for everything Charlotte had done to her over the last year. A clear sign that Bayley had matured into something greater.
Her long-delayed victory over Charlotte was at hand.
The Boss broke the two-count by grabbing Bayley's ponytail, dumped her unceremoniously out of the ring, and emerged one minute later the new champion.
This is a wonderful piece of storytelling. Bayley had overcome the one she thought to be her greatest rival—only to discover she was never her greatest rival at all. The story Bayley told herself, of gaining the respect of and overcoming the daughter of Ric Flair, by shedding her mark status and coming into her own, only after she accomplished all of this—yet still came up short—did she remember what her actual goal was since she was 10 years old: to be the best women's wrestler alive. Unfortunately, the woman who'd targeted her from the very beginning was now occupying the top of the mountain.
The Rae-Banks Doctrine had dominated Bayley's career ever since Banks turned in September 2013, and now its primary proponent was the NXT Women's Champion. Bayley would have to dig deeper than ever before in order to confront her ultimate challenge.