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Bayley was at the top of the mountain. She defeated Sasha Banks for the NXT Women's Championship at TakeOver: Brooklyn, and decisively proved her superiority over Banks in an Iron Man match in the main event of TakeOver: Respect. But she was not merely the champion: she was the last of the Four Horsewomen to remain in NXT, with Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte being called up to the main roster in summer 2015. The task of carrying on the legacy of NXT's Golden Era of women's wrestling fell on her shoulders. Many suggested that despite her abilities, she'd be unable to handle the immense burden on her own; that the division would inevitably go backward after losing such a massive amount of talent.
She would prove more than up to the task, beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
The Ace That Runs the Place
Sasha Banks definitely elevated the NXT Women's Championship. But what Bayley did with that title—feuding almost exclusively with very green opponents—was more than remarkable. It was the reason to watch NXT for months and months on end. When Stone Cold Steve Austin was the top dog in WWE, even getting a worthy five minute segment with him would be worth sitting through the entire rest of the program. So it was with Bayley as the NXT Women's Champion.
Some people think—even still—that Bayley isn't a "great" wrestler. That she's overrated, or not as good as Sasha, or Becky, or whomever. That she doesn't have enough good "moves" (which isn't even an accurate complaint, anyway, as her moveset is enormous and still growing). But wrestling isn't about moves. It's about telling a story in order to garner an emotional reaction from the crowd. And there is no one better in the company—the world?—at getting an emotional reaction than Bayley.
Toward the end of her title reign, William Regal ("you set the standard for being a champion in NXT") and Tom Phillips ("The Genesis of Bayley: From underdog, to champion, to standard bearer"—it should be noted this is an unbelievably good commentary line) explained what she meant to NXT—she had become the Ace. Bayley is the flagship character in NXT, starting from her road to Brooklyn in July 2015, until this very day. (The NXT Men's Champion for most of this period, Finn Balor, being more of a special attraction with far fewer appearances.)
Yes, despite her title loss in Dallas, Bayley remains the central figure in NXT. Phillips' quote in the last paragraph reflects that there is a level above merely being the champion. A key part of being the Ace is that you don't have to always hold the championship to be the top dog.
The representation of the Ace sets the tone for the program—and after finally vanquishing the Rae-Banks Doctrine, the Hug Life runs the show. Moreover, it isn't just Bayley that preaches the message of goodness, and dedication, and staying true to yourself—her position as the Ace means that NXT itself is advancing that message.
What is old is new again—the Hug Life is a modern incarnation of the Hulkamania credo of the 1980s (long before its leader was exposed as an overt racist and notorious politicker). Whereas Hulkamania was a product of the late Cold War-era, Bayley's is a very Millennial message: the ideals we were told as kids, that we could do anything we wanted if we tried hard enough, aren't necessarily true (and are frequently a blatant mirage)—but they're worth fighting for nonetheless. A person needs the hope they can make some small corner of the universe a better place; that they can improve their lot in life.
Furthermore, the true hallmark of an Ace is that they can work in virtually any storyline, or against any opponent, and make it feel important. Whatever the angle, the Ace's mere presence elevates it—providing relevance and weight to whatever they're doing. They make other wrestlers more important simply by being in proximity.
Bayley's seven month reign as NXT Women's Champion is a quintessential example of this sort of quality. As I'll show over the next three weeks, her storylines with Alexa Bliss, Eva Marie, Nia Jax, Carmella, and Asuka wildly varied in tone and output, and her title defenses in those angles vastly differ from each other.
- Bliss: the first challenger disrespects the new champion; belittler of the journey
- Eva Marie: the threat of reactionary influences; a quintessential Reality Era work
- Nia Jax: the beloved, bulldog babyface versus the giant
- Carmella: the power of true friendship in a spirited competition
- Asuka: a challenge too far; facing adversity as the Ace
Each story was unique and fresh, and proved that Bayley can carry a weekly television program—a key characteristic of a true Ace. More importantly, largely because of her work, each individual story was massively compelling. There are few wrestlers as good as Bayley at making her battles feel important. (Ironically, one of them is Sasha Banks. Sisters, am I right?)
When one watches a lot of Bayley's work, it's impossible not to see how often, and how reverentially, Bayley looks at her championship. She has difficulty giving it up to the referee before every test, and after every test, she overtly stares at her title. The championship, and what it represents, is the most important thing in the world to Bayley, and retaining the title for all her little Huggers is her most life-affirming mission.
"As long as I am the NXT Women's Champion, so are they," reads an Instagram post of hers in the days before TakeOver: Dallas.
Even long before she became champion, she put the weight of the world on her shoulders—when she lost to Charlotte at TakeOver: Fatal Four-Way, she said she let the fans down, she let her family down, and you don't think it's a mere cliche. She is a true leader and real role model, and now that she had the championship as of August 2015, living proof that virtue was rewarded.
An enormous part of what makes the Horsewomen so beloved is that we know how much all of this means to them. They were devout wrestling fans growing up, and their collective passion for their work reflects years and years of dreams that they too could one day make a name for themselves. The ongoing (though by no means victorious as of yet) revolution in women's wrestling, that began on Wednesday nights and now also seen on Mondays, is in large part credited to them.
If enough people believe in a worthwhile dream, a few of them will have the necessary combination of skill, desire, and luck, to make that dream a reality. The wrestling world is blessed that the Horsewomen came along at the same time—their influence on WWE will be long-lasting. NXT, in particular, was forever changed by their journeys.
Once the other three Horsewomen graduated NXT, Bayley was determined to defend their legacy—her legacy—until her dying breath.
Bayley the character, and Pamela Martinez the performer, are the ideal representations of what pro wrestling should be in 2016. (She is so, so clearly, "The Guy.") But to enshrine that reality, she was forced to defeat all those who challenged the Hug Life credo—starting with two women who had very different (character, to be clear) views of the women's wrestling ideal.
A Blissed Off Challenger
It took Bayley two years to finally get the rest of the Horsewomen to respect her. Now that they did, they were all gone from NXT. In their place were a new group of competitors that remained doubtful of Bayley's legitimacy—she would have to prove herself all over again.
It's a statement on the shallowness of the NXT women's division after TakeOver: Respect that the most senior competitor available to challenge Bayley was Alexa Bliss—given that they weren't going to rush into an immediate program with Asuka. (Asuka was in a feud with Emma, the only other veteran talent in the division.) Furthermore, as of October 2015, Bliss hadn't even regularly worked matches in months, mostly serving as Blake and Murphy's manager during that time.
However, Bliss is the best talker in the division, and one of the best in the company, period. The in-ring work for Bayley's first feud was of lesser concern (also, as I'll show next week, Bayley can make anyone look good). Instead, it was vital to establish why Bayley holding the title was important.
One week after Respect, Bayley opened NXT. She noted that NXT made history the prior week, and that the whole pay-per-view was about respect—notably giving some credit to Dusty Rhodes for what Sasha Banks and herself had become. She stated that they had started "a whole new level of the Divas Revolution" (and man, hearing Bayley say those two words is just wrong), prompting a "Women's Wrestling!" chant from Full Sail. Bayley, with more than a bit of knowing smile on her face, said, "Exactly. We want women's wrestling to be respected," once again strongly stressing the words "women's wrestling."
Bliss' music hit, and she entered the ring with her goons Blake and Murphy. Bayley's expression as she waited for Bliss to begin speaking is simply golden—completely stonefaced, demonstrating the champion's learned awareness. She even taps her title as she waits for Bliss, suggesting Alexa should just get on with it already. She was far removed from gullible, naive Bayley.
Alexa initially pretended to be sincerely congratulating Bayley, saying that "no one deserves to be champion" more than Bayley. The Hugger bought none of this, however, and waited for the other shoe to inevitably drop. Bliss continued to lay it on thick, calling her "an incredible champion."
The look on Bayley's face is unbelievably great. Her eyes betray her thoughts: "Are you serious with this? Come on." And she wasn't wrong to be skeptical, as Bliss quickly took the title from her hands.
The Full Sail crowd set the tone for the feud—and indeed Bayley's entire reign—by immediately booing Bliss, and serenading her with chants of, "You're not worthy!" as soon as she grabbed the championship. (Nine months later, they would give pro-Bliss dueling chants in her final NXT match, against Bayley. Full Sail gonna Full Sail.)
It's not hard to see the juxtaposition here: the beloved women's champion speaking passionately about respect and the advancement of women's wrestling, and the goody two-shoes turned evil cheerleader blatantly insulting the champion—and her message of respect—by interrupting her with sarcastic congratulations, and then snatching her title.
Bliss derisively noted, "I'm not like you Bayley—I didn't write letters to myself when I was ten years old." This is a fundamental attack on everything Bayley stood for. Everything Bayley did, for her fans, for her family and friends, for herself, was so special for her because she remembered where she came from. She remembered the hopes of a little girl with an unusual dream. Alexa believed, like so many others had prior, that Bayley's motivation was infantile, and an inherent weakness. "People like you aren't meant to be this!" exclaimed Bliss as she held the title, clearly mocking the champion's mark background.
Bliss threw Bayley's title back at her, and backed away up the ramp. Bayley, as always, meaningfully gazed at her title.
The following week, after squashing Peyton Royce, Bliss continued her tirade: "Congratulations to Bayley! You've accomplished so much, with so little. You've become a role model, an inspiration... but that's about to stop." Over the next few weeks, Bayley and Bliss continued to build their feud through backstage segments, culminating in a six-person tag team match between Bayley and the Hype Bros versus Alexa, Blake, and Murphy.
An important thing to note about this tag match: Bayley is allowed to engage in intergender violence, giving Murphy a Bayley-to-Belly after Alexa had run off with her title. WWE has a very strict policy on this sort of intergender work—it's notable that they trust Ms. Martinez with that character privilege.
Bayley faced Bliss November 18, 2015. Earlier in the night Bliss, absolutely dripping with sarcasm, stated: "Bayley, all you've been talking about is earning respect. And at TakeOver, you earned it! That's great. Good for you... And all the fans love you Bayley, because you're just like them. Just, happy to be here... I'm what girls strive to be: beautiful, strong, and I take what I want... You need to realize something. Times are changing. Ya' had a good run. But the other Four Horsewomen, they left you! They left you in NXT, where you belong... Tonight, I'll Bliss slap Bayley, and destroy all her innocent dreams."
Despite being champion, and having gone over all of Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks to win that title, the Hugger's doubters still pointed to her perceived inferiority vis-a-vis the rest of her "stable." Moreover, taking the title from Bayley is never enough for her challengers. Bayley is the Ace—beating her isn't a sufficient victory, as she'll merely bounce right back. To position oneself at the top of the NXT women's division, the challenger would have to break Bayley completely.
(To be honest, this really should have been a TakeOver feud. It even got a hype video package that aired the night of the match! And Bliss is such, such, such, such, such a good promo. It's almost as if someone should analyze her character...)
But Bliss was vastly underestimating the champion, who was full of babyface fire as she told Tom Phillips, "If Alexa Bliss thinks that it's just as easy just to steal it from me, just to take the women's championship from me, she's got another thing coming. Because tonight, Alexa is going to get the wrestling lesson of her life. She's going to learn that respect isn't just given around here, it's earned. And while she's coming along great, she's out of her league. She's right, she's right. Three out of the Four Horsewomen are gone. They're up there, and I'm here, but I'm still here because I have this. And tonight, Alexa Bliss is going to learn the hard way why I am the NXT women's champion."
The Hugger's message was clear—take her lightly at your peril. For she is Bayley, Ace of NXT, and she suffers no fools.
Despite all of Alexa's bluster, she was absolutely zero threat to Bayley in the ring. (Though we did get yet another wonderful Alexa expression out of the match, when she slowly turned her head to glare at the crowd as they chanted for Bayley.) Pixie Hulk's A-game, including a straight right that seemed to connect flush and a vicious, demeaning slap that would make Sasha Banks proud, was nowhere near enough, and the Hugger put away Bliss with relative ease.
This feud was built incredibly well, and laid the groundwork for Bayley's next challenge. After pinning Bliss, the Hugger was immediately confronted by Eva Marie.
Alexa Bliss represented a challenge not just to Bayley's championship, but the Hug Life credo. But Eva Marie was an existential threat to women's wrestling as a whole.
The Full Sail crowd treated her as such, vehemently booing All Red Everything as she attempted to tell Bayley she was her next challenger. (At first, Bayley calls the crowd "her people." But as the boos continued, Ms. Martinez, plainly breaking kayfabe, actually attempted to calm the crowd down—to no avail. She then urged Eva to finish her promo, as quickly as possible. The segment is legitimately uncomfortable to watch.)
I don't think it's possible to book a better story to raise your universally beloved, hugely popular babyface into the literal defender of everything that's good and right in the wrestling. (All Hail.) Smarks were ready to march on Full Sail if they dared take the belt from Bayley to put on Eva. Many, many people watched the Periscope stream of the match live (yours truly among them), because they had to know—was NXT dead? Was a title reign in Eva's Total Divas contract? Were WWE higher-ups interfering in NXT and demanding a title change?
People really feared these horrible things. Not because they're logical—because in hindsight, wow did folks get worked—but because the thought of Bayley losing her title to Eva Marie was literally the most terrible wrestling thing imaginable. Putting the title on Eva is bad enough—but taking it from Bayley to do that? BAYLEY?!
Though it was far from just the booking and writing. Everyone in the angle played their parts exceptionally well (yes, even Eva, you little dorks).
Michel Cole opened the November 25, 2015, episode of NXT, noting that General Manager William Regal was away recuperating from surgery, and he was in charge for the night. He said that earlier in the day he received a phone call from "corporate" (just typing that word makes me laugh), mandating that Eva Marie would face Bayley for the NXT Women's Championship that evening.
Later in the show, Eva is shown in Regal's office with a plethora of wrapped gifts stacked around her. She mocks Bayley, calling her "a swell girl," and then thanks the WWE Universe for their support. Her line to Tom Phillips, "Thank you, Total Divas," as the camera pans to the assorted gifts, is so over the top it's almost ham-handed. But it worked!
It only took four words to turn Bayley from simply a storied hero into a benevolent prophet, spreading the gospel of women's wrestling—essentially becoming Our Savior. In her pre-match interview with Phillips, the Hugger suggested there was one difference between herself and Eva. Bayley then uttered one of the most babyface lines in wrestling history—the aforementioned four words:
"I'm a wrestler, Tom."
Babyface. Perfection. The entire legacy of the Horsewomen is predicated on the notion that they are out to change the world's perception of women's wrestling: against longstanding fan apathy and especially nefarious "corporate" influences. Brushing aside something like Total Divas—a program despised (rightly or wrongly) by a huge swathe of the fanbase for how it presents its female cast members, and which Eva had referenced only minutes before—and clearly placing herself as representative of "wrestling" was the best possible note to hit.
The match itself was the most gloriously overbooked mess imaginable. Before it even began, Charles Robinson appeared to "oversee" the match, just to make sure there was no "controversy" regarding the high profile match. (Corey Graves' reaction to Robinson's arrival is priceless.)
No controversy. Sure, Lil' Naitch. Sure.
The champion was no idiot, clearly recognizing that she was up against it. Bayley's hesitancy to surrender the title before the match was a clear sign she was unsure it would still belong to her minutes later. As referee Danilo Anfibio raised the belt prior to the match, she looked at it longingly, further suggesting she believed she was about to be cheated out of her cherished title—cheated out of what she worked so hard, alongside the other Horsewomen, to accomplish.
Bayley was set to win the match not two minutes in when Nia Jax pulled Anfibio out of the ring. Bayley faces Jax, giving Eva the opportunity to attempt a roll up. Of course, the referee was just discarded—but in comes Robinson out of nowhere to quickly count the pinfall. When Bayley kicks out, she immediately socks All Red and approaches Robinson, completely exasperated that she hadn't won by disqualification and that he had attempted to count an underhanded pinfall victory for Eva. Soon after, with Bayley on offense, Robinson stopped the Hugger from rushing Eva in the corner—literally shielding Eva from the champion.
Jax would continuously interfere during the match, and Robinson turned a deliberate blind eye each time. It's almost laughable how worried the crowd remained, given how blatantly obvious they were being trolled the entire episode. Bayley removed Robinson from the equation by shoving Eva into him, but this allowed Jax even more freedom to interefere. Finally, Bayley was able to stun Jax long enough to hit a Super Bayley-to-Belly, putting Eva down for good—as Anfibio reappeared right on time to make the three count.
NXT was saved. Women's wrestling was saved. Wrestling was saved.
And Bayley was our savior.
After winning, Bayley crawled to the corner, desperately needing to hold her title. She clutched her championship close to her, relieved it remained in her possession. But her joy was not long-lived. Jax soon assaulted Bayley, laying her out and holding her title. For the Hugger, there was never any respite—everyone wanted to be the woman to dethrone Bayley.
Overcoming every obstacle in her path was becoming Bayley’s modus operandi—and making every other performer around her look good was quickly proving to be a demonstrative strength of Pamela Martinez’. Bayley had legitimized her reign by defeating Alexa Bliss and Eva Marie, and in the process established herself as the premier babyface in wrestling. But her next challenger would be the biggest obstacle Bayley ever yet faced—and the hardest task of Ms. Martinez’ career.