Click here to read Part 6 of Bayley's Journey, and follow along with our StoryStream of the whole series!
Pro wrestling, as we're all aware, is a performance: A scripted athletic competition designed to tell a story. To make a classic, both performers need be among the top of the industry and on their game. But this is a rarity—Bayley vs. Sasha Banks in Brooklyn isn't an everyday thing. Much of the time, elite performers must shepherd less experienced hands through contests in order to create the allusion of an even bout. Only the very, very best can turn works with green competitors into something lasting.
Pamela Martinez is one of those very, very, very best.
Throughout this series, I've frequently referenced the body language that Ms. Martinez employs in order present the character of Bayley. I've particularly highlighted the ways she uses her eyes to convey emotion—something she does as well as just about anyone else alive. I encourage anyone reading this, anytime you watch a Bayley segment or match, rewatch it the next day, and focus solely on her eyes and face. The breadth of emotions she is capable of showing is unbelievably vast.
When I think of Bayley's range, I think of a poster full of emoticons representing different moods. When preparing for this series, I strongly considered just compiling a hundred or so vines of Bayley's body language, writing an intro sentence of "Watch all of these," adding brief labels, and pushing it live. She is that expressive.
She explained how she learned this skill to The Post and Courier: "William Regal was at my tryout and I think he took a liking to me ... he saw something in me. He knew how much I loved the business. I think he could just tell. He's also helped me with promos, with facial expressions and how to show what you're feeling inside through your eyes, which was a total crazy art that I knew nothing about because I was terrible at promos..." It's hard to imagine that this woman, who can work a crowd into a frenzy with a simple look, could ever have known "nothing" about facial expressions.
Top babyfaces are tasked with drawing viewers into their matches and segments by building a bond with the audience. Their skill in presenting an emotional and physical toll, getting live crowds and TV and online audiences around the world to sympathize with their struggles, is paramount to their success—and indeed the success of the company.
As I've noted before, the line between Ms. Martinez and Bayley is extremely hard to decipher, because of the strongly held desire from the performer to be the best women's wrestler. Before her match versus Nia Jax at TakeOver: London, she read part of an essay of hers from high school on the subject. The following snippet is the actual text:
This idea has been stuck in my mind since I can remember. It's not just something that I always kind of wanted to do; it's something that I have to do. I guess it's not normal for girls to have this urge because when I tell people, they're surprised. This feeling isn't explainable and I will never feel complete until I reach this goal. Since I was 12 years old, the only success I ever dream about is becoming a Pro Wrestler in the WWE.
To be honest, to me, being a successful female wrestler in the World Wrestling Entertainment isn't running around having a little 5 minute match every show. I want to be the Women's champion. This sport is serious to me and I want to be elite in it. I want to be the best. There are so many women wrestlers out there who just want to strut around and get whistled at every night because of how sexy they look.
(The image cuts off at that point, unfortunately.)
Her authenticity is unmatched because she's simply playing herself, and her character work is simply a reflection of that reality, transposed into a fictional setting. When we're assessing her body language and facial expressions, we see a number of common tics that I've previously highlighted: she puffs her cheeks before every important match; her eyes dart every which way to demonstrate nervousness or unfamiliarity; she deliberately stands angled awayfrom opponents or directly head on, depending on the situation; she allows herself tiny shakes of the head to express shock or amusement; she shows crushing hurt on her face when betrayed; she rages when she can simply no longer take being put down anymore; she cries very real tears when overwhelmed with emotion; she cherishes her title more than anything else in the world. It's a statement all on its own that I—and remember, I've very carefully watched the entirety of her NXT career several times in the last few months—can't quite tell if any of this is character work at all.
(It's a vastness of range and utter believability that suggests the possibility of massive, crossover, mainstream appeal in other pop culture mediums. Can't wait until her and Ms. Kaestner-Varnado co-host Saturday Night Live the week before a Wrestlemania main event.)
Yes, I've highlighted Bayley's authenticity many times. But she doesn't just personally come across as authentic—she makes the entire endeavor more real. Fans believe in her because she gives them something to believe in—not just purity of spirit and goodness, but a performance that makes you forget this is a performance. Bayley never seems like she's working—which is a huge part of why she's such an exceptional worker.
Moreover, she makes all her opponents seem gigantic in their own way. Charlotte was the daughter of the legendary Ric Flair, with a limitless pedigree; Sasha Banks was the greatest women's wrestler on the planet, a permanent thorn in Bayley's side, and her more successful alter ego; Eva Marie was backed by nefarious "corporate" influences.
Nia Jax, however, is a literally imposing figure. The point was hammered home two weeks before their match, when Jax threw Bayley threw a door at Full Sail.
Bayley vs. Goliath
There are manifold reasons why Bayley is such a natural WWE top face: The aforementioned, remarkable expressiveness; an overt, universal, human vulnerability; the non-linear, underdog journey; her mastery of selling her opponent's offense. For a company that places such importance on the babyface comeback, it's essential for the top face to sell the toll they've taken.
Her clash against Nia Jax at TakeOver: London was reminiscent of a 1980s style "Hogan vs. Monster" match. (Except that unlike Hogan, Bayley is an exceptional worker.) It was laid out as an archetypal, WWE style, "overcoming the odds" scenario, and the London crowd recognized it as such, continuously chanting to rally their heroine. The vast size difference meant it was unlike any NXT Women's Championship match before it, and hugely different than the rest of Bayley's title defenses.
To make yourself look good, you must make your opponent look good. It's a pro wrestling axiom. If you run down your opponent, you can't win: either you beat a chump, which doesn't matter, or you get beat by a chump, which is even worse. If your opponent looks ineffective in the ring, it drags the importance of beating them down.
Nia Jax has many qualities about her, but she's green (and especially so as of last December—she has substantially improved in 2016). Despite her impressive size, she hadn't integrated many power moves into her moveset until the last few months. Last winter, it took a very skilled performer, capable of making her relatively basic offense look devastating, to create something memorable. Few are able to believably sell death as well as Bayley—and in London, death she sold.
Reinforcing Bayley's status as The Ace, the pre-match hype package interspersed her high school essay with clips of various opponents (Banks, Alexa Bliss, Eva Marie, Jax) attacking her, running her down, belittling her very identity. Jax is included as the most recent challenger, but it's not particularly stressed—she's the latest threat, yes, but the story remained Bayley's alone. The Hugger was the focal point. Byron Saxton emphasized the point on commentary as the champion made her way to the ring: "Bayley has overcome so much, shedding the image of gullibility, showing that it's OK to embrace the innocence of your personality, and in the process start a movement, to be the proud flag-bearer of women's wrestling."
TakeOver: London was held on a Wednesday, and ran live, prime time in the UK—meaning it was in the middle of the day on the east coast of the United States. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would take half a vacation day from work so I could come home to watch the event—specifically, and solely, to see Bayley defend her NXT Women's Championship. But the thing is, I didn't realize it at the time. I was hyped for the whole show—and it did indeed turn out to be another very good TakeOver. But I could have watched all of it after I left work and not been particularly bothered by the delay, or even being spoiled on Twitter.
But not Bayley—her match, I had to see live. December 16, 2015, was the day I came to understand just how much of a Hugger I'd become.
This is no exaggeration: I had to literally grab my cat for comfort while Nia Jax put the boots to Bayley in London. It seemed that possibly they were taking the title off Bayley, and in automatic response, I sought out the one thing or being that brings me most comfort in life. I grabbed my cat, held him in my lap, and sat completely still, without a single movement or noise. (He wasn't particularly thrilled.) I legitimately couldn't move.
I was terrified into frozenness until the moment of catharsis as Jax tapped. About a pro wrestling match. You'd think I was watching a horrible terrorist attack live on TV.
Nope. Just Bayley.
The match is one of Jax dominating, the wily veteran taking advantage of elementary mistakes, and hope spot after hope spot snuffed out by the challenger, before finally, finally, the champion overcomes. It's not a match with moves! Moves! Moves! There's not a whole lot of flippy stuff to pop the crowd. What it is, simply, is a very good professional wrestling match.
The Hugger targeted Jax's legs early, recognizing that grounding Jax was essential to her survival. She wasn't wrong—anytime Nia was able to get her hands on the champion, it spelled disaster. When on offense, Bayley's goal was consistently to get Jax off her feet—but even after several flying back elbows and drop kicks targeting the knees of the challenger, the champion was unable to keep her opponent down—prompting a look of extreme dismay from The Hugger.
It took a mistake from Jax, in fact, for Bayley to finally knock her off her feet: Jax climbed the ropes to attempt a superplex (or super Samoan drop), and Bayley fought Jax off, finally shoving with all her might the challenger to the mat. She followed with a high-angle senton, which gets a two-count—with Bayley tossed clear out of the ring during the kickout.
It's commonly believed that Jax would have won the match if not for her lackadaisical covers—that her hubris got the better of her, and allowed Bayley to last just long enough to survive. But remember that for all Bayley's opponents, simply beating The Hugger isn't good enough. Bayley is the established Queen of NXT—a victory alone is nowhere near a sufficient statement for any vengeful challenger. She must be crushed, and the hopes of Huggers destroyed, before anyone can realistically claim to be a replacement for The Ace.
So it makes sense that after three Samoan drops and a legdrop that Jax attempts to cover Bayley with only one foot. And it still makes sense after four more legdrops for her to merely place her hands on Bayley's shoulders. She was in complete control of the match, under no threat—and she wanted to do more than win. Bayley is the symbol of what women's wrestling has become—and symbols must be crushed before a new one can take its place.
But as Jax learned in London, there's no crushing Bayley's spirit.
Moreover, it's a wonderful tactic to encourage further crowd investment: watching their champion—in both the literal and metaphorical sense—be dismantled is upsetting, and the nonchalant pins are further slaps in the face. But every time Bayley kicks out the crowd roar grows, and grows, and grows. Our heroine is fighting for us, and won't let us down. We know it.
After this onslaught, Bayley stirs while Jax stalks her pray. The champion is unable to reach her feet under her own power, but nonetheless, she crawls to the ropes, determined to continue the fight.
In response, the London crowd sings, ever louder: "HEYYYYY, HEY BAYLEY! OOH! AAH! I WANNA KNOWWWWWWWWWWW, IF YOU'LL BE MY GIRL." The resiliency displayed by the champion rouses them to life, and in turn, she feeds off their energy. As Jax attempts a super Samoan drop, Bayley locks in a guillotine choke, eliciting a exclamation from the crowd.
In Jax's run of squashes in late 2015, the only substantial offense mounted against her was a guillotine choke by Carmella—the very same Carmella that is close friends with Bayley, and whom was shown entering Wembley with the champion.
Am I reading too much into the fact that the submission Bayley continuously attempted—and eventually won with—was that very same guillotine choke? Was it just a coincidence that the move her friend used to some success against Jax was her weapon of choice?
Maybe. But these little things are consistently there, if you're looking for them. You can credit the agent, credit the booker, but realize one thing: this sort of learned psychology is prevalent across many of Bayley's matches. The amount of counters and reversals between her and Sasha Banks at Respect is enormous; Bayley and Carmella are lockstep in their title match; she places a preeminent importance on avoiding Asuka's reverse roundhouse kick, and when avoidance is impossible, has numerous counters available; she attempts to use the guillotine choke again versus Jax in June 2016, this time ultimately unsuccessfully—as Jax had wizened to the strategy.
Bayley's matches clearly and obviously build on each other, turning successive fights into a narrative whole. It elevates her story, and her reign, into a coherent, identifiable, work of art.
Unfortunately for Bayley, Jax was able to recover from the first choke, slamming the champion forcefully to the mat. The crowd quieted. But as Jax dawdles, Bayley again locked in the choke, this time from a seated position. She jumped to her feet, and Jax again reeled, as the crowd began to chant, "IF YOU LOVE BAYLEY, STAND UP! IF YOU LOVE BAYLEY, STAND UP! IF YOU LOVE BAYLEY, STAND UP!"
Every fan in view jumps to their feet.
But again, Jax slammed Bayley to the mat. And again, the crowd is silenced.
There are no extravagant, flashy moves being used. No one's chanting "This is awesome" or "Holy shit" or "Fight Forever!"
Instead, it's a beloved babyface fighting against all odds. It's, simply, pro wrestling.
Finally, with Nia sufficiently weary, Bayley is again able to lock in the choke, this time bringing Jax to her knees. After a prolonged spell, the challenger tapped out—garnering an exultation from the London crowd, and a massive sigh of relief from a certain apartment in northwest Washington, D.C.
This match wasn't on anyone's match of the year list. It's a bout that only works in a scenario like Hogan vs. Monster of the week or Hart vs. Yokozuna. The babyface must be adored beyond all reason to even consider running this type of match. It's a match that, in 2016, only works with Bayley.
Nia Jax was vanquished—for now.
Bayley's next test would demonstrate the supremacy of the Hug Life, and prove that she was a hero not just to the Huggers around the world, but her competitors as well.
And all the while, an Empress loomed in the distance.