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The Last Battle of Ontario: Nikki vs. Natalya

Haven’t had the inclination to write about a match in a while, but I had to for Nikki Bella and Natalya’s Falls Count Anywhere match from the Feb. 21 SmackDown Live, because this match felt like a distillation of everything that makes professional wrestling great. It excelled as a brawl, a climax to a well done, long running feud, and a smooth introduction of a hot new feud all within the same match. There was hatred, there was passion, there was violence, there was excitement, and above all else, it was a masterclass in storytelling.

One of the big frustrations I have with gimmick matches these days is a sense that they feel so perfunctory. They happen so often just because it’s the second or third match in a feud or because it’s the time of the year where we have a gimmick PPV.

That wasn’t this match.

The build didn’t just earn this gimmick match, it necessitated it. Obviously the themes are very different, but fundamentally, the build felt very similar to the famed Last Battle of Atlanta where Buzz Sawyer and Tommy Rich literally could not be in the same building without trying to kill each other, so NWA officials needed to intervene in the local matters of Georgia Championship Wrestling and set up the Hell in a Cell precursor to finally settle the feud once and for all because it had all become just too much and someone was going to die if it didn’t stop.

Similarly, Bryan didn’t want to do this. It would be callous for Bryan to see his sister-in-law and her surgically repaired neck and think this kind of violent and dangerous match happening was some kind of achievement to be proud of. It wasn’t done to make a statement, it was done because it was necessary, because the war had simply gone too far that it needed to finally end. An episode could not go by without Nikki and Natalya brawling with each other, in the ring, at the merchandise stand, even in his own office right in front of him. Something had to give eventually before Nikki, Natalya, or even an innocent bystander was seriously injured. So he relented and made the match for this week as the final chapter of Nikki and Natalya’s bitter rivalry.

And the match itself did so well delivering on the promise that many people felt was broken at Elimination Chamber. This was the match we had all been hoping for from the pair who had spent every moment they were together trying to beat the holy hell out of each other. And beyond that, it felt like such a perfect climax to Nikki’s entire journey both in a kayfabe and a meta sense.

During the #DivasRevolution, aside from when the storytelling got muddled with the three teams, Nikki Bella’s character was the avatar for everything wrong with women’s wrestling in WWE that the three Horsewomen were supposed to change. She was the villain to be conquered. And in the end, she was finally toppled by Charlotte and left due to her injuries sustained defending that title as the final hurdle to WWE moving from the ‘divas’ to ‘superstars’.

When she returned at SummerSlam 2016, she was a changed person. She wanted to prove that she was a wrestler too, that she fit in this new women’s division and wasn’t just a sad relic of the past to be cast aside. But for months, rather than competing for the title and showing what she could do, people wouldn’t let her change. They continued to tear her down for the person she once was rather than giving her a chance to show people who she had become.

No matter what Nikki did, so many women on the SmackDown roster (and many fans besides) still saw her as that same avatar for everything bad about women’s wrestling in the past or that she coasted on her relationship to John Cena, or that she didn’t get where she did on merit. Even though she was the longest reigning Divas Champion, for people like Natalya, that wasn’t enough, it was all because she got undeserved opportunities, not because of her talent.

All of this boiled over for her in the Feb. 21 match where she had to prove herself in every sense, both in kayfabe and in real life. Because of her neck injury, Nikki has largely been kept from singles matches of any length, so this felt like the one match for Nikki to truly prove herself with the chains completely off.

Throughout the match, Nikki proved that she could fight. She took every blow from Natalya and came back just as hard, but in the end, even after that brutal war that saw Nikki thrown into walls, suplexed on steel, and Natalya Alabama slammed onto a table, Enziguri’ed off a barricade, and tossed through a glass mirror, among much other violence, what finally turned the tide for good was Nikki’s wrestling (a key plank of their feud besides the insane violence and brawling was Nikki’s desperation to prove to her trainer Natalya how skilled of a wrestler she was and that she could beat Nattie at her own game). She reversed Natalya’s Sharpshooter into the Fearless Lock and finally proved decisively what she had been trying to prove for months about not just being a pretty face, but a great professional wrestler, by defeating Natalya and winning their feud.

…or so we thought.

But life doesn’t always have a happy ending, and unfortunately for Nikki, there was a very pissed off woman in a catsuit wielding a pipe that she had not accounted for. What’s great about this is that it shows the consequences of Natalya and Nikki’s war.

She has no beef with Maryse. Maryse was just in the wrong place at the wrong time on two occasions as Nikki was too tunnel visioned on her bitter blood feud with Natalya that it put people backstage at risk when their brawls spilled all over the building. And Maryse is not the type of person to just acknowledge it’s an accident and forgive and forget.

One slight is frustrating, two slights is simply too much, and it was time to beat the crap out of Nikki with a lead pipe for her transgressions, and cost her the chance to prove once and for all that she was the better wrestler than Nattie and deserving of her opportunities.

I was loving the match as a really great hardcore match and climax to a really well done story, but this added layer of storytelling took things to the next level. That was the other mastery of this match. It managed to be a fantastic climax to Natalya and Nikki’s war while also being an equally fantastic opening salvo to the John Cena and Nikki Bella v. The Miz and Maryse feud. A crowning achievement for episodic television.

The thing about wrestling is that it never really ‘ends’. The show keeps going and as something finishes, something new needs to blossom. And to do it as logically and effectively as they did here is a testament to producers Brian James, Ryan Ward and the rest of the SmackDown team. It makes perfect sense.

The story of Nikki and Natalya from an external standpoint is that they are putting themselves and everyone around them at risk by going nuts on each other on every episode, and that risk came in twice in their last two matches as Maryse was knocked down and covered with powder at Elimination Chamber and then speared in the backstage area this week. She’s a villain, of course, but in this case, she was a bystander that was collateral damage of their war, and in the end that collateral damage cost Nikki her chance to defeat Natalya once and for all.

If Nikki Bella does retire at WrestleMania, the mixed tag match will be a great moment to end on, but I’ll always remember The Last Battle of Ontario as her masterpiece.

As much as she improved over the years through her passion and dedication to rise to the occasion when WWE decided that women’s wrestling was something they were going to take seriously, all you could really point to were her ‘good’ matches. An over achieving match with Brie Bella at Hell in a Cell 2014, a really good match buried on Main Event against Paige, a couple good matches with a still very green Charlotte, but she didn’t have that true great match to point to, to hold up on a level with the extraordinarily talented women from NXT…

Until last night.

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