What Revolution?

The WWE's women's revolution takes for granted the things that make wrestling great

Scott Dargis

O

n a weekend that featured Undertaker’s first Summerslam match in seven years, a rare wrestling appearance from Brock Lesnar, an above-average celebrity performance from Stephen Amell and a shocking heel turn by Jon Stewart, the biggest moment of WWE’s Brooklyn takeover wound up belonging to two women whose combined age (49) is less than the Undertaker’s (50).

For more than a month, the WWE has been pushing the “Divas Revolution” on its main roster in an attempt to revitalize the women’s division. For years, the female performers were positioned as a buffer segment for bigger moments on almost every show. Often, the live crowd would use their segments as an opportunity to use the restroom, grab another $12 beer or hit the merchandise table.

While this type of fan behavior was taking place on Raw, Smackdown and WWE’s monthly pay-per-view events, a fresh presentation of women’s wrestling has been setting the Internet on fire as of late. The women of NXT (WWE’s developmental brand) have been presented in an equal spotlight to the male performers on the roster, and viewers have responded with overwhelming support.

The success that female wrestlers like Sasha Banks, Bayley, Charlotte and Becky Lynch have had in NXT proves that women have the ability to hold a crowd’s attention for 20-25 minutes if the crowd is not only conditioned to take them seriously, but also has an emotional investment in the individuals and their storylines.

Bayley’s quest to gain the NXT Women’s Championship, which spanned more than a year, was the type of storyline anyone could easily gravitate towards. She was presented as an underdog who was left behind by Charlotte, Lynch and Banks when they made their main roster debuts on the July 13 edition of Raw. In the weeks leading up to the biggest show in NXT’s young history, Bayley defeated Charlotte in a fantastic match, then beat Lynch to become the number one contender for Banks’ title at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn.

The buildup for their title match had an old-school feel — the hot contender beats whoever is in their path to eventually get to the champion. But the combination of Bayley’s mission to win her first championship and Banks’ ability to play a convincing heel to a point where she actually gets cheered, gave their title match just enough personal issues to make the match even more compelling.

Bayley entered the match with an “injured” right hand and Banks, in heel fashion, quickly went to work on it in order to gain an advantage. (Bayley did have a legit injury to the hand months prior, but it was completely healed.)

After knocking her opponent outside of the ring, Banks removed the protective wrap off of Bayley’s hand and went to work on the injury. She slammed Bayley’s hand off of the metal ring steps, stomped on it and then wedged the hand between the steps and the ring and kicked the steps. It was a brutal sequence that the crowd immediately responded to. Oohhs and aahhs filled the Barclays Center.

Banks then immediately shifted the match into another gear. As Bayley was recovering on the outside, the referee stopped Banks from continuing her attack. Sasha proceeded to jump over the referee and the top rope to the floor, where she landed right on top of Bayley.

When the two returned to the ring, the No. 1 contender for Banks’ championship turned the match around by knocking Sasha to the floor. Bayley then continued her comeback with a suplex on Banks into the corner turnbuckles.

Banks then stopped the momentum by slamming Bayley’s injured hand on the mat and locking in her finishing submission hold, the “Banks Statement”. (A crossface type maneuver where Banks locks the arm of her opponent with her legs and pulls back on the neck.)

As Bayley reached for the ropes, with her “injured” hand, to break the hold, Banks began stomping on the hand. It was an incredibly well-thought-out spot that the crowd immediately responded to. Bayley then countered the hold and locked the same move onto Sasha, who was able to get her foot on the rope in order to break the hold.

Bayley then connected with her finishing move — the “Bayley-to-Belly” suplex. (A move that starts off like a hug, but ends with the opponent being slammed onto the mat.) Banks was able to kick out at two and the crowd showered the pair with “This is awesome!” chants.

After Sasha regained control by throwing Bayley off of the top rope, she jumped off of the top rope and slammed her knees onto the shoulders of a sitting Bayley. A clever pinning combination that Bayley kicked out of.

The crowd continued chanting, this time with a dueling screams of “Let’s go Bayley!” and “Let’s go Sasha!”

Banks lifted Bayley up and sat her on the top rope facing the audience. As she climbed up to attack her, Bayley countered and switched spots with Banks. The crowd collectively lost its mind when Bayley sat on top of Banks’ shoulders, while also facing the audience, and did a back flip in order to send Banks crashing to the canvas. (A reverse hurricanrana for the wrestling enthusiasts out there.) It was the first time this move has been done in a WWE ring.

Almost all of the announced 15,589 fans were on their feet when Bayley got up, fired her trademark headband into the crowd and hit Banks with another Bayley-to-Belly suplex. The crowd roared along with the referee’s three count and began jumping around after his hand hit the mat for a third time.

After Charlotte and Lynch ran down to the ring from backstage, Banks stood up, gathered herself and became Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado (her real identity) by embracing Bayley with an exuberant hug. The “Four Horsewomen” stood next to each other while holding hands and bowing to the crowd. It was their curtain call and a moment that could have closed Summerslam, let alone the NXT TakeOver special.

The weekend featured 20 matches in the same arena, but the bout between Bayley and Banks, and subsequent celebration with Charlotte and Lynch, felt like the only moments that the crowd emotionally connected with from beginning to end.

There wasn’t a controversial finish that sucked the air out of the building. Jon Stewart made a surprise appearance, which drew some mainstream attention, but ultimately felt out of place.

The storyline connecting Bayley and Banks was universal for the fans, which is why they had such an easy time connecting with it. Almost everyone can think of a time in their life when they worked extremely hard to overcome obstacles in life, whether they were personal or professional. It’s the response to those obstacles that builds a person’s character and helps them going forward.

Professional wrestling is similar to real life in that way. The characters are supposed to garner a variety of emotions from the audience. Bayley was given obstacle after obstacle to overcome before finally completing her goal in front of a crowd that was moved by her accomplishment because they, too, were part of the ride.

The fans were part of a moment they actually cared about instead of being treated to another ultimately pointless segment without any direction, which is what took place on Raw two nights after the NXT TakeOver event.

Two months ago, Stephanie McMahon stood in the middle of the ring on Raw and introduced Lynch, Charlotte and Banks as the next wave of talent on WWE’s main roster. The trio shined on NXT by putting on some of the best matches in the promotion over the last 18 months, while being positioned in equal spots on the card as their male counterparts.

When Charlotte, Banks and Lynch made their main roster debut on Raw they were put alongside the Bella Twins, Paige, Naomi, Alicia Fox and Tamina. All veterans on the main roster who had suffered through a time period when women were lucky to receive more than five minutes of television time on a three hour broadcast.

At first the “new and improved” Divas division showed signs of major change. The women were given multiple back-to-back segments (10-14 minutes) in order to have thorough matches. Those extended segments were sometimes positioned at the top of the second and third hours of the show, which is a tune-in point for casual viewers.

But after weeks and weeks of the same scenario every week (some combination of the nine women wrestling each other without any progression) the crowd is showing signs of tuning out. Even though the commentators and male wrestlers continue to give the “revolution” a hard sell, the women still lack any meaningful stories to tell.

Where is the tale of the young contender coming up through the ranks to face the champion? What about the story of the veterans trying to keep the fresh faces away from taking their spot?

WWE’s crowd can sense this, which is why they let loose on Paige, Charlotte, Lynch, Fox and the Bellas during the Raw after Summerslam at the Barclays Center. The 15,000-plus fans in attendance did the wave, booed when a pin was broken up — because it meant that the match had to continue — chanted for retired wrestlers and expressed their desire to see Banks, who didn’t make an appearance on the show.

If the audience has a reason to care, they will give the performers their attention. If talent is presented as nothing more than a filler for bigger moments on the show, they will respond accordingly.

The women in NXT were able to grow with their audience thanks to well thought out stories that advanced characters. It’s a simple equation that is being lost somewhere in this “revolution.”

Storytelling + well-built characters + in-ring product = Emotional Response.

Sometimes, wrestling just needs to be simple to be great.