World Wrestling Entertainment’s women’s division, this week the focus of a new episode of the documentary series WWE 24 on the WWE Network, has undergone a steady transformation over the past year or so. If you’ve seen any of WWE 24’s previous episodes, you don’t need me to recommend this one to you (I nonetheless recommend it to you). At times this transformation has been more steady than many of us would’ve liked, but it would be churlish to say the company aren’t making progressive changes. They very clearly are.
The recent brand split between Raw and SmackDown has brought with it the next challenge. The fledgling New Era requires two divisions of women, each deep enough to sustain a championship programme – and preferably with a greater variety of characters than ‘is crazy’ and ‘has jealousy issues’. WWE is raising the bar for itself.
Here, I’m going to look at the women of Raw and SmackDown, consider how each show’s division is panning out since the brand split and think about their immediate future prospects after Summerslam. I’ll also be giving plenty of my own opinions – please feel free to throw yours into the mix too; comments box is in the usual place.
[NB: I’m not including Raw’s Lana or SmackDown’s Maryse here, as there’s no sign of them being used as competitors at the moment. If you pushed me for a broad opinion, I’d say Maryse has the in-ring pedigree but Lana is more likely to need the wrestling boots any time soon. So let’s call that one even. Emma and Tamina Snuka are currently injured, weren’t drafted and for the purposes of this article I’m assuming won’t be returning in the immediate future.]
Let’s tackle Raw first, who have a roster of seven women (Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Paige, Dana Brooke, Nia Jax, Alicia Fox and Summer Rae). I want to start with someone who is none of those: Bayley.
There are two solid reasons why I’m expecting Bayley to go to Raw, very soon. The first of these is a plain balancing act in the eyes of the WWE. If we hold to the wide expectation that a returning Nikki Bella will be joining John Cena on SmackDown imminently, I’d imagine Raw would get Bayley to balance things up. Both would be talked up as big free agent signings and I can’t see both going to one brand.
The second reason is more complex. In retrospect, I think we can agree the following Sasha Banks-related facts now seem fairly obvious:
- Sasha was always going to cross paths with Charlotte once the latter became champion, to rekindle the success of their NXT title feud and lead the main roster’s women’s division.
- Having heard the “we want Sasha” chants, WWE were always going to save the challenger people wanted for the road to Wrestlemania.
- Having then transitioned Charlotte to their new Women’s Championship by way of a third party (Becky) taking the fall, WWE were always going to save her big one-on-one match with Sasha for Summerslam, keeping the champ occupied with the odd placeholder feud (Natalya) until then.
All fairly obvious in retrospect, right? So: After months of carefully positioning the pieces, why the heck do the title change on Raw in the weeks before Summerslam?
Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I wonder whether the huge reaction Bayley got at Battleground has caused an acceleration in plans. Sasha got her shot the next night and we’re now getting the contractual rematch – one of WWE’s favourite masochistic devices – out of the way before the cycle resets. I wonder if something new is around the corner.
Go back to Battleground and listen to that reaction again – not so much the volume; listen to the pitch. The pitch is a tone higher than your usual ‘surprise pop’. That’s not because it’s only being made by kids or women – the ‘Bay-ley’ chants as she ascends to the ring apron have a noticeable element of grown male – it’s because all demographics in the crowd are explosively stoked by getting someone they really, really wanted to see. It’s a totally different noise from the pop you hear for surprise Royal Rumble entrants. The prime example I keep thinking of is when Brock Lesnar showed up the day after Wrestlemania 28. Again, don’t think too much about the volume and listen to the pitch.
I am not directly comparing Bayley to Lesnar. I am also not Vince McMahon. However, to not promote Bayley at the earliest opportunity, the powers-that-be will have to ignore a crowd reaction no other woman on the roster has come close to touching; one that screams a special kind of Money. They will have to ignore the promised income from a million Hugger shirts. And if she’s going to SmackDown, they will have to ignore the fact she’s just been in a match with three of the Raw roster, providing jumping-off points for several storylines.
Personally, I’d expect Bayley to appear this Monday night and be thrown straight into the title picture. I wouldn’t be shocked if we even saw her on Sunday.
Bayley, Sasha and Charlotte are together a reliable focus for a women’s division – Sasha and Charlotte are both delivering in top roles and are benefiting from having the most focus of any women over the last couple of months. Beyond them, however, Raw starts to face some serious challenges.
Paige’s suspension for breaching WWE’s wellness policy this week is the latest blow in a 2016 that hasn’t been her best professionally and has steadily worsened. Currently dealing with an injury that a Wrestling Observer Newsletter report last week worryingly identified as possible nerve damage, she has slipped back from the spotlight as newer, shinier toys have come out of the NXT playbox. As a fellow Brit, I have a lot of time for Paige and really hope she’s able to turn the corner; she’s too accomplished a wrestler to be fodder for Total Divas and not play a full part in this new evolution of the WWE’s women’s division. At the moment though, Raw will certainly have to do without her for the next month and it remains to be seen what the future holds for her after that.
Dana Brooke’s main roster career so far – and it’s been a few months now – has almost completely been as supporting cast, first to Emma and now to Charlotte. Assuming we know nothing about her from NXT, can you define Dana’s character without reference to Charlotte? Can’t be done. She’s yet to show signs of breaking out on her own terms. Nia Jax is a case for more optimism though. Nia’s unique look and power should make her a top contender in due course, with WWE currently doing the hard yards to build her up through squashes and video packages – however she’s the only woman currently on the Raw roster who looks like making the jump to title contention.
Witness Alicia Fox and Summer Rae, who have been given hardly anything to work with either since the brand split or for a very long time before it. Fox was a total afterthought in her match with Charlotte this Monday just gone. Both women have shown they have plenty to contribute on television but are in serious need of some character rehabilitation. Unfortunately there’s little sign of this happening yet.
Raw’s roster may have one woman more than SmackDown, but for a three-hour show it stretches thinner even once the current issues have been ironed out. I know many would like to see her on SmackDown, but I’m of the opinion that Raw needs Bayley.
So let’s move on to SmackDown, who have a roster of six (Becky Lynch, Natalya, Naomi, Alexa Bliss, Carmella and Eva Marie).
If you thought I backed away from making a comparison between Bayley and Brock Lesnar rather quickly, I’ll gamely try to stand my ground after making the observation that SmackDown has previous form when it comes to building a show around six key superstars.
One of the main reasons the blue show extracted so much success from ‘The SmackDown Six’ (Angle, Benoit, Edge, Mysterio and Los Guerreros) between 2002 and 2004, outside of the sextet’s sheer talent, was because they were all consistently given something meaty and unique to do every week. You could tune in knowing you’d likely see a good-to-great match between at least two of them, while the rest would feature on the card somewhere doing something of consequence. Creative always had something for them.
While I obviously realize there were other male superstars on the SmackDown roster in 2002 and these six women in 2016 are all there currently is to work with, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been heartened to see some similar principles emerging. Everyone is being given a chance to paint their own thing – whether it’s Eva ducking matches, arrogant vet Natalya picking on plucky new girl Carmella or just Naomi getting a new entrance and All Neon Everything outfits – and we’re getting to steadily build up a three-dimensional picture of each of them. Those factoid-sidebars that appear during the entrances on SmackDown don’t hurt with this either. Yes, the matches could be significantly longer and better, half of the six have limited in-ring time in front of big crowds behind them and the storytelling is currently pretty basic, but the character principles are sound and nobody’s being left behind. When I look at SmackDown at the moment, I see a better-balanced women’s roster emerging than the one on Monday nights.
Bear in mind too, they’re managing this at the moment without having a championship to fight over. This, then, is that rarest of precious things: WWE building a pyramid from the ground up.
On the subject of hardware, the move from a Divas’ title to a Women’s title at Wrestlemania this year felt like such a righteous correction of the narrative that, in my mind at least, the new SmackDown-exclusive championship risks feeling like a consolation prize. This isn’t quite the top of the mountain I was looking forward to Becky Lynch finally reaching, you know? She’ll be reaching the top of a mountain. The doomsday scenario is obviously the old Butterfly Belt’s longest holder bringing it with her to SmackDown, which would be a horribly retrograde step, but even assuming this doesn’t happen I’m still hoping to get more excited about the title than I am at present.
I don’t for a moment think Nikki Bella herself is a retrograde step, by the way. Despite the surgically repaired neck and the need for a new finisher, Nikki would be a legitimate player to add to the SmackDown division. Some would’ve seen that statement as sacrilege as little as two years ago, but objectively there’s no question now she’s one of the stateswomen of the main roster. She will complement the existing balance on Tuesday nights.
Looking at the existing SmackDown cohort, the key figures comfortably stand comparison with their Raw counterparts. Becky Lynch is well capable of leading a division as a massively popular babyface, while Natalya looks a much better fit in her current heel role. Natalya’s experience will be an important anchor for the division, although that role is likely to involve some degree of building up the younger talent (Carmella going over her last week and Bliss being protected in the tag match finish this week). Naomi, meanwhile, is a fantastic athlete. Her repackaging is a good sign that WWE is ready to give her something unique and let her run with it. These three are a solid foundation.
Have I mentioned I’m a huge fan of Alexa Bliss? Potentially, Bliss has it all; she’s agile and aggressive in the ring, emotes brilliantly during matches and connects with the crowd. We’ve not really seen the full extent of it on SmackDown yet, but in my opinion she’s the best female promo in the company (possibly only behind Stephanie McMahon on one of her good days). In her final couple of months on NXT, she was starting to put greater impact in her offense and putting it all together. On top of all this she’s also strikingly good looking, which despite its obvious flaws as a criterion for judgement has never exactly been an impediment to success in this industry. Having just turned 25, she has a lot of time to make an impact and I wouldn’t be surprised if WWE have big plans for her.
Carmella has improved greatly over the last year but was a little further behind the curve than Bliss in NXT when the draft happened. She’s being given live mics and the chance to perform though, so she will continue to grow. And then we come to Eva Marie.
Everything up to this point was written before the news broke that Eva, too, has now been suspended for 30 days for a wellness violation. You’ve probably already guessed I was rushing headlong towards a “SmackDown’s in the better position” conclusion, but this presents an unwelcome chance to temper my enthusiasm.
As with Paige on Raw, any loss for a roster this small presents a problem. Even more so when there are only six women on SmackDown to start with. The difference here is that I have more confidence in what’s going to happen once those 30 days are up.
Eva’s massively over-the-top put-on-a-pedestal gimmick is an enhanced version of the social experiment that ultimately succeeded in NXT. She has improved a bit in the ring, but the way SmackDown had started to feature her was a text-book example of playing to a performer’s strengths and hiding their weaknesses. Personally, I thought it was working. Paige, however, was starting to get lost in the shuffle even before injury and suspension took their toll. This feels more like a bump in the road for the blue show.
On the upside, at least this Sunday the writing team won’t have to come up with a new reason why Eva Marie can’t compete. I hope Voiceover Guy gets to announce it.
There is still work to do, on both programmes, with how the women of WWE are booked. I think we all recognise that. Matches are, on the whole, still too short considering the five hours of Raw and SmackDown broadcast each week.
However, I’m liking SmackDown’s prospects more than Raw’s at the moment. Outside of the main feud between Sasha and Charlotte, which has been good on the whole and received a worthy spotlight, Raw doesn’t have a huge amount else going on with only Nia Jax moving in the right direction. They need and will probably get Bayley, but when Raw’s cruiserweight division kicks off the competition for screen time will only increase.
SmackDown, on the other hand, are looking to play to the strengths of all of their women. While this has yet to result in a feud or match that will make anyone’s Best Of 2016 lists – and while losing Eva Marie is a setback (who’d have thought we’d be saying that this time last year?) – keeping everyone on the roster relevant, giving them equal billing and letting them all be something unique is a plan for longer-term success.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably either a) falling asleep or b) ready with a few opinions of your own. What are your feelings on the state of the women’s division(s) in WWE? Which show do you feel is getting it right? Am I deluded? Will most of this be rendered pointless by December, when Stephanie McMahon is Women’s Champion and Liv Morgan holds the SmackDown belt? Comment and let us know.
I’m now hitting ‘Publish’ before anyone else gets suspended. Hope you all enjoy your Summerslam weekend.