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An argument can be made that specific points in history are considered the catalysts for major wars. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The Gulf of Tonkin. These all immediately spring to mind as examples of that way of thinking. Underneath and alongside these major moments, however, are many smaller incidents that start their own domino chains, eventually merging together to form the maelstroms that these conflicts become.
To use such historical events as a comparison to wrestling might be a bit of a jump, I’ll give you that. Yet, hyperbole is par for the course when it comes to wrestling fandom these days. As an example, that very word “war” has been on the lips of many this last year. The creation and uprising of All Elite Wrestling has seen an often toxic divide among fans. Unprecedented, even, thanks to the advances of modern technology since the Monday Night Wars that see playground insults and business figures shared worldwide in an instant. Many within the internet wrestling community live or die by the latest boardroom gossip or the obsessively worshipped Nielsen boxes. This insatiable thirst to delve under the hood has unfortunately become a distraction from what actually takes place on screen. For while “Wednesday Night Wars” may be more commonly linked with the battle for brand supremacy, it is also a very apt term for the monumental changes unfolding within the NXT Universe.
In the black and gold brand, bar a small Kairi Sane shaped blip in late 2018, tyranny had been the state of play in the women’s division for some time. For over five hundred combined days, Shayna Baszler stood atop a castle tirelessly constructed from the broken bones of her countless victims along the way. It seemed like this would be the status quo forever more. From September 2019 onwards, however, thanks to a doubling of airtime per week and the resultant need for an equally proportionate amount of talent and creative input, Rhea Ripley’s transfer from NXT UK to its more established counterpart will go down in the history books as that proverbial shot across the bow.
With this being a major turning point for NXT’s women’s division, you could be forgiven for thinking Ripley’s addition to the fold was simply a Deus Ex Machina, delivered from on high by Triple H et al. Perhaps because this specific “Challenger of the Month” incarnation had run itself into the ground. That it was damaging the credibility of the increasing number of challengers more than it was bolstering the legacy of Baszler. Add to this the frequent use of her two unbelievable and unimproving goons, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, and a quick fix was becoming necessary.
There is no denying the prestige of the NXT Women’s Championship. It has made stars in the present and stars for the future. From our vantage point behind the fourth wall, this prestige was beginning to diminish. Over 2019, NXT appeared to house a women’s division comprised of also rans whose star power would peak in the build but then dwindle away to nothing, a criticism more regularly aimed at Raw and Smackdown. Pay close attention to the actions of each unsuccessful challenger over the course of the year, though, and you’ll see where that first domino was toppled each time. You’ll see those disappointing championship match losses for the machinations of war that they were. A war that took literal form at the near-eponymous Takeover on Survivor Series weekend. A war that Baszler unwittingly started, but unceremoniously lost.
The women who stepped up to Baszler to no avail mainly fell into two camps after the fact. The phrase “you’re either with me or against me” is prevalent here. Bianca Belair had emerged from nothing to become a major player for NXT in a short time. Her mantra, that of being undefeated, was believable leading into NXT Takeover: Phoenix. Sadly for Belair, the shenanigan heavy environment proved too much for her. She may have held her head high after defeat, claiming then that her catchphrase was a mindset rather than a statistic. But Baszler’s mind games and in-ring cunning in a later Fatal 4 Way title match slowly but surely broke Belair, as she began to direct her initially appealing insolence towards the babyfaces and her fans, rather than those who actually deserved her contempt.
Io Shirai’s reaction to consecutive losses was emphatic to say the least. She tried to do it on her own, but failed. She tried again with the help of Candice LeRae in a superb TV cage match, and failed again. Shirai took her frustrations out on LeRae in violent fashion, later claiming she didn’t need any of us cheering in her corner. This nihilistic outlook may have given us a dangerous side more suited to Shirai’s aggressive wrestling style but, when all was said and done, it proved pointless with regards to her chase for the tile. Both Belair and Shirai eventually succumbed to the pressure piled on their respective shoulders by fans, peers, themselves, or all of the above. By planting their feet firmly on the dark side, then eventually siding with the enemy at Wargames, these two women absolved themselves of any accountability for their own failings.
These heel turns were in stark contrast to the collective resolve of the women who swallowed their pride in defeat, stayed strong to themselves, and rallied together to challenge the enemy head on. Candice LeRae and Mia Yim had their own individual times in the spotlight, with Yim taking centre stage at the Summer Takeover, and LeRae benefitting from the shine of the new TV format.
Sadly, LeRae has played second fiddle to more than one character during her time in NXT. It took the betrayal at the hands of Shirai for the hitherto unfairly thought of “Mrs Gargano” to fight her own battles. Not only was Baszler in LeRae’s crosshairs, but unfinished business with a wrestler alongside whom she previously tried to level the playing field ensured LeRae would continue to fight the good fight.
Yim was particularly dogged in her mission even before her Takeover: Toronto title match, repeatedly playing Baszler and Company at their own game with sneak attacks and unfaltering assuredness ahead of her bout. Following the disappointing defeat, her loyalty to the cause was only strengthened, almost to the point of martyrdom, after a shockingly violent ladder match battle versus Shirai. Yim literally put her back on the line in an attempt to gain the upper hand going into Wargames, only to be stunned by the outsider Kay Lee Ray. There is no questioning where Yim’s allegiance lay throughout this increasingly heated mass rivalry.
Dakota Kai? She is the loose canon in this whole outfit. Upon consideration, Kai may have had the most interesting character arc to dissect since the TV era began. After returning from a lengthy knee injury, Kai was simply unable to shake off the fact that she was still lesser than a considerable portion of her peers. Still preyed upon as easy pickings by Baszler. Still struggling to find consistent winning form. Try as she might, Kai just could not do enough to possess the mettle Wargames captain Rhea Ripley needed ahead of battle. She had to go to drastic lengths at Wargames to make a shocking statement, to get the attention and respect she so desperately craved. Kai now struts around Full Sail with Tegan Nox’s knee brace as a trophy, constantly commemorating her descent into chaos. The irony of it all is that she took these measures because she thought she was better than her peers believed her to be, but still she is bested by those seeking revenge. Still she relies on breaking match rules to gain an advantage. The tragedy in Kai’s heel turn, specifically in siding with nobody but herself, is that it is seemingly all for naught, for she is yet to show any sign of having the gumption to compete at the top level.
Others have competed at that level but, like Kai, all ultimately failed. It took an outside variable to upset the existing conditions within NXT, and turn the women’s division on its head completely.
Rhea Ripley’s evolution from plucky, athletic go-getter into a relentless, domineering powerhouse is one of the more notable successes of WWE’s developmental system in recent times. It is fitting, then, that such an individual is the spearhead of another transformation, that of the changing of the guard within NXT’s women’s division. In a group of wrestlers where in-fighting and selfishness were pulling everyone apart, they needed a leader strong enough to ultimately draw the battle lines in the sand. The women were being torn apart, for better or worse, by the mind games of Baszler and her growing army, their own self confidence misplaced or lost under the control of the champion. Whether with help or not, her dominance was unwavering and all consuming. Ripley’s no nonsense attitude, nurtured through a quick rise to the top of NXT UK, demonstrated that she could be trusted to keep her eyes on the prize. As an outsider, she was immune to Baszler’s psychological warfare and was the perfect choice for taking on that mantle and challenging head on. Ripley was literally and metaphorically strong enough to wrest ultimate control, first in an extraordinary Wargames match, then in a perfectly told, textbook professional wrestling story, where the protagonist overcomes all the odds.
This all happened in a pivotal time. Not just for Ripley or the women of NXT as a whole, but the brand itself. While bragging rights over demographics and social media trends do nothing for my own enjoyment of wrestling, I have to at least acknowledge the real possibility of NXT being consumed by more people than ever before. The dominant Survivor Series showing from Ripley and friends may have garnered more interest from stubborn “main roster” only fans, but also the jump to TV in USA has recently been echoed in Great Britain and, soon, Australia. This was most likely not possible before, especially with a top heavy women’s division that had the wind taken out of its sails more than once in the past, thanks to the departures of the Four Horsewomen to the main roster, then later Asuka and Ember Moon. They were admittedly trying and threadbare times for the division. Perhaps with NXT now working symbiotically alongside Raw and Smackdown, rather than as a feeder system, a state of long term stability can finally be reached. Even with the predicted move of Baszler to either Monday of Friday nights. This successful bolstering of the women’s division is built upon a newfound trust and equality between all three brands, and would simply not have been the case had it not been for the wholesale changes implemented by Triple H, Vince McMahon, and whichever other decision makers you wish to throw into the conversation.
The growth of NXT with regards to becoming a genuine third brand is, so far, exponential. The surge of creative care and focus given to its women’s division in the same timeframe is just as aggressive. Was WWE management forced into showing its hand? Possibly. Was it a preemptive strike worked on over time behind the scenes? Probably. Has NXT suffered as a result? Personally, not in the slightest, which should give you an answer to the previous question. If there is indeed a war outwith the walls of Titan Towers, as is so often cited, then NXT’s women will play a major part in the outcome. WWE may not have started the war but, just like Rhea Ripley herself, NXT has retaliated all guns blazing.
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Read my previous Brand Extension columns here.
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