Wednesday’s NXT TakeOver: Respect was the site of two firsts: for the first time, two women competed in an Iron Man match, and for the first time, two women closed the show at a WWE special event. It was not the first time, however, that women proved their abilities to a sport (and a company) that for too long refused to view them as the complete athletes and performers they are, making them sideshow attractions and obligations, cheerleaders and ring girls, while the men scored the heavyweight roles. It’s no longer that way, it seems.
Forgive me if I’m getting a little carried away, but Sasha Banks and Bayley do that to me.
Banks and Bayley’s match, for the NXT Women’s Championship, was the tenth Iron Man match in WWE history, a 30-minute battle of wills with the winner scoring the most pin-falls, submissions, and count-outs in the time allotted. (30 minutes, for reference, feels like more time than women have been given in whole month’s worth of Raw. When Trish Stratus and Lita main-evented WWE’s flagship show in 2004—the first two women to do so—the match clocked in at just under 10 minutes.) I took the show’s titular “Respect” cheekily, but NXT—of course—meant it with all sincerity. “Respect must be earned before it is given,” a voice declared over the evening’s opening montage, echoing a point made several times in the last few weeks: Banks and Bayley had earned this showdown. The crowd concurred: You de-serve it, they chanted as the segment opened.
The Iron Man contest was a rematch: the women had tangled in August at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, where long-suffering babyface Bayley took the title off The Boss. That night, emotion roiled below—and sometimes on—the surface: the result of Bayley’s long, unlikely journey to the top; the audience’s knowledge of Banks’s impending departure to more televised pastures (she was already appearing regularly on Raw); and the return of Becky Lynch and Charlotte, the other members of NXT’s “Four Horsewomen,” who stormed the ring post-match to celebrate an incredible night for women’s wrestling.
But, that night in Brooklyn, Banks and Bayley’s match was followed by Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens competing for the NXT (Men’s) Championship. NXT’s promotional machine assured us that the women were the “co-main event”—but the women’s match was penultimate, the men went last—and as every single person on this green earth knows, there’s no such thing as a co-main event. On Wednesday, finally, there was no doubt about the marquee. “Ever since TakeOver [Brooklyn], the only thing I’ve been hearing is how me and you stole the show,” Banks said to Bayley a few weeks ago, and she’s probably hearing the same about Wednesday’s events. But you can’t steal what you already own. TakeOver: Respect belonged to the two women from the start.
Of course, there was no men’s title match on Wednesday: champ Finn Bálor was busy competing in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. If he hadn’t been—if Bálor had been scheduled to take on Owens or anyone else for the title—I believe NXT would still have given the women the top billing. Coming off their epic theft in Brooklyn, any other card would have been an obvious atrocity. But we won’t see Banks v. Bayley again until Bayley gets the call-up to the main roster, so it will take another storyline, another rivalry, before we get the historic first of women headlining over the men at NXT. (Don’t worry: the men can co-main event.)
Blame it on the buzzy high still lingering from Wednesday’s match, but I believe that occurrence is a matter of when, not if. NXT has been roundly and rightly praised for dedicating screen time and thoughtful storytelling to its female competitors, and the organization easily could have rested on those laurels. Instead, we got an Iron Man match and a main event—and it wasn’t the only women’s match on the card. Recent Japanese arrival Asuka destroyed the nasally, weasel-y Dana Brooke in a great, fast-paced, endlessly entertaining match earlier in the night. The NXT women’s division has a midcard, for crying out loud. The NXT women’s division has jobbers.
And the NXT women’s division has stars. Women’s wrestling! The chants began before the competitors entered the arena, and started up again once Banks and Bayley arrived in the ring. This is awesome! shouted the crowd, before the women had locked anything but eyes. And then the match began, an intricate, echoing contest which is far better watched than read about, so let’s be brief in recapping: Banks scored the first pin off a delightfully heelish sequence: taking Bayley’s handshake only to hurl her to the mat; blocking the referee’s view as she drove her thumb into Bayley’s eye. (And this was before she yelled at a little girl, stole her headband, and made her cry. Watch out, Seth Rollins: Banks is the best bad guy on the roster.)
Bayley earned a point of her own before Banks retaliated with a count-out, preening with her stolen headband while Bayley failed to make it back from a beating outside the ring. But Bayley tied the game with a stolen roll-up and won—as we knew she would, as she had to—with a hard-fought submission maneuver in the match’s final seconds. Iron Woman, the crowd had chanted, as the clock snuck under five minutes, and that’s what Banks and Bayley were, without a doubt: iron women, powerful and shining, soaked in sweat and near tears.
But the night was also about girls. Last Wednesday, Bayley tweeted a picture of an essay she’d written for her high school English class. “Since I was 12 years old, the only success I ever dream about is becoming a Pro Wrestler in the WWE,” the then-teenager had written. Banks saw the bet and raised it, tweeting an old essay of her own. (The Boss, it seems, has always been legit: “I’m going to be the best Pro Wrestler the WWE has every [sic] seen,” she declared, at age 11.) Announcer Renee Young referenced these childhood dreams at the pre-show roundtable; Charlotte alluded to them in an interview about the women’s previous match-up: “There are a million Bayleys sitting out there… [a million Bayleys] won the championship.”
This has always been Bayley’s gimmick, the reason for her ponytail and bouncy entrance: she’s a little girl grown up, living out her dream. Art borrows from life, in professional wrestling, often in great, heaping doses. But life also lends itself to art, and the ringside presence of Izzy, an actual little girl (and the sobbing owner of the stolen headband), serves as a week-in, week-out reinforcement of this story. Izzy is Bayley’s biggest fan, the announcers tell us, and the camera finds her after every major moment. The camera lingers on her matching ponytail, her streaming armbands, and makes a cinematic suggestion, taking the narrative one step further: Izzy is Bayley. Or she might as well be, she will be someday. And so will you, little girl, watching at home. So can you.
Watching old Iron Man matches in the last few weeks, I thought of an anecdote told by Jeff Leen in The Queen of the Ring, his biography of Mildred Burke. Burke, who won the women’s championship in the mid-1930s and held it into the 1950s, wasn’t eager to relinquish the belt to a younger opponent when the National Wrestling Alliance thought she should. The only way she would lose, she decided, was for real: the match would be unscripted, a shoot instead of a work. The match was scheduled accordingly and for two falls; the winner had to pin her opponent twice before earning the belt.
But the match never got to two falls. After Burke’s opponent scored the first point, the women fought back and forth for more than an hour—talk about iron women—neither gaining the advantage. The audience was unaware that the fight before them was different than the usual, scripted contests, with their acrobatics and bombast. The crowd grew bored of the grappling, and the official called the match. Burke, having only lost one fall, deemed the belt still hers. The National Wrestling Alliance thought otherwise, crowned a new champion, and moved on.
Burke, banned from the all-male meetings of that organization, struck out on her own, training younger wrestlers and shilling co-ed matches. She used the language of women’s lib to market her product—The weaker sex? The struggle for equal fights continues!—but, Leen writes, “The feminists simply ignored her.”
One line in a long biography, but it’s stuck with me. The feminists simply ignored her, but they—we—can’t ignore women’s wrestling now. (Women’s wrestling! The chants are too loud to pretend not to hear.) Any arena in which women work and live is worthy of dedicated, intelligent consideration, even if the casual viewer might tune in to Raw’s regular hair-pulling and name-calling and dismiss the sport out of hand. But I love the questions even that mess of programming raises: what sort of femininity is being sold here? What does a spectacle so often plumbed for insight into working-class American masculinity have to say about the women who make that spectacle their life’s work? What makes a little girl want to be a WWE Diva?
As they pertain to Raw and the main roster and the larger history of wrestling, these questions require more words than I have room for here, and will have to wait. But the answers seemed obvious to me, articulation unnecessary, on Wednesday night. At the end of the event, after Banks and Bayley had fought for 30 long, glorious minutes, the entire NXT locker room came out to join the audience in applauding the two women. Bayley stayed in the ring, clutching her championship—You deserve it, cried the audience—while Banks, no less perfect in defeat, made her way up the ramp.
When she reached her trainers and fellow wrestlers and turned back to face the ring, she dropped to her knees, overcome. Thank you, Sasha, chanted the crowd, realizing that the match they’d just seen was her last at NXT.
For every Izzy out there, there’s a little girl who hopes she’s tough but fears she isn’t. For every girl who wants to be Bayley, there’s a girl who wants to be The Boss. So give her two heroes, give her ten. A hundred would be a decent start. In the meantime, we have NXT, a magical land where little girls grow up—not to be Divas, but Iron Women.
Images via YouTube/screengrab/Wikimedia Commons
Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.