In the aftermath of the Royal Rumble, the women’s title pictures of Raw and SmackDown were complete opposites. The latter looked incredibly solid; the former was all over the place. Now their positions have flipped.
Back in January, Bianca Belair had just become the first genuine up-and-comer to win a women’s Rumble, following in the far more established footsteps of Asuka, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair. WWE’s decision to pair her with Sasha Banks at WrestleMania was a no-brainer, a pair of excellent wrestlers with enough contrasts and similarities to make for a compelling rivalry.
The dynamic should have written itself: a champion recognised as one of WWE’s biggest and brightest names (with growing mainstream appeal) versus a challenger universally considered a future star. Although both are babyfaces at the time of writing, Banks and Belair have built personas around a conceited self-confidence, neither willing to give an inch. From the Rumble onwards, all WWE had to do was ramp up this natural tension and let them tear the house down at WrestleMania.
We now know that hasn’t happened of course, but let’s take a look at the red brand, which has somehow had the opposite trajectory. Until very recently, Asuka was every inch the forgotten champion. For months she played what might be generously described as a supporting role, popping in and out of a division centred around Flair, Flair Sr., Evans, Jax and Baszler. She has since been brought back to the fore, but only because WWE were forced to do so.
Plans for a bout between Charlotte and Lacey fell through with the announcement of the latter’s pregnancy, and the existence of Asuka was conveniently remembered with WWE backed into a corner. However, the sad news of Charlotte’s positive COVID test appears to have rendered a WrestleMania 34 rematch very unlikely.
These sudden swings in direction have not made for cohesive viewing, and while certain circumstances are clearly beyond WWE’s control, some of this is also their fault - namely their unwillingness to prominently feature their own champion.
Since winning her second Raw Women’s title at SummerSlam, Asuka’s booking has been at best inconsistent, and at worst non-existent. When Lacey was originally set to wrestle the Empress at Elimination Chamber, most of us assumed a cheap title change was incoming. Once the match was cancelled, it was announced that there’d be a new challenger for Asuka on the night of the Chamber event - but there simply never was. No explanation, contrived or otherwise. It just didn’t happen.
This sums up WWE’s recent attitude towards Asuka, one made all the more unfair by the fact that in the early stages of the pandemic, she was doing it all. She wrestled on both brands, cut promos, sat in on commentary, and elevated those pre-Thunderdome shows every time she appeared on camera.
This week’s Raw was a desperately-needed step in the right direction, and also the simplest. Rhea Ripley made her much-hyped appearance and challenged Asuka for ‘Mania - her impressive Rumble showing still fresh in the mind, along with an organic redemption story after last year’s loss to Charlotte. It was that easy. After months of cluttered, confused booking, WWE have instead made a unique and exciting Raw Women’s title match. Meanwhile, over on the brand whose title scene could have breezed to ‘Mania on autopilot, things have become needlessly complicated.
First of all - and it’s a question that has to be asked - why is a nimble wine expert suddenly the most important figure of the SmackDown women’s division? I have nothing against Reginald, but he’s taking the spotlight away from the champ and her ‘Mania opponent - who also happen to be two of WWE’s most naturally magnetic stars. Banks and Belair may not have the polished mic skills of peers like Becky Lynch or Alexa Bliss, but they undoubtedly have an innate charisma, a quality people often forget to separate from promo ability. (As an example, Ronda Rousey was never the smoothest talker on the roster, but her presence was almost unrivalled throughout her stint with the company.)
But instead of the obvious route, an almighty clash of egos, Sasha and Bianca’s ‘feud’ has focussed heavily on Nia and Shayna - who really do seem intent on disrupting both brands’ title scenes, now with Reginald in tow. Add in a sprinkling of Bayley for good measure, and it’s clear to see that the SmackDown landscape is far too crowded, just as Raw’s was until this week. It’s a huge shame for Banks and Belair, because in order to build a dynamite feud, they only ever needed each other.
The lesson here is that simplicity is the key. Raw has streamlined its title feud and looks in very good shape, while we’re all praying that SmackDown undergoes the same process.
Clearly this is not an issue limited to WWE’s women’s divisions. At the moment, the promotion seems unable to book a handful of cohesive storylines at once. Things are forgotten or shunted in a new direction week after week, amid reports of Vince McMahon rewriting the show hours before it goes on air. But it’s especially frustrating in these specific cases, because when it comes to the female portion of the roster, this has been a problem for a long while.
So rarely have we seen a main roster women’s storyline with the desired amount of direction and impact, usually devolving into the same patronising clichés: incessant bickering, tag teams turning on each other, insults focussed on physical appearance, and the repeated trope of heels bullying babyfaces. The modern exception is Becky Lynch, but her initial rise took place in spite of WWE’s booking, not because of it.
To illustrate the importance of simplicity and gravitas, WWE needn’t look far. The NXT Women’s Championship has long been the best booked title in WWE, and excluding last year’s Charlotte experiment, it’s not even close. A lot of this success is down to the incredible talent pool the brand has been able to draw from and develop, many of whom will go down as all-time greats. But another factor is NXT’s comparatively straightforward booking, which has taken the competitors seriously and allowed them to thrive.
At present, Io Shirai is an aggressive and dominant champion, and has identified the intimidating Raquel Gonzalez as a worthy opponent. Both look strong, and will probably emerge looking strong regardless of the result. There’s nothing fancy to it, but it continues to work for the NXT women’s division, time and time again. Most of the fireworks are saved for the matches themselves.
NXT allowed Sasha to be one half of an era-defining feud, rather than shoving her into storylines with heel tag teams or meddling sommeliers. Asuka is quite possibly the best NXT Women’s Champion in history, but had Plan A gone ahead this year, she would likely be struggling to even get on the WrestleMania card. Despite this, I have little doubt that both the Raw and SmackDown Women’s Champions will threaten to steal the show at this year’s ‘Mania - aided by a pair of challengers that compliment their styles brilliantly.
Hopefully Vince realises the talent he has on his hands, and resists the urge to throw any more bells and whistles on either title scene in the next few weeks. They’ve been laden with enough already; now let them go and wrestle.