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With last night’s brain-dead ending to the WWE Divas Championship match between Nikki Bella and No. 1 contender Charlotte, the hope for a new division where character development and in-ring work reigned supreme was officially crushed. There was no change. There was no development. There was no revolution.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When word first spread that WWE was planning to call up the so-called Four Horsewomen of NXT, the hype was unstoppable. Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Bayley, and the then-NXT Women’s Champion Sasha Banks all on Raw at the same time? It was a coup for fans of WWE’s developmental program, fans who had seen the four women (in basically every possible permutation) put on high-quality matches for over a year, while telling a larger, overarching story centered around their personal growth as performers and characters. Even when Bayley was kept in NXT due to a wrist injury, the “invasion” was still seen as the first step in a makeover for a WWE women’s division that was desperate for new blood. And then Stephanie McMahon happened, and it all went to hell.
characters are what made the NXT women’s division compelling in the first place, and despite the WWE’s attempts to bludgeon the audience into compliance with hashtags, no amount of publicity could fix that.
While Stephanie being the one to introduce the NXT women to the WWE Universe wasn’t the kiss of death many in the so-called Internet Wrestling Community thought it to be, it did serve as a sign of things to come. Stephanie McMahon is, after all, a businesswoman before she is an entertainer, and because of this the #DivasRevolution was quickly branded and over-marketed until it became a running joke. It was another example of WWE jumping on trends instead of creating them (the success of both Ronda Rousey and the United States Women’s National Team). The storyline became less about the women and the specific characters they could portray, and more about how WWE was (finally) doing something about its women’s division. The problem is that the characters are what made the NXT women’s division compelling in the first place, and despite the WWE’s attempts to bludgeon the audience into compliance with hashtags, no amount of publicity could fix that.
Instead of dream matches featuring the very talented NXT Three (plus Paige, and, when she gives a shit, Nikki Bella), we were given a series of trios matches between three women’s teams that didn’t have a reason to exist aside from “we need more people in the ring.” Sure, the match length ballooned from the dark ages that proceeded the #DivasRevolution, but longer matches without a purpose are just bathroom breaks of a different variety. If you’re not given a reason to care about the women in the ring, you don’t care that their matches go 11 minutes instead of four.
One need only look at the usage of Sasha Banks, once upon a time the most popular character in NXT, to realize how badly the storyline was botched. Does any WWE fan even know why Sasha is called The Boss? Of course not. Do they know that she’s a vicious competitor in the ring because it’s the only way she can prove to herself that she’s the best? No, sir. They just know her as the women with the cool finish and dope theme song. How do you mess up Sasha Banks? Or Becky Lynch, a technician unrivaled in WWE or NXT? Or Charlotte, a second-generation star with athleticism that makes everyone else look lazy in comparison?
Meanwhile, in NXT, Bayley just hit the mountaintop of her two-year long quest to become champion in NXT, an epic that included betrayals, setbacks, and a revenge tour worthy of any video game’s final level. By the time she rolled into Brooklyn on August 21st for her match with Sasha Banks, Bayley’s hero’s journey was as well-told as any in wrestling history. After the aforementioned classic match (almost certainly the greatest women’s match in WWE history), the Four Horsewomen of NXT hugged in the middle of the ring, signifying the end of the best era of women’s wrestling in WWE history. It also may have signaled the last hope for fans who wanted that energy to carry over immediately to the main roster.
In a way, this is all AJ Lee’s fault. The former (as of last night) record-holder for the longest title reign in Divas Championship history made the unfortunate mistake of leaving the company at a time when they were suing her husband, CM Punk. Given WWE’s noted tendency for being as petty as possible, it is not a surprise that they would ruin the legacy of one of their all-time most popular female wrestlers in order to spite the man she married. Even if it came at the expense of their on-screen product. The moment AJ left WWE back in late March, anyone with a brain could have guessed we would end up here: with Nikki Bella holding on to the belt just long enough to break AJ’s record of 295 days as champ.
That itself isn’t a real problem; records—especially fake WWE ones—are meant to be broken. But the lack of meaningful title defenses, along with Nikki’s general disinterest in making anyone but herself look good (“Wins? Losses? Who cares?” will go down as the quote that defines this #DivasRevolution), made the last few months of women’s action as hollow as The Fearless One’s claims of being the greatest ever. Although her acting and lackadaisical performances in the ring can be blamed, it’s not entirely Nikki’s fault that the storyline failed. She was put in as much of a no-win situation as everyone else by creative. The fact that it took until last night to even get the first #DivasRevolution title match is proof enough of that.
Yet, one can’t help but look at Nikki Bella, Divas Champion and Total Divas star, as the symbol for what is wrong with the women’s division in the present moment. Similar to how her real-life boyfriend, John Cena, is booked on the men’s side, Nikki has been impervious to any real defeat since even before she became champ. Basically from the moment she aligned herself with Stephanie McMahon at last year’s SummerSlam, she has been booked as strongly as anyone in the company. Perhaps even more frustrating is her complete refusal to align herself one way or another, babyface or heel. Why is she playing the heel to the “white” team of Charlotte, Paige, and Becky Lynch, while playing the face to the POC team of Sasha Banks, Naomi, and Tamina? Nikki’s desire to be the top woman can’t coexist with her complete inability to play a believable babyface, and so she lives in the same grey area that The Authority does: evil when the story requires a villain, but “cool” when she craves a loud pop from any particular audience.
Whether there's hope for a good women’s division in WWE remains to be seen. It is clear that the company knows how to make it happen; regardless of whatever brand separation they push every week, NXT is a part of the WWE empire. If they can do it there, they can do it on the main roster. They just need to get out of their own way and let the stories and fan reactions lead the way.
Maybe now that Nikki Bella has topped the irrelevant fake record, the WWE Divas division can move on. It’s a safe bet that she will in fact lose—cleanly or otherwise—her belt to Charlotte on Sunday at their Night of Champions rematch, which is a step in the right direction. Not just because Charlotte can wrestle circles around Nikki, but because Nikki’s long and stifling reign needs to come to an end for there to be real development. The tools are there, and even some of the groundwork has been laid—have you noticed that Sasha Banks has yet to lose a singles match in WWE? If AJ Lee’s record had to die for the era of Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch to live, then maybe it was all worth it. But as of now, two months of pestering advertising and just one title match later, the #DivasRevolution has been nothing but a lukewarm failure.