In three weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.
This is the second in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. In Part 2, we focus on 2015, the year that women’s wrestling returned to the United States. By that, of course, I don’t mean that there were no female wrestlers in the U.S. prior to 2015; quite the opposite is true. But it had been almost a decade since women had been treated with anything resembling respect on the WWE stage. Some promotions, such as Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling (now known as Impact Wrestling) had thriving women’s divisions during this period, but WWE is the biggest game in town, and despite the efforts of some members of the talent roster — most notably AJ Lee — it was hard to ignore the fact that the largest wrestling promotion in the world was hiring supermodels and training them just enough to not kill one another while they did battle in Playboy Pillow Fights over a championship that looked like a butterfly or a vagina, depending on who you asked. In 2015, the women of NXT almost single-handedly changed all that, and if the Orlando promotion had done nothing else whatsoever, it would still be worth celebrating for breathing life back into American women’s wrestling.
Thinking about Paige in 2018 is an incredibly different experience from thinking about her in 2014. And it’s not just the tragic neck injury that ended her wrestling career almost immediately after her return from a year-long hiatus, forcing her out of the ring and into the role of Smackdown general manager. It’s not just the drug policy violations, the suspensions, the leaked videos, or the TMZ wet dream that was her bizarre relationship with Alberto El Patron. We don’t think of Paige as a wrestler now the way we did then. We don’t remember her as one of the celebrated Amato trainees who stormed out of NXT on chariots made of main-event caliber matches to change the face of women’s wrestling. She wasn’t part of the “Divas Revolution,” no matter how many times some people said she started it. Paige never main-evented anything. She didn’t get the Divas Championship changed back into the Women’s Championship. She never stole the show at Wrestlemania; hell, she never even competed for a title at Wrestlemania. Her timing had been off. She was the last of the old breed, not the first of the new.
In 2014, however, most of us had a very different opinion of Paige. For a time, she was the pioneer. She was the one demanding that women’s wrestling be respected and backing up that demand with her ability. NXT’s women’s division stumbled early, focusing initially on a strange-in-hindsight group of talent that included Audrey Marie, who retired in 2014; Raquel Diaz, the daughter of Eddie Guerrero who left the company in 2014; and Sofia Cortez, who was fired in 2012, allegedly as a result of her making the first allegations against disgraced NXT trainer Bill DeMott, and who now performs in Lucha Underground as Ivelisse. Of all the female trainees getting a television spotlight in 2012, Paige is the only one who lasted, but she wouldn’t be alone at the top for long. As late 2012 turned into 2013, two other notable women arrived on the NXT scene – Emma, an Australian independent wrester whose awkward dancing character caught fire with the crowd, and Summer Rae, who played the role of “mean girl” to absolute perfection. When it came time for a tournament to crown the first NXT women’s champion, it was the semifinal match between Emma and Summer and the finals between Emma and Paige that truly announced the rebirth of women’s wrestling in America, and arguably were two of the three matches that got wrestling fans to sit up and pay attention to what was happening down in Orlando (the third being the legendary two-out-of-three falls match between Sami Zayn and Cesaro). Paige, Emma, and Summer Rae kicked the tires on the NXT women’s movement, and the matches they put on were a huge part of the groundswell surrounding the yellow brand. It was only right that Paige and Emma would face off for the NXT Women’s Championship at Arrival. There might not have been an Arrival if it weren’t for them.
And then, by the summer of 2014, they were gone. Paige to her roller coaster of a career, Emma to years of perennial misuse and poorly-timed injuries, and Summer Rae to savagely unjust obscurity. Paige and Summer Rae would make a few more appearances on NXT television, and Emma would later return full-time and completely reinvent herself, but NXT spent the majority of the year without any of them, and the new hierarchy in the women’s division was not immediately apparent. After Paige vacated the NXT Women’s Championship, NXT held another tournament to crown a new champion, with the finals taking place at the original Takeover, and it didn’t exactly seem like the best sign that the two women in those finals were Natalya, on loan from the main roster, and Charlotte, the daughter of Ric Flair and the greenest of rookies. Before that match, the future of the NXT women’s division was murky.
Seventeen minutes later, it was looking considerably brighter. Charlotte was the new champion following a match that was probably better than anything Paige, Emma, or Summer Rae had done in NXT. Here, at long last, was a Flair child who was born for the business. As Charlotte developed into a great wrestler faster than anyone had ever seen, her character meshed perfectly with that rapid development. When Charlotte said she was genetically superior, that she was destined to be champion because she was just naturally better than her opponent, it was hard to disagree. And alongside her rise to the top came the other three members of the group that would come to be known informally as the Four Horsewomen.
Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Bayley all had more independent experience than Charlotte (Lynch, in particular, had been a star in SHIMMER almost ten years prior) but all four were trained at the Performance Center by Sara Amato, and all four must be considered equal contributors to the true revolution in women’s wrestling that happened in NXT in 2015. Ironically, Charlotte herself enjoyed her run at the top primarily in 2014, defending her championship first against Bayley in an excellent match at Fatal 4-Way, and then against Banks at R Evolution in an unquestionable classic and a fundamental turning point for NXT, a match that would have outclassed almost every main event except the one that actually followed it. But it wasn’t until the next year, the year in which she lost her championship and ultimately departed for Raw, that the women of NXT began having the best matches on every single Takeover show.
It began with the fatal four-way in which Sasha Banks finally won the women’s title. If there was one member of the Four Horsewomen who stood just slightly above the others, it was Banks. Charlotte, Bayley, and Becky Lynch were all incredible performers for a variety of reasons, but they did their best work when Banks stood on the other side of the ring. She is the only one of the four to have one-on-one Takeover matches with all three of the others, each one better than the last. Banks and Charlotte tore the house down at R Evolution, but her title defense against Lynch at Unstoppable was phenomenal, and her match with Bayley in Brooklyn was transcendent.
While Charlotte had been the first of the four to become champion and Bayley enjoyed the most unmitigated fan support, Lynch felt like the odd woman out at first. She was the last of the four to be established on NXT programming, her Takeover debut delayed until Rival in early 2015. At the time, that match felt like Lynch’s breakout performance, but it wasn’t until Unstoppable that it felt right to put her name alongside the other three. On a night that ended with the NXT debut of Samoa Joe, the contest between Lynch and Banks was by far the best and most memorable thing on the show, a match that proclaimed the NXT women to be the most valuable people in professional wrestling.
And with respect to the Neville/Zayn title match from R Evolution, Bayley’s championship win over Banks is still probably the best singles match in NXT history, and a strong argument can be made that it’s the best match, period. There is nothing about this match that isn’t perfect, from the opening video package to the entrances to the ridiculous reverse rana off the top rope. For all that the Raw creative team has done their best to ruin Bayley and Sasha and the entire concept of a women’s division, this match is one of the reasons the main roster even has a women’s division again, as opposed to “divas” fighting over a shiny pink…butterfly. This was the match that should have been the main event, to such an extent that at the next Takeover, Banks and Bayley were the main event. This was the match that introduced the Four Horsewomen to the world via their own personal curtain call. This was the match that altered the future of women’s wrestling, because it was the culmination of the actual revolution – not the kayfabe one — that occurred in 2015. For an entire year, the first thing you thought about when you thought about NXT was women’s wrestling.
And unlike 2014, it’s not as though the other parts of the show were in disarray. The main event picture included the stacked foursome of Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, and Samoa Joe. The undercard, once emblematic of a thin roster, was filled out by Tyler Breeze, Baron Corbin, the repackaged Tye Dillinger, the newly arrived Apollo Crews, the recently returned Rhyno, and one-time-only international legends like Jushin “Thunder” Liger. Even the tag team division was trending upwards, as the championship cycled from the Lucha Dragons to Blake and Murphy to the Vaudevillains to, at the end of the year, the Revival. Enzo and Cass were starting to get huge, Mojo Rawley was rescued from jobber status by Zack Ryder, and Jason Jordan finally found his perfect partner in Chad Gable. Tag team wrestling in NXT was rapidly on the rise.
But as good as the rest of NXT was becoming, the Four Horsewomen were better. And it wasn’t just Charlotte’s physical gifts, Lynch’s tremendous wrestling skills, or the perfectly opposed characters of Bayley and Banks keeping the women’s division at the top. Three of the five Takeover specials in 2015 featured two women’s matches on the card, something that hadn’t happened before Unstoppable and hasn’t happened since London. All of a sudden, NXT had more female wrestlers than it knew what to do with. Nia Jax arrived on the scene and almost immediately took a place in division lore as Bayley’s biggest challenge to date. Emma returned and somehow managed to transform herself from dancing comedy act to hated heel. She was allied with the debuting Dana Brooke, who had Charlotte’s lack of experience without the counterbalancing natural talent and needed all the help she could get. Especially, as it turned out, when facing NXT’s other debuting female star, Asuka, who won her first NXT match against Brooke at Respect and went undefeated until falling to Charlotte at Wrestlemania 24, two and a half years later. Even Alexa Bliss, who spent most of the year in the tag team division as the manager for Blake and Murphy, turned the corner in 2015, unlocking her character potential as the villainous leader of BAM and cementing the promo skills that make her one of WWE’s best talkers today (not to mention one of the most decorated female performers in recent WWE history).
At the first live special of 2016, Takeover: Dallas, Asuka defeated Bayley for the NXT women’s title and preceded to wear it for a record-shattering 510 days. During her reign, the women’s division was plundered by Raw and Smackdown far more thoroughly than it had been before. WWE was once again splitting into two brands, and there were now going to be two women’s titles for two women’s divisions. As such, they needed pretty much everyone. Emma returned to the main roster in May, taking Brooke with her. Jax and Bliss hung around a little longer, but both were drafted to the main roster in July, along with Carmella, who had also been involved in recent championship matches. And after Bayley was again defeated by Asuka at Takeover: Brooklyn II, the final Horsewoman left NXT. This time, there were no saviors waiting in the wings. It was Asuka and her unprecedented winning streak against the dregs of the women’s division, a group of admittedly talented wrestlers who were nonetheless not ready for the limelight that Takeover had become. By the end of the year, the division was so thin that NXT went out and brought Mickie James back for a Takeover match against Asuka in Toronto. And of course, James debuted on Smackdown two months later. It was a great time to tell the story of an unbeatable champion, but it did mean that the golden age of women’s wrestling in NXT had come to an end.
It was just as well, though, because the women might not have stayed on top in 2016 even if the roster had remained intact. By the time Takeover: Dallas rolled around, the tag team division had completed its evolution, and eight people, not four, were ready to take their places as the new kings of NXT.