When WWF Wrestlemania 2000 was released on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, one of the first wrestlers I made with the create-a-wrestler feature was named "Color Mask," and he looked and acted a lot like Asuka, the NXT champion who's gone undefeated in one-on-one bouts for two years (and has never been pinned, even in tag team action). He was, as you might expect, colorful, and had an offense based around hard strikes and submissions, just like Asuka.
This isn't a post about how the WWE creative team ripped my younger self off, though. Because Color Mask and Asuka both emerge from a similar context, reflecting a specific archetypical history. It's one at once idealized, yet also steeped in orientalism—the idea of a mysterious martial arts master who transcends good and bad, gaining cheers and fame for merely being so good that nobody can ignore it.
I hadn't watched much Japanese wrestling in 1999, yet I felt I instinctively knew what it was like, or at least what the best of it was like. The thing is, I'm positive I wasn't alone; I had friends who made wrestlers a lot like the very real Asuka and imaginary Color Mask, and I've seen the creations of people from all over the world which match up.
The character of Asuka (or whoever your Asuka was in those video games, tabletop RPGs, and message board e-feds) exists at least as much as platonic ideals as anything real. And it's a wonder that Asuka is real: a short, cool, riot of colorful synthetic violence brought to life, a golem come to life via the breathed dreams of everyone who had an inkling that wrestling could always be faster and harder than what we see at any given moment. But she is real, flesh and blood and neon, alive in a way that her compatriot, Shinsuke Nakamura, doesn't really seem to be in WWE.
She showed up in NXT not quite two years ago, and she never lost a match. Her debut was a means to show how dominant she was, a Bill Goldbergian act which culminated in a 510 day reign as NXT Women's champion. You might think that the unstoppable Asuka story would get boring but it never has. She really is so good, maybe the best wrestler in WWE, and has such creative freedom in the ring that it's never dragged for a second.
The only thing which finally stopped her was the combination of injury and her call-up to WWE's main roster. At NXT Takeover late last month, she broke her collarbone after an awkward fall; she finished the match, because that's what pro wrestlers do, and relinquished her title a few days later in the fact of a two month spell on the injured list.
She'll be headed to WWE proper, as a member of Raw, when she recovers. As transcendent a talent as Asuka is, it's worth looking at where the last crop of feted women's wrestlers from NXT are right now if we want an idea of where Asuka may end up.
Don't make any mistake about how badass Asuka is. Part of the reason she works is that she, like Strowman, makes the mythical look good.
When the Four Horsewomen (Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Bayley) came up to the main roster, they remade the women's division in their image. Banks and Charlotte, in particular, were presented as once a generation talents and allowed to have groundbreaking matches: the first women's Hell in a Cell match, hardcore matches, and iron wo/man matches.
Bayley was a bright babyface given a hero's welcome wherever she went; my daughter, who has no interest in her father's annoying lifelong pro wrestling habit, lights up when she hears Bayley is onscreen, because superheroes in bright colors who win appeal to kids. Even Lynch, who's seemed the odd woman out—with rumors that Vince McMahon finds her Irish accent too goofy never far out of earshot—debuted to plenty of screentime. Women's wrestling was, in 2016, being sculpted by the hands of eight women who came out of NXT with more momentum and buzz than most of their male counterparts.
This promo video from WWE showcases both Asuka's promise and how the WWE risks squandering it.
A year later and the momentum has withered. Banks has fared the best; she's a four-time Raw Women's champion, albeit one who's lately seemed to keep the belt warm for relative newcomer and extremely good in her own right Alexa Bliss. Charlotte flits in and out of number one contenders matches, while Lynch seems mostly invisible. Bayley, for her part, has been woefully mishandled, transforming from a female corollary to John Cena into a hapless goof swallowed by 50-50 booking.
The Four Horsewomen have been largely pushed down by other women in the division who didn't have the unstoppable force of hype around them. Alexa Bliss, who's been a revelation as a cocky, competent heel, arrived from NXT without a lot of fanfare, only to become the most dominant force in the division. Nia Jax, another NXT call-up, is central to pretty much everything as a quiet giant. Even the wrestlers from the pre-Horsewomen, Divas Division days like Naomi and Natalya have been getting equal shrift.
It should be said that the Four Horsewomen are building to a probable Wrestlemania encounter with Ronda Rousy and the rest of MMA's Four Horsewomen. It's not like they're gone or have nothing to do. But in the week to week, it's hard to argue that things have turned out in the way we figured they would, with the four women setting trends for a generation.
That's a cautionary tale for Asuka. Where she's similar to her NXT forebears is that they, too, were dominant, genre-changing performers with the weight of hype and history—or, at least, NXT history—behind them. WWE proper is a different place than NXT, with all the proceedings at the mercy of Vince McMahon's Sauron-like gaze; he sees all, controls all, and he can be very fickle with what he thinks works from week to week.
My nightmare is that Asuka becomes just another wrestler, a sort of mirror image of Bayley where they're both in neon spandex with opposite gimmicks—Bayley's underdog to Asuka's frightening unstoppability—trading wins with lesser talents week to week after an initial big push.
But there's a heartening corollary on the men's side of the roster. Asuka could be Braun Strowman, the massive strongman who makes violence look real and is on the cusp of superstardom. Strowman has been allowed to be dominant (even when he loses it's because of elaborate shenanigans forced upon his opponents.)
Don't make any mistake about how badass Asuka is. Part of the reason she works is that she, like Strowman, makes the mythical look good. It's not just that she's the mysterious martial artist/submission specialist; it's that she transcends it even as she is it, something recognizable and altogether more than the possible pigeonholed role so many working that style end up in. I worry that WWE might turn her into Hakushi, a stellar worker from Japanese promotion Michinoku Pro who quickly went from wrestling Bret Hart to jobbing to Barry Horowitz.
Both Asuka and Strowman seem to be creatures from our dreams, vestigial memories of violence, more forces of nature than human beings. Asuka can't grow another two feet, but she can hopefully get the green light to just be Asuka in the same way Strowman has been allowed to just be Strowman.
WWE has the power to make Asuka one of the biggest names in pro wrestling--if she's not already achieved that status--if they just let her be herself. Let's hope they don't screw it up.