In a February live special of WWE's NXT TakeOver, Sasha Banks, the Diva who'd spent months in the shadow of her peers, finally got her revenge. She put her former BFF, Charlotte, in her signature "Bank Statement" submission hold, and hoisted the dead weight over her body until Charlotte's shoulders touched the mat. 1, 2, 3. The career sidekick had finally captured the NXT Women's Championship. The match epitomized the total transformation of NXT, WWE's developmental program, into the world's best destinations for women's wrestling. And that revitalization has a single champion: Banks and Charlotte's trainer, Sara Del Rey, the first-ever female wrestling coach hired by the WWE.
"Sara wanted us to go out there and steal the show. To come backstage afterward and see how proud she was… I'm getting emotional right now just thinking about it," Sasha told VICE. "It just shows how much we care, how much we love this."
Del Rey joined WWE after a decade's worth of experience wrestling all over the world in independent promotions including Chikara, Ring of Honor, and Shimmer. Since being hired in 2012, WWE has produced some of their most promising female talent in a generation. NXT, essentially WWE's internal minor league, has morphed into the home of some of the networks' most riveting wrestling. Banks and Charlotte round out a once-in-a-lifetime crop alongside Bayley, Becky Lynch, Alexa Bliss, Paige, and Emma.
"Daniel Bryan, [currently one of WWE's biggest stars,] trained me a long time ago. That's how I got my foot in the door," Del Rey told VICE. "Training has always been my one true passion; it's what I really love about pro wrestling. I thought I had unique experiences and perspectives to share with the women in NXT. WWE agreed, and here I am."
Banks, who comes from an independent wrestling background, knew what she was getting into. "I had always heard of Sara Del Rey as one of the best female wrestlers in the world, and she was actually at my WWE tryout," she recalled. "She has so much experience and can teach you anything you want to learn. She's the very best we've got."
"It's irrelevant to me that's she's a woman. What matters is that she can do her job extremely well." —Triple H
Charlotte, despite being the daughter of the legendary Ric Flair, hadn't spent any time in a wrestling ring before she joined NXT in the spring of 2012, right around the same time Sara was hired.
"She had succeeded at the highest level, and now she was paving the way as WWE's first female coach," Charlotte recalled. "I just wanted to work incredibly hard for her."
Wrestling training is more than just running the ropes. Learning how to absorb hits is still the foundation of the business, but today, character development is what's most important. At its core, pro wrestling is performance art. You can do every show-stopping move you want, but if the audience doesn't hate you, or love you, or sympathize with you, it's all for naught. It was in this arena that Del Rey helped Charlotte the most.
"Obviously she's my coach, and obviously we trained in the ring, but Sara brought out who 'Charlotte' was. She taught me to be confident, and melded authentic sides of who I am on the inside and with my character," Charlotte explained. "She's my biggest supporter."
Del Rey echoed Charlotte's sentiment when I asked her about her greatest strengths as a trainer. "Really, I just support them. It's just about teaching them to think for themselves," she said. "I think all those girls really know who they are, inside and out of the ring. After that, it's easy for me to sit back and let them fly."
At this year's WrestleMania, the WWE's Super Bowl, more than 40 wrestlers competed. Only four of them were women.
"You can have all the knowledge in the world, but it's useless if you can't explain it," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque, WWE Executive Vice President and the man behind NXT, in an interview with VICE. "That's what makes Sara special: She can feel it, but she's also able to articulate that feeling."
It does help that Del Rey is a woman training other women. While plenty of female wrestlers, including Del Rey, have trained with men and succeeded, those I spoke with emphasized the impact that a like-minded trainer can have in the wrestling ring.
"I trained with guys' guys for years, but it was when I went to Japan and worked with a group of all females that my technique was really fine-tuned. There wasn't a safety net," said Del Rey. "I don't think [having a female trainer] is a necessity, but it's helpful."
Related: The British Wrestler, our documentary on the underground UK wrestling scene
"Working with a female trainer here is a big plus, because we are in a male-dominated business," explained Banks. "Having a female point of view when it comes to body movement has been so constructive. Sara is very understanding. Anything we need we're able to tell her. It's like having another mother here."
Levesque is happy to admit that there's always going to be a slight disconnect when a man is training a woman, but he also views Del Rey as an all-around talent.
"Whenever people say 'Oh, it's so great you brought in a woman to train the women,' I say 'I didn't hire a woman to train women, I hired a woman to train,'" Levesque emphasized. "She's great with the women, she can relate to the women wonderfully, but she's more than that. It's the same when I bring her up to the main roster; I'm not doing that so she can just work with the women, I'm doing that so she can be a road agent. It's irrelevant to me that's she's a woman. What matters is that she can do her job extremely well."
Last month, Banks and Charlotte headlined a special of NXT. It was a great match, symbolic of WWE's future. It's no secret that there are different priorities on Raw and Smackdown, WWE's two flagship programs. While NXT tends to treat women's and men's wrestling on the same level, the "Divas" on the main roster are often saddled with short matches. At this year's WrestleMania, the WWE's Super Bowl, more than 40 wrestlers competed. Only four of them were women.
On a February episode of Raw, Paige, Emma, and The Bella Twins, all talented performers, were put in a particularly short, cast-off match, causing the hash tag #GiveDivasAChance to trend worldwide. Since then we've seen the women wrestle longer matches on Raw, but we're still a ways away from parity.
Banks and Charlotte both talk about how Sara Del Rey is their "advocate," championing women not only in the ring, but in production meetings.
"She's someone who's always fighting for us," Charlotte said. "She's backstage advocating that the women deserve to be in the main event, and that the women deserve storylines. She's fighting for us everyday, and that's what's important."
"You think about #GiveDivasaChance. Sara has given us a chance," Banks told me. "Any time we want more time, she'll fight for it. Any time we don't understand something in the storyline, she fights for it. She's there at every step."
"There's no limit to what this generation of girls can do." —Sara Del Rey
"It's not that the divas never had an advocate," Del Rey explained, "but it's something I gravitate toward as a fan. It's easy for me to speak up for them, because that's what I'm interested in."
There are plenty of reasons why we don't see women in the main event spot on Raw like we do on NXT; it likely has more to do with business than anything else. But there's a lot of excitement surrounding this generation of women. Banks is on record saying that her personal goal is to someday headline a pay-per-view event, something that's never happened in the history of WWE.
I asked Del Rey if she thinks we'll see women headline Raw in the next couple of years. Her response? "100 percent. There's no limit to what this generation of girls can do."
"Do we feel the pressure? In a way, yes. Everyone is talking about us right now," said Sasha. "But we're doing what we love, and when you're doing what you love it comes easy. We're putting our heart out there, and the fans appreciate that. I believe that we're defining and changing women's wrestling. I hope little girls watch us and say 'Wow, I want to be a diva in the WWE because of these NXT girls.'
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