Sports

The Unfulfilled Promise of Babyface Bayley

She's turned heel now, but WWE never gave Bayley the hugger a solid run with the full confidence and weight of the promotion behind it.
July 3, 2018, 1:06pm
Screen capture via WWE Network

When she came up to WWE’s main roster from NXT, nobody felt like more of a sure thing than Bayley. A good but not a once-a-generation talent in the way Asuka is, she was blessed with a can’t lose gimmick and a natural aw shucks charm to go with it. She liked hugs, slap bracelets, and windsock people; she was a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life, and hundreds of neon-bedecked little girls confirmed her status as theirs. The next John Cena wasn’t going to be a musclebound guy with good looks; it was going to be Bayley, and her army was going to be girls who would be hooked on pro wrestling via their neon and pastel hero.

Bayley turned heel a little over a week ago, obliterating all that work, but her status as the next big thing for the preteen set went off the rails long before that. She’s been listless after briefly holding the women’s title after her move to WWE proper, a pale shadow of what she was.

It’s important to recall just what she was beyond the gimmick. Back in 2015, WWE’s trademarkable women’s revolution wasn’t personified by Charlotte, Alexa Bliss, and Asuka. It was Bayley and Sasha Banks, who put on two match of the year contenders at NXT Takeover events, one of which was the first women’s match to headline a WWE event. Indeed, Banks and Bayley’s feud defined 2015, reaching white hot status and tying their two careers together.

It was all money. Perfect babyface gimmick, cool merchandise, good stories, and cred from some truly spectacular matches. Then she hit the main roster and just fizzled, an unspectacular two months with the women’s title aside.

One of the strange quirks of WWE babyface status is that you have to be dumb. If you can blunder into a bad situation of your own making, you will. You also have to be kind of a dick; one of the threads of WWE storytelling, going back to Hulk Hogan, is that the heels are generally pretty understandable. When Randy Savage thought Hogan was stealing his spotlight and hotdogging, he was right. When John Cena came out and ran down his opponents by calling them women, he was being an asshole.

Bayley somehow ended up cast adrift from half of this equation, becoming a doofus. Her character was especially dumb because she was so good, a purely beatific angel who wanted hugs, friends, and ended up coming across at least a little like the infamous Eugene, whose gimmick was that of a mentally handicapped man who became a wrestling savant when given the chance. Bayley’s rudderless happiness in WWE saw the mental capacity part of that become implied subtext, probably even unintentionally, but it was there.

Not least because the other thing about WWE babyfaces, the meanness and pettiness when challenged, was completely absent. You’d think that would be a better combination than dumb and dangerous, but you’d be wrong. Bayley simply wasn’t a threat—not to the other babyfaces (except when she cost them a tag match), and certainly not to the heels.

This dynamic reached its nadir in the summer of 2017, when she tried to regain her title from Alexa Bliss. The match was a kendo stick on a pole match. Bayley seemed alternately unwilling to use the stick to win and unable to figure out how. The match ended with Bliss beating hell out of a hapless Bayley; Bayley never got her heat back.

She’s never recaptured the full imagination of the audience since. She’s a grey goof, dumb and storyless, except when her shared history with Banks comes to the fore, which it often does. This may be both women’s shared curse: they can’t escape those matches and that chemistry. They’re either tagging together or fighting. Even in a multi-woman match, one will fixate on the other to the detriment of both, as in the Elimination Chamber match earlier this year.

It was perfectly rational (in WWE terms) for Bayley to turn on Banks after years of torment which mostly looked like passé cattiness of yesteryear. The doofus snapped. There were even cheers because finally, finally, something happened with Bayley.

It might work and, if Bayley’s ad-libbed “you ain’t shit” to Sasha is any indication, she might be thoroughly enjoying the change. And while the return to the Kane-Daniel Bryan dynamic via the return of Dr. Shelby as counselor for Bayley and Banks to (humorously) solve their issues wasn’t terrible, it’s at least different. Really, why complain about different when WWE opts for the same so often?

But it seems like WWE missed a trick. They never gave Bayley the hugger a solid run with the full confidence and weight of the promotion behind it. A change only really works if the standard has grown stale; Bayley the hero never got off the ground, remaining forever a relic of NXT’s golden age.

A single data point exists for how this might backfire. My daughter is Bayley’s bullseye demographic. She is not a pro wrestling fan, opting for half-interested watching over my shoulder when it doesn’t conflict with bedtime. But she loves Bayley. She has a Bayley shirt. She dressed like Bayley for Halloween, with my wife as a windsock person following close behind. If the only wrestler she likes is on television, if the catchy theme song starts and she hears “there ain’t no stoppin’ us now,” she’ll stampede toward whatever screen I’m watching on.

My daughter wasn’t watching when Bayley turned, but I went upstairs and told her. First she was bummed out, then she decided she didn’t care to either watch her hero struggle through moral ambiguity or to cheer for Sasha Banks. Certainly, it doesn’t seem like her Bayley super fandom is going to translate into a more general pro wrestling interest any time soon.

It didn’t have to be that way, because I can’t imagine she’s the only girl who walks away unfulfilled by Bayley’s story arc. Time will tell if they’re in big numbers or whether Bayley has a resolution which brings her back to her NXT heights, but for now, it feels like a waste.