The indelible image of WWE’s Paige is of her standing defiantly for an interview, leather jacket on and NXT Women’s title on her shoulder, running down the very notion of the WWE Diva. Even at 21 years of age, she had a perfectly cultivated, sneering disdain for her onscreen rivals, a way of putting the way WWE treated women’s wrestling into perspective. She wasn’t interested in the Divas’ frippery of sequined pants and EDM inflected theme music (the Divas nearly always had electronic theme music, a weird gendering of rock 'n' roll versus dance music which recalled the days of destroying disco records to show the flexing masculinity of rock). She wore black and had piercings. She didn’t think much of the way things were run in NXT or WWE, and she said so.
More than anything, she said, she was a wrestler. Hers echoed CM Punk’s promos, stressing that not only did WWE not trade in wrestling, but actively reviled it. Wrestling was for hicks and marks; sports entertainment was cool once and, if it had fallen on hard times, it would be cool again because of the eternal allure of glitz and the feeling of being in on the scam.
Of course she was a wrestler. Her family ran a wrestling promotion in England. She started in her teens. There was no way that Saraya-Jade Bevis was not going to be a wrestler, no way that she was not going to end up in WWE eventually, with a handy name change and fresh gimmick. If she wasn’t a Flair or a Hart, she was no less likely to carry on a blood legacy in pro wrestling. It was a calling, a birthright, what she knew, what she was good at.
Her wrestling roots perhaps helped her conjure hints of older women wrestlers in her character. There’s more than a hint of Daffney Unger in her look and a bit of Sherri Martel in her versatility. Even at her debut, she seemed like someone who knew pro wrestling, one of a handful of men and women who internalized all of the history, messiness, and potential in a way which extended beyond the wan, diffuse appeals to love of the business.
When she got the call up to WWE’s main roster, she won the Divas title from AJ Lee on her debut. It was deserved recognition of not just how good she was but how sure a bet a Paige title reign should be. And it mostly was, but as with a lot of wrestlers called up from NXT, there was scant mention of what made the character work. There was scant mention of the Anti-Diva or being a wrestler, of loving wrestling.
All of which was and is a terrible shame. Before the Four Horsewomen were called up, Paige and Lee were launching a two-pronged assault on the bad old days of the Divas. No more underwear matches. No botched bumps or soft slaps. No two moves and a silent crowd. Undoubtedly, WWE was moving away from all of that and towards accepting a more visible and talented women’s wrestling scene outside its purview, but that move happened as it did and when it did in large part because of the spark of Paige and Lee in the mid-10s, brief as it was. And there were certainly women who eschewed the bra and panties match era in the years immediately preceding Paige, but Paige’s debut marked the wholesale move away from all of that and a mute embarrassment by WWE that it had happened at all.
All of this is prelude to what has been trickling out over the past few days: Paige is very likely done as an in-ring performer. A neck surgery forced her out of action for a lengthy period, which she’d recently returned from. An innocuous looking bump after a kick in the back by Sasha Banks during a house show sent her reeling and very likely ended her career due to her neck snapping back. It’s hard to watch: she hits the mat as expected and tries to get up, only to stumble around aimlessly before the ref stops the match.
This is all monstrously unfair. It’s no secret that Paige has had a troubled couple of years. Her relationship with Alberto Del Rio went from merely turbulent and weird to allegations of abuse against Del Rio from Paige’s family. Her phone was hacked, leading to private pictures and sex tapes flooding the internet. All of that after violating (erroneously, according to her) WWE’s wellness policy, twice.
Regardless of who is to blame, Paige’s life has been a mess the past couple of years, and a quick perusal of any wrestling related forum or discussion regarding Paige will reveal expressions of grave fear that she might not make it. The same sense that she belonged in pro wrestling seemed, in the worst moments, ready to give way to the terrible ways of belonging to pro wrestling: the drug abuse and death. And yet she returned, seemingly rejuvenated and self-confident in a way we’d not seen since the NXT days. She made it through the dark tunnel and came out the other side to raucous applause.
And now, it’s very likely done. At just 25, Paige is cruelly sidelined, victim of a fluke bump and a bum neck. This should not, however, read as an obituary for her career, but an exhortation to remember it fondly if she is, indeed, done. As brief as her time on the global stage was, she was important, a fact which could be easily overlooked given some of the tabloid fodder which has peppered her WWE career and in the sunny glare of a revamped women’s division which is loaded with wrestlers.
Not least, she’s important because she bears the scars of coming through a run of place and time dominated by the pretensions to power of men, whether it was the manic Alberto Del Rio or WWE’s decades-long insistence on cookie cutter Divas and women’s storylines. It’s not for nothing that The Rock is financing a movie based on her still young life. She’s a fascinating figure, as pivotal as she is fleeting. We should remember her career and look forward to what comes next.