NXT put on a predictably good show Saturday night with its fourth Brooklyn Takeover event. Unlike the recent run of lackluster WWE shows, things matter in NXT and the matches are better for it. The roster is stacked with the latest offerings from the indie to WWE pipeline, and for whatever reason, this batch of wrestlers is clicking on the big shows even more than past vintages.
The best match of the night, and the most intriguing, was NXT women’s champion Shayna Baszler vs. Japanese superstar Kairi Sane. It was a rematch of the final of 2017’s Mae Young Classic tournament, a match which Sane won.
The tournament was set up to showcase women who hadn’t signed full deals with WWE next to established NXT stars. It’s simultaneously a tryout in front of the promotion’s brass and a means of expanding the number of eyes on wrestlers who might otherwise be floating under the broader public’s consciousness. Baszler and Sane made the finals before either signed a deal with WWE.
That’s been the backdrop to what’s shaped up to be a compelling feud over the past month and a half. The two women have contrasting styles which accentuate each other well. Sane does a pirate in sequins gimmick, coming to the ring with a ship’s wheel and admiral’s hat. If that sounds a little hokey to you, it probably should, with the qualifier being that Sane is so into it that it works well. Once she’s in the ring, she works a technical, sometimes dazzlingly athletic style of wrestling topped off with one of the best elbow drops the business has ever seen. She’s delightful.
Baszler, by contrast, is a legitimately terrifying woman who uses her respectable MMA background (she’s one of Ronda Rousey’s crew of Four Horsewomen) and sheer stature to good effect. She has a disconcerting ability to make submission holds look godawful realistic, and her black hair, heavily applied eyeliner, and black mouthguard combine with her style to give you nightmares. She also yells. A lot. Most pro wrestlers, male or female, can kick your ass; Shayna Baszler looks like she can, too.
The feud has been a standard fight over the title, with Baszler acting like she knows she’s way too good for Sane and Sane initiating a denied quest for the gold; Sane’s not been in NXT long, and her compatriot Io Shirai is waiting in the wings to muddle the title scene further, but she’s so magnetic that they couldn’t keep her away too long. What’s made it special, and what made the match special, was the intensity both have brought in what has been—Mae Young Classic callbacks excluded—a fairly quick build to the match.
In the end, Sane won in perfect fashion. Baszler had her dead to rights. She was too big, too strong, too fast to be beaten by the smaller Sane. Until she was, via a quick pin while slipping out of a chokehold. It was over and there was Sane on the turnbuckle, what looked to be real tears in her eyes and a beatific smile on her face as the cheers rained down. And opposite was Baszler, scowling and retreating to the back.
It was the right call and both women deserve the accolades. Sane will be a worthy champion and face of the women’s division in NXT, for however long she has the title. As NXT commenter Nigel McGuinness said during her intro, she’s so emotive it’s impossible to not be into what she does. Her style thrills and the gimmick works wonders in the intimate confines of NXT arenas. She’ll be called up eventually, maybe in eight months post-WrestleMania, and have all the set-up she needs to succeed.
Baszler is liable to be called up to the main roster; NXT title changes usually signal an imminent move to the WWE grind, and there’s little reason to think this will be different. Baszler is undoubtedly ready, being a more polished in-ring product and promo than her pal, Ronda Rousey, who won the Raw Women’s title at Sunday’s SummerSlam. She may well have received her call up by the time you read this.
And the terrible truth is that it doesn’t matter. Neither of these women, both of them scintillating talents, will make it on the main roster.
It won’t be their fault. How could it be? They’re as good as any and better than most. Both seem to love wrestling and truly understand the nuances. But it won’t matter, because for all that WWE is bursting at the seams with generational, can’t lose talent, everything gets funneled to the whims of one man and exists to feed a scant handful of other wrestlers.
For Baszler, the calculus is simple: WWE’s approach to women’s wrestling is light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago, but it is still the domain of the blonde and willowy. Ronda Rousey is (rightly) getting all the accolades for her performances, but if she hadn’t been so heavily hyped by the mainstream press during her MMA days, there are serious doubts if she’d be pushed as heavily as she currently is. Baszler is a star in the making, but she’s not Alexa Bliss or Charlotte Flair, both good pro wrestlers with an undeniably conventional look. She’s not even Nia Jax, who WWE used for a brief feel good sheen (she’s heavier than her rival Bliss, see, but she still won so it’s all good) before turning her into a transitional champion and turning her heel with no explanation. If there’s room for the brunette, muscular, no-nonsense look and style of Baszler on the main WWE shows, there’s no one on the current roster outside of the unique circumstances of Rousey. Hopefully her MMA background combines with WWE’s systemic craving for legitimacy and mainstream attention to buoy her when she moves.
It’s worse for Sane, because we have a direct corollary in Asuka. Asuka was the can’t lose proposition after her call-up. Charismatic, amazing in the ring, and carrying a compelling streak storyline from NXT, she won the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match before promptly losing to Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania. After that, she was made to look like an idiot in repeated losses to previously-a-joke Smackdown women’s champion Carmella (also blonde) before disappearing entirely. Asuka hasn’t been on television in weeks and was absent entirely from SummerSlam weekend. The term “burial” gets tossed around too liberally in the wrestling world, but there’s no other word for what’s happened to Asuka, and it’s gutting.
The blunt fact is that Vince McMahon, or the power structure he’s set up, doesn’t trust Japanese wrestlers. Their English isn’t perfect so the promos don’t cut it, is the conventional wisdom, as if Asuka being a human wrecking ball or Sane wearing a pirate outfit are hard to understand. Famously (and horrifically), McMahon had to be coaxed into hiring Gail Kim by Jim Ross because he didn’t think anyone found Asian women attractive, a one-two punch of revealing that, yes, you must be conventionally attractive to make it big in WWE’s women’s division and that what is attractive is up to the whims of a guy who couldn’t even fathom a non-white woman being that; it’s hard to tell which is worse. Deadspin’s David Bixenspan did a great roundup of some past lows in a contextualization of Dave Meltzer’s garbled critique of Peyton Royce’s breast implants last week. Kairi Sane will almost certainly run into this despicable glass ceiling if she stays in WWE past her call-up.
It’s not right that Sane and Baszler will have the same shortened shelf-life as Asuka, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Naomi, Jax, and a host of others who probably won’t get even a brief shot at the top of the WWE card. The payday and the road camaraderie may be worth it to the wrestlers in the long run; it’s a brutal business and the alternative, particularly for women’s wrestling on the indie circuit, is spotty pay and smaller checks. But for the fans and the creative art of wrestling, inasmuch as it exists, an awful lot is lost by the way NXT women simply disappear into a whorl of nonsense and dark matches.
It shouldn’t be this way, and maybe October’s all-women pay-per-view, Evolution, proves to be the start of a shift. There’s so much talent on that women’s roster, and a third of it is used properly. As it is, enjoy Baszler, Sane, and all of the NXT women as and while you can. It’s where the real women’s revolution in WWE takes place.