By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Of the Four Horsewomen in WWE, Bayley was — and hell, still is — perhaps the least appreciated. Charlotte had the family lineage and technical prowess. Becky had the fighter’s attitude that was accentuated once her nose was bloodied. And Sasha brought a blend of swagger to the ring that we had never before seen.
But then there was Bayley, the one who normalized hugging strangers and served as an inspiration for every wrestling fan under the age of seven. She was easy to root for – plus her in-ring work began good and has grown into great – but nobody looked her way first when they looked at the up-and-coming group that would ultimately transform the WWE women’s division.
Maybe that’s why Bayley was the latest guest on Steve Austin’s WWE Network talk show. Maybe that’s why she was the one who ended up being the company’s first women’s Triple Crown – and Grand Slam – champion. Maybe that’s why she held the Smackdown women’s title for 380 days.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s why Bayley has become WWE’s most incredulously slept-on, criminally overlooked, and blatantly under-appreciated heel it has on its main roster, a main roster that has no problem heaping constant praise on people like Roman Reigns, Paul Heyman, Charlotte Flair or Randy Orton.
Which means maybe …
A LAST-DITCH EFFORT
… it’s time to give Bayley her proper due.
Or, at least that’s the hope here, which is inspired most recently by her appearance on Austin’s Broken Skull Sessions. The Hall-Of-Famer’s chat show had been fairly predictable until Sunday’s episode. Bring some legends in, talk about how much the business has grown, use insider terms, take a shot or two of whiskey, open a beer and be reminded that “Stone Cold said so.”
But having Bayley come in to sit down broke that mold, if only because we don’t know much about her. Of all the major players in the WWE’s women division, it feels like we know the least about her. The Hugger persona worked for what it was, but it also seemed doomed to eventually run its course, no matter if she was doing it in NXT or on Raw or Smackdown. When it did, the question always loomed: What would she do next?
The answer to that question always felt hard to comprehend because it never quite felt like we got a glimpse into who Pamela Rose Martinez really was. Did she have it in her to turn heel? And if so, what kind of heel could she be? Would it be a rough, tough, angry heel? Would it be a pest heel? Would it be a whiny heel?
Most importantly, would being a heel even work after introducing herself to WWE fans as someone so innocent?
“It was a last-ditch effort to save my career,” Bayley told Austin in regards to moving away from the lovable, huggable character. “I knew it had to be the complete opposite of what I was. I didn’t know how I was going to get them to hate me.”
Entertaining the idea of making the move came after she was pulled from a match because of a shoulder issue she was having. As a result, she cut a promo in Toronto, announcing that she had to withdraw from competition, only to be met with a barrage of boos from the fans. Not only did they know her character had run its course, but at that point, she did, too.
Where to go next, however, came in the form of something for which she had not previously been known …
NO CROWD, NO PROBLEM
… which, of course, was mic work.
“Every single week, I gave and gave and gave and all they did was take,” Bayley told the fans early on as a heel. “I used to think this division lacked opportunity, but this division is lazy.”
It was tough to digest at first. Sure, she did the exact thing she needed to do – take an axe to those gigantic arm monsters that used to be part of her entrance – but it didn’t feel as honest as it should have, and the turn was in danger of receiving one big shoulder shrug as her desire to be both hated and taken seriously proved to be a difficult line to immediately walk. You can cut your hair, you can change your entrance music and you can tell everyone how stupid they are, but can you actually find a way to make the audience care about what you’re doing?
Actually, the audience in this equation is critical to whatever analysis lies therein. That’s because while Bayley inched closer to gaining momentum as a heel, the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, and all of a sudden, the game changed.
COVID-19 began to spread throughout the country in March, grinding everything, including professional wrestling, to a halt. For the rest of the year (and up to the very minute this is being written), fans were not allowed into WWE events (all ThunderDome trickery be damned). So, as has been the case for many angles worked throughout the last nine months, it became impossible to gauge how successful the Bayley character had become. With Sasha Banks, she held one half of the women’s tag titles, so along with her Smackdown Women’s Championship, it was clear the people in the back believed in her.
But did anyone else? And if so, how would anybody know? The only judge, jury and executioner not named Vince in WWE is a live crowd. Without them, who could possibly predict if Bayley’s antics were getting over with the people watching at home?
Turns out, it didn’t matter. Why?
Because as she told Austin, she was just trying to entertain herself each week as she headed to the ring in an empty venue. Maybe it was a lack of pressure, or maybe it was the impossibility of having instant feedback, but Bayley somehow managed to grow more obnoxious, more entitled, more hate-able. Except this time, instead of before, when she was toying with finding herself in go-away heat territory, the heat she found a handful of months into her re-birth was fun, it was new, it was exciting, it was worth tuning into see each week.
Or, in other words, it was the same kind of heat you found from Ric Flair, a heel you could hate, but also be entertained by at the same time. Some purists might not prefer it, and that’s fine – a heel only has one job and that job is to get you to hate them – but it sure worked out well for Flair (or, while not exactly the same, Chris Jericho, but that’s another story entirely).
She was petulant when she proclaimed, “I used to try to be what they wanted me to be, but the truth is I have outgrown them.” She was macabre when she eagerly shared, “You guys want some inspiration? Life sucks and then you die.” She was antagonistic when she taunted, “Ding dong, role model here.”
It was a bevy of all the uncomfortable emotions rolled into one. When she said she was smarter than her opponent, you believed her. When she feigned disgust for everything around her, you wondered why she even bothered. She’d cheat, but she could wrestle if she needed to.
It was the complete package, and while she started her turn not knowing how to get people to hate her, she appeared to have the code unlocked by the time she split with her best friend Sasha Banks. Without a title around her neck, though, it was easy to see that the real work was about to begin.
A TRUE STAR
There’s that old debate in pro wrestling that goes something along the lines of “Why give the belt to so-and-so? They don’t need it.” Sometimes, the belt makes the wrestler and sometimes, the wrestler makes the belt, but if you have a talent that doesn’t need to be a champion in order for people to care about what they’re doing, you have a talent that you need to keep on the payroll for the foreseeable future.
Or, at least that’s always been my philosophy. Jericho doesn’t need the title in AEW to still be the demo god, and it’s looking like Jon Moxley is set to travel that same road as he chases Kenny Omega. Conversely, if you put the Smackdown women’s title on Carmella right now, it would clearly elevate her while her current dancing partner, Sasha Banks, doesn’t necessarily need to hold it to still be one of the five most popular women’s wrestlers on the roster.
It’s all subjective, of course, but the point I’m making is that even while she’s not a champion anymore, Bayley has found a way to continue to make a mark each week she appears on television. Her work with Bianca Belair, while questionably booked, has allowed Belair to step into one of the main women’s programs in all of WWE’s main roster, and Bayley certainly doesn’t get the credit she deserves for making Belair look as good as she does.
Mind you, this all comes while Bayley continues to grow each week and get better at becoming this character with which she only recently found her groove. The mark of a real superstar in the modern age in my mind is wanting to see someone wrestle even if a title isn’t involved. Bayley has become the epitome of that – someone I look forward to seeing each week, no matter if she’s losing, winning, in the championship mix or being relegated to a pre-show segment.
It’s hard to find another woman in the history of WWE that has accomplished as much, when you take into consideration a character’s history. You’ll probably tell me that Becky Lynch should be there, and while I can understand an argument can be made, I’d also add that all she really ever did was go from being kind of a bad-ass to a full-fledged bad-ass, and while that certainly helped her become the most popular wrestler on the planet for a minute, it didn’t necessarily include a full makeover.
That said, who else would you consider? Charlotte has always been the queen and it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon. Sasha is The Boss when she’s a babyface, and she’s The Boss when she’s a heel. Perhaps Asuka could be argued, but outside of some green mist and face paint, there isn’t much distance between who she is as an undefeated monster and who she’s become as a more endearing – now only occasionally vicious – champion.
Bayley, though? We’re talking full-on, front to back, top to bottom rebuild. And it worked.
A BRIGHT SPOT IN A LAND OF DARKNESS
So, now what? Well, for my money, the most exciting thing about Bayley’s future is her inevitable turn back into the hugger, complete with inflatable thin monsters, bright colors and incessant smiling. My only hope is that they don’t pull the trigger on that too soon, especially now that Bayley seems to be finding the thickest part of the meat on the bone that is her current character. There’s a lot left to chew, and there’s no use in throwing it away now that we’ve all sat down to eat.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if a third option could be in the works someday. A manager? Commentator? Another character change? If she travels down any of those routes and ends up excelling at any of them, she’d finally have to be accepted as a cut above most of her colleagues, no? She wouldn’t have to be as under-appreciated as she continues to be currently, right?
Only time will tell. Yet no matter if there’s another title run in front of her, or if there are multiple title runs in front of her, or if something entirely different is lurking out there as a possibility for what happens in the next five years for Ms. Martinez within the world of professional wrestling, I can say with confidence that at least one thing is true.
I’ll be watching.
And for as unwatchable and disappointing things seem to be going in WWE these days, that by itself is something I won’t soon forget.