It was February 23, 2015, during an episode of WWE Monday Night Raw when a tag team bout pitting The Bella Twins against Paige and Emma ended after just 30 seconds. It was the straw that broke the company’s back after years of presenting women’s wrestling as little more than a titillating sideshow or bathroom break fodder. Paige and Emma had taken great strides in altering the perception of women’s wrestling on the fledgling NXT brand, and so their main roster mistreatment was met with fan backlash. The moment kick-started the #GiveDivasAChance campaign, forcing WWE to change their approach and presentation of the women’s division. The Mae Young Classic — the first four episodes of which are now available on the WWE Network — is the greatest evidence of how far we’ve come in such a short time.
While the company is now very much patting themselves on the back for fixing a problem they created in the first place, it’s hard to deny the positive changes over the past two years. Superstars like Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Asuka and Alexa Bliss have helped elevate women’s wrestling from the lower card to an integral part of weekly programming. It’s no longer a rare occurrence to see women headlining shows — just this week Banks and Bliss main evented Raw for the Women’s Championship. Last year, Banks and Charlotte became the first women to main event a WWE Pay-Per-View and the first to compete inside the Hell in a Cell.
That’s not to say everything about the current iteration of WWE’s women’s division is perfect; it’s still bogged down with creative issues and odd booking decisions. The constant hot-potatoing of the Raw Women’s Championship, the inability to create effective babyfaces, and repetitive storylines being the worst crimes. Those sorts of problems are not limited to the women, they plague WWE as a whole, but nothing the male roster faced this year has been quite as insulting as having a man retrieve the first ever Women’s Money In The Bank briefcase.
The hope heading into this tournament is that WWE will allow the 32 women to go out there and do their thing without the restrictions that often hamper the women on Raw and Smackdown. In the same way the Cruiserweight and UK tournaments introduced fans to the incredible lightweight and British talent outside WWE, the Mae Young Classic will hopefully expose the world to the fact that there are terrific women wrestlers out there on the indie scene busting their asses, earning their stripes, and putting on fantastic matches. The WWE talks a lot about the “evolution of the women’s division” and trademarked taglines aside; the Mae Young Classic really does have the chance to take women’s wrestling to heights it’s never been before.
As has become customary for these tournaments, those working behind the scenes do everything they can to make the event feel special. The presentation is brilliant — from the graphics to the video packages to the set-up of the arena. Dimming the lights on the crowd has a tremendous effect, not only does it emphasize the action taking place in the ring, but it discourages idiotic fans from starting Mexican Waves and batting around beach balls. The short introductory videos bring emotional weight to each participant’s story, whether it be Mia Yim talking about her experience with domestic abuse or Serena Deeb opening up about her past alcohol problems. It makes you feel not only invested but an immense joy for all of these women for having achieved this dream.
Kay Lee Ray versus Princesca Sugehit is also the perfect match to kick things off and warm up the crowd. It’s a more hard-hitting affair than the aerial encounter one might have expected from a luchadora and a hardcore high-flyer, but the pace is fast and energetic nonetheless. Ray has the Full Sail fans behind her and even hits her Gory Bomb finisher, but it’s Sugehit who advances after submitting the fiery Scot to the Fujiwara armbar. Ray leaving the tournament this early is somewhat of a surprise after she was one of the highlighted competitors in the Bracketology special.
Things work out better for the other featured competitors, including Shayna Baszler, the ex-MMA fighter who has Ronda Rousey cheering her on at ringside. Baszler, who looks like Bayley’s evil doppelganger, makes quick work of Zeda, who talks in her video of being bullied growing up. Baszler, naturally, plays the bully in the match, refusing to shake hands and slapping her opponent around the ring. In a fantastic finish, Baszler counters Zeda’s guillotine into a vertical suplex position before dropping her down to the mat into a rear-naked choke for the win. Baszler’s dominance and cockiness appear to be positioning her as the big bad of the Mae Young Classic.
On the flip side is lovable New Zealander Dakota Kai, who portrays the scrappy underdog in her encounter with Kavita Devi, the first Indian woman to compete in WWE. Devi displays impressive speed and agility for someone of her size, but it’s Kai’s connection with the crowd and explosive offense which makes her a favorite to win this whole tournament. The same could be said for Toni Storm and Rhea Ripley, the two other Antipodean athletes in the competition. Storm has a swagger and charisma which just can’t be taught, while Ripley is a FUTURE STAR in the making. At only 20 years old, people might mistake Ripley for a rookie, but she’s been wrestling for four years in Australia and Japan, and you can see how crisp her ring-work is against Miranda Salinas.
Unlike the Cruiserweight Classic and the United Kingdom Championship tournament — where the majority of the field was made up of experienced pros — the Mae Young Classic is comprised of both veterans and rookies. That means a lot of these first round matches sees established ring-generals going up against inexperienced newcomers, which understandably leads to some awkward encounters and slower paced action.
Take Xia Li for example, who is competing in her FIRST EVER MATCH against 16-year-pro Mercedes Martinez. A wrestler’s first match usually takes place at some high school gym in front of a handful of punters and a janitor, not on the grand stage of WWE with the world watching. To Li’s credit, she gives a respectable account of herself — she has a cool look and a killer entrance routine involving a foldable fan. While Li is obviously super green inside the ring, Martinez uses her experience to control the structure of the match and make Li’s offense look threatening. It’s clear Martinez is holding back and working a slower pace to accommodate the first-timer, but that is the mark of a true professional. Li will have picked up some valuable tips in this short five-minute match-up, while Martinez continues into Round 2 where she will be able to show off more of her skill set against more experienced competitors.
Serena Deeb and Sage Beckett play a similar teacher role in their matches against rookies Vanessa Borne and Bianca Belair, respectively. Deeb, returning to WWE after a seven-year hiatus, plays the babyface against the heel Borne and allows the former NFL cheerleader to dominate a good chunk of the match before putting her away with the Spear. Borne lacks grace in her movements, and her selling needs improvement, but her performance shines with attitude and confidence — she also hits a nice Swinging Neckbreaker from the second rope. Belair is more promising — particularly the way she sells Beckett’s high impact moves. It’s clear the WWE brass see big things for the accomplished college athlete and putting her over a ten-year pro like Beckett is a sign of the faith they have in her.
All of the first round matches have something to offer, whether from an entertainment standpoint or as an opportunity to build character and experience for the young up and comers. The only real clunker of Round 1 is Marti Belle versus Rachel Evers. For whatever reason, these two women just do not gel with one another, the pacing of the match feels off, and it leads to some uncomfortable botches and mistimed maneuvers. It’s a shame because character wise Belle knows how to play up her heel tendencies and draw heat, and Evers, while relatively inexperienced, has a lot of potential. But sometimes in wrestling, the chemistry is just off, and that, unfortunately, is the fate that befell Belle and Evers.
It’s no surprise the best matches are those that pit the more experienced women against one another. Abbey Laith and Jazzy Gabert steal the show in Episode 1. The two smashmouth superstars come out of the gates swinging and instantly bring Full Sail to their feet, particularly Gabert who becomes an unlikely fan favorite. Gabert, with her Ivan Drago-style haircut, uses her size and power to intimidate the smaller Laith who relies on her ballet background to swiftly escape the Alpha Female’s grasp before taking her attack to the air. Laith is officially under contract with WWE – and also uses Mae Young’s Alligator Clutch as her finisher – so her victory is expected, but with Gabert’s positive reaction it wouldn’t shock me to see her signed in the near future.
Mia Yim and Sarah Logan similarly used their cumulative experience to put on a corker of a match in Episode 2. The crowd is evenly split for both women as they nail each other with vicious strikes and kicks, including a beautiful cartwheel into a running knee from Logan. Yim pins Logan for the win after using the Eat Defeat in tribute to her mentor and personal friend Gail Kim. This is the kind of match where both competitors come out looking like a million bucks — the world-traveled yet unsigned veteran Yim gets to move on in the tournament while the signed yet underutilized Logan gets to show exactly what she’s capable of in the squared circle.
Two other unsigned women looking to make an impact are Piper Niven and Santana Garrett, who tear the house down in Episode 3. Niven rag-dolls Garrett across the ring, flattening her with savage splashes and decapitating clothleslines. Garret uses her speed and athleticism to fight back, hitting a series of stunning maneuvers, including a Springboard DDT from the second rope and a Handstand Avalanche Hurricanrana. The more powerful Niven puts a stop to Garrett’s flurry of offense, finishing her with a devastating Michinoku Driver. Obviously, WWE can’t sign everyone who comes through the performance center doors, but it’s a real shame these two women aren’t already under contract, especially Garrett who has the prototypical WWE look and the ability to match.
The three matches mentioned above are all top quality, but Kairi Sane versus Tessa Blanchard blows them all away in Episode 4. It’s unfortunate that it’s a first round match, as it would have been nice to see both women advance, but that just makes the stakes even higher. The way Sane moves around the ring seems so effortless; she makes every move look impactful, whether she is delivering them or taking them. Also, her pirate gimmick is a license to print money (I’d buy a miniature Kairi Sane ship’s wheel!). As for Blanchard, she leaves it all in the ring, knowing that this is going to be her only match in the tournament. The Full Sail crowd is invested in every moment from Blanchard’s top rope senton to Sane’s beautiful diving elbow drop. Sane is already under contract, while Blanchard remains unsigned — but after a performance like that, one hopes the company will be positioning these two women at the forefront of a post-Asuka NXT.
The post-match embrace between these two mighty competitors is the perfect image to end Round 1 of this historic tournament — a moment of shared celebration for women’s wrestling.
*If I had one criticism to make about the presentation, it would be the commentary. As great as it is to hear the voice of Jim Ross, his chemistry with Lita felt stilted, and both Hall of Famers seemed to lack info about the competitors and their move sets. It’s a shame, because Daniel Bryan and Mauro Ranallo brought such enthusiasm and knowledge to last year’s Cruiserweight Classic and similarly, Nigel McGuinness and an on-his-game Michael Cole elevated the in-ring action of the United Kingdom Championship tournament.
*A warm welcome to Jessika Carr, WWE’s first full-time female referee since the 80s. For those that don’t know, Carr used to wrestle on the indie scene under the name Kennadi Brink.
*Out of all the rookies, I think I was most impressed by Taynara Conti, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor. Her throwdowns were unique, and she had a look of intensity on her face that drew me in. She still has a long way to go, and I think advancing fellow rookie Lacey Evans ahead of her was the right decision, but at 22 years old, Conti has bags of potential.
*I AM A MISSILE! Sorry. I can’t get that theme song out of my head.
*I can’t help but worry every time Bianca Belair is in the ring that someone is going to step on her braid. Puts me on edge.
*Kacy Catanzaro of American Ninja Warrior fame was at ringside, and as JR mentioned on commentary, she recently signed a developmental contract with WWE.
*Candice LeRae and Nicole Savoy didn’t really get a chance to demonstrate their full potential. Again, this is partly due to working with less experienced opponents and the relative shortness of the matches — having to fit four matches into a 50-minute episode is tough. The Queen of Suplexes didn’t even deliver one suplex! Thankfully both women are advancing and so should be able to show off their skills when they face each other in Round 2.
*The Round 2 matches are as follows:
Abbey Laith vs. Rachel Evers
Princesa Sugehit vs. Mercedes Martinez
Nicole Savoy vs. Candice LeRae
Mia Yim vs. Shayna Baszler
Kairi Sane vs. Bianca Belair
Dakota Kai vs. Rhea Ripley
Serena Deeb vs. Piper Niven
Lacey Evans vs. Toni Storm
The first four episodes of the Mae Young Classic are now available on the WWE Network. Episodes 5-8 will be available on demand on Monday, Sept. 4. The final match will stream live from Las Vegas on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 10 p.m. ET.