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Art is the creation of something from nothing that elicits a reaction. Pro wrestling embodies that definition. In wrestling, men and women step inside the squared circle and create with their actions, expressions, words, and bodies to garner a specific and distinct reaction from their audience. In turn, the audience responds to, engages with, and affects the work. No other art form in the world carries that uniqueness. In this column, we explore that art form inside real and relevant examples. Enjoy.
Take a minute and think back to the summer of 2015. Oh the memories, right? The WWE women’s evolution was in full force and Sasha Banks was at the helm leading the charge. Banks was NXT Women’s Champion while significantly impacting the main roster as part of Team B.A.D with Naomi and Tamina. With Banks splitting her focus, Bayley was positioned as NXT’s female lead babyface and her chase for the championship was a prominent fixture of NXT television during that time. The result was an unexpected shot of adrenaline to WWE’s women’s movement.
To close the summer, Banks and Bayley competed in an instant classic at the first NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn event. There, the world saw just how over Banks and Bayley had become within the company but also how much chemistry the two had with one another. Much like Steve Austin and The Rock, and other great wrestling rivalries, the characters of Banks and Bayley were polar opposites. They contrasted perfectly, but worked well together for storytelling purposes. Banks clicked on all cylinders as the heel boss of NXT and Bayley was over as the audience’s loveable every woman. Both could go in the ring and their Takeover match in Brooklyn was heralded as a potential match of the year candidate and quite possibly the best women’s match to ever take place on WWE programming. From there, Banks and Bayley made additional history and became the first women to main event a live WWE special.
Fast forward to 2018 and based off of their successful NXT run, you’d think that Banks and Bayley would be tearing up the main roster. Quite the contrary actually. Banks had a nice start with four short lived runs as Raw Women’s Champion. Without the title though, she’s become lost in the shuffle due to an influx of talent like Alexa Bliss and Asuka. Bayley was delivered to the WWE main roster on a gold platter with hundred dollar bills attached to it. Unfortunately, rushed booking, misunderstanding her character, and Bayley’s own missteps as an artist cooled her off almost instantly. Banks and Bayley crossed paths as friendly babyfaces, but the golden ticket for WWE was them facing one another. Or so we thought.
For the last few months, Sasha Banks and Bayley have been embroiled in a feud that has fallen massively short of even conservative expectations. In the program, they have acted like high school mean girls disenchanted with one another because of incredibly juvenile circumstances. They have failed to capture the passion, character, and art that made their NXT feud a historic success. Monday night’s match on Raw between the two was a microcosm of those failures.
Banks and Bayley both got similar sized pops from the crowd Monday night. Bayley was bland as she walked to the ring, but Sasha was able to convey a bit of dominance with a well-timed glare as she started her walk at the top of the ramp. The match began with the two women arguing back and forth about costing each other matches, but neither was convincing enough or sold the argument enough from an acting standpoint to give it merit ahead of the impending physicality. The audience couldn’t feel their sense of frustration with one another as it appeared both Banks and Bayley were walking through lines in a script. From there, Sasha took over with a kick to the midsection. After, Bayley attempted a running move up the ropes, but botched it and fell off. Sasha helped recover with a takedown and followed that with a hard slap to Bayley’s chest. The first few minutes were messy at best. Eventually, Banks got Bayley into a choke hold in which she yelled at her to give up in a memorized and monotone fashion. Bayley worked to get the crowd on her side by attempting a unity clap with her feet, but the audience never came along as their allegiance was clearly split due to Sasha being the opponent. The short match culminated with Banks trashing talking Bayley in her face before aggressively pushing her away in a disrespectful fashion. Banks then slapped Bayley in the face and Bayley promptly returned the favor with a slap of her own. Both slaps were given without enough emotion behind them to convey significance. Bayley and Sasha needed to show and sell more. Their reactions and their reactions alone were responsible for getting this moment over as turning point in their story. By essentially brushing it off their shoulders, they told the audience that the moment they were seeing wasn’t as important as it should have been. The match ended as the situation devolved into a slap fest and brawl of epic proportions, but with zero heat behind it. Sasha Banks and Bayley having a knockout rage in the ring should have elicited a major reaction that caused the audience to feel the pain of two friends doing battle. Sasha and Bayley were unable to artistically display that in-ring conviction within this moment and it fell flat because of it.
Monday’s match was a swim upstream for Banks and Bayley from the moment they walked to the ring. Because of beat downs, bad attitudes, and a lack of forgiveness on each side, both Bayley and Sasha have essentially been the heel within the feud. On the flip side, they’ve also been the target of attempted sympathy that mirrors the psychology of a babyface. That illogical booking has manifested itself into two characters that are both unlikable. In NXT, Banks and Bayley had defined differences. Banks was the “legit boss” and perennial winner and Bayley was the small time underdog. The differences competed with each other and gave the audience something to buy into. In turn, both performers were able to harness certain artistic avenues to tell their story and give life to their characters. Banks conveyed arrogance with her facial expressions and way she owned the ring whereas Bayley fell into her lovable loser gimmick by leaning on the fans and advocating a tentativeness that she showcased with her walk and the way she spoke on the microphone. Within their NXT matches, Banks and Bayley doubled down on those choices and used them for psychological fodder and emotional storytelling. On Raw, those artistic elements are missing in action because Bayley and Banks are cast so similarly. With both friends laying into each other and not being able to get past their differences, they both essentially have the same gimmick and one that is impossible to cheer for or against. In the ring on Monday, Bayley and Banks lacked tangible differences which left them with nothing to exploit to garner a proper reaction.
Like their feud and overall presence on the main roster within the last year, this match stalled out in first gear. Right now, the story and the characters within the story just don’t have the depth to engage the audience on a high level. That said, there is still money to be made between Banks and Bayley. Like a car stalled on a highway, their feud needs a massive jump-start that should be in the form of a heel turn for either party at this point. Sasha Banks has a record of historical success as a heel, but Bayley is the more damaged character and one that could use a fresh start. A turn of some kind gives those two their differences again. Those differences are their paint brushes. With them in the fold, Banks and Bayley can put them to good use and begin painting an artistic masterpiece of a feud that the world expected to see back in 2015.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: ARTISTRY OF WRESTLING: The top 5 artistic moments from WrestleMania weekend