Bayley: NXT's Women's Champion Leads a Wrestling Revolution

The Hugster on making history with Sasha Banks at 'TakeOver: Respect,' being a leader in the locker room and changing the game in WWE

NXT Women's Champion Bayley takes on Sasha Banks in a 30-minute Iron Man match at 'TakeOver: Respect.' Credit: WWE

In an era where heroes wear black and heels win over crowds, Bayley is among the last of a dying breed: An unflappable, irrepressible babyface of the highest order, a beloved beau ideal beyond reproach.

So it's been remarkable – not to mention reassuring – to watch her rise through the NXT ranks, a journey that began in late 2012 when she signed with the nascent promotion out of the indies, continued through no shortage of oh-so-close losses and culminated with her coronation as Women's Champion following a show-stealing, year-defining battle with Sasha Banks at TakeOver: Brooklyn. Through it all, we've witnessed her character grow from wide-eyed ingénue to suplex-busting star, though her motivation has never wavered: Bayley not only wants you to like her, she practically demands it. Cynicism be damned.

That drive not only won over the fickle Full Sail crowd (all those hugs!) and made her a rarity in today's WWE, but it created a fascinating dynamic within NXT's Women's Division. Bayley was the perfect foe for the heelish Banks, the scrappy underdog to the pedigreed Charlotte and the overmatched opponent to the seasoned Becky Lynch. Now, those three women have moved on up to the big leagues, leaving Bayley holding the belt – and responsible for shaping the next generation of stars.

But, if you think she's shrinking from the spotlight, you don't know the Hugster. On Wednesday night, she'll face Banks once again in a history making main event at TakeOver: Respect – and if she manages to hold on to her belt, Bayley has big plans, not just for the future of NXT, but the entire sport of women's wrestling.

It's been more than a month since you beat Sasha Banks at TakeOver: Brooklyn to win the NXT Women's Championship. Have you had a chance to look back on the match, and if so, what sticks out the most from it?
It was really everything. That match was so emotional. My first matches here were against Sasha, and they were just whatever matches, house show matches; I had a practice match with her just so coaches could see how I worked. So it goes that far back, to my first time in Florida Championship Wrestling, and then we get to NXT and we both weren't really doing anything in storylines, and they'd put us in these matches, like a go-to filler match, and they'd give us five minutes or something, and I'd just kind of joke, "Well, I've got Sasha again." And we both grew up loving wrestling and wanting to be the best; deep down, we're the same person – but when it comes to wrestling, we're really competitive.

We had a dark match at the first TakeOver, and as we started getting a little more known with the crowd, we started trying to one-up each other – who can have the better match, who can get the better reaction, whatever. I want to be better than her, and she wants to be better than me. And then when it got to Brooklyn, we knew how special it was. We were going to be able to do this in front of 16,000 people, in the co-main event, and me knowing she cared so much made me emotional, and her knowing I cared made her emotional. And the thought that, if I were to win, it would be one of the last times I'd get to work with her, it was a bittersweet moment. She's definitely my favorite to work with. It's a chemistry that you don't really get with everybody.

Speaking of that, I loved the way your rematch at TakeOver: Respect was announced – in front of the Full Sail crowd, with you and Sasha in the ring and William Regal trying to contain his excitement and not break character. It felt genuine, I suppose.
I get emotional whenever I think about it. I felt like I was in a dream; I felt really dizzy in the ring, like, "Is this really happening?" It was hard for me to look at Sasha, because we're both so emotional. Everyone in the back knows how special this match is for NXT; not just the Women's Division. And to do it in front of Full Sail, since Sasha and I grew up in front of them, made it even more special. I was so sweaty!

When we interviewed Finn Bálor before TakeOver: Brooklyn, he spoke about the responsibilities he felt as NXT Champion, particularly when it came to helping the brand continue to grow. I'm assuming you feel the same way?
Totally. I feel like this is a very important part of my career. With the top three girls gone, and me being the champion, I've never been the person in the locker room who's been here the longest – it was always Sasha and Charlotte. And now that I'm literally the leader in the locker room, and the champion, it's a huge opportunity for me to help girls while I have the chance. Girls who don't have any experience at all, I'm asking to get matches with them, so I can help them and bring them up. Paige and Charlotte were very helpful to me when I first arrived. It's really important; you can be the best wrestler in the world, and make the most money, but if you're not a good person in the back, that says a lot about you. I've never wanted to be that person, because I've had so much help along the way and I want to continue that. I want everyone to be comfortable in the locker room and the ring, and be hungry to make this division even bigger than it already is.

With the departures of Sasha, Becky and Charlotte, it's an interesting time for NXT's Women's Division – there's a real mix of established talent, newcomers and veterans. How do you see the division right now?
I see that it has a million possibilities to get so much better. When Paige and Emma went onto the main roster; everyone was like, "Well, what's going to happen to NXT now?" And then Charlotte happened, and Sasha and Becky and myself – we took it to a different level, and everybody took notice. Now that they're gone, people expect a drop-off, like "Man, now there's just Bayley down there." But there's so many people that they have no idea about, because I get to train with these girls every day. You see Carmella or Dana Brooke or Alexa Bliss on TV, and they're working so hard, they know that it's time for them to step it up. They hear it too; they don't have to fill anyone's shoes, they have to take it to a different level. And then Peyton [Royce] and Billie [Kay], they're going to blow up because they're so passionate and great wrestlers. And I don't even have to say anything about Asuka, because she's amazing. There are so many possibilities with her. It's a really exciting time for the division, and it's just going to keep getting better. 

If you're able to retain your title at TakeOver: Respect, who would you like to put the Women's Championship on the line against next?
I mean; if I can beat Sasha, there's so many. Nia Jax, I've worked house shows with her, and she always gets such a great reaction – she's so unique, and she's going to be a good thing for NXT as a whole. Fans have never seen anybody like her. It would be exciting to be able to do something with her, and Asuka as well. I was on Shimmer with her; I never got to have a match with her, but watching her matches with Sara Del Rey, or working with a few Japanese girls, to get a little taste of that style, I'd like to get into that to grow as a wrestler. And this might sound bad, but I really want to work with Eva Marie, just because it seems like that's what people want.

Why would that sound bad?
[Laughs] My fans don't like her, so I don't want them to be like, "Oh, why do you want to work with her?" But the reason is because she's a different competitor and I think we'd have an interesting dynamic. I get a lot of tweets about Eva, and I can't blame the fans, because all they really know is what they see on Total Divas, and they base their cheers on that, I guess. I've never personally had a problem with her; I don't see her much, but the shows that she has done, I've seen her progressing each match, each show, each training session. I know that the drive is there to get better, so it's up to her to see how far she can go.

In the build to TakeOver: Respect, you've been promoting your match with Sasha using the hashtag #WomensWrestling – what do you think of the term 'Diva?'
Well, I'm obviously part of the Divas now, working here. I don't really see the difference – sometimes when someone uses the term "Diva," or you see it on TV or in a movie, it's like, "Oh, she's just being a Diva," which sounds really bad and really prissy. But I think that's just a title here; none of the girls up on the main roster are prissy or have attitudes or anything like that. So I think it gets a bad rap from TV and movies, but I just use "Women's Wrestling" because that's what I grew up on, that's what drove me to get to this point and that's what I want to push. And, technically, I am the NXT Women's Champion, so until I'm the Divas Champion, I'm going to keep using that.

Should they call it the Women's Championship on the main roster too?
I would love that.

Were you disappointed when you didn't get called up to the main roster along with Charlotte, Sasha and Becky Lynch?
Well, we always kind of joked and dreamed about all four of us going together and taking over like Nexus did. But I love being the NXT Women's Champion.

What are your thoughts on WWE's 'Divas Revolution?'
I don't know what goes on or what they're trying to do with certain people, because I'm not there. I only know what I see on TV. As a fan, I do enjoy it more now that they're doing more individual things, to get everyone more of a spotlight. I think bringing them in on teams was a great idea – they got a great debut – but I hope it expands even more. There's a bunch of girls there, so it's really hard to get any exposure. It's really going to take time; whether it's going the way they want it to or not, I know Sasha and Becky and Charlotte are going to be able to show their talents and show who they really are over time. Giving them two matches a night gives them an opportunity, and whatever they do with it is up to them. The writers can give them whatever, but they can turn it into something they never expected to explode. They'll get their time; I just try to tell them to be patient. I've always told myself the same thing.

I've always been amazed by the connection you have with your fans – particularly young girls. Is being a role model important to you? 
It's hugely important, especially now. Growing up watching WWE, they used to have bra-and-panties matches, or pillow fights, and that's why my mom didn't want me to watch wrestling. But when my parents divorced, I was able to watch wrestling again, and that's when I started to really get into wrestlers like Ivory. She was showing what she could do in the ring – how athletic she was, and how serious she was about the sport – and not all that other stuff that used to go on. She was the first wrestler I ever met. When I was 13, she shook my hand and she was like, "I'm going to see you in the ring one day, aren't I?" She was so nice to me and I was just a kid, and that stuck with me. That's something that I really want to carry on. We all do – Sasha and Becky and Charlotte, we've had so many conversations about it, about how we want the division respected, and not just what we're doing in the ring, but how we carry ourselves outside the ring, how we relate to fans.

Did you have a Bayley when you were a young fan?
Lita made me realize it was possible to just be myself and be able to achieve my dreams. I would watch every interview with her, read every interview, I had her DVD – or back then, it was VHS – but I remember she would say that fans would come up to her at autograph sessions and be like, "Man, I feel like we would be friends if you weren't on TV." And that always stuck with me. Lita was the one who made me realize that I didn't have to change who I was to be where I wanted.

Eleven years ago, Trish Stratus and Lita main-evented an episode of RawTakeOver: Respect will be the first time two women have ever main-evented a WWE special event. I can only imagine what that must mean to you and Sasha –
It's crazy. I remember that Lita versus Trish match – I was a huge Lita fan, so I was excited for her when she was going to be in the main event. I remember when she won the Women's Championship from Stephanie McMahon in the main event of Raw, with the Rock as special guest referee! So I think of those two matches. But, I still don't really understand how to feel about it, I just know it's amazing and I'm very grateful to Triple H that he's given us this opportunity. But it's not just that we get to do it, it's that once we do it, in 10-15 years girls are going to be in the business, maybe working at the Performance Center or something, and they can just be like, "Yeah, remember when Sasha and Bayley had a main event on NXT TakeOver?" We're always going to be a part of history, which is really cool and exciting.

To that end, are you hoping you'll see the day when two women main-eventing a pay-per-view isn't a big deal?
That's a goal of mine. I want this to be the first step toward something really big, where women will be able to main-event these shows and nobody has to think twice about it. I'm hoping this will translate up onto the main roster. If we can be the main event of a SummerSlam or a Royal Rumble, or even a co-main event of a WrestleMania, that's the ultimate goal. This is a test run here, and if we can keep doing it at NXT that's amazing, but this is something we want to be able to do on the main roster.

So not to be a total buzzkill, but more often than not, the sequel doesn't live up to the original. How much pressure do you and Sasha feel to top your match at TakeOver: Brooklyn?
[Laughs] It's been haunting me every second of the day. There's so much pressure and we want it to be amazing. But I think the fans will be happy either way; it's something they really want to see, and they're excited about it – and excited for us. They know how special it is, and they care about both of us, so I don't think we can let them down in any way. Fans are all going to have their own opinions, but I hope we show at TakeOver that we have no limits. We're going to go to the moon with what we can do, and we're going to give them something even more to care about. 

Are you calling it an 'Iron Man Match' or an 'Iron Woman Match?'
I think "Women's Iron Man Match" is fine with me. Everyone's like, "Ugh, it's an Iron Woman Match," but it doesn't bother me either way. "Iron Man Match" still makes us sound pretty cool.