WrestleMania is going to be weird this year.
The two biggest matches feature fortysomething non-wrestler Shane McMahon going up against fiftysomething legacy act the Undertaker and company man/current champion Triple H – once the poster boy for smart-fan spite – taking on handsome challenger Roman Reigns, who should be the babyface, but can’t seem to set foot inside an arena without getting booed out of it.
John Cena is M.I.A., a trio of openly geeky Twitter bros are Tag Team Champions, Dean Ambrose has spent the past few weeks collecting weaponry that he most definitely will not be allowed to use in his match with Brock Lesnar (this is a PG show, after all) and indie darlings Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn will wrestle in front of 100,000 people. A.J. Styles should probably be working with them, except he’s been booked against Chris Jericho, despite beating him at a pay-per-view last month.
We’ve arrived at this point through a combination of untimely injuries, scheduling conflicts and questionable booking. But through all the chaos, there has been one consistent thread: When Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch hit the ring on Sunday, it’ll stand as the culmination of the heavily hashtagged Divas Revolution, WWE’s occasionally thrilling, oft-maddening attempt to rebrand its women’s division as something more than a source for reality TV fodder.
If their triple-threat match works, it’ll be one of most important moments in the history of mainstream women’s wrestling. If it doesn’t? Prepare for a lot of anxious conversations about this company’s longstanding issues.
We got here mostly by accident. WWE’s developmental program, NXT, has slowly morphed from a Hulu-only curiosity into an international dream promotion that turns remote fantasy booking (Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn? Sure!) into reality. Along the way, it also began cultivating a crop of talented women, including Banks, Charlotte and Lynch, current Women’s Champion Bayley and main-roster wrestlers Paige and Emma. Thanks to their skills, the work of coach Sara Del Rey – and the wild notion that women’s wrestling could be a viable commodity – they all became stars.
Last August, Bayley and Banks blew the roof off Barclays Center at TakeOver: Brooklyn, then headlined the follow-up special, Respect, with a 30-minute ironman match. It wasn’t a paean to social justice or a peace offering to those who still remember the many, many misogynistic moments in WWE history. They main-evented because they deserved to; their rivalry was unequivocally the most compelling in the promotion – they were the top draw, the two biggest stars with the best storyline and the most at stake.
For decades WWE has built a wall between their male and female talent. It’s not to say they’ve always failed – Trish Stratus and Lita had a legitimately great rivalry throughout the early 2000s and AJ Lee served as a decent trailblazer for the path we’re currently walking – but for the most part, they’ve been sequestered far away from the stuff that matters. At WrestleMania I, Wendi Richter and Leilani Kai got about six minutes of spotlight, though the most notable thing about their match was the fact that Cyndi Lauper accompanied Richter to the ring. The next year, the Fabulous Moolah pinned Velvet McIntyre in less than two minutes. At WrestleMania V, Women’s Champion Rockin’ Robin got to sing “America the Beautiful.”.
Things weren’t much better in recent years, either. WrestleMania 30 featured a single castoff Divas’ battle royal, scheduled in the absolute dead zone after Undertaker lost to Brock Lesnar. No women’s watch was booked for WrestleMania 29, WrestleMania 28 featured a team up between Kelly Kelly and Maria Menounos. Snooki wrestled at ‘Mania 27… you get the idea. For a long time, WWE seemed happy to cultivate reality show characters instead of in-ring talent.
But on Sunday, that will change. The build-up to the triple-threat hasn’t always been great, but Charlotte, Sasha and Becky arrive at WrestleMania 32 with a legitimate storyline and the promise of some significant time to work in the ring. They’ll be in front of thousands of people who know them and love them, and will be working with the knowledge that, with NXT, WWE has proven that they can make people care about their women. This is the moment – just ask the always-opinionated Banks:
“I actually look at the card and I go, ‘Wow, yes, I’m definitely gonna steal the show.’ I think this match is gonna open the doors for the women of WWE. This is a huge opportunity to show that not only can we hang with the boys, we can be better than the boys…I know we can do it.”
Most wrestling fans would agree with that assessment. All three performers are totally capable of stealing the show. This match could legitimately change the course of women’s wrestling, and shift the futures of the next wave of women waiting in the wings: Bayley, Asuka, Alexa Bliss, etc. That’s not to say that this is a make-or-break opportunity, but it’s close. For months, those who followed this trio up through the NXT ranks have watched as they toiled in pointless factions and silly feuds. We’ve been holding out hope for ‘Mania, because we knew all of those memories could be vanquished with one great triple threat. We’re getting it on Sunday.
Wrestling is all about manufactured stakes. Will Shane McMahon be able to topple the Undertaker and take control of Raw? Will Dean Ambrose overcome Brock Lesnar? These are all fine angles, but ultimately fake. Wrestling still isn’t real. On the surface, Charlotte, Sasha and Becky’s feud is about jealousy, insecurity and betrayal, but look deeper, and you realize it’s also about respect, legacy and the future. Those are the stakes, and they are very real indeed. Whether WWE realizes it or not, it’s the best drama at WrestleMania.