Women’s wrestling takes center stage on WWE TV like never before as Bayley and Sasha Banks look to make history. The two rivals will battle for 30 minutes in an iron man match for the women’s championship in the main event of NXT TakeOver: Respect which premieres tonight at 8/7CT on WWE Network.
It’s a dream opportunity for each of them that, until recently, may have seemed out of the realm of possibility, but the league’s female talent has been cultivated on the company’s developmental brand. Paul “Triple H” Levesque, Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative. has been a big proponent of the lady grapplers, treating them with the same respect as their male counterparts. The revolutionary concept is slowly permeating into the main roster with a “Divas Revolution.”
Bayley and Banks stole the show at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in front of more than 15,000 fans at the Barclays Center. Levesque expects the two impassioned warriors to raise the bar once again at Respect, which takes place before the dedicated fan base at Full Sail Live in Winter Park, Florida. WWE chairman Vince McMahon is among those looking forward to the rematch, having championed the idea of having Bayley and Banks take their feud to a landmark new level.
“He thought [the Brooklyn] match was great,” Levesque said during a media call leading into the big event. “He gets a bad rap. He is all for what the fans want to see. It may take a while, but when he sees fans reacting a certain way to a certain thing — when he sees women’s wrestling and it’s presented in a certain way and fans are getting it and going crazy for it — he loves it and he wants to present it that way.
“And that’s not to say he has a certain weigh-in on it. If he told me afterward, ‘We’re not doing that. Change it.’ I’ll have to figure out a way to change it. But he is for what works and what is going to be best for our fans. He stood at gorilla position at Barclays and was one of the things I was most proud of that night. It’s very hard for him — when you have done what he has done for so long and he has his finger on everything in the business — to just sit and watch.
“He debated not coming, because I think he didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes — or mine. I would have been disappointed if he didn’t, but he came and just watched the show. He was clapping and smiling and having a great time. I can’t remember the last time he just sat and watched a show. He is always producing and has a lot of responsibility for it. I can tell you he was blown away by their match. I’m down in Orlando now and one of the last things he said to me before I left was, ‘Good luck down there. I can’t wait to watch this Bayley/Sasha match. It’s going to be awesome.’ He is a fan of it too.”
NXT’s growth in just three years is remarkable. It’s become a machine unto itself, touring everywhere from music festivals to the United Kingdom in a matter of months. Levesque likens the edgier, underground feel of NXT to that of punk rock or hip-hop, appealing especially to a certain demographic. The WWE itself, he says, is more like pop music because it satisfies a broader audience.
Levesque’ welcomes new ideas. He is willing to work with companies like New Japan Pro Wrestling, whether it involves one-off matches with new talent or other opportunities, and NXT’s success and why it stands out can be attributed to this frame of mind. NXT fans will attest that the vibe is completely different than what you see on Raw or SmackDown.
And make no mistake about it: Triple H is the boss of NXT. It’s his baby.
Fans have high hopes for tonight’s “NXT TakeOver” special, which is the latest in a series of critically-acclaimed events. For Levesque and everyone involved, it has the makings of a monumental night.
“The title of this NXT TakeOver is ‘Respect,’” he said. “The name has a lot of meaning. It’s a lot about Dusty [Rhodes] and his contributions to everything in the Performance Center and NXT. Dusty just can’t be replicated or replaced here. All of the talents are performing in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, which will culminate this Wednesday at TakeOver. It all comes down to their respect for Dusty. I think they are all looking forward to making this something special in Dusty’s memory.
“The respect works on a second level, as well, being the women of NXT are competing for the first time in the main event. They are the main event, Sasha versus Bayley for the NXT women’s championship in a 30-minute iron man match. It’s about the respect they have for each other. It’s the respect toward the women’s division in general and showing what women can do … This is a very special night for a lot of people.”
Another anticipated attraction for the evening is Japanese sensation Asuka’s in-ring debut against Dana Brooke. The company has heavily promoted Asuka’s signing, but this will be the first time the WWE Universe gets to see why it is so newsworthy.
“Everything is a cog in the wheel of making this move forward with women’s wresting getting its place and delivering,” Levesque explained. “I think [Asuka] is a massive cog in the wheel; I’m a huge fan of her work. It’s hard to articulate, but there is a transition period for anyone that comes in here, whether it is from the indies or Japan or someplace else. It took Hideo [Itami] a while to get his footing. Every time I saw him, I told him, ‘I brought you here for a reason. Do what you do.’ And he struggled. You get inside your own head as a performer and struggle.
“The only thing I can equate it to is going from college football to the NFL. It’s like a different game. The speed is different. The game is different. You’re playing differently. It takes players a while to get used to that difference and get to excel again. Some never do. I think it’s the same with this. I can tell you, seeing the little bit Asuka has done with us already, she is uber professional. She is beyond ready for this and I’m just expecting huge things out of her. I think she is going to be phenomenal. She just has this innate charisma to her. I think she is another giant cog in the wheel of moving women’s wrestling movement forward.”
Levesque doesn’t believe there is one particular female talent who started the “Divas Revolution.” He says it’s a team effort.
“I think [Bayley vs. Sasha] will be huge. I think it’s going to be massively important,” Levesque said. “I also think there are a lot of moments that are massive and important and accomplishing the same thing. To say it’s one moment in time that changes everything, it may seem that way when you get 10 years into the future, but when you are in the middle of it, this has been a long time coming. All of it has — building from Nattie being a part of it and Sasha being a part of it and Sara Del Rey coming on board and just the way fans were willing to accept it.”
Levesque salutes the sea change in attitude toward female athletes and women’s sporting events as a whole and says it’s a long time coming.
“The world changed with Ronda Rousey and the UFC, the U.S. women’s soccer team,” he noted. “It’s just all these things and events happening at the same time — we’re empowering women. We happen to be in that mix of having the right people being able to execute. I think [Sasha vs. Bayley] was one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen, and I’m not saying ‘for women.’
“I think the reality of the situation is that all of these bits and pieces are all cogs in a wheel of women taking that spot back in the world, whether that be the WWE Universe or somewhere else in realizing that these are phenomenal athletes. They are every bit as dedicated, passionate, invested and willing to do what it takes — make the sacrifices necessary with their bodies, their personal lives. It’s this giant wheel of momentum and so many people are a part of it.
“It’s funny when I hear the bickering , storyline-wise, of ‘I created the “Divas Revolution,”’ ‘No, I created the Divas Revolution.’ It’s great fodder for storylines. The reality is they all did. They all started it and are all a big piece of it and will continue to be.”
- Follow me on Twitter @smFISHMAN.