WWE celebrated the five-year anniversary of the main roster debuts of Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks this week -- the milestone they most closely tie to the start of the "women's evolution" that reshaped and reimagined women's wrestling within the boundaries of WWE.
WWE programming over the past couple of months has shown us how big a role women's wrestling and long-term stories crafted within the division can help carry a show (or shows, for that matter). With Lynch off indefinitely and on the path to motherhood and Flair on the sidelines, as well, the two other members of NXT's "Four Horsewomen," Banks and Bayley, have picked up the ball and performed magnanimously on Raw, SmackDown and NXT on a weekly basis.
There's a complex, layered story between Banks and Bayley, whose 2015 match at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn holds up as one of the best of the past decade in WWE. Whether those tensions bubble back to the surface after years of peace and prosperity between the current women's tag team champions is one of the key questions as WWE moves toward SummerSlam. In the meantime, Banks and Bayley have been able to fulfill the promise they made during their first women's tag team title reign by defending those titles on all three shows.
They've provided a platform for Asuka and Kairi Sane to remind the world of how incredibly talented they are inside the ring. They helped give the IIconics a boost upon their return and galvanized Nikki Cross and Alexa Bliss as both a team and individual performers. The bright futures ahead of the women currently on the NXT roster was made all the clearer as Banks and Bayley clashed with new NXT women's champion Io Shirai and defended their tag titles against Tegan Nox and Shotzi Blackheart. And that's not to dismiss the performances that each of the women who have stepped into the ring with Banks and Bayley have put on in their own right. It's been a mutually beneficial moment of women elevating women.
All of those who doubted Bayley could become a top-level heel have been proved wrong, as Bayley has channeled the kind of entitled energy of someone who insists on speaking to the manager (with the haircut to match) in the best/worst way possible. That she could become an even greater villain than Banks, who during her evilest moments actively made a little girl cry ringside, has been a revelation. If the pair is to ultimately come to blows once more, it would be all too appropriate for Banks and Bayley to do a full 180-degree turn on their 2015 classic, with Bayley going from purest hero to evilest villain.
But first things first. On Sunday, Banks and Bayley are each involved in separate women's championship matches at "The Horror Show at Extreme Rules" pay-per-view,. Bayley defends her SmackDown women's title against Cross, and Banks challenges Asuka for the Raw women's championship. On an Extreme Rules card that's been built around cartoonish spectacle, including a brawl in a swamp and a match that is set to be won when one wrestler plucks an eyeball from his opponent's head, these two matches are once again anchors that prove the value of the women's division.
Last Friday's edition of SmackDown featured a frankly embarrassing karaoke segment involving Lacey Evans, Naomi, Tamina and Dana Brooke that felt like a segment that would've featured prominently in a pre-women's evolution era. After each singing a "classic" WWE entrance theme, Naomi and Evans had an impromptu match with no shoes on that led to a haphazard four-way brawl. It was not the fault of any of the wrestlers involved, but it was a stark reminder of how far women's wrestling has come and how far it still has to go in WWE.
There's an easy way to wash some of that taste out of the mouths of fans in a hurry. Amid all of the sideshows and gimmick matches, Asuka vs. Banks is a match that has earned a main event slot and can deliver the kind of quality such a match requires.
Raw women's championship: Asuka (c) vs. Sasha Banks
The moment is here. Banks can win the Raw women's title and cement the domain that she and Bayley hold over Raw and SmackDown by capturing all of the women's titles on the show. For all of the conflict between Banks and Asuka in recent months, this will only be the second time they will square off one-on-one on WWE TV. After wrestling Shirai and Sane in recent weeks, Banks completes her triumvirate of matches against Japanese joshi standouts against Asuka; and while the story points toward Banks facing heartbreak, the match itself is positioned to steal the show wherever it happens to fall. Asuka wins, due to an inadvertent assist from Bayley that lays down the breadcrumbs for an explosion between her and Banks.
SmackDown women's championship: Bayley (c) vs. Nikki Cross
Where the two women's title matches are positioned on the card will go a long way in foreshadowing how they each play out. Banks and Bayley could each be intent on pushing each other over the finish line and taking all of the gold from Extreme Rules, but each of their opponents will have a counterpart watching their back on the outside. Cross would be a bold and inspired choice as champion, and she would shed a light on the need for the women's division to continue to build its depth, but it doesn't feel like this is the moment quite yet. Bayley wins after yet another timely assist from Banks.
We won't know the stipulation attached to this title match until Sunday night, but needless to say, it'll skew things as far in Ziggler's favor as is possible. As much as I've been uncomfortable with WWE using its own coronavirus pandemic-induced releases to drum up sympathy for on-screen characters, à la Drake Maverick, Heath Slater's return cameo a few weeks ago was an undeniably emotional moment for all involved. All credit to Slater, who in a few brief minutes reminded everyone watching why he had been such a versatile utility player throughout his WWE career.
As good as Ziggler is at ramping up tension and cutting world championship-level promos, the risks he presents to a reigning world champion usually turn out to be smoke and mirrors in the end. The hope here is that the chosen stipulation is something that provides a vast canvas for McIntyre and Ziggler to paint upon, whether it's a ladder match, a cage match or something else entirely. McIntyre retains his WWE title, emphatically.
As happy as I have been to see Bray Wyatt slip effortlessly back into the persona of the silver-tongued swamp preacher, this clash feels like an interlude before the final boss battle. Strowman has already dispatched the red sweater-wearing version of Wyatt, and he will seemingly bury the demons of his path in "the swamp." But Strowman has still yet to run into the nigh-indestructible (except in the case of Goldberg) visage of "The Fiend." Strowman wins a pyrrhic victory at Extreme Rules but awakens "The Fiend" for a SummerSlam showdown
Setting aside the B-movie levels of gore we saw when Rollins "punctured" the eye of Mysterio on the corner of the steel ring steps, everything that's gone on outside of the threat of permanent physical damage has been pretty fun. Rollins continues to sharpen his warped zealot every week, and his stretch of facing consequences for what he and his disciples have done will likely only further radicalize him down the line. Still, Aleister Black, Murphy and everyone else involved has gotten sucked too far into this conflict while playing secondary, supporting roles. The story has played its role, and well, but it's time for everyone to move on to bigger and better things.
The conclusion of this match is likely to be schlocky and over the top, whether it requires Mysterio to wear coverings on both sides of his mask or Rollins to rock his Jean-Pierre Lafitte eyepatch. Rollins pulls Mysterio's eye out of his head. How else could this match possibly end?
United States championship: Apollo Crews (c) vs. MVP
I've enjoyed a great deal of what has played out between MVP, Bobby Lashley, Apollo Crews, Ricochet and Cedric Alexander over the past few weeks. Most of it has seemingly been in service of elevating Bobby Lashley and his full nelson, but we've also seen far more in the way of backstage segments and match time for Crews, Ricochet and Alexander. MVP offering his on-screen managerial services around has given Crews & Co. the chance to firmly claim the moral high ground. In reality, MVP giving the shine to three promising young talents is doing them a world of good. While I imagine this to be a straightforward outcome, it could be fun to see something against the grain, such as Ricochet giving into the temptation of MVP that Crews and Alexander have resisted. Ricochet and Alexander balance out Lashley as Crews claims the new version of his United States title.
This match was made official on Friday, when Cesaro defeated Big E and earned the right to choose the stipulation. It was a predictable choice, because of what happened in the closing moments of the previous edition of SmackDown. It ended in a no contest and Cesaro powerbombed Kofi Kingston through Big E and a table from the middle rope -- another example of how much chemistry Cesaro has with New Day. Whether it was with Tyson Kidd, Sheamus and now Nakamura, the experience and strengths intertwine seamlessly and consistently deliver. Cesaro and Nakamura shake things up with the only title change of the night, and they continue tensions with the New Day as we head deeper into the summer.