Doctor’s Orders: Historic First Quarter Will Propel The Women’s Evolution To Be The Story of 2018

Ronda Rousey

WrestleMania 34 was a lot of things, but the most important among them was that it was the site of the next step in women’s wrestling history on the WWE stage. Featuring the best match of the night, the most talked about match of the night, and the sleeper hit of the night, the women’s division was largely responsible for the success of 2018’s Show of Shows, no matter if you feel the event’s success was limited or vast. As a result, a large chunk of the big-picture intrigue coming out of WrestleMania centers on what the women of WWE might be able to achieve in the next twelve months, including but not limited to the main-event of WrestleMania 35.

Ronda Rousey has been a game-changer for the perception of women in sports and entertainment dating back to her days of racking up massive checks from UFC. Her proven drawing power enabled comparable entities like WWE to reassess its approach to female competitors, so her effect on professional wrestling was generally agreed upon long before she signed a performer’s contract with the mothership of sports entertainment.

Nevertheless, “Rowdy” Ronda came to WWE with the ability to be a massive double-edged sword. She was always going to bring mainstream attention to the product, but as has been regularly seen at the top of the men’s division, a box office attraction from the fighting world can swallow up so much attention from WWE higher-ups that it stunts the growth of the main-event scene and limits its creative potential, which is the first and foremost concern of any fan. Hypothetically speaking, a booking philosophy for her on par with Brock Lesnar would, therefore, potentially do as much harm to the product as her legitimate celebrity status would do good for the brand; on the other hand, if she committed to becoming a great pro wrestler and excelled both as a personality and as a performer on the 20’x20’ canvas, she could simultaneously raise the profile of women in WWE and become the well-rounded pro wrestler with box office flair that the women’s division needs to achieve that next highest level of respect in the industry.

Rousey’s situation – how WWE handles her, how much she improves, how often she is around, etc. – will continue to be one of the biggest stories in the game for quite a while, but her debut match at WrestleMania 34 could not have gone any better. Conversation surrounding the potential for what she could mean for the women’s division was muted from her first appearance at Royal Rumble through WrestleMania week by the questions about her ability. LOP’s Dave Fenichel, who wrote about MMA before joining our ranks, was pretty adamant the day of The Showcase of the Immortals that she would bomb on the big stage, that it would be a mortal wound to her historically shaky self-confidence, and that she would not even be around for WrestleMania 35. It was no stretch of the imagination to see where he was coming from. However, after she appeared to take to the WWE ring like a fish to water (rather not unlike her mixed tag team partner, Kurt Angle, back in the day). She was as genuinely excited as fans like us would want her to be, pre-match, and then the consummate bad-ass once the opening bell rang, comfortable in her own skin with surprising ring presence and timing along with a healthy dose of skill and strength. Let the outsized expectations be set and the discussion about her potentially enormous positive influence get louder.

Charlotte Flair has made it clear in interviews with major publications that she strongly desires a match with Ronda at WrestleMania and, after her performance with and victory over Asuka in what I personally felt was the best match on the card, it would be logical and reasonable to expect WWE to pencil in Rousey vs. Flair as one of the top matches for WrestleMania 35.

Against Asuka, Charlotte reaffirmed her status as the alpha female in WWE right now. I felt as though the decision to have Flair end the longest undefeated streak in WWE lore was a way for the company to say loudly and clearly, “If Ronda Rousey wants to be the number one star here, the first thing she will have to do is become the top female competitor here and, currently, that woman is Charlotte.” That should come as no surprise, though there was a contingent of fans who witnessed every phase of The Empress of Tomorrow’s incredible run in NXT and felt passionately that she was the chosen one, a match against whom Rousey would use as a platform to draw the most money and in-ring fame. Frankly, there was not and still is not a wrong choice in that equation, as WWE is an effective post-winning streak push for Asuka away from having two matches featuring “Rowdy” Ronda – one against Flair and the other against Asuka – that would instantly overtake Flair vs. Asuka as arguably the biggest match in the history of women’s wrestling.

To anyone who questions the decision for Charlotte to defeat Asuka, the one thing that I believe separates The Nature Boy’s daughter from the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble winner is that the fairer Flair still has a shot at riding the wave of the Women’s Evolution to the very top of WWE and to become the face of the company during a time when, for various reasons that would make for a good topic on another day, WWE cannot seem to find a top guy that they want who can get over as well as top guys that they don’t want. She is everything that WWE could want in a face of the company. I mistakenly thought when I predicted that she would defeat the streak that the fans in attendance would turn on her, but they gave her a hero’s appreciation for her accomplishment, seeming to accept that she was the right person to earn that achievement. Charlotte really is the WOMAN; but it seems reasonable to ask, “Could she be more?” Is it too soon to think that Triple H’s proselytizing on one of the Network podcast specials about a female becoming the face of WWE was more than just wishful thinking from someone whose future head-honcho status was likely still years away?

Competitive people hunger for a new challenge and, for Charlotte Flair, the main-event of WrestleMania and the kind of notoriety and responsibility that often comes with it (face of WWE?), is the greatest challenge that she will ever face. Intriguingly, she may have missed the window of her prime in which she might become the first woman to do it had WWE not signed Rousey, whose aura can be rebuilt by WWE on top of the foundation that was laid in the UFC to create the ultimate pro wrestling villain; at the same time, though, a full-time Ronda who continues her Angle-like ascent will, at least on the surface anyway, have a better shot than Flair to become the top overall star in the industry. So, if Flair’s greatest challenge is main-eventing WrestleMania, her greatest challenger is Rousey, not just in the kayfabe sense down the road, but in her quest to maximize the potential of her career.

Do not underestimate Charlotte. She already was a huge part of the Women’s Revolution becoming a major “thing,” she already owns the greatest all-time WWE main roster female rivalry (2016 vs. Sasha Banks), she has won a handful of Women’s World Championships and, perhaps most noteworthy of all, she was one half of the very first women’s match to main-event a special event in WWE. Without question, Flair is the WrestleMania Era’s most accomplished female superstar, and she just upped the ante again with Asuka in not just the biggest women’s wrestling match in WrestleMania history, but quite possibly the best. She assuredly made her dad proud with her fantastic showing, and on the week after the ten year anniversary of his classic Retirement Match in Orlando no less.

If you are keeping score at home to ascertain Charlotte’s place in the modern WWE hierarchy, male and female combined, be sure to remember that last weekend marked the second WrestleMania in three years that Flair and an opponent or opponents stole the most influential yearly show on the wrestling calendar. Two years ago, I sat in the crowd at WrestleMania 32 and watched her, Banks, and Becky Lynch have the best match on a card featuring all-time greats like Chris Jericho, AJ Styles, and Undertaker, marking the next step forward for females in WWE. 2016, in general, saw the main roster division rise up to the level of its equivalent in NXT, where the so-termed “Revolution” had begun. Building something substantial is not easy and, without persistence, revolutions can end before long-term change is implemented. Some would argue that 2017, when the tagline “Revolution” was changed to an “Evolution,” failed to make much headway in its quest to put women on an equal playing field with the male roster. Alexa Bliss has sort of become, to some, an avatar for that issue, has she not? In the moment, 2017 did indeed feel like a step back but, as time carries on, perhaps last year should be remembered instead as a period during which the less glamorous work was being done.

When Little Miss Bliss showed up on Raw and promptly became the focal point of the division, it coincided with a down period in creative verve that struck Smackdown particularly hard post-WrestleMania 33. Perhaps more than any other peer, she has become a lightning rod, sparking a curious dichotomy between ardent supporters and detractors. Alexa’s strength is that she is more of a five-star character than a five-star performer between the ropes, so there was a natural downturn in the upper-level quality that Flair and Banks had quickly set as an expectation among diehard fans. She has been judged on the merit of her weakness more than her strength, though, and that sells her contributions short. Bliss can carry the television product far better than Flair, Asuka, or Rousey, a fifty two week responsibility mind you; even during shaky creative stretches, a gifted orator who has mastered a specific set of skills unique to her persona can get the job done; that is Alexa. The trade-off with The Goddess has been that her matches are, to borrow from critical ratings, a half to a full star less than Flair vs. Banks or Asuka’s best in NXT or of course the iconic Banks vs. Bayley rivalry that vaulted this big picture discussion to the forefront three years ago.

Bliss dropping the Raw Women’s Title at WrestleMania to Nia Jax was the quintessential Alexa match; and I feel compelled to defend her by saying that she may not be as prone as her peers to steal the show, but she is as adept as anyone on the roster at helping to make the show. Her performance with Jax was really good and nobody is talking about it, even though I would venture to say that, without the quality of her work that night, fewer people would be messaging me about 34 at New Orleans being one of the best in the WrestleMania library. Recognize that Bliss, in four weeks time, pushed Rock’s cousin off the cusp of being a real force in the women’s division to actually being a real force in the women’s division. So, as important as I think that it is for you to not underestimate Charlotte’s peak potential in the overall pecking order, I think it is equally as important for you not to undervalue what Alexa Bliss brings to the table as a personality, specifically how she was able to elevate someone else by setting up an emotionally-engaging story that ended with a bully getting her comeuppance. If Flair and Rousey are the potential Rock and Austin of the hypothetical women’s wrestling boom, then Bliss is making a great case to be the Triple H. At the very least, I think that Alexa is filling the role that AJ Lee might have played had the spunky New Jersey native come along a few years later than she did.

2017 will prove to be the year that made the division deeper because, let’s face it, 2016 was a three woman show (Flair, Banks, and Lynch) in the eyes of most. In 2017, Bayley got her main roster peak, diminutive by comparison to lofty expectations though it may have been; Naomi got her moment in the sun; Natalya had a career year; Mickie James was re-established as a relevant veteran presence; The Riot Squad and Absolution were given strong pushes in the last six weeks of the calendar; and Carmella won the first-ever Women’s Money in the Bank contract, which she just succesfully cashed in while I was writing this column.

The Iconic Duo just debuted on Smackdown too. The Boss, when she fully turns heel, has humongous potential to CM Punk the summer and forcefully reassert herself at the forefront of this conversation where I think she quite frankly belongs (please do not have a short memory and forget what she achieved in NXT from late 2014 through her and Bayley’s Iron-Woman Match). With Jax in a make-or-break position at the top right now and Carmella taking a leap forward in her career added to the above mentioned details, the women’s division is as interesting as anything else going on right now in WWE and could end up the story of 2018.