Let’s say you were reading a book, and you stopped after every page to think about where the story was going. And while you were thinking, your concern wasn’t so much with the characters and their motivations as presented to you, but with what you think should have happened based mostly on second-hand rumors and speculation you’ve heard about the writer, who you assume to be a complete idiot even though they are wildly successful in their field. Would even the greatest book ever written actually seem good under those conditions? This offers some insight into how a lot of hardcore fans interact with WWE — they are the most myopic and reactionary people on earth. The plus side from WWE’s perspective is that makes them easily manipulated, and at last Saturday’s Summerslam event they pulled off a troll job for the ages.
Becky Lynch, my favorite wrestler, became pregnant last year and hasn’t been seen on TV since April 2020. At the time she stepped away from WWE, Becky was being pushed harder than anyone and she never actually lost her belt in a match, instead relinquishing it due to her pregnancy. While there was initially some doubt expressed by Becky herself over her future in wrestling, rumors have been swirling for a long time that she was on her way to a return, and fans were speculating heavily over how it would be done. Because Becky is very popular and had an infamous botched heel turn (reported on at the time by me) that catapulted her to success, the assumption made by everyone was that she’d remain a babyface.
With Becky out, WWE needed to create a new top babyface, and they went all in on Bianca Belair, who in many ways represents the perfect WWE wrestler. She has a cool look, she can talk, she’s a legitimate freakish athlete, she can do a variety of media appearances, and she was built as a wrestler from the ground up in their own performance center, which means she was trained into the WWE way of doing things and is a team player. Adding to Bianca’s current trendy feel is that she is a black woman, making her the company’s answer to popular athletes like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka while also potentially crossing over to the massive hip hop audience by collaborating with rappers like Megan Thee Stallion. Belair won the Royal Rumble in January, beat Sasha Banks in a highly acclaimed match in a Wrestlemania main event for the Smackdown women’s championship, and has been flying high since with a streak of wins over various opponents. Summerslam was supposed to be the rematch between those two, but an unknown issue kept Banks out of the event, creating a domino effect that led to the controversial segment which I will try to recap very briefly.
First, WWE plays a hype package of the Banks/Belair feud, implying that the match is still on. Belair’s music hits and she does her usual entrance to the ring. Then the ring announcer says Sasha cannot compete and is being replaced by Carmella, an annoying low-card heel who Belair has already beaten roughly 800 times this year. Carmella comes out and the crowd is grumbling as it seems this nothing match is really what they’re getting instead of Sasha/Bianca. Then Becky’s music hits for the first time in a year and a half and the crowd goes nuts. Becky makes her entrance, and I note live that she is acting kind of weird (sort of being over-the-top happy with the fans in a way that seems disingenuous), but I don’t think a lot about it because it’s her first appearance back and she might just be really excited. Belair reacts to this similarly to the fans — she is putting over Becky as a legend she is thrilled to share the ring with. Becky looks at Bianca, then throws Carmella out of the ring, bashes her into the steel steps, and gets back in the ring to stare down Bianca and let the moment sink in. Then Becky grabs a mic and says (this is important): “what do you say we blow the roof off this joint, for the Smackdown women’s championship?” Bianca, being a typical babyface who takes on all challenges, accepts. The bell rings, they circle each other, then Becky extends her hand for a handshake. Belair accepts it, but Becky cheapshots Belair and hits another move to win the title from her in roughly 30 seconds.
Reaction to this has been uniformly negative. Anyone can google around to find discussion, but the short version is fans were extremely unhappy that the popular champion Belair got “squashed” and “buried.” They didn’t like that Becky, presumably a babyface, finally got her big return and instead of it being happy, it ended up being confusing and weird. They didn’t like that the match was so brief and wished they could have put on a great match for the fans. But I thought this was possibly genius, and will go over goals I think this segment accomplished that make me excited about the future.
Goal One: Turn Becky Lynch Heel
There have been casual discussions about whether Lynch could ever be a heel, and I didn’t think WWE would even try due to her popularity. Even now, arguably this is something they shouldn’t try, and I’m open to that critique of this segment. But I feel like she is in a different place now than last time they tried it, and there was no better way to get her “heat” than to have her be the Karen white lady who tramples all over the dream title reign of the top face who has come to represent Black Excellence in WWE.
A lot of this segment clicks into place when viewed as something that is supposed to make fans upset because it’s a heel turn. Becky’s behavior throughout is trollish, and the giveaway is her “let’s blow the roof off” line. She promises the crowd a great match, then wins in 30 seconds with an underhanded tactic. More of this will be fleshed out on TV, but early reports are that Lynch is indeed a heel and it was her idea to try it. Obviously I think very highly of Lynch as a performer and I’m actually glad she is doing something new and turning before she became fully stale to the audience.
Goal two: Progress Bianca Belair’s Character While Making Her Extremely Sympathetic
To this point, Belair has been a squeaky clean babyface whose weakness is that she is a bit gullible and can be taken advantage of. It’s pretty easy to imagine Becky sitting at home, watching Belair, and thinking she can manipulate her to get back the title in the exact way she did it. This type of setback should set off a fire in Belair; I expect her to come back with more of an edge.
Belair comes out of this situation with a visceral level of sympathy from the fans, most of whom are saying how disgusted they are that she got screwed by WWE out of her title while not even getting a match. There is some irony in seeing people say this is “horrible booking” while also having the exact emotions it was intended to evoke from them. And wrestling in the end is about creating strong emotions in the audience, even if it involves some trolling and possibly some logic breaks. This made people want to see Bianca get her title back in a powerful way, more so than if she just lost it in a straight up match. And because we know this is all pre-determined, nobody actually thinks Bianca is worse because she lost a quick match through underhanded tactics to a top star that tricked her.
The Ultimate Goal: Elevate Bianca Belair to Becky Lynch’s Level of Stardom
This sounds weird to say since she just dropped her title in 30 seconds, but the more I think about this, the more I think this story is WWE showing a tremendous amount of confidence in Bianca Belair. One reason it seemed insane to ever turn Lynch heel is that there wouldn’t be a babyface who could equal her (without a strong face, fans would just gravitate towards Lynch and cheer her instead). The way this played out indicates to me that WWE believes Bianca is likable enough and a strong enough character to make this work. And based on the initial anger and “Bianca deserves better” sentiment going around, it seems like they’re off to a very strong start. At the very least, it is worth watching this play out, especially given Lynch’s strengths as a character and on the microphone.
A lot of fans think this was a “burial” of Belair, which I find utterly absurd. WWE likes money, and they very obviously see a lot of money to be made from Belair, who is immensely marketable and talented. Comparisons have been made to when Kofi Kingston lost to Brock Lesnar a couple years ago, but that was a very different scenario where he lost in a more decisive fashion and was more obviously a guy they didn’t see as a top talent. What’s more likely is that WWE wants fans to think Belair is being buried as a way to generate sympathy for her. I realize it is hard for fans who are really invested in Belair to see it now, but from my standpoint it feels like this story is actually being done in service of Belair, to try to take her to another level.
Wrestling fans live in this weird bubble where they think it’s a good story for a babyface to beat everybody and never show weakness. In any other medium, a hero is defined by the obstacles they face and how they are able to overcome them. This was an obstacle for Bianca Belair and I suspect the end goal is her beating Lynch for the title in an actual match. This is WWE though, and this segment proved how much they like swerving the audience, so it’s often fruitless to try to speculate too far in the future. Either way, this angle created a lot of speculation, emotion, and intrigue, so it is hard for me to see how it was terrible unless you are someone who is purely getting worked by WWE.
To be clear, I like it when fans get worked and there isn’t any shame in it. Part of why I don’t like AEW is I don’t think anything they do provokes real reactions like this that almost exist outside of the wrestling universe. But there are fans who act like they know everything, always have negative knee-jerk reactions, and then get played like a fiddle, which will always be very funny to me. It’s possible I’m totally wrong about all of this (in which case I’ll delete this post later), but it seems like almost everyone commenting on wrestling — including the like 40+ year-old dudes who run wrestling sites and have devoted their whole life to covering this silly pseudo-sport — are wildly wrong about this angle and are judging the entire book after misinterpreting the first page.