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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Bayley and Sasha

This is an essay about professional wrestling, so if that ain't your bag, or you're not curious, or if you're rolling your eyes, then there's no need for you to stick around. In the words of Malcolm Tucker, “Off you fuck”. The rest of you, who love, understand, or at least don't pre-judge one of Americas great contemporary theatrical forms, this is for you.

Wrestling is about moments.

Its theatre and its reality and sometimes, when the stars align, something happens that is both theatre and real life simultaneously. This happens in no other artform, except occasionally perhaps circus, and its something very special indeed. There are moments every wrestling fan will tell you about. Foley soaring off the top of the cell. Jericho first arriving on Monday night and being unleashed on The Rock. Mick telling Hunter that he can't beat him, “But he knows a man who can”, before transforming before our very eyes into the feared Cactus Jack. Shawn saying “I'm sorry. I love you” before superkicking Ric into retirement. The Undertaker's bell. If you're a fan, you're smiling right now. Moments, you know what I mean?

Sometimes wrestling is also good at stories, but sometimes, just like any soap opera (which, of
course, is to some extent what it is), sometimes the plotlines inspire more eyerolls than jaw-drops. And often it was the female wrestlers that got the crappiest deal.

Wrestling doesn't have the most sparkling track record when it comes to depictions of women. WWE, throughout its most popular and financially successful period, even with talented and beloved performers like Trish Stratus and Lita failed dismally much of the time. Plots centered around bitchiness, fighting over the affections of men, and – even in the lycra-heavy world of wrestling – wearing as little as is humanly possible. There were matches held in giant bowls of pudding, matches where the winner was the first person to yank off the dress of her opponent, and occasionally, inexplicably, just plain old swimsuit beauty contests held in the ring. On a wrestling show. It felt like the scripts were being written by the kind of guy who'd step in front of a woman on the street and block her path to say hi, and then when she ignored him, would berate her for being a stuck-up cow. Women were all either sluts, bitches or frigid. It was insulting to the performers and to the audience, and it made being a wrestling fan really difficult for a lot of people. Fast forward a decade though, and it looks like we might be entering a little golden age, which brings us to Bayley and Sasha.

NXT is the WWE wrestling brand that showcases the new talent being groomed for big league stardom. Developmental, they call it. But in an odd twist, it's become the far better show for wrestling fans to watch. It's short, light on its feet, smart, and is chock full of hungry talented performers who relish every opportunity to get in front of an audience and impress. I adore it. One of the things that they've been working hard on doing, is reinvigorating womens wrestling. They've been bringing in some of the best talent from the independent circuit, and having them train with Sara Del Ray, one of the best female workers on the circuit for years. And it's working.

Bayley is the new champ, and she's got quite the ground-breaking character. In an industry where performers play demons, dead men, supermodels, rock stars, superheroes and much more, Bayley is...nice. I'm not sure it's ever been tried before. She's a scrappy underdog. Positive. Glad to be there. Full of high-fives and smiles. Goddamn it, her t-shirt says “I'm a hugger”. And people LOVE her. More importantly, a whole new set of people love her - young girls - the very audience the previous depictions of women would have repulsed.

Her current nemesis, Sasha Banks is a whole different deal. Dripping in gold, styled up the wazoo, sunglasses on, and swagger firmly activated. She holds up her hands on the way to the ring so you can read her full-knuckle rings that say “legit boss” - and indeed, she used to be the boss, the champ, until a couple of weeks ago, when Bailey won it from her.

On a recent NXT show, Bayley had just had a match. She was celebrating in the ring, the crowd showing their love, and Bayley riding the cheers. She took the microphone and started to thank them, and as soon as she started talking, Sasha's music hits, and here she comes. Now, of course, this is a traditional piece of heel behaviour – crash the good guys party and spoil it. Be a bad loser. But here they did it everso slightly, and beautifully, different.

“I didn't come here to belittle you, or berate you”, says Sasha. Wait, what? You're the bad guy. That's exactly what we expect you to do. “I came out here to congratulate you”. This is important. There's no bitchiness here, no personal hate. These are women acting like athletes at the top of their game rather than knock-off “Real housewives”, and it's refreshing. It encourages the audience to admire them both, even if we have a favourite. Sasha says that everyone's been saying that at the last show, they had the best match – and the crowd chant as one, “Yes you did”. She says that people have told her it was the greatest womens match the company has ever seen (Which might genuinely be true, it was a barn burner), and then there's a fleeting moment when she looks at Bayley, looks around at the crowd as they chant “Match of the year”, and she visibly nearly cries. It's amazing. Remember when I said how wrestling is best when its the theatre and reality clash together? There it is.

Then she gathers herself and tells Bayley that last time she was better for only three seconds – a clever way of referring to the match-winning three-count pinfall – but now she needs to prove that she is better. Again, this is important. They're not going to fight because of some kind of playground feud. They're not fighting over a boy, or over who said what to who. They're fighting because they're professional fighters vying over a belt that tells the world who the best athlete is. It's simple, empowering, and with performers this good, totally compelling.

Then we're at the final act. Matchmaker William Regal comes out to join them, with a shit-eating grin, and a glint in his eye bright enough to power the Blackpool illuminations. He grants their wish, and tells them that their match will headline the next big show. The first time a womens match has ever – as far as I know – main-evented a big American wrestling show. It's payback for bringing the house down last time, and the crowd love it and lose it.

Bayley and Sasha, the crowd chanting “Holy shit!”, slowly take it in. They look each other in the eyes, grins spread across their faces, and they shake hands. And everyone knows this is going to be good. Everyone understands what it means. And there's your moment.

October tour dates ahoy!

Friday October 9 - now on sale
Palace Theatre, Westcliff on Sea

Saturday October 10th- now on sale
The Quay Theatre, Sudbury

Saturday October 24th- now on sale
The Otley Courthouse Theatre, Otley

Tuesday October 27th- now on sale
The Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis

Thursday December 3 - now on sale
AGB Overpelt afdeling Palethe, Overpelt, Belgium

Friday December 4 - now on sale
CC de Werft, Geel, Belgium

...and this is what you might see...

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