3/13/14 Wrestler of the Week – Natalya

The Wrestler of the Week award is designed to highlight a wrestler who made the most of his or her opportunities in a given week. While great matches or memorable promos certainly help a wrestler win Wrestler of the Week, the ultimate decision will also include consistency through the week and bonus points for pulling off a task with a higher degree of difficulty. 

3/13/14 Wrestler of the Week – Natalya

While Daniel Bryan was given a juicy steak and he cooked it to perfection in the Occupy Raw segment on Monday, Natalya took leftover table scraps and cooked up a delicious stew in appearances on Raw, Smackdown, and Main Event. While Wrestler of the Week is not technically graded on a curve, Natalya’s improvement over what I have seen from her over the last year or so certainly caught my eye and factored into how impressive I found her. Her Divas Title match with AJ Lee on Main Even was particularly strong- it was certainly the Divas match of the year to this point, and is rivaled only by AJ’s match with Kaitlyn last fall as the best WWE Divas match in the last several years.

Natalya earned her title shot against AJ with a submission victory in a tag team match on Smackdown. It was easy for Natalya to look skilled as a wrestler next to tag team partner Eva Marie. The match did not stand out in a meaningful way, but Natalya did get the win with a Sharpshooter on the champion (and AJ’s size and flexibility make her an outstanding Sharpshooter recipient). The story of their rivalry carried over to Raw on Monday when Natalya sat in on commentary for AJ’s tag team match against the Bellas. Natalya displayed more confidence and personality than usual. She paraphrased Owen Hart and her father, Jim Neidhart, which was an effective way to evoke nostalgic feelings from fans who judge her rather than embrace her for her relationship to her father. After Nikki Bella pinned AJ, she posed with the title in Natalya’s direction, which seemed like an unnecessary and unwarranted plug for their Total Divas TV show.

It was not until Main Event on Tuesday night that Natalya earned this prestigious honor. She took on AJ in a title match that seemed like a certain title change- it tied in with the promotion of the reality show and would give Main Event a feeling of importance shortly after it became a live show on the WWE Network. Instead, AJ retained the title, but that surprised paled in comparison to the quality of the match. Natalya and AJ fought back and forth in ways that demonstrated their respective strengths. There were several times in the match when it appeared to be over, but something got in the way. The first time Natalya went for the Sharpshooter, AJ rolled her into a small package for a two count. The second time, AJ fought her way near the ropes and got an assist from Tamina, who pushed the rope to her at the last second. The third time, it looked like AJ was on the verge of tapping out, but she finally escaped the hold. She recovered with a shining wizard and the Black Widow to make Natalya tap out, but it was an excellent match. Both wrestlers made the other look great, the psychology of the false finishes made the ending exciting and unpredictable, and the wrestling was far more smooth and believable than the average WWE women’s match.

WWE ran a feature on its website earlier this week about the developmental work indy legend Sarah Del Rey has done with WWE’s women wrestlers lately. I do not know whether her influence has helped improve Natalya’s performance in the ring, but it is apparent that she has reduced the frequency of botched moves and improved the believability of her matches. With the similarly massive improvement by the Bellas and the impending integration of Emma, Paige, and Summer Rae to the Divas division, we could be entering uncharted territory for the talent of WWE’s women’s wrestling.