1/11/16 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
- Sasha Banks
Wrestler of the Week– 1, Match of the Week– 2
For many years, the two largest critiques of women’s wrestling in WWE were that the characters were broadly drawn, borderline sexist stereotypes and that the women were not given the opportunity to show any true wrestling ability. The women who have come through NXT over the last two years have blown those critiques to smithereens. Sasha has been at the forefront of that change and appears to be the potential breakout star who revolutionizes women’s wrestling on the main roster, as well.
After almost a year of chasing Charlotte for the NXT Women’s Title, Sasha finally reached the mountaintop at Takeover: Rival in February. The fatal fourway match with Charlotte, Bayley, and Becky Lynch was a landmark in women’s wrestling because it showcased athleticism and technical ability WWE historically reserved for men’s matches. After that match, Sasha assumed the top spot in the women’s division with a brilliant tweener character- arrogant enough to elicit boos, but talented and charismatic enough to also earn fans’ respect. She continued her rivalry with Charlotte and wrestled several more outstanding matches with Sasha in the dominant role for the first time.
Sasha had fully earned her position as one of the top wrestler’s in all of women’s wrestling by the time she debuted on the WWE main roster in July. She immediately started to team with Naomi and Tamina as Team BAD in the Divas division version of gang warfare. Despite some solid singles matches, it seemed that WWE was more interested in the initial pop associated with Sasha, Charlotte, and Becky’s debuts than the long-term plan of how to keep them involved in compelling narratives.
While those stories left something to be desired, Sasha continued her momentum in NXT. Her rivalry with Bayley blossomed over the summer and led to a jaw-dropping match at Takeover: Brooklyn. It was an old-school style of match with physicality and grit that told an enthralling story. I watched it over and over again and it was one of my very favorite matches of 2015. Their rematch in an iron-woman match at Takeover: Respect was the first women’s main event at a WWE special event. That match was divisive- either outstanding or a bid overbooked, depending who you ask-, but the magnitude of the accomplishment outweighed the practical results.
Sasha is almost completely unique in WWE history. She is related to Snoop Dogg, yet her famous family is hardly mentioned on TV. She is relatively undersized, yet her size has never been a remotely inhibiting factor in her career. She is a storyline villain for whom the fans chant even when she’s not in a match. All of these dualities perfectly position her to shatter the mold for women’s wrestling. She has already made a career out of undermining assumptions about women in wrestling and she’s only just getting started.
- Dean Ambrose
WOTW – 3, MOTW – 3
In team sports, having great depth is sometimes even more important than possessing star power at the top of your roster. Baseball teams will pay tens of millions of dollars for Ben Zobrist types who can slot into any blank space and capably fill it. Ambrose is WWE’s version of Ben Zobrist. He doesn’t need a clearly defined role. He doesn’t need the conditions around him to be just right. He doesn’t even need high profile opportunities. Ambrose takes what he’s given, fills in the blank space on a Raw or PPV card, and somehow continues to elicit great reactions from fans.
Ambrose started 2015 fresh off of a confusing, under-booked feud with Bray Wyatt that ultimately did neither wrestler any favors. He moved from that program to a pursuit of the Intercontinental Title that brought him to Wrestlemania. He competed in the seven-man ladder match for that belt at Wrestlemania, but came up short to Daniel Bryan. In that match, Luke Harper powerbombed him through a table, which led to a series of matches between the two. Ambrose ultimately emerged triumphant in the series with a win at Extreme Rules.
The win over Harper gave Ambrose momentum for the first time in months. He capitalized on that momentum with a singles victory over WWE Champion and former teammate Seth Rollins. The win catapulted him to the top of the card and he excelled in the position. He wrestled Rollins on three consecutive PPVs and all of the matches lived up to high standard their 2014 matches set. More impressively, the previously dormant Ambrose suddenly filled in as a main eventer without missing a beat. Fans lose interest in most wrestlers when they wallow in mediocre storylines, but Ambrose has a way to stay engaged with a wide swath of the audience even when the creative team does him no favors.
After Ambrose failed to overtake Rollins, he reappeared in support of his friend Roman Reigns during his own rivalry with Bray Wyatt. The second iteration of Ambrose vs. the Wyatt Family was far more interesting than the first, with more twists and turns (Braun Strowman and Chris Jericho, for instance). Reigns and Ambrose eventually pulled out a tag team win that primarily elevated Reigns to a higher level, but also maintained some momentum for Ambrose.
While Ambrose seemed primed for a triumphant secondary title win in the spring, Daniel Bryan and John Cena won those belts at Wrestlemania and Ambrose slipped backwards. Ambrose started to pursue the Intercontinental Title once again after his time with the Wyatts, this time opposite Kevin Owens. The first month of his rivalry with Owens featured very little direct interaction and Ambrose surprised most fans when he beat Owens in a very good match at TLC and took the Intercontinental Title.
Ambrose winning the Intercontinental Title was an interesting development because it showed some real investment in him. He made the most out of so many storyline scraps that it seemed like WWE didn’t find it necessary to feature him in a meaningful way- why invest effort in someone who can reliably deliver without any backing?
Moreover, the rivalry with Owens looks like it has a great deal of promise to get both young stars to a higher level. Ambrose has become one of the top babyface stars in WWE without well-developed stories or interesting rivals. That baseline level of success does not guarantee that he will do even better with more meaty material to work with, but there’s certainly a potential for higher levels of achievement. Perhaps Ambrose is not likely to ever be the top guy in WWE. Even if that’s the case, he has already carved out an outstanding start to a promising career.
- Roman Reigns
WOTW – 3, MOTW – 4
One set of wrestling fans sees Roman Reigns as the least deserving wrestler to regularly occupy the WWE main event since the Great Khali. Another set sees him as a singular talent with more crossover appeal than any other wrestler in his generation. As it does with most divisive topics, the truth lies somewhere in between. Reigns struggles to express his personality on the mic and often comes across as forced and awkward when he tries to tell stories. On the other hand, he is an athletic specimen who has routinely hit his marks when given opportunities in big matches.
Interestingly enough, there were plenty of fans who fit into both groups about Reigns at different points in 2015. The former group- the one that wanted him banished from WWE forever- dominated when he won the Royal Rumble and started to chase Brock Lesnar for the WWE Title. His Rumble win was so unanimously rejected that WWE spent the next two months giving him every imaginable rub to encourage fans to embrace him. A shoulder-to-shoulder moment with his cousin The Rock didn’t get it done. Neither did a surprisingly great #1 Contender match with Daniel Bryan at Fastlane.
Due to the fan reaction leading up to Wrestlemania, WWE had to call an audible on their rumored story direction. It looked like Reigns was destined to beat Lesnar in the main event and leave as the triumphant babyface champion. The problem was that 70,000 fans vociferously booed Reigns as he walked to the ring, thereby obliterating any chance of the celebratory coronation. Instead, Reigns wrestled a good match with Lesnar before Seth Rollins cashed in Money in the Bank, pinned Reigns, and left as champion.
Reigns slowly fell from the WWE Title picture following Wrestlemania. He nearly won Money in the Bank until a returning Bray Wyatt interfered and kept him from the briefcase. Wyatt launched an obliquely fan-inspired “anyone but you” campaign against Reigns that spanned the summer. The feud worked very well because there was a clear reason for Reigns and Wyatt to fight and they delivered compelling, physical matches. It was interesting that the highlight of the months-long feud was a memorable brawl throughout the arena as an episode of Raw went off the air.
When Reigns finished Wyatt, he made his way back toward the main event. He won a #1 Contender match that lined him up to challenge Rollins. Unfortunately, Rollins tore his ACL and had to vacate his title. Reigns won the ensuing title tournament by beating Alberto Del Rio and Ambrose in the final two rounds, though neither match was long enough to be memorable. His celebration was short-lived. For the third time in the year, Money in the Bank left a bad taste in Reigns’s mouth. Sheamus cashed in his briefcase (that he only won because Wyatt took out Reigns).
Reigns and The Authority repeatedly came into conflict starting as soon as he initially won the title. He assaulted HHH before Sheamus cashed in Money in the Bank and their conflict deepened over the next month. Reigns challenged Sheamus in a TLC rematch, but interference from Del Rio and Rusev on Sheamus’s behalf dealt him another loss. An even more aggressive assault on HHH after the match got Reigns in hot water. Vince McMahon appeared on Raw the next night and gave Reigns a rematch, but with the caveat that a loss would get him fired. Reigns pulled off the victory in one of the best moments of Raw in 2015. It was notable both because Reigns got such a positive reaction and because it was so much more than WWE had given fans on TV throughout the year.
By the end of the year, Reigns received almost unanimously positive reactions. He still shows clumsiness when asked to go beyond his verbal comfort level. At the same time, no promotion has ever told a wrestler to be perfect; the goal is for a wrestler to get over. Without a doubt, Reigns is over with the fans at this point. That means he has done what WWE wants him to do, even if the road to get there was not as direct as the company might have hoped.