by C. LeMar McLean (@MarzMediaUS)
For all the sexist antics to which women in WWE have been subjected over the years (like here and here), the company has successfully hovered over mutually exclusive pools of degradation and empowerment regardless of gender. And with a more robust collection of female talent than ever before, WWE offers a spectrum of characters that undermine any claims that the company has an anti- (or pro-) feminist agenda. But despite WWE’s ability to take a firm, culturally responsible stance on depictions of its Divas, the most recent NXT Takeover show demonstrated how preferential treatment of men (subconscious or otherwise), can compromise the quality of a show, even though men are the company’s main attraction.
In this special presentation of WWE’s minor league program, the main event featured the talented also-ran Tyson Kidd challenging the NXT Champion, indie sensation turned WWE rising star Adrian Neville. Although the tension was appropriately high for the match’s profile, Kidd, despite his nearly 20 years of experience, did not present a legitimate threat to Neville’s title in the sense that it would be imprudent for WWE to expose Neville (their top prospect) to failure at this juncture, much less in favor of Kidd, a performer in whom the company has not invested much in recent years.
Kidd and Neville deserve high praise for their performance, and they lived up to the main event slot in which they were placed. But the overall NXT Takeover experience would have been more rewarding had the men deferred to the women’s match between Natalya and Charlotte. This Divas contest also awarded a championship, the culmination of a single-elimination tournament. And in addition to the excitement of a brand new Divas Champion being crowned, the backstory of the matchup eclipsed any buzz the headlining men’s match could generate.
On one side, Natalya advanced to the championship match as a WWE veteran whose training began with the legendary Hart family. The daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, Natalya is the first-ever third-generation female wrestler and has shown that she was born to grapple for the past decade and a half. Accompanying her at ringside was her uncle, WWE Hall of Famer Bret “The Hitman” Hart. In the other corner, Charlotte brought her own pedigree at which no one can scoff. Being 16-time World Champion Ric Flair’s daughter, Charlotte makes wrestling appear second nature (pun intended) and is poised to deliver athletic precision and in-ring charisma for years to come. To round out the Legacy vs Legacy billing of the match, the “Nature Boy” himself cheered his daughter on from the ring apron.
The match itself was as proficient and action-packed as the ending was emotional. Diehard and casual fans alike could easily appreciate the importance of such a full-circle experience: 2 wrestling icons watching the young women they’ve seen grow up excel in the family business. The tear-filled embrace shared by Charlotte and Natalya after the final bell also indicated the enormity of the moment, a torch of sorts being passed from the most respected Diva in the company to the most promising new talent. And for a company that thrives on cattiness among Divas (check your local listings for E! if you must), the collegiality among Natalya, Charlotte, Bret, and Ric after the match typified the passion and fellowship required to earn respect and have longevity in such a taxing career.
The emotional weight of the moment—as well as the coolness of Ric Flair and Bret Hart gracing the NXT Arena—would have been enough to send the crowd home satisfied. Alas, Legacy vs Legacy was the penultimate match of the night, putting Kidd and Neville in the unenviable position of trying to steal an already tremendous show. As mentioned before, Kidd and Neville rose to the occasion, but the crowd had already been on such a draining ride in the previous match, that the reactions to the main event paled in comparison to what they would have been had the two championship matches been in reverse order.
That WWE employs people experienced in assembling matches as the sum of a whole suggests that the preclusion of a Divas main event was based on a principle instead of on a focus on the story that the show would tell. Many fans without that experience would agree that if you can end an NXT show with Ric Flair and Bret Hart in the ring following a great match, you do it. But at least one WWE official, Dr. Tom Prichard, sagely disagreed:
Admittedly, that last response veered into territory familiar to wrestling fans, wherein those who have never worked in the wrestling business pretend to have more insight than someone who has done so for decades. In this instance, however, broader social concerns prevalent outside of the WWE Universe—which the company continually struggles to incorporate—prove less problematic than the stance Prichard took. If “baby steps” reflects the judgment of the company writ large, then the view seems disingenuous considering that Natalya has been with WWE since 2007, whereas Adrian Neville joined NXT in 2012. And if Charlotte can become a champion after only wrestling for roughly 2 years—an achievement indicative of her accelerated progress—then why is she not good enough to headline a show with Natalya, who is beyond ready for that spotlight?
Either championship match had the merit to take top billing on the card, so why did the men’s match get the edge despite its lack of historical appeal? How many more trimmings would a Divas match need to main event a show? Were there concerns that fans would perceive Neville and Kidd less favorably if the Divas followed them? All of these questions demand an honest appraisal of whether sexism influences the decision-making process when assembling shows because the argument of preparedness is flimsy at best. Furthermore, since NXT is the ultimate testing ground for rising Superstars and Divas, why would that spirit not extend to unprecedented concepts such as a Divas main event?
Of course, the added draw of Flair and Hart only makes the potential of a Divas main event going forward more debatable (e.g. “Could two Divas carry the spotlight without legends in tow?”). But WWE took no steps forward toward answering these questions by deciding to give the most alluring and suspenseful match of the night the secondary position. Such a blown opportunity does not give hope to fans interested in the heights to which Divas can ascend. But as WWE continues to amass legitimate in-ring female talent, perhaps the hope becomes that those gradual “baby steps” will soon become undeniable leaps.