What does the WWE Mae Young Classic mean in the grand scheme of things? That is the overarching question of this historic, and at times breathtaking, women’s wrestling tournament which dropped four new episodes this week on the WWE Network. It’s too early to tell what WWE’s end goal is for these incredible female performers and the women’s division as a whole. Whether it marks a genuine turning point or is just another back-slapping PR stunt is a question that we won’t know the answer to until months down the line. But the response on Twitter following these first eight episodes has shown what the Mae Young Classic actually means, and more importantly, what it means to women and young girls who enjoy professional sports entertainment.
— y a s m i n e ◇ムナ•アリ (@MunaAli_PW) September 5, 2017
— meg (@megwrestling) August 31, 2017
— Hails (@Abbeylaiths) August 29, 2017
Seeing those heartfelt reactions reminded me of something LaToya Ferguson said before the launch of the Mae Young Classic. When detailing her hopes for the tournament, Ferguson, a brilliant writer and pro-wrestling aficionado, said: “When younger female audiences especially see different types of female wrestlers, they have a better chance of seeing women’s wrestling (just like men’s wrestling) doesn’t have to just be one thing.” For years women’s wrestling in WWE was “just one thing,” and that one thing was male fantasy fulfilling salacious sex appeal. Even the women that could wrestle did so in front of echoing chants of “We want puppies!” led by besequined pervert Jerry Lawler on commentary. Let’s put it this way, a meaty storyline for the women in the 00s usually meant a rivalry with lesbian undertones.
It’s tragic to think about, and WWE really don’t want you to think about it, but they don’t have a great track record of treating their female audience with respect. They’ve never offered a compelling variety of women’s wrestlers the same way they have the male roster. Even now, in the “women’s evolution” era of WWE, while the female competitors are better positioned than they were three years ago, they still lack variety in character and storylines. There are so many talented women under contract now, but most of them are stuck backstage playing video games with The New Day because Raw and Smackdown STILL struggle to present more than one women’s segment/match per show.
And that’s why this tournament means so much. It’s introducing a wide variety of female wrestlers of different styles and backgrounds to a new generation of wrestling fans. If these 32 women can inspire and become role models to young girls, then that can only be a good thing. And honestly, who wouldn’t be inspired by these women after the latest episodes of the Mae Young Classic? While Round 1 was enjoyable enough, from Round 2 onwards everything kicked up a notch, not just in terms of match quality but in the diversity of those matches and the captivating storytelling on display.
Rachel Evers and Abbey Laith set the tone for Round 2 with a fast paced back and forth contest. As Laith launches herself through the ropes to the outside, landing a suicide dive on a disorientated Evers, it’s clear the more cautious approach of the first round is out the window. Evers uses her power advantage throughout the match — nailing a beautiful Ace Crusher and an incredible Avalanche Powerslam. It’s great to see Evers show off her real potential after an unfortunate clunker against Marti Belle in the first round. The highlight comes when both women hit a big Yakuza Kick at the same time, bringing the crowd to their feet in appreciation. Laith again gets the win with her Alligator Clutch pinning combination and is becoming a clear crowd favorite.
Serena Deeb versus Piper Niven plays on the size difference between the two competitors. The smaller Deeb spends the match trying to slam the bigger Niven who shuts down the veteran’s offense with sheer strength. Niven is an exceptional talent who can use her size to deliver devastating looking power moves (like that impressive Avalanche Splash) but also has the speed to surprise you with spots like the running Cannonball in the corner. Despite eventually hitting the slam, it’s not enough for Deeb to put away Niven, who dodges the Spear and hoists the former WWE superstar up for the Michinoku Driver and the pinfall victory.
Mercedes Martinez versus Princesa Sugehit is another example of how varied the match types are in these second batch of episodes. Each match has its own flavor and self-contained story. Here things start on a very even keel, the two veterans exchanging holds in a more mat-based encounter before the heel Martinez grows tired of that and turns up the aggression, clubbing Sugehit with stiff strikes and a series of suplexes. Sugehit, wearing a fantastic Wonder Woman inspired outfit, taps into her lucha skillset, taking down Martinez with a huge Tornado DDT. The win goes to Martinez when she delivers her signature Fisherman Buster. There are also seeds planted here for later in the tournament with Martinez playing up a shoulder injury.
The final clash of Episode 6 is another match-of-the-tournament contender as the Pirate Princess Kairi Sane does battle with Bianca Belair. This is star-making performance from the rookie Belair who takes the fight to the competition’s most buzzworthy participant. I was impressed with Belair’s selling in Round 1, but here she blew me away with both her character work and her wrestling ability. Those hair whips are VICIOUS! And the crispness of that 450 splash is unbelievable for someone who has only been wrestling a year. The story of the match is Belair’s cockiness losing out to Sane’s never-say-die attitude. One image sums the match up beautifully when Belair sarcastically blows a kiss to Sane who grabs it, throws it to the ground and stamps on it.
Toni Storm and Lacey Evans kick off the second half of Round 2 in a decent if unspectacular match. Evans has her character down pat but she’s still relatively inexperienced in the ring, and that sometimes shows in her poor execution of certain moves. She has a lot going for her though, and she creates unique offense using her long legs — like that modified 619 around the outside of the ringpost. Storm is her usual charismatic self and wins the match with the Strong Zero (a Fireman’s Carry Neckbreaker), moving on so she can establish her full credentials against more experienced opponents.
Mia Yim versus Shayna Baszler is an absolute bruiser of a battle. Baszler is again positioned as the big bad of the tournament, refusing to shake hands and declaring that all it’s going to take for her to beat her opponent is to simply “exist.” Yim gives Baszler more than she’s bargained for, coming at her fast with wicked kicks, a suicide dive, and a massive Sitdown Powerbomb. But Baszler is a killing machine; her submission reversals come out of nowhere and look lethal. The end sequence of this match is spectacular as Yim flies off the top rope with a 450 splash only to be countered into a Rear Naked Choke from Baszler. Yim leaves the tournament after putting on two of the best matches, and one hopes a shiny WWE contract will be in the mail soon.
The fight between Antipodean neighbors Dakota Kai and Rhea Ripley is my personal favorite of Round 2. Both women have high energy and a natural ability to pump up the crowd. Ripley, the taller of the two women, uses her height advantage, tossing Kai around the ring and outside of it — that face-plant onto the ring apron is savage! Kai shows why she’s nicknamed the Captain of Team Kick, nailing a picture perfect Scorpion Kick — not an easy move given that it involves bringing your leg up backwards and striking over your shoulder. The veteran Kai gets the win, but both of these women have bright futures. With her experience and underdog babyface appeal, Kai is ready to be a big player on NXT for the next couple of years. As for Ripley, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, she’s only 20 years old and is already this good — just imagine what she’ll be like in four or five years.
The last match of Round 2 sees indie favorites Candice LeRae and Nicole Savoy going head to head. I felt these two women didn’t really get going in the first round due to taking on lesser experienced opponents and so this encounter does give them a chance to rectify that. Savoy controls the majority of the match, dumping LeRae on her head with a ferocious combination of suplexes. But the scrappy LeRae is resilient and able to counter Savoy’s offense into her finishing maneuver Miss LeRae’s Wild Ride for the victory.
The extraordinary action continues to ramp up in the Quarter Finals, starting with a hard hitting bout between Abbey Laith and Mercedes Martinez. These women have previously faced off in Shimmer, and so already have superb in-ring chemistry. Martinez plays up her shoulder injury while trying to ground the quicker Laith. But Laith once again takes to the air, crashing down on Martinez with a huge crossbody to the outside. It looks like Laith will be advancing when she goes for the Alligator Clutch, but Martinez is able to avoid and put away the high-flyer with the Fisherman Buster. It’s the little things that Martinez does so well — her facial expressions and heelish mannerisms. Meanwhile, the way Laith incorporates her ballet background into her character has so much potential. I’d like to see her do a Swan Lake gimmick — kind of like how Finn Balor becomes the Demon to tap into his ruthless side, imagine Laith transforming into the Black Swan, Natalie Portman style.
Candice LeRae versus Shayna Baszler is perhaps the shortest match of the evening but also one of the most exciting. Baszler comes right out of the gates with a big knee to LeRae’s face. This fires up LeRae who hits back with an amazing suicide dive into a Tornado DDT. The highlight of the match comes when LeRae locks in the GargaNO Escape — the finishing move of her husband Johnny Gargano — unfortunately, JR and Lita totally miss this on commentary, but luckily the Full Crowd crowd are aware and pop to their feet. LeRae sets up the Wild Ride, but again Baszler reverses it into a choke, this time countering in mid-air. Baszler gets the tap out victory and refuses to let go of the hold after the match, continuing her metamorphosis into the Pete Dunne of the Mae Young Classic. When Gargano gets in the ring to check on his wife post-match, Baszler walks over and slyly kicks LeRae while she’s down.
The un-sportsman like behavior from Baszler is contrasted wonderfully in the next match. Piper Niven and Toni Storm have wrestled each other before in Japan’s Stardom promotion, and they bring that chemistry over to Full Sail. They start off chain wrestling, and trading holds, Storm showing her strength by bridging out of Niven’s pinfall attempts. There’s a fantastic moment when both women bridge at the same time and reach across to shake hands. Niven eventually tires of the playfulness and goes for her power moves, but Storm is able to kick out of the Michinoku Driver. After a German Suplex from the middle rope and a Diving Leg Drop, Storm gains the pinfall over the previously dominant Niven in an awesome match. The two women, who have made a name for themselves on the UK indie scene these past two years, share a heartwarming hug post-match.
There is also mutual respect in the final match of the Quarter Finals between Kairi Sane and Dakota Kai. The two combatants share a similarly fast-paced, hard-hitting style and that’s the story the match tells, an evenly matched contest between two pros. Sane and Kai are arguably the biggest crowd favorites of the tournament and are both under contract, so at this point, even before the Semi Finals have taken place, it’s becoming clear one of them is being set up to take on big bad Baszler in the Final. That honor goes to Sane, who is able to withstand Kai’s killer kicks and dodge the Double Foot Stomp, before hitting the best elbow drop in the business.
Even though it was fairly obvious that Sane and Baszler would be advancing to the finals, it didn’t make the Semi Final matches any less entertaining. It must also be noted that all of these matches were taped on the same evening, meaning that the four semi-finalists were wrestling their third match of the night, and yet they still went out there and tore the house down.
Baszler and Martinez battled in a teacher versus student showdown. The Latina Sensation has been somewhat of a mentor to the ex-MMA fighter, and both women are part of the Trifecta faction in Shimmer. That history comes into play here, with Baszler showing respect to her opponent for the first time in the tournament. Martinez schools Baszler for the first half of the match, delivering hard strikes and unrelenting offense. Baszler overcomes the punishment, working on her opponent’s knee, and even survives the Fisherman Buster when Martinez is unable to capitalize. Sometimes I wonder if Baszler is bad at selling or if that’s just a character choice to portray her tough-as-nails MMA persona — but saying that, Brock Lesnar plays a similar “real fighter” gimmick and still sells like a champ. Regardless, the student becomes the teacher as Baszler makes Martinez tap and secures her place in the final.
The best match of the whole tournament (so far) goes to Sane versus Storm. These two ladies go to war in that ring. What starts as a playful back and forth with some excellent chain wrestling turns into a fierce fight between two hungry competitors. There is classic old school storytelling in this match. Storm weakens Sane’s elbow to limit her use of the Diving Elbow Drop, applying a nasty looking armbar. Sane meanwhile works on Storm’s legs to try and take away her Strong Zero finisher. There is a scary moment when Sane hits a crossbody to the outside and her head collides with the steel entrance ramp. Back in July, it was rumored that Sane suffered a concussion during the tapings and this must have been the moment when it happened. However, the courageous Sane continues, eventually finding the wherewithal to hit her spectacular elbow drop and put Storm away for the win.
And now the stage is set for the live final next week in Las Vegas. Kairi Sane versus Shayna Baszler. The Pirate Princess against the Queen of Spades. Hero versus Villain. If that intense staredown between the two competitors at the end is a sign of things to come then this match is going to be one for the ages.
*It appears we’re heading for a WWE Four Horsewomen versus MMA Four Horsewomen showdown somewhere down the road. Baszler stared down Charlotte, Bayley and Becky Lynch who were watching her match at ringside and later Ronda Rousey and her cronies laid down a challenge of “name the time, name the place.” If it gets Charlotte and Becky back on TV then I’m all for it, but the WWE women MUST win. I don’t want the MMA ladies coming in and be given the victory just because their careers in the octagon have washed up.
*I love Kairi Sane’s entrance music. It’s like something out of a Disney pirate movie. I also enjoy the hip-hop mixtape style air horns in Mercedes’ theme and I’m not ashamed.
*It was a nice touch having Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and head coach Sara Amato out in the ring to present the finalists with a bouquet. Those touches just help make the tournament feel important.
*The commentary is still a weak spot in an otherwise tremendous event. JR referring to Candice LeRae as “Mrs. Gargango” while technically accurate seemed inappropriate for the occasion. Also, it took some special effort for Lita to come out with this clunker: “Shayna Baszler will be taking on the veteran Mia Yim tonight in a second round competition against the seemingly unstoppable Shayna Baszler.”
*Is the “women’s wrestling” chant patronizing?
*I bet 100 Australian dollars that the person starting those “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” chants was not actually from Australia despite JR’s insistence.
The first eight episodes of the Mae Young Classic are now available on the WWE Network. The final match will stream live from Las Vegas on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 10 p.m. ET.