When last we discussed Becky Lynch in this space, she was already a star but still a few weeks removed from turning on Charlotte Flair at SummerSlam. This was a problem for WWE, even if they only sort of seemed to know it then. Becky was and still notionally is a heel, but fans stuck with Becky as their favorite as the feud emerged. They did this because she’s a star—the more inherently likable performer in the promotion and a great wrestler to boot—and because Charlotte has always been so easy to tag as an opportunist. Wrestling fans love to crap on the stories they’re handed, but even with roundly unpopular developments like Roman Reigns being pushed as the face of the company, the response was never quite as one-sided as it was with Becky.
Surprisingly, though, WWE made a course correction. More surprisingly than that, they did so much more subtly than anyone could have expected given their past tics and tendencies, delivering their most nuanced storyline in years. Both Becky and Charlotte were given credible reasons for being angry in what was depicted as a friendship splintering under multiple pressures, but Becky still came off as the wronged party en route to winning Charlotte’s SmackDown Women’s Championship at Hell in a Cell and retaining it at Evolution.
Upon winning the belt, something happened. Lynch has always been a pretty solid talker in WWE, even when given bad material early in her main roster stint, back when she was supposed to be a ditzy space cadet prone to going off on tangents about dinosaurs. Her delivery was always strong and her promos were helped by based on how innately likable she is. But as champion, she flourished in an unanticipated way. She was already the best she had ever been as a personality, but getting the belt just amplified it. Newly confident, she dubbed herself “The Man”—a play on Ric Flair’s “to be the man, you’ve got the beat the man” catchphrase, as if she had won the right to use after dethroning his daughter—and almost immediately became the best “world champion” character in wrestling. Lynch raised her stock even more at Evolution when she and Charlotte had arguably the best and most intense WWE match of the year, a strong candidate for the best women’s match in company history.
Lynch was fast becoming the most popular wrestler in the company both with live crowds and on social media, and was still gathering momentum. The new WWE tradition at the annual Survivor Series event is to have the Raw and SmackDown champions face off in non-title matches, which meant that her slated opponent would be Ronda Rousey, the biggest mainstream star in the company. Immediately, the pair started cutting heated promos on each other, with Rousey going weirdly hard on the non-wrestling jobs Lynch held during a hiatus from the business. (That Lynch had wrestled before and that she took those jobs after suffering a major head injury are not acknowledged, though.) Lynch looked like an even bigger babyface as a result—even if you didn’t know the backstory, Rousey came off as the spoiled pampered lifelong athlete, while Becky rightfully pointed out that she was just someone working whatever job she had to do to pay her bills. This Monday, Rousey delivered a heated response that read like a bingo card of right-wing online troll rhetoric, immediately after giving a much more reserved speech about how she had just meant to show that she was the more experienced combat athlete when she cut that promo goofing on Lynch for having worked as a flight attendant.
All of which quickly gave way to what will likely end up being a seminal moment in modern WWE and modern women’s wrestling, and more obviously in the career of Becky Lynch. Lynch attacked Rousey backstage, with the cameras catching up as she had her “Disarmher” finishing hold locked on for an extended period of time; Lynch later led the SmackDown female roster out to take on their Raw counterparts and took out Rousey again. During the melee that ensued, Nia Jax clobbered Lynch with a punch; she immediately bled heavily from the nose but seemed otherwise unruffled. In the moment, fans, both live and online popped like crazy; the the immediate buzz was that this was her “Steve Austin moment.” (More specifically, they were referring to the iconic visual of Austin, wearing the proverbial “crimson mask,” trying to power out of Bret Hart’s “Sharpshooter” finisher at WrestleMania 13 in 1997.) The image that closed the show, of Becky in the crowd, covered blood, defiantly doing the “Are you not entertained?” pose, was instantly iconic. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
The next day, WWE revealed that Lynch was suffering from a concussion and “broken face,” and was now out of the Rousey match at Survivor Series, with Charlotte being named as her replacement. Because there are a million ways to look at this, and because this is wrestling, all hell broke loose.
Assuming Lynch heals up as expected—which shouldn’t be treated as a given considering that she retired from wrestling for years after sustaining a head injury on the same side where she got hit by Jax—all this chaos may yet work out to be a long-term positive. It’s already been reported that WWE brass is (uncharacteristically) aware that this is the hottest issue in the company and currently earmarking it for the WrestleMania main event at MetLife Stadium in April. Given how much the storyline is connecting and how much this moment is worth to the promotion and its fans, the Rousey-Lynch issue not being rushed onto Survivor Series is absolutely a smart move. Saving the catharsis for WrestleMania is event better, especially if Rousey vs. Becky winds up being the first women’s match ever to main event the biggest show of the year. And since Lynch is not just the overall breakout star in WWE right now but one of the very best and most polished in-ring wrestlers on the women’s roster, she should be the perfect foil to lead Rousey, who is talented but still inexperienced, through a WrestleMania main event.
Until then, though, all Becky can really do is talk and tweet. Her increasingly badass Twitter game also reached new heights this week. Between both her pace-setting promos and social media work, she should have no problem staying hot while not wrestling; it’s another thing she has in common with Austin, who didn’t cool off a bit when he injured his neck in 1997. Typically, the WWE’s social media storyline is muddled—both Jax and Rousey weirdly attempted to differentiate the “real punch” that caused Lynch’s injury from what they throw in every match. Also typically, Lynch’s responses have seemed just about perfect.
At the risk of parsing a wrestling storyline too finely, this certainly appears to be part of the story, but it also feels like Rousey being legitimately upset. The clumsiness of her Instagram post, which makes little storyline sense and left an opening wide enough for Lynch to drive a truck through, resembled the keyed-up promo-cutting Rousey of her UFC glory days, back when she baselessly accused Holly Holm of attacking her at the weigh-ins for their fight. But this is WWE, after all, which means that Rousey kicking up dust like this is by design. Regardless, Rousey’s post also led to Becky changing her Twitter display name to “The Man Is Now Residing in Ronnie’s Head.” This lasted only a short while, but it worked.
There was one other comparatively minor but still significant element to this week’s events, too, which is that WWE did not remotely shy away from showing Lynch covered in blood or with a bad black eye. There’s still work to be done on how the promotion uses and misuses its women stars, but this is clearly not the company of a few years ago where female wrestlers would conspicuously disappear after suffering the mildest of facial injuries.
The biggest question mark in all this is what happens to Nia Jax. While the video shows that she had her fist open, as if she was throwing a “working” pro wrestling punch at Becky, Jax also unquestionably turned her hip over in a way that suggested someone throwing a real punch. Jax also has a worse reputation for being clumsy and injuring peers than just about anyone else in WWE right now, with this Reddit post doing a fairly good job breaking the history down with GIFs.
One of the linked GIFs, from a match with Bayley just under a year ago, makes the best case for Jax’s recklessness despite not resulting in an injury: Jax tackles Bayley, who sits up while selling the move. She is clearly not putting herself into position when Jax drops an elbow...behind her? To her back? It’s hard to tell, but Bayley goes back on offense because nothing else would make sense sense. Jax routinely shows a lack of ring awareness that shouldn’t be seen in someone featured on TV, and sometimes it gets people hurt. The record even before she broke the face of the promotion’s biggest breakout star suggests someone who should absolutely be sent back to NXT for seasoning, but Jax is also The Rock’s real-life cousin, which brings extra protection. While Australian wrestler Shazza McKenzie is certainly right that the level of venom directed at Jax feels sexist, there’s still a real issue with her work that needs to be dealt with.
Then again, Jax’s mistake might wind up being responsible for the moment that will launch The Man into the stratosphere as a star. If Becky Lynch has the easy recovery every wrestling fan hopes she’ll have, her star might rise even faster for Nia Jax having clobbered her.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.