We’ve all done it the past couple days. Even though it’s pretty much impossible, we’ve all dreamed of WWE executives losing their minds, or Sasha Banks finding some loophole in her contract, and somehow instantly getting out of it. And then at Double Or Nothing, Thunder Rosa successfully defends her women’s title in a great match over Serena Deeb (this match really should bang if given time), when suddenly music we’ve never heard hits. The camera shows Rosa looking puzzled, casting her gaze up to the stage. We see a graphic at first we don’t recognize, and then suddenly it’s wiped as the name “Mercedes Varnado” flashes on the screens and the crowd at T-Mobile arena turns into frothing, screaming pulp. And then she walks out, possibly with green hair now, maybe black and gold hair, flashes that “I know more than you” grin, and in that instant AEW is launched into a new era.
We’ve all thought about it, and then we all realize it will never, ever happen. One, a wrestler can’t simply walk out of their WWE deal. Whenever Banks’s contract was supposed to run to, and in fact may have months tacked onto the end of it due to however long this absence runs. And even if WWE and Vince McMahon decided that they would be better off without Banks (and, boy, would we have to see the math on that), there would be a non-compete that Banks would have to sit through. And not even Vince is that vindictive or stupid, even if he is very much both of those things. New York knows that Banks is quite possibly their biggest crossover star, at least potentially, and that’s more valuable than water to them. She’s not going anywhere unless something truly explosive happens.
But let’s play this out. Let’s just say that it was an option. That it is something Banks could threaten WWE with to get the booking she desires. Why would she think AEW’s women’s division could be used as leverage right now?
In my dreams, and others, Banks would follow the thinking and path of Bryan Danielson and CM Punk. Both looked at AEW and thought they could have all the matches they wanted to have, be it in terms of opponents or style, and tell the stories they wanted to tell. And for the most part, they’ve been right. They’ve gotten to live out what they felt they couldn’t get with WWE. Banks is no less of a wrestling nerd than either Danielson or Punk, and assuredly has a list of people she’d like to work with and matches she wants to do both in and out of WWE. Part of the frustration that caused her walkout is not being able to check more boxes on that list, for sure.
However, that same path of getting to fill out your wrestling-nerd card isn’t available to women in AEW the way that it is in WWE or Japan right now. And Japan couldn’t possibly offer the same money. That doesn’t mean there aren’t great performers in AEW. Banks could have five-star matches with Thunder Rosa or Ruby Soho or Kris Statlander or Deeb tomorrow. Her promo battles with Britt Baker or Jade Cargill would be epic (even though Banks isn’t actually that great on the mic, she can hold her own at least).
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But where is the opportunity for her to do something more than she is now? One women’s match on Dynamite and maybe two on Rampage (and really only when it’s on at a different time than usual, it seems) isn’t enough runway to do things like Punk got to do with MJF, or Danielson got to do with Adam Page and Kenny Omega. You can’t do all the things Banks is capable of doing when some of it has to be on Elevation or Dark.
Where is the long-term story in the AEW women’s division? There’s certainly not one currently, as this Deeb-Rosa match has been kind of just thrown together, as great as it will be. Rosa and Baker had one to tell when Rosa finally took the title off Baker a couple months ago, but basically their booking was “Hey, remember when they had that Lights Out Match?” They didn’t really get to build on it so much as just use it as a platform. They’ve been teasing a Jamie Hayter turn on Baker for a while, and they love to slow play everything (rightly), but that’s about it. Red Velvet switched alliances to go from Cargill’s nemesis to her best friend without explanation, which is a pretty stark illustration of how much thought is usually given to the women’s division.
Obviously, Banks would be a different sort of import than anything before her. Ruby Soho was an indie darling and was criminally underused in WWE, but because she was underused she didn’t come with nearly the star power of some of her male counterparts who were big names to sign up, and after her initial push has faded into the background a bit. Toni Storm is the new hotness, and alongside Soho looks to have a starring role in the Owen Hart tournament, but AEW has not earned the benefit of the doubt about what will come for both of them after. There’s a difference when the new addition to the AEW roster is someone who was short-changed by their usage in New York and when that new signing is a genuine, attention-magnet star.
There have been rumors that it’s Turner that keeps Tony Khan from booking the women’s division better and more thoroughly, but Khan has always shot that down. So the blame has to lie with Khan.
If anyone could get Khan to open up about why this is the situation, he’d probably say something about the division being pretty green still. And there may be some truth to that. By the time Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Charlotte hit WWE, they’d already been starring on NXT, “TV wrestling,” and anchoring that show for years. And they got to run through a couple characters in the low-stakes arena of the WWE Network before settling on what hit. They already knew how to build main events of shows and PPVs before they were on network TV, even if they haven’t gotten to do that nearly enough.
That’s not really the case with AEW. Even Baker is only a few years into her career, and her TV career is as long as AEW has been on. Aside from her and Cargill, there isn’t really a strong promo on the roster.
And yet, it’s hard to see how anyone is going to get better at talking on TV unless they’re allowed to talk on TV. Last night, Serena Deeb actually had a hard-hitting promo about what it used to be like to be a female wrestler in the business, bemoaning that she had to get breast implants and shave her head to prove her dedication. Her delivery was a little unsure, but the content was still meaty. Was it given the proper attention by the fans in the crowd? Most certainly not, as they pounced upon whatever hesitancy Deeb had on a live mic, and put paid to the idea that an AEW crowd is always more accepting or open than others.
But that’s the kind of thing the AEW women’s division has to be allowed to work through. We’ve already seen Statlander shift characters now, but mostly off of TV. Ruby got to do one promo battle with Baker in the build to their match, and that’s been about it. Next time Deeb’s on the mic will only be better. Khan might tell us that live TV isn’t the time for experimentation and trial and error, but how else is it going to improve? Only Baker was really allowed to experiment and change entirely on TV, going from a face to the heel we have now. Everyone else was basically shoved off to YouTube to continue to develop their character.
And that would be fine if there was enough on TV. AEW doesn’t have an NXT on WWE Network to act as a lab/spring training for everyone, and their YouTube shows are as close as they’ll get for now. But there are certainly enough women to have great matches and keep the division prevalent while more stars are developed to pop the division more. The Owen has been close to a revelation, with Soho-Riho and Hayter-Storm both being great matches. This tournament could be a launch point for one or two more stars to do multiple storylines on TV if Khan wants it. He’s just never shown that he does.
Maybe Khan and AEW feel they’re still not quite on solid ground yet (and changes in Turner’s management probably aren’t helping that feeling) and feel that they simply can’t afford to have any segment on TV miss or be used as development time. But the question then is how is AEW ever going to attract a star like Banks when they actually are available? We know they can’t, or won’t, offer the same money as WWE can. If their main appeal is creative freedom and opportunity, don’t they have to show that? It’s a bit chicken and egg, in that maybe the AEW women’s division can’t really rise to the level it should without attracting a star like Banks or Bayley or someone else who becomes disillusioned and walks on WWE, but it also can’t attract those stars without an already buoyant division. And it seems like that push-and-pull gives Khan just enough cover to leave it as it’s been.
Certainly someone like Banks could completely remake the women’s side of AEW, and would demand greater attention for everyone with merely her presence. But AEW has had three years now to make a women’s division worthy of someone like Banks, and it has yet to do so. When does it plan on doing so?