There was a moment in the build to WrestleMania 2018 which I thought would echo through the years. After winning the first ever women’s Royal Rumble and deep into an historic undefeated streak, everyone knew that Asuka was a stone cold killer. Those who had seen her in Japan or throughout her NXT run knew how much more she was capable of than running through people quickly every week, but with a featured title match at the Showcase of the Immortals, Asuka was finally going to have a match that was worthy of her on the main roster.
She initially refused to announce which champion she wanted to challenge. Alexa Bliss was an option, but not the one the fans wanted to see. Charlotte Flair, already a made woman and the only person in the company booked close to Asuka’s level, was the perfect choice. They’d never wrestled before. It felt like they’d been kept apart specifically for this moment.
And finally, somewhere between the Rumble and Mania, the Empress came for the Queen.
My reaction was shared by many on social media: ‘streak vs title’ was the most compelling story in the company, and Asuka had to win. After all, Charlotte didn’t need the rub and Asuka would cement her position as a history-maker beside the Four Horsewomen of NXT. Perhaps less popular was my insistence that this was the only match with a real claim to be the main event of the show.
The moment when Asuka finally made her challenge was meant to be a turning point.
That went well, didn’t it?
Whether WWE was right to feed Asuka’s streak to the one woman who gained the least from ending it is still very much up for debate. It’s hard to argue that Charlotte wouldn’t be in exactly the same position today if she had lost that match, while Asuka’s relative threat level declined sharply afterwards, losing feuds against the likes of Carmella or being kept off TV.
Reports suggested last autumn that Asuka was only added to the triple threat TLC match where she eventually won her first main roster championship because the crowd went wild when it was teased on TV – the audience remembered how good she was, even if the bookers and agents didn’t. Whatever the reason for choosing the Empress, it at least made sense to have somebody not called Becky or Charlotte holding the title throughout Mania season. With Rousey holding the Raw women’s championship, it was infinitely more interesting and productive for the company to have a separate title scene for the Smackdown belt. Not only would it give the other women in the company something to do, but it would remove an unnecessary complication from the Rousey-Flair-Lynch storyline.
So, how has this first-ever title run gone for Asuka? She tapped out Becky Lynch clean as a whistle, which was promptly overshadowed by Becky going on to win the Rumble that same night. She’s barely been on TV since the other women’s title feud has taken up screentime on both shows every week. She’s been shoved into a lacklustre feud with Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville – an angle which is more about Deville and Rose’s break-up than it is about defeating her – which was destined for the Mania pre-show.
Then last night, two weeks before she could at least walk into Mania with a title around her waist, she lost it. And again, her kryptonite is Charlotte Flair.
If Charlotte didn’t need to beat Asuka last year, she definitely doesn’t now. She’s already gotten her win back in a rematch given away on free TV, and she is in a much stronger position on the card, and in the company, than her opponent has ever been. Charlotte’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer: the first ever women’s main event of a main roster pay-per-view, one of the public faces of the company doing endless media appearances and magazine shoots, and before last night, a record-equalling seven-time champion with a string of incredible matches under her belt. She was also already announced for the first all-female main event match at WrestleMania.
Asuka, meanwhile, is in danger of having her winning streak, lengthy NXT title run, Royal Rumble win, and clean win over Becky Lynch overshadowed by that time she lost a match because James Ellsworth stole her clothes. She desperately needed a strong title run to re-establish her credibility. Instead, she lost her championship to a woman who was already doing better than her because Charlotte needed to prove a point to Becky Lynch.
It feels like WWE is so desperate to justify the decision to put women in the main event that it’s throwing in every prop it possibly can. That’s as much of a disservice to the women in that match as it is to everyone else. Becky, Charlotte, and Ronda have done immense amounts of work to get to this point and their feud is intense enough that it would probably close the show if there were no titles involved.
Nobody is more interested than they were before Charlotte had a belt, and nobody is glad to see Asuka screwed out of her WrestleMania Moment ™. As well as a lost opportunity for her, the women against whom she might have defended the Smackdown title have missed out on a chance to shine. But hey! At least there might be enough people for the pointless [Name Redacted] WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal on the pre-show!
I’m angry for Asuka, but she’s just the highest-profile casualty of WWE’s inability to tell more than one story at a time in its women’s division. Maybe if she’d won last year, 2019 would be very different. But if that show told us one thing, is that she deserves better than this.