My NXT story is probably a common one: come for Sami Zayn vs Cesaro, stay for Paige vs Emma. I’d been watching wrestling again for less than a year, and I only really remembered Trish Stratus and Lita as proper female wrestlers. Otherwise – well, Dawn Marie shagged Torrie Wilson’s dad to death.
So matches like Charlotte vs Natalya and Paige vs Emma really caught my eye. Finally, here were women that had the time and space to show off what they could do. For what felt like the first time, there was hope for women’s wrestling, and this nascent division opened my eyes to what women could do in the ring.
Of course, then I’d see AJ Lee on Raw and remember how far there was to go. The Bellas were selling lots of merch but there was nobody in the ring who could really match Lee’s ability, mostly because Natalya didn’t get screen time. And then the night after WrestleMania, Paige debuted and took AJ’s title.
Paige is a trailblazer. At 21 she was the youngest ever Divas Champion, the first NXT Women’s Champion and the first wrestler ever to hold the two concurrently. She remains the longest-reigning NXT Women’s Champion – a title that she vacated but never lost. At 24, she is an 11-year veteran in the wrestling industry who laid the groundwork for what became the “#DivasRevolution”.
To be clear, the “revolution” was the brainchild of Triple H. NXT was the breeding ground in which he planned to create the next generation of female wrestlers, and it’s apparent that the creation of Paige the star was one of his first real pet projects. She demonstrated that women who didn’t look like the Bellas or Trish Stratus could be popular enough to make money from. She’s the proof of concept that launched the “revolution”.
Though her matches with AJ Lee were never as good as their promise, they and the popularity of NXT’s women’s division demonstrated that audiences actually wanted to watch women wrestle. As AJ left and Nikki Bella learned to wrestle, Paige remained the bookend on the opposite side of the division.
Eventually, one bad Raw too many led to #GiveDivasAChance trending on Twitter, and the whole thing was co-opted to press the reset button on women’s wrestling. When three of the Four Horsewomen of NXT turned up, Paige was the one with enough credibility to establish Charlotte as a top face. However it was written and however successful it may have been (not very), she was the right woman to execute that angle.
Sadly, and perhaps paradoxically, that very credibility now counts against her. To pave the way for the rest of the NXT women, Paige had to become an established WWE Diva, holding the hated “butterfly belt” twice. In fact, the Anti-Diva vocally slated the old belt, but defended the word “Diva” right until it went out of use. She toed the company line, and it might have cost her.
My fear is that Paige has been left on the shelf in this ‘revolution’ because the new era of “Women Superstars” is focused around her successors. She’s too closely associated with the old guard. Both Smackdown Live and Raw have put their Women’s Championships on Horsewomen and held them up as symbols of a new era. For all she has achieved, Paige isn’t needed for that narrative, so she can be swept aside.
The age-old rumours of backstage heat can’t have helped, and if anything they’ve made it easier for WWE to let her star fade. Apparently, WWE had only just decided not to fire her when she decided to, and was persuaded not to, leave. Whatever the truth of this seemingly endless saga around her departure, it’s obvious that she and Alberto Del Rio were split up in the draft as a result of their relationship. A second Wellness Policy violation, which she maintained was for a prescription medication and which her dad says was necessary for her neck injury, but which WWE said was for an illegal substance, has made relations far worse. Since then, she’s even appeared in another promotion’s ring to propose to Del Rio.
So, WWE has nothing for her right now – there had been no indication of any storylines coming up before she disappeared from TV – her boyfriend has just left the company, and at 24 years old it doesn’t look like there’s much of a future even if she stays.
We now know that she is recovering from neck surgery, and it makes sense to stay under contract and get paid while she rehabs her injury. But beyond her recovery, where would be the harm in leaving WWE?
Suppose Paige leaves and goes back to independent wrestling. Her parents own a wrestling company, where she’d be an obvious draw. This would do good things for World Association of Wrestling and Bellatrix Female Warriors (who recently made a TV pilot and could probably do with some help), and Paige probably has enough stashed away that she could invest back into the company. We’d also get to see her having more matches with her mum, which can never be a bad thing.
She would also be pretty much guaranteed to have her pick of indie dates around the world. How many people are out there that you want to see her wrestle? Kairi Hojo? Mayu Iwatani? Candice LeRae? Toni Storm? Kay Lee Ray? Imagine her in Progress, working with the likes of Dahlia Black and Jinny. And if you don’t want to see her in an endless feud with Ivelisse on Lucha Underground, I just don’t know what to say to you.
The possibilities are limitless. Maybe Paige could focus on Mexico and the US indies to spend more time with Del Rio. Perhaps she could decide to work fewer dates: after years of the brutal WWE schedule and wrestling since she was 13, that may be exactly what she needs. We know she has scoliosis and over the years there have been other niggling injuries. If Will Ospreay is picking and choosing his dates already, Paige probably needs to rest up too.
If she leaves WWE without retiring, her achievements and obvious marketability leave the door open for a comeback. Perhaps in a few years, after a bit of time to mature and have other life experiences, she returns as a massive deal and takes her rightful place near the top of a women’s division that’s the best it’s ever been. At the very least, she’s a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Her relationship with WWE could be shredded for all we know, but Triple H will want his first big NXT success story to be recognised there one day. He also has a track record for building bridges: see Ultimate Warrior, or Macho Man’s family.
And if that doesn’t happen, it will be either because she’s done a CM Punk and irretrievably damaged that relationship, she’s working for a competitor, or because she has no need or desire to go back to WWE. Whatever happens, that’s actually OK.
As a fan, I want her to be healthy and happy. There are two things we know about Paige in the WWE right now: she’s creatively wasted and in a difficult position with her personal life. If she were to leave, at least one of those things would get better. I couldn’t be sad about that.