25 Matches that Defined 2016 #11 – Sasha Banks (c) vs Charlotte, WWE Hell in a Cell
Remember how Triple H entered WrestleMania 30 on a throne, flanked by masked bikini-clad women? Later we learned they were Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss. As if to hammer home how things have changed, Charlotte enters on a throne of her own, carried by a troupe of men. Sasha gets the entrance in a huge Escalade that she enjoyed at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, surrounded by her own all-male escort.
These women are here to own the show, and a smoking hot crowd is ready for it. They stare each other down before looking up – and finally, the first glint of fear appears in their eyes. So defiant at their contract signing, when Mick Foley loudly mansplained how they couldn’t possibly know what they were getting into, both women look ready, but they also sense danger as the cell descends.
That’s when Charlotte attacks.
The reason this match works is because the cockiest heels are cowards. Sasha made the challenge and Charlotte fears the cell, so she goes after her before the bell has rung. Before long, they’re brawling through the crowd. One thing leads to another and Charlotte powerbombs the champ through the announce table; after an early tease of a stretcher job, Sasha picks herself up, throws herself into the cell and demands to start the match.
Admittedly this is in Sasha’s hometown, but the likes of Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins dream of getting the heat that Charlotte draws here. Demanding the title as Sasha is strapped to a gurney, pulling out brutal power moves and submissions seemingly planned to snap the smaller woman in half, she demonstrates once again that she is the best heel on Raw. Her opponent sells beautifully and has mastered the art of the sudden babyface offensive flurry – every time she flings herself at Charlotte, Sasha looks not only as though she might just win, but like she doesn’t mind dying to do it.
Yes, there are botches. Tables don’t break, because breaking tables is hard when the woman you’re throwing at them weighs about the same as two blades of grass. But the performers work around them as well as they can. At the same time, they work with the cell and incorporate it into the match – something that not enough Hells in a Cell have pulled off – like when Sasha does her flying double knees spot off the cell wall.
Ultimately, the finish is an anticlimax. Few people thought Charlotte would leave with the title, and even fewer thought the feud would run another two months. The crowd has checked out, realising their hometown hero isn’t going over, and nobody wants to get the pin when their opponent has skidded over the side of a table twice. But as the Queen regained her throne, we knew that the Bo$$ was going to get her rematch.
How it defined 2016:
Let’s make one thing clear: this is not the best match in the fantastic saga of Sasha and Charlotte. It’s probably not even in the top half. But this is the first women’s Hell in a Cell match, in a segment lasting well over half an hour, in the first all-female main event at a WWE pay-per-view.
That’s worth celebrating. It’s not that WWE has automatically solved its well-documented woman problem, nor that anyone can definitively say this has caused a boom in women’s wrestling more broadly (yet). But it does stand testament to the fact that about 18 months ago, WWE realised it could make serious money by implementing the same model it had used in NXT to develop and showcase main roster female talent. Turns out, all it took was giving them time and freedom to have proper matches and develop characters so people cared. Who knew?
So they called up women with proven track records in this model, spectacularly ballsed up on the “developing characters” front by shoving them into homogenous teams, and eventually noticed there was scope to do more and better. It took a lot of work, and there were some sharp learning curves (like, never, ever turn Charlotte face), but we got there.
For all of the talk of brand splits and Goldberg and Shane McMahon, this has been the year of women’s wrestling. It’s happening all over: more and more indies are introducing women’s championships and joshi promotions like Stardom have grown worldwide fanbases through streaming services. All-female promotions like Pro Wrestling Eve are starting to make waves in the UK scene. All of these steps have been meaningful and it’s amazing to think of the opportunities being created for female performers. But when Charlotte and Sasha took centre stage in the biggest wrestling company on the planet, we knew women’s wrestling had really and truly arrived.
As Charlotte put Sasha through the announce table, I genuinely thought:
“Bastards. They’re not even going to let them get in the cell.”
A lot of weird decisions went into this match, and putting Sasha on a stretcher before it even began was one of them. It made sense once you knew that she was going to lose the title – which barely anybody expected until they saw Charlotte with the strap. The relief and excitement as the cell door slammed behind Banks was palpable. But riddle me this, Batman: why is Sasha Banks losing her title for the second time in three months, and why is it in her hometown?
The short answer is that Raw needed to keep running this feud. The longer answer is that Raw’s creative team doesn’t yet know how to run this feud without the title as the driver. But for all of the flaws in its writing, I’m not remotely tired of a programme that has seen two women redefine what women’s wrestling can be in the WWE. And while this might not be the best in-ring example of their chemistry (there’s only so much you can do with frustratingly solid tables), it’s the perfect reflection of how far women’s wrestling has come this year. I can only hope that, in Charlotte and Sasha, Vince McMahon sees not exceptions, but the rule.