I still buy Pro Wrestling Illustrated Magazine. Yes, I still pay $7 almost every month to allow them to be a part of the system that allows me to stay up-to-date on what is happening in the world of pro wrestling, even though I understand that most people see the publication as, in the words of Vince McMahon, passé. It used to be a big deal and something that was a must to keep up with, but has sense dissolved into a shell of its former self that barely anyone takes seriously anymore. I’ve actually heard people refer to them as a joke these days, and after their most recent move, they might have dug that hole deeper.
One of my favorite issues every year is the PWI Female 50 issue; as a women’s wrestling supporter, this is a must-buy for me as I get to look back on what has been going on in female wrestling over the past year. I first bought it in 2010 because I was glad that Angelina Love, Cheerleader Melissa, and Eve Torres all ranked in the Top 5; and I’ve made it a requirement to buy every Female 50 issue going forward. The list of #1’s reads like a who’s-who of wrestling’s best talents over the years. In 2008, there was Awesome Kong. In 2009, there was Mickie James. In 2010, there was Michelle McCool. In 2011, there was Madison Eagles. In 2012, there was Gail Kim. In 2013, there was Cheerleader Melissa. And last year, there was Paige.
The 2015 list was revealed over a week ago and I was glad to see most of my favorites recognized; Paige, Sasha Banks, and Naomi all made the Top 10 while Cheerleader Melissa, Nicole Matthews, and Natalya made the Top 20. Brooke, Athena, Angelina Love, Veda Scott, Nikki Storm, Evie, Kay Lee Ray, Alicia Fox, Madison Eagles, and Kellie Skater among others also made the list; sadly, one of wrestling’s coolest personalities, “AK-47” Allysin Kay is missing for some reason but other than that, I should be a happy camper. But then comes the big question: who would be sitting pretty in the winner’s circle this year? The answer is none other than one of the most controversial figures in the WWE today: Nikki Bella.
[crowd boos] OK, Who didn’t see that coming.
Nikki Bella is a polarizing figure among the IWC; if the usual elitist fans could assign her a new theme song, it’d probably be that “Rotten to the Core” song from Disney’s Descendants because the lyrics in that describe most of their feelings of the woman, her sister, and the hype WWE puts into them. While their Bella Army are always down to support their idol, another portion of the wrestling fandom genuinely love to despise the pair and are extremely vocal about it; that’s been the case for a long time, but in 2015, their disdain toward the beautiful twins seem to have gotten worse. The only other woman in WWE I can think of more hated than them is Eva Marie, but we can talk about her painful struggle to improve another time.
The point is that when Nikki Bella was revealed to be #1 on the Female 50 this year, a number of fans were outraged, criticizing PWI for not going with a seemingly more credible choice like Gail Kim or Cheerleader Melissa or arguably the most popular female wrestler alive at the moment in Sasha Banks.
Are they right in their outrage? Does Nikki deserve to be #1 on this list? How did she even get this spot to begin with? Should we really be mad at PWI for the criteria they’ve chosen to structure the on? Who really should have been #1 anyway?
How Did This Happen?
I should probably start by pointing out that PWI only limit themselves to people who competed in America and Canada that year; this is one problem people have with the whole list as leaving out places like Japan, the UK, and Mexico just make the list feel incomplete and exclusive. And I will definitely give them that; I mean, they count places like Japan in the male rankings, the PWI 500, so this is a shame as many great International acts will get no recognition. So if they named this list “The PWI North American/Canadian Female 50”, they’d be more in the correct ballpark. There are international acts that make the list, but only if they’ve competed in America and Canada regularly during the evaluation period; wrestlers exclusive to an outside continent will sadly be overlooked. Once again, that sucks.
But now that they’ve set a list of contenders, how do they rank them? Obviously, they have a certain time period in which they keep track of wrestler performances, and in their issues, they clearly state that the list is put together by taking a few things from that period into consideration. First off, there’s championships won and defended, meaning that if you had a championship or two that year, you’re obviously likely to rank higher than most other wrestlers. Another thing they look at are wins and losses; this is where kayfabe slips into the list since a promotion can book a person to win match after match regardless of skill and that person would wind up with a high ranking. If WWE booked Eva Marie to win every match in a calendar year, she’d be in the Top 10 of this thing; WWE could put an inanimate Bratz doll on a year-long winning streak and title reign and it could end up outranking more deserving people who are actually human. (Wouldn’t be that far-fetched considering the fact that Yoshihiko is a thing in Japan.) They also look at the quality of their opponents and their level of hype; thanks to Total Divas and her history making reign, she has the hype. She also has great competition in the Division whether people want to admit it or not; but then again, there’s also a wealth of talent in the Indys, so that’ probably a small nugget in the pile. But now that we know how they put this list together, let’s discuss their woman of honor (not to be confused with ROH’s recently resurrected Division).
So What Did Nikki Do To Deserve This?
Here’s something that even her harshest of critics have to admit: Nikki Bella has had a pretty good year. Sure, John Cena still hasn’t put a ring on it and we can still very much joke about that. But as far as her career goes, she’s in as great a place as she could possibly ask for. She won the WWE Divas Championship in bizarre fashion from AJ Lee at Survivor Series in November 2014 and held onto it until Night of Champions this past November. In the process, she broke AJ Lee’s Divas Championship record. On paper, she should be very proud of this feat as it feels like it should cement her as one of WWE’s greatest female competitors possibly of all time.
The problem is that people refuse to accept her as such and consistently call her success into question. The common idea is that she is just not a very great wrestler or even a great entertainer. They think her promos are monotonous, her wrestling skills teeter somewhere between average and below, that she’s only in wrestling for the fame, and that the only reason she’s successful is because of her status on a reality show most fans love to hate and her relationship with WWE’s jorts-wearing Superman. As such, they feel like her push in the promotion equals the death of women’s wrestling in the mainstream. Kind of like how most people said that rappers like Soulja Boy Tellem were killing hip-hop music.
But are all of these accusations about Nikki Bella at all true? Well, when it comes to promos and wrestling, that’s all a matter of opinion. I personally think her wrestling isn’t too bad and even some of her detractors will admit that she’s at least gotten a little better. And truth be told, most of her title defenses weren’t that bad either. Sure, it got old watching her face Paige all the time (Paige doesn’t exactly have the same chemistry with Nikki than she does Alicia Fox or Emma) and it was just frustrating watching her weekly switch alignments so fast you’d thought she shapeshifted into the Big Show, but they could have been much worse. I do kind of agree that she can be too flat and deadpan in promos (and not an amusing deadpan like April Ludgate or anything), but there’s a villainous tone about them that makes her a believable heel. She has this weird way of being a dryer form of arrogance without having to try all that hard. That’s why most fans can’t take her seriously as a face; she’s too naturally hateable and it does wonders for her heel persona.
When it comes to her dating John Cena, I don’t wanna be that fan who says “She’s sleeping her way to the top”; I HATE that mindset so much. I’m not one to throw the word “sexist” around, but the fact that people even resort to thinking like this without any authentic evidence besides their own biased assumption just because they don’t like a woman who is achieving success has never sat right with me and it disgusts me. Not saying it’s out of the question for Cena to be pulling some strings; I don’t have a WWE backstage pass to find out. But I refuse to go so far as to use that as a default excuse. Personally, I’ve always been under the assumption that the reason WWE has been so high on the Bellas is because of their marketing appeal. Attractive twins are always gonna be somewhat marketable, and in a world like WWE that can give them something as gimmicky as Twin Magic, they were bound to capitalize. They have a ton of merchandise on WWEShop, they have an army of supporters in their corner, and even a Tuesday hashtag in their (particularly Nikki’s) honor; its working and the reality show is raising their profile. And even though this has made her famous and successful, I don’t know if I’d say she’s in it solely for the fame. If she was, she and her sister either would have left again by now with their newly heightened star power and returned to Hollywood; that or they never would have put in the work to get better at wrestling. Yet here they are, still competing and clearly improving (especially Nikki).
Does any of this make her the best female wrestler as far as skills go? Absolutely not, and no one said it did. But that does not mean Nikki Bella is outright terrible either, at least not compared to how previous work. She’s a better wrestler than the Nikki of old; I’d dare even say she’s reached the level of being considered good. And from a marketing standpoint, she has value in the Division. But surely, there had to be better contenders to pick from, correct?
Were There Any Better Options?
A few contenders spring to mind. I figured Nicole Matthews would rank at least somewhere in the Top 10 given the fact that she was SHIMMER Champion the entire evaluation period, only losing it at last month’s set of tapings. SHIMMER tapes every few months, but she wrestles for other promotions in-between that time, mostly in Canada. Gail Kim could’ve also been likely given that TNA love pushing her as the savior of women’s wrestling (sorry for putting you all through the hell of listening to Madison Rayne in that embedded video). Then again, there was a time in the evaluation period where she was inactive in TV land. Paige only finished #2, and I can only assume it’s because she has racked up a staggering number of loses and failed to net the Divas Championship since 2015 started, despite her haters claiming that she gets title shots practically every other episode. Even the currently-injured Cherry Bomb, who is #8 this year, could’ve been a believable #1 given that at one point this year, she held four titles (including the WSU Title and a both the SHIMMER and SHINE Tag Team Titles with Kimber Lee) at the same time. A case has even been made in favor of current SHINE Champion Santana Garrett (who ranked at #4) being placed #1 due to the impressive year that she’s been having since returning to the Indys after TNA’s very poor booking of her in 2014. Naomi probably could’ve been #1 if WWE actually decided to do something more worthwhile with her heel turn.
Well, most people were pretty unanimous in who they thought should have been #1 on the Female 50 this year. A woman who has had one show-stealing match after another, become the ultimate heel’s heel, garnered a very vocal fanbase, been praised by many within the industry, and only continues to improve every time she steps through the curtain. Yet, that woman only ranked #3; poor, poor Sasha Banks. Even she knew she had a legitimate claim for #1. And what about Full Sail darlings Bayley, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch? They’ve all been setting women’s wrestling on fire this year. So why aren’t any of these girls #1? Well, there is one factor that PWI has in their criteria that Nikki has on her side over Nicole, Gail, or Cherry Bomb: exposure. And I’m not just talking about Total Divas; I’m talking about main roster television. In the past, two Indy women have topped the list (Madison Eagles and Cheerleader Melissa) not only because they had impressive years, but also because 2011 and 2013 were pretty weak for televised women’s wrestling, especially in WWE. But this year, Nikki’s better-than-average year WAS nationally televised and allowed people to witness it live every week. Compare that to Sasha who was pretty exclusive to the $9.99 WWE Network streaming service for most of the evaluation period. Not exactly the USA Network. I feel like that was the thing that lead Nikki going over Sasha; Sasha (and some of the other girls) may have had matches and performances the were better praised critically, but Nikki’s performances while decent enough were more widely seen and treated as a much bigger deal and took place within the walls of a history-making reign. So is it any surprise Nikki came in at #1? I don’t think so; I guess that “momentum/promotional push” thing is important after all.
So…..Which Side Is Right?
The point of “FearlessRiOT Says” is for me to get out my personal thoughts on a topic of discussion in the entertainment industry and coming down to one final deciding opinion. For this one, it’s hard because even though I admit that PWI’s model of a kayfabe list is pretty damned imperfect, it’s kind of hard for me to get angry with it. It’s like getting mad at the Grammy Awards for their increasingly confusing decisions when it comes to what’s deemed the best in music in a calendar year: sure, it’s presented as a huge deal, but sometimes they get it WAY wrong. And if you disagree with it, it’ll only be a thorn in your side if you allow it to be. Saying you’re the #1 ranked female wrestler of a given year by a 36-year old magazine sounds like a great thing; it sounds less impressive, though, when you take into account that most people feel like the magazine lost its credibility a long time ago.
But again, this is something that will divide opinion as women’s wrestling usually tends to; the Bella Army will surely be happy for their hero and there’s nothing wrong with that. Then and the Bellas will likely just take the Taylor Swift method toward their haters and remain dedicated to doing what they’re doing. And to the less enthused fans of women’s wrestling, their disappointment is understandable. Nikki Bella is definitely not my favorite female wrestler; she probably wouldn’t even rank in my own personal Top 50 favorites of the previous year and definitely not of all-time. But I’d be a fool not to admit that the year she had at least makes her a contender for the crown of top female wrestler of the past twelve months, and PWI felt that her year was good enough from a kayfabe standpoint to name her the top female performer of the year. I’d have loved to seen Sasha, Paige, or another of my favorites take the top spot, but you know what they say: “There’s always next year”, assuming WWE actually gives her something important to do in the coming year.
Besides, I think if you guys are truly angry about this, don’t complain about it on the internet; let PWI’s kayfabe heads hear it by voting for your favorite female wrestler for Woman of the Year in the fan-voted PWI Achievement Awards. The ballots are included in the Female 50 issue, so if you want your favorite woman in the sport to be recognized, this is your chance to nab her an honor previously won by Lita, Trish Stratus, AJ Lee, Michelle McCool, Awesome Kong, and Candice Michelle! That’s some good company.
Do you agree or disagree with this edition of FearlessRiOT Says? Who would be at or near the top of your personal list of the top female wrestlers of the year? Leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter @FearlessRiOT with your opinion.