Friday, April 12, 2019

The Ballad of Sasha Banks

The Boss knows her worth, and that should be applauded.
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In the year 2015, Sasha Banks was poised to take the world by storm. She lit NXT on fire with a series of Women's Championship defenses at Takeover that stand as one of the best runs in not only NXT's but WWE's history. Her match with Bayley at Brooklyn could be considered the best in NXT history, and their encore at Takeover: Respect came closer to surpassing it than most sequel matches do for their critically acclaimed originals. She came up to the main roster and proceeded to get the stage with Charlotte Flair. They had a long feud that culminated in them making WWE history as the first ever women to headline a pay-per-view. Flair has since ascended to demigoddess-level fame in WWE. She just got done headlining WrestleMania along with prize part-time big name free agent Ronda Rousey and cult hero Becky Lynch. Meanwhile, Banks lost the Women's Tag Team Championships at the same event after following up her feud with Flair languishing between irrelevance and existing in a women's midcard that is more threadbare than the men's counterpart.

If you were Banks, and you came into the main roster with such promise before being tossed aside for women whiter and blonder than you, wouldn't you be angry? Banks was angry, angry enough to ask for her release after losing at WrestleMania. Of course, the rap on her by a certain consensus that she's a diva, not to be confused with Diva, a term WWE reluctantly doesn't use for women anymore. If she has to lose a match, she'll have a certain pout on her face. She makes cryptic tweets against her colleagues. She's "moody" and "high-maintenance." Oh, and don't forget that she's incredibly injury prone. All these are apparently reasons why any slings and arrows from WWE management in her direction are warranted.

It all starts with the "injury-prone" label, to be honest. Why is Banks hurt so often? She's not some magic demon cursed to tweak herself every time she takes a step. She's 115 lbs. and works at an intensity on the reg that Randy Orton has only attained once in his miserably wasteful career. WWE's women's roster, though incredible, is not built to handle that kind of wrestler well. It's not just Nia Jax or other easy targets. Every match they've had, Banks tries to work her lucha-inspired armdrag spots with Flair, and every time, Flair messed up in basing for them. She's not the only one. WWE wrestlers, male or female, have problems catching wrestlers who dive to the outside. People like to clown on The Miz for his olé-style of catching people, but he's not the only one. So Banks ends up in a vicious cycle, where she needs to go hard to grab the proverbial brass ring, but that style ends up the reason why Vince McMahon keeps yanking it further and further from her.

The reductive answer is "well, maybe she should work a safer style," which ignores the real reason why she probably has to kill herself on the reg to get the attention not of fans who still go to bat for her, but of the people in charge of deciding who gets how much airtime and at what prominence. WWE just sent it up in a storyline even, making itself a fictional villain steeped in its institutional racism instead of addressing it for real for real out of the narrative. I mean, the Kofi Kingston win at WrestleMania felt good because WWE's racism has been longstanding and real, and it still feels hollow because of the scores of POC wrestlers who got the shaft. Asuka got jobbed out of a main roster title defense, most likely either against a Black or a gay challenger, because McMahon wanted to lay more tributes at the feet of three White women in the main event. One feelgood moment, no matter how feelgood it was or how much Kingston deserved it, doesn't erase a reputation. Hell, even Kingston's moment was delayed because racist-ass McMahon saw racist-ass Orton throw a racist-ass tantrum because of a missed spot ten years ago.

Of course, the other reason why she always works the way she does despite the fact that it puts her at greater risk, one that puts less blame at her feet, is that her style is a mandate from someone, be it McMahon, Paul Levesque, the road agents/producers who lay out her matches, whoever. Because wrestlers are not unionized, they really have no recourse to push back against the idea without fear of loss of push or some other repercussion. So basically, management is ordering Banks to go out and kill herself mainly for the benefit of other wrestlers. Anyone who knows their worth and who has proven that they can thrive in a main spot in front of a large crowd would balk at that idea if it was thrust on them over and over again with little return on investment compared to other colleagues. Knowing your worth is a tricky proposition for wrestlers anyway. If you demand too much from your bosses, they'll spill to their select sources who will go to the dirtsheets to paint you as entitled or a crybaby. Wrestling fans who are far too eager to tear down the workers for wanting "too much" will gladly indulge.

So Banks, who along with her friend and tag partner Bayley, is good friends with the Revival, saw what they did to leverage better opportunities from management. She decided to do the same, and predictably, the worm is turning against her. She knows her worth in a world where everyone is eager to tell her she's wrong and she's not nearly as valuable to the company as Flair or Lynch or Rousey or Alexa Bliss or even as Lacey Evans. You might say that her lobbying for wins in situations where it's not in the cards is bold and wrong, but hell, if the company is going to reward her bold in-ring storytelling and intensity with crickets, why SHOULDN'T she lobby to get the win over Rousey at the Rumble? You don't answer perceived injustice by starting in a compromise position, because then you end up getting nothing.

If she has to threaten management with leaving, so be it. If she has to follow through and go to All Elite Wrestling to do it, then so be it. She deserves better. Any wrestler who isn't also part of management deserves better, but the ones who know it and do something about it need support the most, and they don't get enough of it. And it always seems the more boxes you tick when identifying as marginalized, the harder it is for people to give you that support en masse.

I don't know what the future holds for Sasha Banks, really. It would be nice if WWE allowed her a path to shine the way she did in NXT, but even if she has to go out into the world and work AEW or even STARDOM or another joshi promotion, she needs to be able to find a way to satisfy her urges for creative and monetary fulfillment. People like to toady to management and say that it's Vince McMahon's company so everyone should listen to him, but if he alienated everyone and had to do everything himself, how successful would WWE be? Wrestlers standing up for themselves, knowing their worth, and letting management know that without them, their companies are nothing, is vital to the survival of the industry, and when it's someone the caliber of talent that Banks is, not supporting her and deriding her for wanting what she knows she can earn is foolish at best.