The steady rise of WWE’s next top babyface

The steady rise of WWE’s next top babyface
The steady rise of WWE’s next top babyface

Few wrestlers have captured the hearts and imaginations of WWE fans quite like Bianca Belair. The 2021 Royal Rumble winner is on track to become the third straight top babyface crowned during WrestleMania season after winning the marquee battle royal, joining Becky Lynch in 2019 and Drew McIntyre in 2020.

Belair has less experience than either Lynch or McIntyre, given that she only signed with WWE in 2017 with zero wrestling experience. But nobody has learned the ropes faster than Belair, who has backed up her innovative self-label as the “EST” with her ability to quickly absorb all aspects of the wrestling business.

Despite her relative “newness” to WWE in comparison to other Rumble winners, Belair isn’t an “out-of-nowhere” riser.  She has steadily been improving and excelling over the past three years, even if there were periods where it didn’t seem like WWE truly recognized the special talent they have in Belair.

Beyond the desire to document the true extent of Belair’s brilliance year-over-year, I also want to focus my attention on aspects of Belair’s performance that transcend her athletic ability, which seems to be the main focus of praise from the commentary team. I want you to understand just how great of an all-around performer Belair is and how much she understands about connecting with an audience as a top babyface. The EST is someone who “gets” wrestling in ways that truly blow my mind as a fan.

The 2017 Mae Young Classic

The inaugural Mae Young Classic was one of the best ideas WWE had in recent years, and my nostalgia for the tournament is overwhelming. For many wrestling fans, it was an introduction to wrestlers like Kairi Sane, who was widely regarded as the best in the industry. But for ALL of us, the Mae Young Classic was our introduction to a new crop of rising stars in WWE, like Shayna Baszler and, of course, the EST.

Bianca Belair defeated Sage Beckett in the first round of the tournament in a strong opening effort, but she really made a name for herself in the second round against Kairi Sane. A match with Sane is a major opportunity for a wrestler new to the business, and Belair took full advantage.

Yes, her moves in the ring were awesome. She hit a 450 splash from the top rope and did squats with Sane lofted in the air above her on a delayed vertical suplex. But what got most fans talking was her trademark “hair whip” attack on the highly-decorated Sane. It was a move, unlike anything we had seen, unless, of course, we recalled Belair using it to defeated Aliyah to qualify in the tournament in the first place.

Nevertheless, Belair’s performances in the tournament, specifically against Sane, turned out heads. Her innovation and confidence in the ring were unlike anything else we had seen, and we wanted to see more. The vignettes before Belair’s matches were intriguing, but they weren’t entirely revealing of her character and who she was.

Bianca Belair’s electric start in WWE NXT

It didn’t take long for the NXT faithful to become enamored with Bianca Belair.  In late May 2018, we got a five-minute crash course from the EST herself on who she is and what she’s about. I still get chills listening to her talk about how her parents told her she was meant to stand out. And how prophetic those words were.

A couple of weeks after this video package for Belair aired, the EST defeated Dakota Kai in an NXT match taped as a dark match at TakeOver: Chicago II. And two months later, she was feuding with one of the established stars of the brand, Nikki Cross.

Already, the EST had another catchphrase in her arsenal, clapping “Un-De-Fea-Ted” on her way to victory after victory. Any time she made her magnetic entrance, you could see fans in the crowd dancing along to her theme, singing along to the words, “I never needed you at all!”

Outside of the ring, Belair and Cross were involved in some very entertaining segments as they begged general manager William Regal to let them fight. In the ring, Belair and Cross fought to two draws, and they were quietly having one hell of a rivalry. It was amazing watching Belair cartwheel over Cross, only for Cross to hop up and down and clap while shouting “Exciting!” as if she was just as amazed by Belair’s gifts as the rest of us watching.

On the Jan. 9, 2019, episode of NXT, Belair’s undefeated streak was put to the test in the third match against Cross. And this time, there was a decisive result.

It looked like Cross had the match won with “The Purge”, but Belair rolled all the way out of the ring to the ramp-side, eventually using the ramp to smash Cross, on her back, into the steel grating. Belair was determined to keep her undefeated streak intact and finally put away one of the big stars of NXT.

This match was all about putting Belair over as a title contender to Shayna Baszler and using moments like that roll out of the ring to show that she was developing the in-ring experience that could make her a credible title contender. The match also served as Cross’s farewell from NXT, giving Belair a massive win that would have fans’ hopes soaring for her title match with Baszler later that month.

So we come to NXT TakeOver: Phoenix. Bianca has all sorts of momentum going up against Shayna, who is NXT’s only two-time Women’s Champion and in the early stages of what will end up being one of the most dominant world title reigns in the brand’s history. It’s a massive match, and both women absolutely crush the promos in the build to it, really selling the magnitude of an undefeated Bianca going up against the most dominant wrestler in NXT at the time.

Instead of rehashing the disappointment of Belair losing – and then losing again to Baszler in a Fatal-Four Way at TakeOver: New York – I want to instead praise the EST for her performance in Phoenix. She didn’t start wrestling until 2016, and here she was, on one of the biggest stages in the industry.

Belair and Baszler had to follow a barnburner of a match between Johnny Gargano and Ricochet, which is never easy. But by the end of their match, they had won a slightly worn-out crowd over with a hard-hitting, psychological battle. Shayna is one of those wrestlers you have to bring your absolute “A” game against, especially when it comes to the little things that get you over as a babyface. Belair’s selling and ability to build drama and engage the audience were crucial. This match showed the world that Belair can deliver in a difficult spot and has the understanding of in-ring psychology necessary to be an elite babyface one day.

The best pick of the WWE Draft

You just knew Bianca Belair was destined for a big push on Friday nights when Michael Cole started gushing about how she was the best pick of the draft, taken ninth overall as a second-round pick on Night 1. When Cole gets fed lines like that, you had better listen.

Belair’s move to SmackDown wasn’t her main roster debut, but it felt like the springboard to a proper introduction to the so-called “main roster fans”. Because when she debuted on the Raw after WrestleMania, she did so as a role player in a tag team feud that didn’t really last. Belair wasn’t used properly for months on the three-hour show, but, in hindsight, that might have been better for her. She didn’t have to get dragged down by any poorly-written storylines on that horrible boring television show, but she did get to keep social media buzzing with video packages and show-stealing backstage segments.

See, Bianca only needs one minute of television time to accomplish what most wrestlers can’t even accomplish with a 20-minute match. Why? Because she’s an actual, competent professional wrestler who respects the audience’s time and knows that we want to see emotion and character – not minutes of rest-holds or five minutes of babbling about nothing.

On SmackDown, we didn’t have to wait long to see what Belair could do in the spotlight. Lana may have been the sole survivor at Survivor Series, but to anyone who knows what to actually pay attention to in pro wrestling, that five-on-five match was all about Belair, who single-handedly eliminated BOTH of the Women’s Tag Champs – Nia Jax and her old foe Shayna Baszler, whose Kirifuda Clutch she fought out of – but was counted-out herself.

After impressing at Survivor Series, Bianca’s next test was a rivalry with the most dominant champion in SmackDown’s recent history, Bayley. Just months ago, Bayley’s reign as champion ended at the hands of Sasha Banks in an acclaimed Hell in a Cell match. So a non-title feud with Bayley on WWE’s best weekly show was a HUGE spot for the momentum-building EST.

She knocked it out of the park. Every single segment involving them was magic, including the obstacle course and the premier of the Ding Dong, Hello Show. So many people who evaluate pro wrestling spend hours agonizing and hyper-critically analyzing matches, but when it comes to WWE, it’s even more difficult and more important for a wrestler to turn those kinds of segments into gold. The wrestlers who fail to do so don’t become world champions. But the wrestlers who do, the main event Pay Per Views. That’s the margin of difference, and the EST has comfortably proven she is in the tier of wrestlers who have the traits to be a top star in WWE.

So Bianca’s feud with Bayley served three distinct purposes. It put over Bianca as a force to be reckoned with on SmackDown by defeating one of the pillars of the brand, it showed that Belair has what it takes to be crowned as a bigger star in WrestleMania season, and it set up an important story for the Royal Rumble between Bayley and Bianca.

Bianca Belair’s Royal Rumble win was a year in the making

WWE gets a lot of criticism for not being able to book long-term, but I think people overlook a few realities. Firstly, they can’t book everything precisely, because the WWE schedule is so chaotic and unpredictable. You never know who might get injured, rise out of nowhere, or what might come up. But secondly, WWE does have a rough idea of where they want to go from “season” to “season”, with the “championship match” distinguishing one season from another being WrestleMania.

At a certain point in her career in NXT, it was abundantly clear that Bianca Belair had accomplished all she needed to in the Black and Gold brand. While WWE could have put the title on her, they knew Bianca was so established that putting over Rhea Ripley would make the Nightmare a big star, whereas Bianca didn’t need the title. So she was kind of in this holding pattern, which made fans nervous, since it’s hard to trust WWE to do the right thing, especially given their history of failing to capitalize on a Black woman’s stardom. We’ve seen them mess up too often to have faith in a long-term plan.

But there was a plan. As an NXT superstar, Bianca was THE standout of the 2020 Royal Rumble despite not winning the match. She had as many eliminations as Shayna Baszler (8), who was the No. 30 entrant and in the final two before having her own WrestleMania 36 title match, and she lasted longer than eventual winner Charlotte Flair. In fact, Belair was the Ironwoman of the match, spending 33:20 in the bout as the No. 2 entrant.

I want that to sink in. Again, Bianca hadn’t even been in the WWE system for four years, and here she was holding the honor of being the longest-running wrestler in a single Rumble match. As a member of the NXT roster. That’s called trust.

Here’s the funny thing, too. Earlier that month, Bianca already competed in a battle royal and won, becoming the No. 1 Contender to Ripley’s NXT Title. And with Charlotte going after the top title, WWE fans were intrigued by the possibility of a Belair vs. Charlotte dream match, given the praise Flair lofted onto the EST as someone she’d want to face at WrestleMania one day.

We didn’t get the Belair vs. Flair showdown, but we got some amazing moments involving Belair in their back-and-forth segments. “You don’t even go here!” will live on as a legendary line and the most memorable part of this feud. Yes, all it takes is one line for Belair to steal the show, such is her cleverness.

Now put all this together. In 2020, Bianca won a battle royal before the Rumble, was the Ironwoman and joint-top in eliminations in the actual Rumble, and was the best part of the build to a WrestleMania world title feud. There were plenty of seeds WWE planted that they could use later for the EST, and they did indeed. Not only did she win the Rumble and eliminate her recent rival Bayley in the match, but she took out her old NXT Title rival Rhea Ripley in one of the greatest “final two” showdowns I have ever seen in the history of the Royal Rumble match. It all came together perfectly for Belair’s historic, star-making victory.

The importance of Bianca Belair’s win and what’s next

Bianca Belair’s Royal Rumble win is historically important in the context of wrestling history. She became just the second Black wrestler to win the Rumble match and the first Black woman to do so. And noting these accomplishments is extremely important, given WWE’s history of underbooking and devaluing Black wrestlers, especially Black women.

Her win means that we could see two Black women main event at WrestleMania this year, which is another important first. In general, we have seen very few WWE main events at any Pay Per View involving two Black wrestlers of any gender.

Belair discussed the magnitude of her victory in an interview with Complex:

“It’s crazy that I never ever saw myself being in this position and I’m here now and creating history in the process of just trying to be me and trying to go after my goals and in the process I’m creating history. Being a part of representation, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s one thing to win the Royal Rumble and get your tickets to WrestleMania, but it’s another thing to add even more purpose to it while you’re doing it. It’s amazing.”

But her journey is just beginning with this Royal Rumble win. Even a win over Sasha in the main event of WrestleMania 37 isn’t a concluding point. It’s another beginning in the EST’s path to representing Black women and standing at the summit of WWE, building a legacy of greatness week after week in an industry that has failed to give equal opportunities to Black wrestlers since its inception.

Bianca Belair is here to stay, that much is clear. She is going to be one of the biggest stars this industry has seen, and I hope the examples I have provided of her successes in the ring, in the portrayal of her character, and in her promos over the years solidify this statement for you: Bianca has been ready for this and has worked both harder and smarter than many of her colleagues in order to rise so quickly through the ranks in WWE.

The swiftness of her self-made rise to prominence in wrestling is literally unheard of, and I hope that makes you very excited for what she can accomplish with an increased profile after this WrestleMania season. And for those of you who have been singing her praises since Day 1 (roughly around the Mae Young Classic), I hope you feel vindicated for having believed in such a wonderfully gifted professional wrestler.

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