Thoughts on… the Mae Young Classic, Episodes 1-2

Well, it’s been a while, so let’s ease back into things by talking about something I enjoy: serious women’s wrestling.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me that I’m a fan of wrestling in general (since it’s become a running gag at this point that I use wrestling concepts to explain real world concepts, and no, that’s not a joke), but one thing I love is the concept of people taking women’s wrestling seriously in the US. I mean, as noted previously, I wrote a damn college paper on the subject (and got an A, so laugh all you want, shit was good), but even beyond that, it’s just really cool to see wrestling become more inclusive for a larger audience of people. I mean, it’s not a secret that wrestling is pre-determined at this point, and is less of an athletic competition than a complex choreography sequence; why not put in content that focuses on more than just 250-400lbs dudes beating the crap out of each other, right? Wrestling is basically live-action anime at this point, make it as diverse and colorful as you can.

As such, I’ve actively loved what the WWE has been doing in the past couple of years… conceptually, at least. I love the idea of the company actively attempting to make women’s wrestling into an actual business driver for their brand, and while there have been some definite missteps (putting Stephanie McMahon front-and-center as the advocate for the division, everything surrounding Bayley’s handling on the main roster), I love the reality that women have main evented WWE shows and Pay Per Views (or Special Events or whatever they’re called now), because that’s just awesome. So, as such, the idea of an entire women’s tournament, featuring signed and unsigned talent from around the world under the WWE’s banner, is an amazing idea, and it just so happens that the Mae Young Classic is exactly this thing.

Well… sort of, anyway.

The basic idea behind these sorts of tournaments is that anyone can win, obviously, and that we, as fans, can see a diverse range of talent in one ring from around the world, so we can get behind people who represent us, or people who have the best in-ring work or the most colorful character or whatever. Diehard fans could probably liken the concept to things like the New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) Super Juniors tournaments, where light heavyweights from around the world compete and New Japan puts over the talent they’re most interested in highlighting, even if that talent isn’t talent they have long-term plans for (IE, 2014 winner Ricochet challenged IWGP Light Heavyweight Champion Kota Ibushi, lost, and then basically disappeared for a year), which is neat in and of itself.

WWE is… not doing this thing, but I’ll get into that later in this series.

For now, though, I wanted to talk about how the first four episodes went, how the women showcased their gimmicks and talents, who has contracts, who should have contracts, and so on. This post will cover the first four episodes, since the matches on each are fairly limited and meant for generally giving wrestlers a small showcase to build support, and the chaff has yet to be weeded out. With that in mind, let’s get down to business:

Episode One:

1.) Kay Lee Ray vs. Princesa Sugehit

Kay Lee Ray is a Scottish pro wrestler who’s most notable for her time spent in European feds, as well as her time spent in SHIMMER and SHINE, because most of our exclusively female wrestling organizations have to name themselves like they’re co-owned by Lisa Frank. Ray has done a couple of spot matches for WWE as a jobber (someone who is paid to make someone else look good by losing to them), and has also appeared on TNA’s Boot Camp, if you watched TNA, which (real talk) you probably didn’t. She is presently assumed to be without a WWE contract.

Princesa Sugehit is a mainstay of Lucha Libre, having worked for both AAA and CMLL, which are both respected and well regarded wrestling groups within Mexico for the most part. Sugehit isn’t as notable to casual viewers as someone like Sexy Star, obviously, but she also hasn’t tried to break a person’s arm in the middle of the ring before so don’t let that fool you into thinking she’s not worth a look. She is presently assumed to be without a WWE contract.

The Match was honestly perfectly fine, in that the majority of the attempted moves hit and it was a fine enough opener for a thirty two person tournament, though it’s absolutely not going to stick with anyone beyond the first round. Both competitors looked great out there in context, and it was a fine opener that was neither the best nor the worst match on the episode.

My Final Thoughts are that I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Ray in a WWE ring full time before the end of 2018, as she has the look and style they want, and is young enough that they can get some mileage out of her as a character. Sugehit might be a bit older than the WWE is looking for, at 37, though I think there’s definitely value in having a character this colorful in your women’s division for a year or so to mix up the aesthetic a bit. If you were taking bets, though, Ray is probably the one WWE is most interested in.

2.) Serena Deeb vs. Vanessa Borne

Serena Deeb is a former WWE women’s wrestler; the episode highlights her time in the Straight Edge Society under CM Punk, in a really weird bit of continuity (especially since, y’know, WWE isn’t super high on Punk right now), as well as her eventual release due to breaking kayfabe/alcohol issues. Oddly, Deeb is also a former women’s wrestler in a general sense; while she’s got over a decade of experience under her belt, she retired back in 2015 to focus on working a career as a yoga instructor. One wonders if this wasn’t, perhaps, WWE giving her a chance at having a better end to her in-ring career, or if she’s itching to make another go of a wrestling career, but either way, she’s mostly not been active in about two years prior to stepping into the ring for the Mae Young Classic, and she is presently assumed to be without a WWE contract.

Vanessa Borne is an NXT rookie who’s been working in the Performance Center for a little over a year at this point, and has had a small handful of job matches on NXT proper, but is otherwise relatively unknown. Her most notable claim to fame in the talking points for this match was that she’s been trained by both Rikishi and Gangrel, which is… definitely something you can say about a person. She is under a developmental contract with WWE at the present time.

The Match was adequate, but it was clear that Borne needed some guidance in the ring in order to get something going. Deeb played the role of veteran well here, honestly, as she mostly held the match together and showed that if the WWE wants to hire her, and she wants one more run, that she’d be a good fixture to have in the women’s title mix. Borne needs a bit more time to really develop, and while that could be chalked up to nerves as much as anything else, given that she’s been working in developmental for a year or so at this point, one has to wonder what she can do in an NXT ring proper when given a low-impact environment to work a match.

My Final Thoughts are that Deeb could probably stand a proper “final” run before settling into retirement for the long term, though she’s clearly physically not in wrestling shape; put bluntly, she’s way too skinny, and that’s not an aesthetic judgment so much as “she’s probably going to get injured.” Even as a trainer to supplement Sara Del Ray, she’d be a great addition, but if the Mae Young Classic is her final go in wrestling, good on her for bringing her working boots. Borne, meanwhile, is clearly not showing the same degree of freakish learning that someone like Charlotte showed, but she’s clearly got the fundamentals down. Whether she’ll be somewhere in a year’s time remains to be seen, but at this point she seems like a solid prospect.

3.) Zeda vs. Shayna Baszler

Zeda, also known as Julie Real, is a relatively unknown commodity, as WWE picked her up and brought her into developmental before she got too far into her training life cycle, which makes sense, since it lets them train her however they want instead of having to break habits she might learn on the indies. The caveat, however, is that this is basically her first proper match as an NXT trainee (that we’ve seen where she’s meant to be more than a jobber, anyway), and everything else we know about her is that she was 2-0 in MMA, so make or break, this is her first impression for a lot of the world.

Shayna Baszler is one of the obviously likely winners in this tournament, due entirely to who she knows rather than who she is. Baszler herself is an MMA fighter, one of the “Four Horsewomen” of MMA, alongside Marina Shafir, Jessamyn Duke and, most notably for this conversation, Ronda Rousey. Her MMA record is fine, in the sense that 15-11 is better than I could do in MMA, but let’s be clear here: not even knowing the spoilers of the taping cycle, Baszler stands a good chance of winning the whole thing just because the WWE has a massive payday in mind featuring Rousey, and if they’re going to use Baszler to get there, more power to them one supposes.

The Match was awkward, to be frank about it. Both Zeda and Baszler were touted for their MMA backgrounds, but the match didn’t play into this as much as you’d think. To be blunt, this pairing needed to be split up and put with more experienced workers, largely because neither worker knows how to carry a proper match, and it showed. To the match’s credit, it wasn’t the worst one in the first four episodes, and it was worked very basic to keep it manageable for wrestlers of their general skill levels at this point. Not bad, not great.

My Final Thoughts are that Zeda is probably going to be something sooner rather than later, as she has a good aesthetic gimmick and her work was good for what it was. Baszler, on the other hand, is, as Jim Cornette would say, “green as goose shit,” and I hope to God they don’t put her over just to satiate a need to get Rousey signed on, because she’s just not at a level that can sustain that push. Compare Baszler to NXT regular Sonya DeVille and DeVille’s leagues better and more comfortable with her character and ring presence. That’s not to say Baszler isn’t going to be something; rather, it’s too early to know if she is or not, but as it stands now, she’s too green, too soon.

4.) Jazzy Gabert vs. Abbey Laith

Jazzy Gabert is a German professional wrestler whose gimmick in Europe is “The Alpha Female,” and when you see her, you realize that’s not some kind of cute gimmick. Gabert has virtually no US presence, unless you count a small handful of matches in TNA (and I don’t), but she’s worked for Stardom and competed alongside Io Shirai, AKA “the woman we thought WWE was going to build the tournament around until they discovered her injured neck and sent her home,” so if that doesn’t give you a rough idea how good she could be going in, I don’t know what to tell you. She is presently assumed to be without a WWE contract.

Abbey Laith is is the name the WWE machine has assigned to Kimber Lee, one of the more popular women’s wrestlers among internet fans, for good reason: she’s damn good at her job. In addition to being Chikara’s Grand Champion (basically their version of a World Title), she’s wrestled in basically every major women’s promotion in the US, in addition to Combat Zone Wrestling for… some reason, and she’s had some amazing matches with some amazing talent all over the world, including Candice LeRae (who we’ll be seeing later), Athena (AKA Ember Moon) and LuFisto (who… should probably be in this tournament, Jesus). She’s really good, is my point, and she also has a WWE contract as of January of this year, according to reports.

The Match was easily the best match of the first episode, and was an awesome showcase of both what Jazzy can do given an opponent who will bump like nuts and what Abbey can do in general. Honestly, the only bad thing I can say here is that Jazzy probably should’ve been the one to move on, not because Abbey isn’t good (she absolutely is) but because in this episode and others WWE has used their in-house talent to put over independent talent (see Serena Deeb, above) and Abbey could’ve taken the loss in stride.

My Final Thoughts are that if WWE doesn’t sign Jazzy Gabert they’re nuts, and if Abbey Laith isn’t NXT Women’s Champ at some point in the next two years I’ll be astonished.

Episode Two:

5.) Xia Li vs. Mercedes Martinez

Xia Li is another in-house discovery for WWE, as she was hired during a tryout in China and lists herself on her Twitter as “WWE’s first Chinese Female,” which is nothing to sneeze at (Zeda is also representing China, but presumably as a Chinese American). Beyond that, this is essentially her WWE debut, for all intents and purposes, so the only things one could say about her going in were “I hope she’s better than Ho Ho Lun” and “those are some bitchin’ tattoos.” She has, as noted, a WWE Developmental contract.

Mercedes Martinez is a goddamn legend on the independent scene and the fact that she doesn’t have a WWE contract yet is a goddamn shame. She’s wrestled basically everywhere that promotes women’s wrestling, is currently the Shimmer Champion AND the WSU Champion… I don’t know what I can say here. She’s fucking Mercedes Martinez, okay? She doesn’t have a contract and I don’t know why.

The Match was exactly what both competitors needed, honestly; a match where Martinez showed that she could carry someone who was clearly green through an entertaining match, and where Li showed she’d picked up a lot from developmental and could hang with a veteran. Li got enough offense to show what her character is, and Martinez came across looking like a threat; I can’t ask for more than that.

My Final Thoughts are that Li will probably be something in six months and it’s a good thing WWE picked her up now, because she could legit be their next monster face in NXT with the right handling and a gimmick that doesn’t make her look like Kitana. Martinez might be a little older than WWE wants for a full-time run, but I think she could easily be slotted into the women’s division without an issue and get a solid year out of the current roster, so here’s hoping.

6.) Rachel Evers vs. Marti Belle

Rachel Evers is more commonly known as Rachel Ellering, and as the video notes, she’s Paul Ellering’s daughter; I’m honestly not certain why she’s had a name change here, aside from the WWE’s need to own every trademark possible (see also Cody Rhodes), but at least the Evers name is a tribute to her trainer, Lance Evers, AKA Lance Storm, so that’s cool. She’s been competing in the indies for the past two years at this point, as well as doing a couple of spots for NXT, but as of this point, she’s still mostly in the “developing her style and character” phase of her career. She’s not presently signed to a developmental deal that’s known at this time, but since dad is working in NXT it feels like that might be inevitable.

Marti Belle is a ten year ring veteran, having worked for several companies within the US and around the world, though her most notable stint as a wrestler was the two years she spent with TNA working under the name Marti Bell (which, keep that in mind, we’ll be coming back to it) as a part of The Dollhouse faction and on her own, and she spent a not insignificant amount of time working in the title scene of the women’s division during her time in TNA.

The Match was death on dry toast, and I have no idea why this is. Evers is clearly in the process of figuring out her ring work and character, certainly, but the general rumor going around is that the performance from Belle was so bad, the production folks changed the finish on the fly to Evers winning, as Belle had apparently been booked to win. While that does explain the sudden and somewhat sloppy finish, I have no idea what could’ve caused this match to be so, well, bad. Belle has honestly had much better matches than this, and even the NXT squashes Evers has done were more watchable.

My Final Thoughts are that Evers will probably end up with a developmental contract if she puts on a good match in the second round, between having a WWE-friendly name, a legacy link to her father and a good grasp of the basics, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pick her up sometime in the coming year. Belle, however, is most likely off of WWE’s radar at this point, perhaps for good; even if the rumors of her backstage attitude and the match finish being switched on the fly are simply rumors, the simple reality is, this match was a stinker, and since WWE has worked with Evers in the past, the blame will almost certainly be shifted to Belle. Honestly, though, Belle isn’t a stellar performer as such; she’s fine on the indies and such, but with so many top talents in this tournament, it’s not hard to pick out multiple workers who deserve the shot more.

7.) Rhea Ripley vs. Miranda Salinas

Rhea Ripley is an Aussie soccer player turned pro wrestler, and while she’s a bit early into her career in terms of learning and skillset, she’s definitely got the “it” factor wrestling is based off of more often than not. This isn’t even a “she’s pretty” thing either; she’s imposing looking in the right sort of way for a professional wrestler (see Jazzy Gabert, above), and whatever her character is meant to be, she ‘gets’ it. She’s also a developmental signee, according to her Twitter, so the fact that she’s at this level as young as she is indicates she’ll probably do well, though all of this is a polite way of saying “I have no idea about her beyond what Google tells me because she’s green.”

Miranda Salinas is actually a substitution for Nixon Newell, which, while not as disappointing as Io Shirai, is still disappointing given Newell’s work history in the past few years. That isn’t meant to take anything away from Salinas, as such, but it’s worth noting that Salinas hasn’t had an especially lengthy career herself. While she has been active for about three years, it’s mostly been in Booker T’s Reality of Wrestling federation, and while that’s not a bad thing, since Athena (nee Ember Moon) got a big start there… Athena eventually went on to tour and become a big name, while Salinas… hasn’t, yet. Salinas is also currently not under WWE contract at this point that I can tell.

The Match was honestly about what you’d expect from “a former soccer player learning the ropes within the WWE system” and “a wrestler who works for Booker T’s fed but has yet to expand much beyond it.” The match was technically sufficient, and both women showed that they were capable in the ring, but it really felt like a match between two rookies that should’ve, again, been split up to allow for each to work with a more veteran performer capable of walking them through a better performance. Not the worst match (on this episode, even!), but not memorable either.

My Final Thoughts are that I love that Rhea Ripley mouths along with her own theme song on the way to the ring, because it’s such a simple thing that tells the viewer “I’m happy to be here and love what I do,” in an endearingly nerdy way I appreciate. Beyond that, I have nothing, sorry.

8.) Mia Yim vs. Sarah Logan

Mia Yim is one of indie wrestling’s better performers, and much like Mercedes Martinez above, is basically someone who probably should’ve had a WWE contract a long time ago. She’s an outstanding worker and has been a competitor and a champion all over in women’s wrestling, and was also part of The Dollhouse in TNA, but actually managed to win the Knockouts (ugh) Title during her tenure in TNA. She’s also notable for being a public supporter of the “Put a Nail In It” campaign to end domestic abuse, as she’s publicly come forward to discuss her own experiences with the subject, which is admirable in general, and also exactly the sort of narrative WWE likes to get behind; it’s corporate, but if it gets Yim a contract (since she doesn’t have one yet), do what ya gotta.

Sarah Logan is otherwise known as Crazy Mary Dobson on the indies, and she’s another wrestler who’s basically worked all over the world over the past several years and accomplished a bunch of amazing stuff. She has also faced Yim before, and the resulting matches have (generally speaking, as I haven’t seen all of them) been pretty damn awesome.

The Match was one of those odd cases where WWE probably should have split the two up, given their veteran status as workers, and paired them with less apt workers or newbies to get more consistently solid matches out of the first round, but instead said “Nah, let’s get a few barn-burners in there,” and the results are exactly what you’d expect. Yim and Logan tore it down in the ring, and this was easily the best match out of the first two episodes, as well as one of the best matches in the first round, period.

My Final Thoughts are that if Yim doesn’t have a WWE contract by the end of the MYC, someone, somewhere needs to be fired; she’s clearly a top-shelf worker, has a lot of positive publicity at the moment, and could easily be slotted into the Raw or Smackdown roster with little difficulty, so there’s really no reason not to consider this thing. Logan, meanwhile, proved she deserves her developmental deal, and I’d expect to see her tearing it up on NXT sooner rather than later.

Well, that’s it for the first two episodes; I’ll be back soon with the third and fourth episodes, hopefully before the tournament’s over (which at this rate is a possibility).

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