Thanks to NXT, WWE's divas division is boasting one of its strongest groups in years.
With stars such as divas champ Charlotte defending her title against the likes of Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, the future for the divas is as bright as it's ever been. And the reason behind that success is the rock-solid foundation being laid at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Fla.
One of the top talents at WWE's state-of-the-art developmental facility is NXT women's champion Bayley, who appears destined to be among the next wave of young talent headed for the big show.
Bayley, whose real name is Pamela Rose Martinez, will be part of NXT's first-ever local event scheduled April 9 at the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston.
Bayley won her first NXT title last August when she defeated Sasha Banks in front of nearly 16,000 fans at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It represented the largest crowd to ever view a live NXT event, and was an emotional moment that the young star will never forget. Her mother, brother and sister were all sitting in the front row when Bayley was crowned the new champion.
“All I could do was cry,” says the 26-year-old standout. “As much as you dream about something and you prepare for a match, that was the moment I had been waiting for ever since I was a kid. You really can't ever prepare for that feeling of the final three count and the sound of the crowd.”
I couldn't have asked for a better night or a better opponent,” she adds. “I couldn't have asked for a better way to win the championship for my first time.”
Making the event even more memorable was the fact that former NXT running buddies Charlotte and Lynch were there to share it with her. “It was a cool moment. It was a defining moment for the company and for us at that point in our careers.”
Two months later Bayley made history at NXT TakeOver: Respect in Orlando, Fla., by defeating Banks in the first divas 30-minute Iron Man match in WWE history. It also marked the first time that a women's match headlined a WWE special event/PPV.
After the bout, WWE Chief Operating Officer Triple H (Paul Levesque), NXT General Manager William Regal (Darren Matthews) and the entire NXT roster entered the arena to celebrate the occasion.
Current WWE divas champion Charlotte called it the match of the year.
“It definitely gave me goose bumps ... I could not be more proud of them. They inspired me. I'm blown away. That was the wrestling match of the year.”
WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon said the bout ushered in a new era for female competitors.
“It absolutely tore the house down. It was more than worthy of the main event. I'm just so proud of those women.”
For now Bayley is just itching for the opportunity to take the next step and continue her career alongside her former NXT colleagues.
“That's the plan. When we first got together and everything started rolling and we had all these great matches, we said that one day we'd change WWE and we'd change the world. They're already doing it (in WWE) and have been for eight months. The Triple Threat match at Wrestlemania is going to be incredible. It's going to set the bar. I'm excited. It's going to be a little easier for me when I get there because they're setting the table.”
One day, she says, a divas match might even headline Wrestlemania.
“That's the plan. Wrestlemania's in Orlando next year, and that's the home of NXT where we'll have our home crowd. I would love to have a spot with anybody.”
And who knows? One day Bayley may find herself at the top of a Wrestlemania card.
“The only place to go is up,” said Stephanie McMahon.
Ponytails and tomboys
Bayley's wrestling journey began as a youngster who religiously followed the business and was attracted to trend-setting female performers like Lita (Amy Dumas) who represented a new era in women's wrestling.
“Lita was like the first woman to really catch my attention because she made me realize that I could do it because she was always herself. She dressed differently, she acted differently, she had a different moveset. It made me realize no matter what, you don't have to look like everybody else to get to where you wanted. Women like Lita, Victoria and Ivory were just huge inspirations.”
Bayley was a tomboy growing up and participated in a number of sports — including basketball, track and cross-country — in high school.
“I always hung out with all the boys and played all the sports. It was really me. Now I get to be myself pretty much,” says the self-proclaimed hugging fanatic.
Even in a previous job, that girl next door wasn't above doing what might be considered men's jobs.
“I used to drive around a forklift at my old job. I worked at a feed store. If someone came in and needed a hundred pounds of chicken feed, I'd drive a forklift into the warehouse and bring it out. I'd have to load trucks. Whenever there was a delivery, I'd volunteer to do it. It was a great job.”
Bayley had attended independent shows since she was a teenager. Once she turned 18, she knew she wanted to start training. She joined a California organization called Big Time Wrestling and took to the business like a duck to water. But her first mat moniker, Davina Rose, was really no character at all.
“I was just this chick who was a wrestler. When I started with Shimmer (a Chicago-based female independent promotion), Lexie Fyfe told me I was kind of vanilla. I had good matches, but I really didn't have a character. I was always trying to make my gear look different. I put roses on there because my last name was Rose.”
Shimmer, she says, opened the door to many opportunities. “I was trying to get to Japan through them. I met tons of awesome girls to work with. It was where I met Asuka (Kanako Urai) and Sara Del Rey (Sara Amato) and Paige (Saraya-Jade Bevis). It was a great company.”
It wasn't until Bayley got a call for a WWE tryout that she started seriously thinking about a character. “Once I got here, there was no chance of me being just whatever. I definitely had to think about a character.”
With her solid mat work, Bayley impressed scouts.
“They invited me to a tryout in LA. I was in tears just telling my mom I had a tryout. It was a huge deal. It was a three-day tryout and I knew there were no other female wrestlers there. I was the only one, so I knew I needed to stand out somehow. It was the craziest three days of my life. Once I got the call they wanted to offer me a contract, I knew I was going to make it work no matter what. It had been a dream since I was 10 years old.”
Bayley says she is proud watching the WWE divas develop and notes the phenomenal progress made by divas champ Charlotte (Ashley Fliehr).
“It really been amazing watching her grow. When I first got there, she hadn't even had her first match with NXT. I remember having her first match on TV with her dad (Ric Flair) out there. She was out for about a month with a broken toe, but when she got back she was even better. Every time she's in the ring she's getting better and better. It's been fun watching her grow. With everything's she's gone through, she just keeps going.”
Setting the standard
The Performance Center has been home to WWE's talent developmental system, NXT, since 2013. The 26,000-square-foot world-class training facility has seven training rings, a world-class strength and conditioning program, and cutting-edge edit and production facilities.
Moreover, says Bayley, it provides a family-like atmosphere.
“The cool thing about NXT is that it's a big family. We have everything at our disposal there.”
Including, she adds, trainers who are dedicated to their craft and who are guiding the next wave of WWE superstars. For Bayley, that person was the late Dusty Rhodes.
“For my character, first starting out, Dusty Rhodes was the man. Every time I did a promo he had advice on how to do it better or how to go in a different direction. He was the one who told me to keep my hair up in a ponytail after my first match as my new character. He's really the one who helped make it what it is.”
Bayley recalls doing her early promo classes wearing a side ponytail. During her first NXT match, with Alicia Fox, she took it down.
“I just took it down because I thought it would get messed up anyway.”
Rhodes, however, was not pleased.
“Don't ever take your ponytail down,” he told his student. “Oh, I should wrestle in it too?” she asked, relieved and happy.
Don't expect to see this future WWE diva with body piercings or tattoos anytime soon. “No thanks,” she says without hesitation.
The ponytail would become a trademark for Bayley and would represent a wholesome All-American girl character that was closer to her own persona.
“My look was how I wanted to be viewed. I wanted to look like the girl next door and how I used to dress up as a kid. I wanted to act and look and feel how I did when I was 12. I was trying to figure out ways I could look like a kid wrestling fan.”
On the in-ring training side, says Bayley, former indy star Del Rey has been fantastic.
“We've been privileged to have her. I always wanted to work with her. I got to have one match with her on the independents. To be able to train with her, with all her knowledge and with the group of girls that we have, is just amazing. She shows us cool things to try out, she teaches us about psychology. All the girls, including the ones at WWE, and the new girls all have the passion to keep learning and applying what they have learned. I'm very lucky to be in this position with the staff that we have.”
One of Bayley's biggest supporters in NXT has been trainer and former WWE star William Regal, who said recently that Bayley “set the standard for what a champion should be in NXT.”
“William Regal was at my tryout and I think he took a liking to me,” says Bayley. “He saw something in me. He knew how much I loved the business. I think he could just tell. He's also helped me with promos, with facial expressions and how to show what you're feeling inside through your eyes, which was a total crazy art that I knew nothing about because I was terrible at promos. He helps everybody.”
Bayley, who was named NXT Female Competitor of the Year for 2015 after a fan vote, has nothing but praise for the entire staff.
“I literally have the coolest, funniest and most hard-working co-workers and coaches in the whole world. I love traveling to shows with them. Everybody just has so much fun doing what they're doing.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of her work, says Bayley, is bringing joy and happiness to her fans, particularly the younger ones.
“Just looking at the expressions of fans when I make my entrance to the ring, and even before the match starts, seeing how happy everybody is. Looking at Sami Zayn or Finn Balor, whoever, some of the best times is just looking at everybody's face. Everybody has kind of escaped reality and is having a good time together. Sometimes I'll just stand in the ring and let them sing or chant or do whatever they want. I want everybody to have fun. I think that's the coolest thing about wrestling besides the actual wrestling. I love wrestling. Not just the wrestling match, but the feeling of everyone enjoying the show.
“I want fans to come to shows to see the women's matches ... to buy tickets to watch women's wrestling and not just the guys that are in the main event. I want them to look forward to seeing us. There was a certain feeling when I was a kid watching wrestling. There's a certain feeling you get when you see your larger-than-life heroes that make you believe in yourself. So if I can have children believe in themselves, whether it's wrestling or whatever they want to do, then I'd be happy.”
Bayley remains a staunch supporter of women's wrestling. The “diva” designation doesn't bother her, since she sees the “Divas Revolution” taking place in WWE as a sign that brand has been elevated by the skill of today's crop.
“I think nowadays 'diva' could be meant in so many different ways. The way the roster is right now, with the Divas Revolution, you don't necessarily see divas that are stuck up and who only care about their looks. It is what you make it. I grew up on the women's division and the women's championship. That name is more special to me. I'm the NXT women's champion. But when it comes time and I'm part of the divas division, the title really doesn't bug me anymore like it used to when I was a kid.”
And when might that time be?
“Sometime this year would be cool, but I also said that last year,” she laughs. “I'm not really in a rush with how good NXT is going. I'm at the top right now as NXT champion and we're traveling the world. “I'm getting to be a part of NXT for their first time in many parts of the country. I'm happy that I'm here, but the ultimate dream is to be on the main roster. When that happens, I'll be ready.”
Bayley provides her predictions for the top bouts at Wrestlemania 32 on April 3.
Roman Reigns vs. Triple H for the WWE heavyweight title: “I'm going to go with Roman Reigns although I want Triple H to win because I'm bias and he's our cool boss. Roman Reigns is a little more determined now.” Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon: “I'm going to go with Taker. I think the McMahons or somebody will have something to do with that match.”
Brock Lesnar vs. Dean Ambrose: “That's a tough one. I have to go with Brock. He just seems unstoppable. I mean he is unstoppable. I don't know that all this advice that Dean's getting from all these legends is going to be enough.”
Two days before Wrestlemania 32, the NXT roster will present what could be their biggest show to date at NXT TakeOver: Dallas where Bayley will defend her title against Asuka.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.