May 11, 2020 – Becky Lynch vacates the RAW Women’s Championship. In a RAW promo that had been teased hours in advance, Lynch confirmed to the world what the rumors had been suggesting: she was expecting. Not expecting a title shot or any kind of match for that matter, but her first child with future husband, Seth Rollins. This was a monumental announcement for a WWE superstar who had been the arguable face of the company for the past 18 months. Just weeks before, she had defeated Shayna Baszler at WrestleMania 36 – ending her period of dominance since her RAW debut earlier in the year. As we all know, on May 10, 2020, Asuka captured the Women’s Money in the Bank briefcase in unusual circumstances. How did Becky’s announcement and Asuka’s win shape the next year of women’s wrestling? Let’s find out.
Asuka is Gifted the RAW Women’s Championship By Becky Lynch
As mentioned, Asuka won the Women’s Money in the Bank briefcase in May of 2020. Whereas the briefcase traditionally symbolizes a guaranteed title shot at any point, this time was different. Unbeknownst to Asuka and the WWE Universe, when she captured the briefcase, she actually captured the RAW Women’s title. The one person to share the ring with Becky during her announcement was Asuka, who likely assumed she was there to issue a challenge to Lynch. Instead, Lynch announced that in her absence, Asuka will be the new champion.
They had an emotional embrace and Lynch rode off into the sunset to become a mother. What would come next was a 78-day title reign with the RAW Women’s Championship. During the pandemic era – certainly during the first few months of it – Asuka was arguably the leading WWE performer. Matches against the likes of Sasha Banks & Bayley on SmackDown (with Nikki Cross); against Charlotte Flair on RAW (June 17); Nia Jax (various) and Sasha Banks in a singles match at The Horror Show At Extreme Rules – even without a live audience – further cemented Asuka’s position as one of the best at what she does.
She also had the Kabuki Warriors (her team with former WWE superstar, Kairi Sane), which continued to be potentially the best women’s tag team in WWE and the world. Asuka recaptured the WWE Women’s Tag Team titles with Charlotte Flair later in the year, which was done to set up a future feud (though more on this shortly). For well over a decade now (dating back to her time in Japan as Kana), wrestling fans the world over have recognized that Asuka is one of the best wrestlers in the world. Not just one of the best women, but one of the best of everyone to work a ring.
Asuka proved it in Japan and whereas she had already proven it with her work in the United States prior to 2020. That year only furthered the notion and recognition of her tremendous ability. This is not to say the RAW women’s division and Asuka didn’t have their problems; they most certainly did. They weren’t small problems, either.
Problems With the RAW Women’s Division in 2020
Whereas Asuka was a shining beacon in a division that struggled without its star asset, there were serious problems. First of all, there was the questionable defeat to Sasha Banks on the July 20 episode of RAW. To lose the title by count-out is a creative cop-out; lazy writing which does nothing to enhance the show or the talents involved and in this instance, it stalled Asuka’s momentum. This is precisely what happened when Asuka’s 78-day title reign came to an unnecessary, premature end against Sasha Banks. “The Boss” is a phenomenal competitor; one of the all-time greats already.
For both women to be involved in such peculiar booking is an insult to their ability. It also diminishes the value of the title they were fighting over. It made Banks and Asuka look weak to change title holders this way. Asuka would recapture the RAW Women’s Championship at SummerSlam 2021 after having feuded with Banks and Bayley. who were residents of SmackDown – for the past couple of months. Asuka feuding with the SmackDown women’s division took away valuable TV time from a RAW women’s division desperately in need of a chance to shine. “The Empress” would then embark on a 231 day run with the title (tied with Ronda Rousey for second-longest reign) – a run plagued by booking problems.
A 231-day title reign covers plenty of time, meaning there is room for a number of feuds and defenses. Instead, the title was demoted to a prop; defended a mere seven times between August 23, 2020 and April 11, 2021. Sasha Banks, Mickie James, Zelina Vega (2x), Lana (2x) and Alexa Bliss each had a go at a championship which was demoted out of the central feuds in the RAW women’s division. Instead, the focus became the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship – used as a tool to get Charlotte Flair back on TV with Asuka, who herself had barely been featured towards the end of the year.
Frankly, it was a shambolic example of typical WWE booking – to demote a significant title for reasons unexplained. If Asuka was a problem or had an injury, the simple solution would have been to move the title onto someone who was around more regularly to defend it. WWE management has done a good job with the RAW and SmackDown Women’s titles in recent years, but 2020 was not the best example, certainly with the RAW title. With Asuka having been demoted from central figure to side act and lackey of Charlotte – who the WWE clearly sees as its biggest female talent, certainly in the absence of Lynch – it was inevitable that the title would need to change hands at some point.
Rhea Ripley Becomes RAW Women’s Champion
At WrestleMania 36, Asuka – along with Kairi Sane – were busy losing the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship to Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross. It was a position many cited as beneath Asuka; who was clearly better positioned as a singles title competitor. At the same show, Rhea Ripley lost her NXT Women’s Championship to Charlotte Flair. Rhea had been a new addition to the RAW women’s division; a fresh face from NXT. Young, confident and hungry, a victory over Flair at WrestleMania 36 was set up to be her door-smashed-open arrival to the main roster.
Worse, she was never quite the same in NXT after this. Gone was the cool and brash confidence, replaced with a look of self-doubt and esteem issues. She failed to recapture her title – which went from Charlotte to Io Shirai – at every turn. Ripley became involved in lesser feuds with Aliyah and Robert Stone. She grew further and further away from the competitor who debuted on RAW to silence the self-proclaimed Queen. Thankfully, her redeeming moment would come.
At Royal Rumble 2021, Rhea Ripley would return to the main roster. This wasn’t the same brash and over-confident competitor from the previous year. This was a more serious, reserved, and cool version of Ripley; a change that would see her finish second in the match, to SmackDown’s equally impressive Bianca Belair. As is often the case with Royal Rumble matches, Rhea’s second-place finish would see her become the number one contender for the championship.
At last, at WrestleMania 37 – a year following her crushing defeat – Ripley got her big win, capturing the RAW Women’s Championship from Asuka in the process, ending her lengthy reign and ushering in a new era for the RAW women’s division. Since then, Ripley has notched up three consecutive wins over Asuka on RAW, with the assistance of new allies Shayna Baszler and Nia Jax. A feud with Charlotte Flair, who once again looks to be taking the limelight away from Ripley, the young Australian from Adelaide has the perfect opportunity to enact her revenge.
A Year Without Becky Lynch and the State of the RAW Women’s Division
Since Becky Lynch stepped away from the ring last year, the RAW women’s division has undergone a transformation. Because of how popular a competitor Lynch had become, she was the main – often sole – focus of the division. Her name was printed on the majority of merchandise; her likeness in all the ads and commercials. She had become, to an extent, bigger than the division she competed in. Her absence saw something of a power vacuum – a mad scramble to take her spot, a scramble which allowed many other competitors to step up.
Charlotte, Asuka, Kairi Sane (when she was there), Shayna Baszler, Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax, Lacey Evans, and others did their best to keep the division alive without its golden goose. The later addition of Rhea Ripley has only helped it further; the division has more than enough talent to make it an exciting and interesting part of RAW. Alas, the problem has never been the women’s division, but the booking. Though it has improved immensely in recent years to the point the women are far more prominently featured, there is always room for improvement. With the return of Becky Lynch increasingly imminent (though she may join husband Seth Rollins on SmackDown), it is going to continue improving, if the creative team allows it.
2020 must act as an important lesson to the creative brass. First, to book one superstar in Becky Lynch to stand so far ahead of everyone else creates problems. Should she become injured, or in Lynch’s case pregnant, there is no one near her level to take over. Prior to Asuka taking the title, she had been in tag team purgatory with Kairi Sane for much of the previous year; only recently had she been booked more prominently. This meant Asuka had to work extra hard to feel as much a champion as Becky Lynch did.
With booking which saw her drop the title – very questionably – only to pick it up again 26 days later and then defend it just seven times in 231 days, Asuka was doomed to fail in her spot. WWE needs to book its talent better. For champions especially, in a women’s division which often comes under scrutiny for fifty/fifty booking and a failure to create new stars, it is doubly important that the division is booked properly and with respect to its competitors. With Rhea Ripley now champion, maybe it might happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.
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