A Case of Missed Opportunities: Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair

Charlotte Flair Feigning Injury
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On July 5’s Monday Night Raw, the rivalry between current Raw women’s champion Rhea Ripley and former champion Charlotte Flair reached something of a critical mass of incredulity. The dishonesty and sniping between the two has defined not only their rivalry, but Ripley’s time so far on the Raw roster. When Charlotte came out on crutches to address the Thunderdome about her alleged knee injury, caused by a knee strike by Ripley in the ring, the Nightmare came out on crutches of her own. Both women were faking their injuries, and confronted each other on the fact, eventually coming to blows.

This has been the holding pattern of their storyline: Either Flair or Ripley pulls an audacious stunt of bald dishonesty, one or the other calls the offender out, and they snipe or attack each other. This story could have been so much more.

Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley’s History

The ire between Ripley and Flair began out of the NXT invasion angle, which saw a group of NXT stars led by Triple H storming the main roster. Ripley attacked Flair, and later challenged her to come for Ripley’s NXT women’s championship. Charlotte did just that, besting Rhea at the pre-taped, crowdless WrestleMania 36, and claiming the NXT women’s championship. For the rest of 2020, it was something of an albatross over Ripley’s head, but she continued to have strong matches on NXT and to be a popular babyface player there. She lost a bout to regain the NXT championship from Io Shirai, who’d won it from Charlotte, and Ripley also lost a last woman standing match against Raquel Gonzalez, her last match on NXT.

After being delayed by the COVID19 pandemic, her callup to the main roster came later than expected, but was still a fast and furious rise to the top. Ripley was an entrant in the Royal Rumble, eliminated narrowly by Friday Night SmackDown phenom Bianca Belair, and upon joining the Raw roster quickly went straight for the top prize, Asuka’s Raw women’s championship. She earned the prize at WrestleMania 37, coming full circle from a lackluster Mania 36.

Then, enter Charlotte Flair, her old adversary, the woman who not only defeated but dispirited Ripley. Ripley, who was known as the Nightmare of NXT, was now on the same roster as the woman who shook her confidence. Picking up where they left off should have been a cakewalk: much like Riddle’s 2020 SmackDown debut, in which he was bullied by Baron Corbin and belittled by A.J. Styles for not “belonging” on the roster, Charlotte should have made Ripley’s life the pits by reminding her of Mania 36 and demeaning the very idea that a newbie had the right to stand in her shade, when Ripley couldn’t even defend an NXT title while still on the NXT roster.

What Actually Happened

Instead of this straightforward approach, a rather uneven direction was taken in introducing Rhea and pairing her in a feud with Charlotte.

The history between the two performers has been touched, but the rich storytelling potential of it hasn’t been mined. It was just another throwaway snipe out of many. The women bicker constantly, but about pretextual trifles that don’t matter from one episode of Raw to the next.

To further complicate things, unlike other recent NXT call-ups Riddle and Damien Priest, Ripley hasn’t been brought in as a babyface. She is a counterheel to Charlotte, who is also a heel. This version of Ripley doesn’t rely merely on strength and ability like the Ripley that took down Shayna Bazler on NXT-she frequently cheats to win, such as staging her loss by DQ to Charlotte at this year’s Hell in a Cell so that she could keep the Raw women’s belt. She then makes the point that she cheats because Charlotte cheats-and Charlotte responds with a tricky maneuver of her own, or complains to Adam Pearce and Sonya Deville to give her another chance at the belt. Rinse, repeat.

What Went Wrong

The waters have been utterly muddied about who is in the right, or the wrong. There is no babyface in the fight, which might as well be a contest over who is the bigger heel. However, the antics of the two are too contrived and repetitive to garner interest over who will up the ante and how. Their series of ‘beat the clock’ matches used Asuka and Nikki Ash as pawns, proved nothing, they had nothing more substantial to say to each other than ‘You can’t beat me’ and ‘Yes I can!’, and the one-minute bouts took the women’s division dangerously close to the 30 second match days that spawned the #GiveDivasaChance movement.

Charlotte is often cast as a heel, going back to her own days on NXT. However, like her elaborate entrance robes, her dirty tricks are an allusion to her legendary father Ric Flair, the “dirtiest player in the game”. However, Charlotte can only be a villain with weight if her story has a hero for her to foil, and Ripley was not brought to Raw as that. She started trying to match Charlotte trick for trick before any other facet of her character was shown.

What Could Have Been Different

NXT is a morally ambiguous environment where ambition is everyone’s collective driving motivation, and what happens in the ring takes precedence over promos and backstage segments. Ripley thrived there. Aggression is welcome, in NXT, in character delivery and the ring psychology of each match, even for faces, like the brutal but lovable Shotzi Blackheart.

In order to thrive on Raw, Ripley needed to be cast as a one woman NXT invasion, bringing the blind ambition, take-no-prisoners character confidence, and barn-burner ring work of the Capitol Wrestling Center to the Thunderdome. If she was going to start beating Charlotte at her own game, that could have waited until establishing a rapport and reputation of her own on Raw.

As for Charlotte, by all means, she can keep riffing on Ric.  Charlotte Flair has a right to her legacy, and the WWE, which is a part of it, has a right to tell stories drawing upon it. Riffing off Flair’s family history wasn’t inherently the problem, but the execution lacked emotional context. It’s a shame, because there was so much there.

Everyone has had a broken dream, failed to grasp a brass ring, as Ripley did at WrestleMania 36, and that could have been the bedrock of a better program. Charlotte Flair could be the villainess Raw wants her to be, and Rhea Ripley’s Raw women’s championship would be a symbol of so much more, if the feud between her and Charlotte had run deeper and been handled with more gravitas, and a clear contrast between their roles.

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