As 2021 winds down, so too does another year of accomplishments for the women of World Wrestling Entertainment. Since the Divas division underwent an overhaul into the more athletically driven women’s division in 2015-16, the women of WWE have continued to forge ahead into previously uncharted territory. Although not without missteps, the women’s division and its performers still managed to land a few critical blows to the glass ceiling with some pivotal moments and stand out performances in 2021
Best of 2021 – WWE’s Women’s Division
When Eva Marie returned to WWE after branching out to carve a new niche on social media as an influencer, many in the pro wrestling industry were skeptical. What could the comedic performer, whose act trades largely on finagling her way out of matches, have to add to a division that had transformed drastically since her days accompanying The Bella Twins? When her return to Monday Night Raw in June 2021 came, Eva Marie did not come alone but was accompanied by a surprise enforcer Doudrop. Known to WWE audiences previously as NXT UK’s Piper Niven, Doudrop made a splash on her first night on the “red brand”, easily squashing Naomi in a controversial match. Eva Marie professed herself to be Doudrop’s “mentor”, but it was plain to see that she was hiding behind Doudrop’s superior talents in the ring. As Doudrop gradually realized this and turned on Eva Marie, she became a more sympathetic figure. Her nuanced comedic timing and vivacious personality, considerable talents in-ring and instant connection with fans made with Doudrop all helped elevate her and Eva Maries’ showdown at SummerSlam. While there has been not entirely unwarranted criticism of her character’s name and presentation, Doudrop makes the most of every moment she’s been given on WWE’s main roster, selling a character that could have been a fail with sheer talent and palpable charisma.
The build-up to the women’s event at 2021’s Money in the Bank seemed to indicate that Liv Morgan was a shoo-in to hold the coveted briefcase. However, in one of WWE’s few and far between genuine surprises, it was Nikki A.S.H. who scaled the ladder. Formerly known as Nikki Cross, her gimmick floundered considerably with tag team partner Bliss off exploring her dark side in the funhouse. So, A.S.H. took matters into her own hands, drafting a perky superhero concept and floating it by the powers that be at WWE: a perky superhero who charmed fans with her eye-catching costume and monologues about making your dreams come true.
As inspirational as it was when she won MITB, A.S.H’s true inspirational moment came in July 2021. Another face-off between Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley was coming to an end in Raw’s closing minutes, and as it did A.S.H. ran dramatically down the ramp, briefcase in hand. A.S.H cashed in her contract for a shot at the Raw women’s championship, and secured it with a flying crossbody and cover on Flair for a pinfall victory. From moribund, underutilized tag team player to Ms. Money in the Bank, and then Raw women’s champion: with her rapid rise to Raw’s top women’s prize, Nikki A.S.H made good on every word she had uttered about making dreams come true.
Seth Rollins once said of portraying a babyface, while speaking to Ryan Satin of the podcast Out of Character, “…It is hard to keep people liking you.” Bianca Belair doesn’t seem to have that problem. Her title reign as SmackDown women’s champion began at WrestleMania 37, in a match that made pro wrestling history as she and Sasha Banks became the first African American women to headline the event in a match against each other. Belair’s refreshing and relatable character made it easy for fans to warm up to her, while her prodigious strength and past as a decorated collegiate athlete gave credibility to her in-ring talents and the championship she held. Fans and pro wrestling pundits alike were puzzled and outraged when Belair lost the SmackDown belt in a diminishing squash to Becky Lynch at SummerSlam, but the loss didn’t hinder her from topping Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s annual ranking of the industry’s 150 most notable female pro wrestlers. While her place in the food chain of WWE’s women’s division may be up in the air, her talent and charm make her a perennial favorite.
This is a category in which WWE is spoiled with choices, but its most effective heel of 2021 was Charlotte Flair. The scripted material presented to her is not always on Charlotte’s side, but no matter how inane the words are Flair makes up for it with energy. A skilled in-ring performer who can comfortably switch up between aerial feats and floor grappling submissions, Flair also courts and wields disdain skillfully, inviting the abuse of live audiences and fearlessly returning it with a profane gesture here, an off the cuff, kayfabe piercing retort there. She and the audience have turned their tension into a double act of vitriol that she balances with an aplomb Cody Rhodes could take note of: Charlotte isn’t determined to be liked, she has embraced the hate and it gives her heel character dimension, feeding the tension carefully and channeling it back into her in-ring performance.
Zelina Vega’s history with WWE has been a rocky one, and 2021 seemed to continue that trend as the midcard performer suffered what appeared to be a cruel slight. Vega’s match at SmackDown’s September 10 SuperShow at Madison Square Garden was canceled. This came on the eve of the 20th anniversary of her father’s death during the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, perhaps in rectitude, at October 21’s Crown Jewel she got to become an indelible part of WWE history as its first Queen of the Ring. The long-awaited Queen’s Crown tournament had its flaws, but Vega’s victory over Doudrop in the finals cemented her historic achievement. Since taking the honor and donning the titular crown, Vega has taken to feigning Received Pronunciation in a campy, cosplay inspired “evil queen” act. Vega always injects her appearances with splashes of otaku fun, such as comic book and video game references and kitschy theatrical mannerisms. Vega takes her small allotted time on WWE tv and makes the most of it, always leaving an impression, and her tragic personal history make her accomplishment feel earned and deserved.