The women’s wrestling scene in the independent circuit, where reigning World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Women’s Champion Sasha Banks cut her teeth, is a complete one-eighty from what you see on TV.
“(The male wrestlers) would not watch the girls’ matches except to make fun of us,” Banks says in a conference call.
The realisation of how far she has come hit her when Raw general manager and WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley wrote an article on her and her talked about how the men were glued to the monitor backstage at this year’s WrestleMania watching the show-stealing Triple Threat match that Banks, 24, put on with Becky Lynch and then-champion Charlotte.
“It made me tear up … it meant a lot that people actually wanted to sit down and watch my match,” says Banks, whose real name is Mercedes Kaestner-Vernado (she is of African-American and German descent).
That match was the crest of a major wave of change that swept over WWE when Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and their sisters of battle joined the main roster from its developmental promotion, NXT, where they regularly brought the house down.
Up to that point, the women’s scene in WWE had shifted from the fighting days of Chyna, Trish Stratus, Lita and Jackie Moore to the Diva era dominated by the likes of the Bella Twins.
It was a reality-TV-centric hotbed of gossip, relationships, shopping, backbiting and, well, reality TV. Wrestling was almost a not-so-fashionable accessory.
Thanks in part to the newcomers, WWE finally recognised the ability of the women wrestlers by retiring the Divas championship, reinstating the Women’s title, and having its lady grapplers no longer referred to as Divas, but as Superstars – on equal footing with the men.
“I didn’t want to walk into WWE as a Diva and just do bikini matches, and play second fiddle to guys,” Banks says of her early months in WWE. “I wanted to have people tune in to see what Sasha Banks can do, and people are now getting excited to watch women’s wrestling.
“In NXT we put up a showcase of what we can do, and actually did it better than the guys. It was kind of a struggle when we first got here. But we knew it would take time.”
That “showcase” she mentions includes the highly acclaimed match she and Bayley put on at NXT Takeover in Brooklyn, New York, last August. It received universal praise and was named NXT Match of the Year.
Such performances mean the pressure is great going into next week’s SummerSlam match against Charlotte. This time, Banks will be the defending champion, after winning the belt from her nemesis on the first-ever Raw episode of the New Era (after the brand extension resulted in separate rosters for Raw, on which Banks appears, and Smackdown) last month.
“I’m definitely excited about getting the fans talking again about what women wrestlers can do. I’m here to be the best and show the world.”
She is looking forward to defending that hard-won belt against all comers. First, however, she has to deal with the daughter of the great Ric Flair and self-proclaimed “genetically superior athlete”.
Banks is not dismissive of her opponent, but is riding high on confidence. “I’ve been with the ring with Charlotte so many times. I think (her biggest weakness) is that she knows I’m better than her, she knows that deep down. I’m ready to kick her butt, and I want to show that my match with Bayley was not a fluke – I’m ready to steal the show again.”
That old Bayley rivalry
The questions turn to Bayley, with whom she had so many great matches in NXT and who recently did a one-time “crossover” to partner with her at the recent WWE Battleground event against Charlotte and Dana Brooke.
“She would never get my title because she learned her lesson,” is Banks’ slightly tongue-in-cheek response. “I don’t want her to face me, I won’t give her that opportunity. She can be my friend ’cos she loves to hug people, but I’m not going to hand her that (title) opportunity.”
On a more serious note, she acknowledges that yes, she’s waiting for Bayley to step up and challenge her in WWE.
“Then I’ll get to Asuka (the current NXT women’s champ and a fearsome competitor). Definitely not scared of her. Well, maybe a little bit. But give me the opportunity!”
And Banks is certainly one to seize every opportunity, as shown when she pulled an Eddie Guerrero-style trick and got the referee to eject Brooke from ringside during her last clash with Charlotte.
The late Guerrero, in fact, is Banks’ idol and someone who inspired her from a very young age to go into wrestling.
“Watching him as a child, the first match I ever saw, my heart went, whoa – what is this I’m watching? Something in it just made me so happy. The instant I saw him I just wanted to be in WWE.
“I’m trying to follow in his footsteps, trying to be this female version of Eddie. A lot of people look up to him because they know he’s the best.”
The anti-hero persona that Guerrero cultivated during his rise to superstardom very clearly informed Banks’ own in-ring persona. Eventually, in NXT, the heel side of her emerged and her persona as The Boss – with the shades, bling rings and attitude – was born, though these days she is clearly a fan favourite.
“I am always gonna be The Boss. I don’t feel like I’m the hero yet, there’ll always be some bad guy chemistry in my heart. The Boss is always gonna be here, and when Bayley gets called up things are just going to get even better.”
It’s early days in her career yet, but when talk of her legacy comes up, Banks clearly wants to inspire others the way her idol inspired her.
“I remember writing in my journal when I was 10 that I wanted to be the greatest women’s wrestler of all time. I want people to look back and think of me like that – that they want to study me and be like me, or want to be better than me. The best of all time.”
Catch Sasha Banks vs Charlotte at SummerSlam 2016 on Aug 22, on the WWE Network (Astro Ch 820/HD Ch 840).