The winners of the annual Wrestling Observer Newsletter readership awards were announced last month. A.J. Styles won the Lou Thesz/Ric Flair Award for Wrestler of the Year. Styles is absolutely deserving of the award, but he didn’t get my first place vote.
Sasha Banks is my wrestler of the year.
I’m not alone. Banks got 80 first place votes – the most for anyone from WWE. That includes Brock Lesnar (79), John Cena (55) and Seth Rollins (51). She finished 8th overall in the voting for the Thesz/Flair Award. I’ve not heard or seen this stated as fact, but from what I’ve been able to gather from my own research, a top 10 finish for a woman is unprecedented in the history of the Thesz/Flair Award.
I’m not here to tell you Sasha Banks is the best wrestler in the world. I’ll happily side with a number of her male contemporaries when it comes to in-ring performance, but none of them had a bigger impact on professional wrestling in 2015. Sasha Banks drastically altered the way mainstream wrestling fans view women. She certainly didn’t do it alone, but once she was positioned as the centerpiece of NXT’s women’s division, everything changed.
Few could have predicted Banks’ stock would rise so dramatically over the course of 12 months. The most recent WON awards were based on the time frame from December 1, 2014 through November 30, 2015. In December 2014, Charlotte was the NXT Women’s Champion. Banks had two high-profile title matches during that month, at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution and one a regular NXT episode that aired on Christmas Day.
Banks came up short, but her effort in those defeats opened a lot of eyes. A couple months later, Banks won the NXT Women’s Title at TakeOver: Rival.
Great matches became the norm for Sasha Banks. In 2015, she delivered no less than 5 matches rated 4-stars or better by WON. I was personally in attendance for an NXT live event in Pittsburgh, where Banks and Becky Lynch put on a phenomenal championship match that had fans on the edge of their seats. You won’t find a star rating for that one anywhere. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
Banks was one of NXT’s cornerstones during its transformation from a humble developmental brand confined to Florida into a burgeoning third touring brand for WWE. The title match between Banks and Bayley was a major selling point for NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, the biggest show in the brand’s history. A couple months later, they made history as the first women in WWE history to meet in an Iron Man Match. It was also the first women’s match to main event a TakeOver special.
Sasha Banks was the rising tide that lifted all boats. You can make a strong case that she is the opponent for the best singles matches in the careers of her fellow “Four Horsewomen” – Bayley, Charlotte and Lynch.
About 5 years ago, Sasha Banks was an 18-year-old just beginning her professional wrestling career with Chaotic Wrestling, an independent promotion based in Massachusetts that was also in its infancy at the time. She won a couple championships during the early years of her career, but her time in the independents was brief. Still just 20 years old, WWE signed her to a developmental contract after a tryout in the summer of 2012.
Her signing came at a time when WWE was making huge changes to its developmental system. The same month the company signed Banks, it shuttered Florida Championship Wrestling and relaunched its developmental brand as NXT. A new day was dawning for WWE.
There was another major development for women’s wrestling in WWE during the summer of 2012. The company signed one of the most respected female wrestlers in the world. Sara Amato had earned international fame as Sara Del Rey, and was still in the prime of her in-ring career (she became the fourth woman to be named to the PWI 500 in 2012), but WWE didn’t want her wrestling in matches. The company had something much bigger in mind. Amato became the first female trainer at the newly opened WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.
Some of the major pieces were in place, but women’s wrestling in the new NXT was still a work in progress in 2012. Some promising prospects saw their fortunes fall. Sofia Cortez was released from her contract during the summer of 2012, though she would later find success in the independents, AAA and on Lucha Underground as Ivelisse. Raquel Diaz, the daughter of Eddie and Vickie Guerrero, left before the end of 2012. Former FCW Divas Champion Audrey Marie was released less than a year after the first episode of the new NXT. Former fitness model Dani Ceraso was signed in October 2012, but less than a year later she left the ring for a desk job at WWE’s corporate headquarters.
Others survived the overhaul. An even younger prospect than Banks when she signed, Paige got a developmental contract in September 2011, and was positioned as the top woman in the new NXT. Summer Rae had also signed in late 2011. She was a staple of the women’s division during those early NXT episodes, and she was the key to Banks’ biggest on-screen development to that point, when they united to form the BFFs (Beautiful Fierce Females). Charlotte, another prospect signed amid the sweeping changes in WWE’s developmental system in the middle of 2012, joined the group over a year later.
All of this is meant to illustrate the seismic shift over the past 5 years in the way women’s wrestling is perceived, cultivated, nurtured and presented in WWE. Today, Sasha Banks’ obligations in NXT are at an end. She was formally introduced to the main roster alongside Charlotte and Lynch on Raw last July, but their legacy endures. A new generation of NXT women is following in their footsteps, and striving to meet the bar of excellence they set. No one pushed it higher than Sasha Banks.
The best may be yet to come. The promise of Sasha Banks’ potential has yet to be fully realized on WWE’s main roster. Who knows? Perhaps by this time next year, more people will be ready to crown her as the best wrestler in the world. Perhaps Charlotte’s stated goal of a WrestleMania main event isn’t so absurd. Perhaps this is a road to unrivaled heights for women’s wrestling in WWE. If it is, I’ll say it started with Sasha Banks.