WWE is undergoing a massive change, thanks, in no small part, to the Four Horsewomen—four preternaturally fierce and gifted wrestlers who frequently outshine their male counterparts. Meet Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and Bayley, who are quickly ushering in a new era.
There they were, one year ago, sprawled out on an all-black mat, surrounded by a fever-pitch crowd of 15,589 people. Sasha Banks had just locked in the Bank Statement, cranking on the neck of her challenger, Bayley, a tangle of hair and sweat and screams.
The match seemed as good as over. Had Bayley tapped out to Sasha’s finisher, everyone inside of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center would have left praising the fantastic match they had just witnessed, applauding both the physical feats and the storytelling. But she didn’t tap. Instead Bayley army-crawled toward the ropes, inch-by-inch working the crowd of predominantly young men into a frenzy. As she outstretched her fingers in one last gasp to break the hold, Sasha began stomping away on Bayley’s hand, which was legitimately broken just a couple months prior. It was the smallest of details, but one that intensified the moment, bringing in an element of reality that made you forget what you were watching was loosely choreographed. When Bayley countered Sasha’s own submission move onto her, their bout evolved to a rarified level of wrestling: transcendent. I looked over to my girlfriend, a non-fan who I had to beg to come with me. A look of shock crept up her face. “This is amazing,” she said.
The finish came not long after that, following a reverse frankensteiner—basically, a backflip with the opponent's head scissored between your legs—off the top rope into one final suplex from Bayley. One. Two. Three.
Two other women, Charlotte and Becky Lynch, bum-rushed the ring to celebrate, hoisting Bayley up into the air. And then came a depleted Sasha, rolling into the ring while clutching her neck to embrace her opponent in a complete break of character. This was about more than wrestling storylines or sports entertainment, it was about acknowledging how these four women—the Four Horsewomen—helped reshape women’s wrestling from an excuse to go to the bathroom into the main attraction on every NXT* card. The next challenge? To keep the revolution going on the next stage: WWE.
* NXT is the name of WWE’s developmental property, based in Orlando, Florida. In the four years since its formation, NXT has come to be viewed as its own brand, known for bridging the gap between international and independent wrestling promotions and WWE.
Sasha Banks always had the skills it took to be a professional wrestler. You don’t beat out a bunch of guys for three-months of free training by being a schlub in the ring, which is something she did back in Boston when she was eighteen. What she was missing, though, was a character, someone that would connect her to fans. Sasha was all talent with no identity.
On the independent scene, she was just happy someone was actually paying her to wrestle at all. So when WWE came calling in 2012 and signed her to a developmental contract, that’s the character she first tried on for size—a fan who had made it to the big leagues. “I was just a happy babyface, living the dream, trying to make a name for myself,” she said. “That was it.”
It didn't go well at all.
“Just happy to be here!” is never going to make you stand out in a landscape that over the years has featured a beer-swilling redneck anarchist, a dude who is “technically” dead, and an egomaniacal CEO who turned firing people into a gimmick long before Donald Trump. Sasha Banks had to learn that lesson the hard way. “I just felt in my heart that I was going to be next on the chopping block,” says Sasha now. “You have to have something where people can connect to you and I needed something. I was legit job-scared, and sadly, I have no other skills.”
So she went home, cracked open a notebook, and started writing down entire biographies for different characters—a tip she picked up from Tyler Breeze, who also struggled to make an impression with fans early in his career. One of her very first creations was The Boss, inspired by her famous cousin, Snoop Dogg. “Everyone called him The Boss. So I took that from him. I took things from Kanye West. I took things from Nicki Minaj. My looks, my attitude, the hair.”
Backstage, Sasha’s new persona was met with a mixture of confusion and skepticism, but the late Dusty Rhodes, head of creative at WWE’s Performance Center, saw dollar signs in The Boss. “He was like, ‘We got something here. This is good. This is the sassy character I wanted, baby!’ He just always believed in me and I would work with him, work with him, work with him. Finally, we tried it out on TV, and it just clicked with the fans. And here I am now. A ‘Legit Boss.’”
"I took that from him. I took things from Kanye West. I took things from Nicki Minaj. My looks, my attitude, the hair."
Truth is, she may have always been one. Her younger brother Jonathan, who she grew up watching wrestling with, suffers from both autism and Tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare disorder that caused tumors to form on both his brain and heart. “We had to move around a lot, just to find the right doctors and the right school for him,” which primarily left Sasha friendless growing up. For a while they lived in Iowa, where they had family who could help them out with the mounting medical bills, but Iowa lacked the proper medical resources Sasha’s brother required. So they moved to Minnesota. Then Oregon. Then California. Then back to Minnesota. “I was 13, and my mom didn’t have a job at that time and my brother was getting abused in school. When she finally found a job, I told her, ‘You know what? I’ll leave school to take care of him, so we can have some money.’ After that, I was home-schooled on the computer. I put my whole life on hold.”
When I was 13 years old, I thought Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live” was the greatest achievement in modern music and couldn’t be trusted to take care of a Neopet. Sasha Banks gave up an entire childhood—the opportunity to make friends, to attend high school dances, to play sports—in order to ensure her family could have the best life possible. What could be more boss than that?
In the year since she was brought up from NXT to the WWE main roster, it has been a wild roller coaster of emotions, which culminated recently when she defeated Charlotte on an episode of Monday Night Raw in Pittsburgh to become the new WWE Women’s Champion. It had been a long road from the abiding Diva designation—and particularly the design of its accompanying championship belt Sasha had been actively trying to avoid. “I hated being called that. ‘Oh, so you’re a Diva?’ No, I’m a wrestler, dude. I would not walk around with that butterfly belt ever, ever, ever. I was bitching my heart out. As a kid, seeing that butterfly belt, my heart broke. I was like, you’re just showing that it’s not the same as the guys. It made me so angry.”
But the worst injustice had to be the aftermath of WrestleMania, after Sasha had faced off against Charlotte and Becky Lynch in a Triple Threat match for the newly minted WWE Women’s Championship. In the biggest event of the year, the three women gave what fans and critics declared to be the most memorable match of the night. “To have Stone Cold Steve Austin come up to me and be like, ‘Goddamn, you ladies are amazing.’ Like, what? What is going on? This is insane! And then the next week, there was nothing for us to do on the show. I was just like, ‘No! You still have to keep it going!’”
Banks is echoing what fans have been saying: If the WWE wants to prove that women’s wrestling is something that they’re truly invested in for the long haul—and not a PR move—there needs to be consistency; female talent needs to be on the air weekly. That’s really what Sasha Banks wants more than anything. “The consistency has to be number one,” she says. “Sometimes I look back at NXT and I really miss that. But we didn’t always have that. We had to fight for it.”
Four years ago, Becky Lynch was standing on the stage of Dublin’s oldest theatre, Smock Alley, head-to-toe in Victorian-era garb, chastising legions of beggar-minions and demonizing the act of sexual dependency as Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. Considering it's Becky Lynch—typically all smiles and puns and a laugh that could unite the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros—the image is hilarious to think about.
So she modeled the role after her mother. Not that her mother was some crazy scam artist. “She’s a great, perfect mother,” says Becky. “But you know those mothers. When an Irish mommy has a temper!” It’s a particularly fond memory for Becky, primarily because just two years earlier, she found herself cast in a college production of Animal Farm. “Frickin’ Cow Number 2!” she laughs. “We didn’t even have auditions, and I was Cow Number 2! Talk about being at the bottom of the freaking shit-pot.”
The WWE wasn’t Becky’s first foray into professional wrestling. In fact, she was on the cusp of breaking out as a huge star as early as 2006 in Japan, where an advertising agency had scooped her up and began promoting her as a celebrity wrestler. At shows that featured some of the biggest names in women’s wrestling—Aja Kong, Natalya, Sara Del Rey, Awesome Kong—it was Becky’s name that kept appearing in the main event, often pitted against a trio of male luchadores. For an eighteen-year-old, though, the experience was more overwhelming than fulfilling.
“Coming from Europe, I was this ground-based technical wrestler, but every night I would be doing all these crazy, high-flying moves against these three Mexican guys. I remember just thinking that it wasn’t true to who I was or the wrestler that I was… I was constantly coming back home feeling deflated, feeling like I had failed a little bit.”
The pressure compounded when Becky took a look at the women who made up the bulk of the WWE roster at the time—figure models. She immediately began training for figure competitions, which took a toll on her body, especially in the ring. “I was this tiny, skinny, emaciated thing. And my energy was waning. And my body wasn't as thick and able to take the bumps.” Not long thereafter, Becky suffered a head injury during a match in Germany that left her with headaches, blurred vision, and a persistent buzzing noise in her left ear, which made her reevaluate her future in the industry. So she devised a brash plan: move to Orlando on a student visa, the idea being that she would find herself in a city that had become a major wrestling hub (the wrestling promotion TNA filmed there) while she simultaneously worked towards a personal training certificate, just in case the whole wrestling thing didn’t work out.
“All of a sudden I land in Florida and I’m by myself and I have no way of getting around. I’m in this tiny gray apartment, and I’m going out with a guy who’s 16 years older than me, and I’m just completely overwhelmed with life. My reaction was to just freeze everything out. Like, can’t we just put life on hold for a second?” So she did what she had always done when she started feeling antsy. “I remember calling my mom and just being like, ‘I don’t want to do this, I want to come home.’”
Soon it was right back to Ireland, where she worked as a personal trainer. Her mom asked if she’d like for her to pass along her resume to the airline she was about to retire from. Aer Lingus hired Becky as a flight attendant, which she did for two and a half years, “hating it” the whole time. So she tried running a pilates studio. Then she backpacked across Thailand and Cambodia, learning Muay Thai in the process. Looking to fill the void left by wrestling, acting seemed like a logical career path she would actually like, so Becky enrolled at the Conservatory of Music & Drama at DIT in Dublin. (Hence, Cow Number 2 and Mrs. Peachum.)
Between those two castings she also:
- Studied abroad in Chicago at Columbia College
- Learned capoeira and aerial arts (think: Cirque du Soleil)
- Worked in a health food store
- Worked as a bartender at Hibernia in Hell’s Kitchen for a summer
- Went to clown school, which is apparently a thing
- Took up sword-fighting
Still, nothing was scratching the itch that wrestling left in her life. She almost returned to it during her time in Chicago, popping up in the all-female promotion Shimmer for a brief stint as a manager. But when she talked to the other women backstage, they seemed jaded by the business. “I thought that maybe I had made the right decision after all.” So she kept pursuing acting instead, eventually landing a role as a stunt-woman on the first season of Vikings after graduation. “As soon as I got that role, I went down to a wrestling school. I had never actually done stunt-work before, so I figured I could go there and practice, because I was confident there. So I went down and Joe Cabray—he had just been signed to NXT—was there training. He looked at my footwork and was like, ‘God, you’ve still got it. Are you sure you don’t want to do this? I think you should go for a tryout.’”
Seven years. That’s how long Becky Lynch ran away from wrestling, trying to convince herself that it wasn’t something she wanted to do. When the time finally came, Becky crushed her tryout with WWE. There was never a doubt in her mind that she’d be receiving a contract offer. And when she did, she met three women who would help ground her after years of globetrotting and moonsaulting off turnbuckles with luchadores—three women who shared her desire to put women’s wrestling back on the map.
Becky knows she's lucky, that not everyone gets a second shot at living out their dreams. In some sense, Sasha, Charlotte, and Bayley helped Becky Lynch find home. In return, she's the soul that makes the Four Horsewomen a vibrant, living entity. “I had this guilt and regret that stuck with me up until November of last year,” she said. “Like, who am I to have given up for this length of time and come back and be in the position that I’m in? I gave this up. Shouldn’t I have to pay the penance for that? When, in hindsight, those seven years away were the penance for it. Because I love this.”
Charlotte loves being the bad guy. She just takes all the preconceived notions someone might have of a six-foot tall former Division I athlete who could lead the Amazons and taps into that full tilt. “I get to pretend to be how people think I really am. They see me and it’s like, ‘Oh, well she must be like this.’” Read: standoffish, entitled, arrogant. “Well, you know what? I’ll act that way for you. That’s more fun.”
In a way, she uses Charlotte (real name: Ashley) to mask her insecurities, especially when she has to go out there in the middle of a ring and talk to an entire arena, which still makes her stomach turn. “I can just hide it by being over-confident.”
So you can imagine her shock when WWE informed her that she would be leaving NXT for the main roster as a good guy instead. “You can’t tell the crowd, ‘I’m ‘genetically superior’ and you need to like me.’ I started second guessing my entrance as I was doing it. Like, what do I do with my hands? Do I smile? Do I not smile? Are the fans going to be like, ‘Is she trying to be cocky? Is she trying not to be cocky? Are we supposed to like her?’ You could see, I wore the stress on my face.”
Perhaps sensing that fans weren’t rallying behind Charlotte as a good guy like they had hoped, the decision was made to pair her up full time with quite possibly the most beloved man in all of pro wrestling—her father, Ric Flair. As excited as she was to work with her dad, deep down, she knew that would only muddle her character more. “I’m trying to be a babyface and they’re like, ‘The father-daughter relationship is relatable!’ No, it’s not. He’s Ric Flair and I’m Charlotte.” By that she means that they’re Rolex wearing, diamond ring wearing, kiss stealing, wheeling dealing, limousine riding, jet-flying son of a guns! “They’re not relatable. No one can relate to that!”
Charlotte never wanted to be a wrestler growing up. She was too preoccupied winning national championships in cheerleading and State volleyball titles to even think about following in her father’s footsteps. Besides, she saw the hardships that her older brother David went through when he was thrown on television without any proper training precisely because he was Ric Flair’s kid. “I was like, why would I want to be a part of that? Plus looking at the women there, they were models and I played basketball, volleyball, diving, track. I wasn’t walking runways or anything.” Yet even though she never had any real desire to be on TV, that’s exactly where she seemed to find herself time and time again. If you dig deep enough on YouTube, you can see her in the ring with her father on WCW Nitro back in the late ‘90s. There she is again, giving Vince Russo the side-eye during an angle where Russo broke into the Flair home and referred to her as “the demon child.” And again, at WrestleMania in 2008, openly crying in the front row after her father’s epic retirement match against Shawn Michaels.
It wasn’t until she attended WrestleMania XXVIII in Miami for the induction of her father as a member of the Four Horsemen into the WWE Hall of Fame that she was convinced to enter the family business. Her younger brother Reid, who was already pursuing a career as a professional wrestler, desperately wanted his sister to get in on the action. For most of their lives, they had done everything together. “We went to the same school, same friends, same teachers. We grew up in Charlotte together.” At the time, Charlotte was working as a personal trainer back in North Carolina, “but Reid was like, ‘You’ve got to do this. Do it, do it, do it. We’ll be there together.’ That was the idea: For me to get to WWE and him to meet me.”
Charlotte was signed to a developmental deal one month later and reported to FCW, which was rebranded into NXT soon thereafter. It didn’t take long for her to realize just how difficult it would be to step out from behind her father’s shadow. “I knew my dad was famous, but I didn’t realize what he meant to this industry.” But for all the pressure Charlotte faced, it paled in comparison to what Reid must have felt wrestling in Japan, hoping for a shot of his own in WWE. “My little brother wanted to be my dad. I mean, idolized my dad. And I saw the struggle and what it was like for him. Reid was great, but as a young kid growing up and wanting to be Ric Flair—I know my pressures. I deal with it on a daily basis. And I don’t want to say it’s different because I’m a girl, because I’ve worked really hard, but to be a male in this industry and live up to being Ric Flair? I don’t know how he could have done it. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”
Less than a year after vowing to come up the WWE ranks together, Reid Flair passed away from a drug overdose at the age of 25, just days before he was set to watch his sister wrestle for the first time.
At the behest of Dusty Rhodes, Charlotte returned to training a week after Reid’s funeral and suddenly the things she had struggled to pick up in the ring started to click. She always had the ability, it’s just that wrestling was more than just wrestling now—it was a way to both mourn and honor her brother. “It’s not that I wasn’t trying hard that first year, but the only thing I could think about was that my brother lost his dream, so I can’t fail. Because we both can’t fail. And it was a really, really hard time for my family. So if I didn’t succeed, I didn’t know if my parents were going to succeed.”
The success brought her all the way to this year's WrestleMania, which just so happened to fall on the third anniversary of Reid’s funeral. It was a bittersweet feeling. “I just kept thinking, like, what if he was there to see me? But then I was like, you know, I think my brother changed my life. I would have never done this and followed this dream if it wasn’t for him.” So at the end of the night, as Charlotte stood victorious over Sasha and Becky, raising the WWE Women’s Championship high above her head with her father by her side and fireworks going off in the background, she looked up and told her brother thank you.
As Bayley sat backstage at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. moments before making her unofficial debut on WWE’s main roster, there was a thought that lingered in the back of her mind: What if nobody here knows who I am? Or worse, What if they know who I am and they don’t care?
Just a few weeks prior, WWE announced that Sasha Banks would have a mystery tag-team partner for her upcoming match against Charlotte and Dana Brooke at Battleground. The Internet lit up with speculation. Could it be one of the greatest female performers of all time, Lita, coming back for one more match? Trish Stratus? A debuting Nia Jax? Paige? Two days before the pay-per-view, it was Bayley who got the call that she was needed in D.C. She was ecstatic, of course, but she couldn’t shake the fear that she would enter that arena to crickets.
What Bayley didn’t know was that the Verizon Center was littered with homemade signs explicitly for her. Then, in the quiet, drawn out moment right before the reveal, a chant started to make its way through the arena. Hey, we want some Bayley! When her entrance music hit, the crowd erupted into pure euphoria—15,000 people, all on their feet, jumping up and down while chanting Bayley’s name over and over again. It was the moment fans have been waiting more than a year for now. All four Horsewomen had finally arrived.
But 11 days later and the fourth Horsewomen was gone again, back on the road with NXT in much-less glamorous Gainesville. “It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but the crowd here is always a good one, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” It’s been just more than a year since Sasha, Becky, and Charlotte debuted on the main roster; four months since the trio stole the show at WrestleMania without her. And yet, Bayley isn't bitter the other three are on the main roster. “Just because I’m still in NXT and they’re in WWE, it’s still about women’s wrestling. They’re handling it here, and I’m trying to handle it in NXT.”
At this point, it’s not a matter of if Bayley will make the main roster, but when—otherwise why have her make a surprise appearance on a pay-per-view to begin with? On the one hand, you can also understand why NXT is hesitant to lose her; no other wrestler in the world has pulled out as many good of matches with such a wide variety of talent in the past year. But the desire to hold on to Bayley for as long as possible goes much deeper than the matches she’s able to produce.
“Before Bayley, I felt like our locker room was very competitive,” says Sasha Banks. “Like, ‘No, I’m going to push you down the stairs to get here.’ When she came in, she changed everything. She was so positive and let us know that doing this is cool, and we can do this together. I love helping the new girls and being a so-called ‘leader,’ but I learned that from Bayley. She changed my mindset completely on how to give a helping hand.”
Truthfully, Bayley didn’t know any other way to be in the locker room. When she began training at Big Time Wrestling just outside of San Jose, she was the only girl there. “I was never competing with anybody else. I was just trying to be one of the guys, and they all made me feel like I was part of the team. We were all equals. So that’s how I viewed it coming in here. We’re all here to wrestle, and I knew that we had to work together to be successful, so that how I always took it on.”
Bayley is even-keeled, but her aura radiates a quiet confidence. Spending time with her makes you feel like you could succeed in bringing black rhinos back from the brink of extinction. That’s why all the other women at NXT come to her for advice on their matches. More recently, it’s why WWE-veteran Nikki Bella specifically requested to train with her after coming back from career-threatening neck surgery. “She has me giving her shoulder tackles and headlock takeovers and stuff! For her to trust her body with me…I guess I am doing something right around here!”
More than anything else, reshaping the locker room culture is the legacy Bayley would like to be remembered for. Not for the championships she has won or for the all the shows she and the Four Horsewomen stole but for the impact she had on women’s wrestling as a whole. “Trying to help mold the next generation, or the next crop of girls that are going to be taking over the division—that is my goal. If the girls in NXT can remember things that they’ve learned from me that helped them, that just keeps building women’s wrestling. We’re fighting to make us all equal.”