WWE Payback: Evaluating the Women’s Division Then and Now


WWE Payback showed that while the presentation of the Women’s Division has drastically improved, there’s still a ways to go.

WWE Payback is a relatively young series of pay-per-views, having started its run in 2013 as a replacement for No Way Out. Throwing on an old PPV from just a few years back is always a fun way to see how quickly storylines and characters can evolve in WWE, and looking back at the first Payback is a trip:

  • Curtis Axel (managed by Paul Heyman!) def. The Miz & Wade Barrett(c) in a triple threat match for the Intercontinental Title
  • Alberto Del Rio def. Dolph Ziggler (w/AJ Lee & Big E Langston)(c) for the World Heavyweight Championship
  • CM Punk made his return (aww) after losing to the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 29 and defeated Chris Jericho

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Right now, though, let’s discuss the match contested for the top prize for the women of WWE at the time:

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  • AJ Lee (w/Big E Langston) def. Kaitlyn(c) by submission to win the WWE Divas Title

Anyone remember the buildup to this match? It was pretty stupid. In brief: AJ Lee had been dating/seconding World Champ Dolph Ziggler (seriously, that sounds really weird to say in 2016), and had her sights set on the Divas Title, then held by her former bestie, Kaitlyn. Over several weeks leading to the show, Kaitlyn had a “secret admirer” sending her anonymous gifts during various segments of WWE television, eventually discovering that the mystery pitcher of woo was none other than Ziggler’s bodyguard, Big E Langston, who pulled a psyche job on Kaitlyn and set her up for a public smackdown by the bitter and totes crazy AJ, who accused Kaitlyn of abandoning her to pursue the title while various dudes abused and toyed with Lee.

This is where we were in 2013: the top Divas storyline (heck, the only Divas storyline) was centered around one “crazy chick” using her former pal’s dating life to get in her head. Anyone willing to take a stab at the last time male wrestlers’ love lives were the sole focus of the top male WWE program at the time? The Megapowers exploding? Flair vs. Savage at Wrestlemania VIII? I’m sure arguments could be made for Randy Orton kissing Stephanie McMahon in front of Triple H, or all that John Cena/Zack Ryder/Eve Torres nonsense in 2012. But the point is, this sort of storyline was more or less the only option for WWE’s female competitors for years (and if it wasn’t it was “chicks be cray, amirite?“), and it was sadly routine.

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What’s a real bummer here is that AJ and Kaitlyn weren’t bad wrestlers. No one’s likely to argue they could put together a match on the level of a Saha Banks/Bayley tilt, but it’s not a stretch to say they were among the top 3 in-ring talents in the Divas Division at that time. So it’s a crying shame that the commentary throughout the match chose not to focus on the in-ring action, but to instead discuss both females’ relationship issues.

Jerry Lawler is particularly atrocious in this match, at one point opining that “all women secretly dislike each other” and later, when Kaitlyn yanks AJ’s belt off her trunks, reacting with a “yeah, she needs a spanking!” Sure, expecting Jerry Lawler to not be a sexist oaf is like asking Donald Trump to be humble, but it’s still completely awful. But this was par for the depressing course during the era of the Butterfly Belt, an era that hit rock bottom with the infamous kiss from Brie Bella that cost AJ her Divas Title against Nikki Bella at Survivor Series 2014.

On Sunday at 2016’s edition of Payback, Charlotte defended the WWE Women’s Championship against third-generation superstar (and former Divas Champion) Natalya in an athletic contest that worked circles around the AJ/Kaitlyn match in 2013 and packed more action into three additional minutes of match time (2013 match: 9:52. 2016 match: 13:04), with thankfully no references to dating, boys, “craziness,” or catty girls hating girls to be seen. Nope, just two talented, driven, and strong women meeting in the squared circle to decide wrestling superiority as represented by a championship that commands respect. And the commentary reflected this, discussing little else than the compelling in-ring action.

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Well, the action and the men at ringside. The actual title match was often overshadowed by the presence of the ladies’ more famous male relatives: Charlotte’s father “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and Natalya’s uncle Bret “Hitman” Hart. Ever since Charlotte first dethroned Nikki Bella for the Divas Title last September, Flair’s influence on his daughter has been a black mark on Charlotte’s title run. By itself, it’s actually a compelling subplot to the resurgence of quality women’s wrestling on the main roster; constantly relying on her daddy to bail her out has served to undermine the feminist advances in the women’s division in the past year. It begs for a challenger to eventually dethrone the daddy’s girl and definitively prove that strong women and not “divas” rule the roost in today’s WWE.

But now’s not the time for that quite yet, apparently. At Payback 2016, a well-fought, hard-worked match between two outstanding women was decided with a callback to Bret Hart’s most infamous moment, triggered by a premature bell signaled for by a male referee well-known as a Ric Flair superfan.

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WWE’s Women’s Division has come a long way from gaslighting and titillating lesbian subtext for the boys, but those boys are still grabbing the spotlight.