Last night’s episode of Raw reaffirmed something that’s been clear for weeks now: the women’s division represents pretty much everything interesting about the show right now. This is both a testament to the solid work WWE has done building a respectable women’s division, and a sign of how poorly booked the rest of the show is. While the main event men and the nascent cruiserweight division suffer through poorly written promos and listless storylines that prioritize the wrong talent, wrestling largely adept matches rendered meaningless through repetition and a misguided overall direction, the women’s division has focused on a core group with distinct personalities and skill sets that all play well off each other.
The key to the division’s success has been the talent. Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Bayley are a strong trio to build a division around. They all have clearly defined characters, honed by years of experience in NXT, that complement each other well. On a WWE roster filled with great workers, all three are capable of having the match of the night on any card on which they’re booked. Most importantly, their segments on Raw have largely played to these strengths, presenting them as serious competitors who try to settle their believable issues with one another in the ring in matches largely focused around winning the championship, something which often seems secondary in even the biggest WWE feuds.
There have been some miscues along the way, most egregiously the booking of the Charlotte and Sasha Banks Iron Man match earlier this month. Having Sasha submit to tie the score with only a couple of seconds left easily could have killed her as a babyface, and having Charlotte win cleanly in overtime just a few minutes later missed out on an easy opportunity to strengthen Charlotte’s heel credentials. The two episodes of Raw since that match have righted the ship, though, as Charlotte has headed into a feud with Bayley (in what is perhaps the starkest heel vs. face dichotomy WWE has seen in years), and Sasha will get to play to her in-ring strengths as the sympathetic underdog against the monster Nia Jax. The poor finale of that Iron Man match lead directly to two promising feuds that should only strengthen both the division and Raw.
Those two sensible feuds are a contrast to most of the rest of Raw. WWE currently has one of the most talented rosters in the company’s history, but Raw squanders most of that potential through poor booking. The Universal champion, Kevin Owens, is ostensibly a heel who’s cheered by a significant portion of the audience. The biggest heel on every show is Roman Reigns, who’s presented as the next all-conquering superhero in the John Cena / Hulk Hogan vein. Last night Reigns, the current US champion, cleanly beat Owens, who holds the company’s biggest title, in the middle of one of those WWE feuds that are developed primarily by having the participants wrestle each other every week before main eventing a pay-per-view, exhausting the audience and killing most of the potential heat along the way. At least when Charlotte wrestled Bayley on Raw last night it was mostly an angle, with Charlotte’s lackey Dana Brooke interfering as a heavily partial guest referee. Meanwhile Sami Zayn is dying in a go-nowhere feud with Braun Strowman, the cruiserweights are saddled with bad characters and short matches that don’t play to the wrestlers’ strengths, and the tag team division has exactly two credible teams, one of which just won the titles from the other after a year-plus reign. Even if Charlotte, Sasha and Bayley weren’t so talented, the women’s division would probably be the highlight of Raw simply by being the only competently booked part of the show.
There are still problems with the women’s division. The brand split thinned out the roster to the point where the three main stars (and, to a lesser extent, Jax) are the only viable headliners at the moment. Regressive angles like the one involving Lana and Enzo and Alicia Fox’s relationship with Cedric Alexander are unwelcome flashbacks to how women used to be presented on Raw, somewhat undermining the great work done in the actual division so far. There’s always the fear that Vince McMahon can change his mind on a dime and scrap the entire division, or at least fully revert back to the miserable “divas” era.
For now, though, the women make Raw watchable. And given the recent history of women’s wrestling in America, and especially in WWE, that’s still pretty shocking.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.