Welcome to the review of the Mae Young Classic Finals – contested between Shayna Baszler and Kairi Sane – which took place live on Tuesday night this week on the WWE Network following SmackDown Live.
We’ve covered the first four episodes and the second four episodes in previous reviews, which I’m now shilling for all they’re worth. Have you read them yet? If you have, many thanks for taking the time to do so. Now let’s crack on and finish the job.
After a short video package, the show was opened by Renee Young with a live mic in the arena of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. After a brief introduction we saw footage of the ‘red carpet’ that took place earlier in the evening and soundbites from Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Ronda Rousey, three of WWE’s Four Horsewomen and the cast of the Netflix series GLOW who were all in attendance.
A host of faces were shown sitting ringside in the arena, including Alundra Blayze, Beth Phoenix, Dana Warrior, Mauro Ranallo, Canadian Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe, The Rock’s mother Ata Johnson and four of the other women from the tournament; Mercedes Martinez, Candice LeRae, Toni Storm and Piper Niven. Also shown ringside but not singled out were Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Asuka, Summer Rae and two of Shayna Baszler’s MMA stablemates, Ronda Rousey and Jessamyn Duke.
Jim Ross and Lita were positioned ringside at the announce desk. I know a number of people haven’t been too keen on their commentary during the tournament, and I can understand that (Ranallo and Daniel Bryan set a very high bar for this kind of gig during the Cruiserweight Classic last year). I’ve heard worse WWE commentary on Tuesday nights in the last few years though, so you ain’t gonna find me hating much. JR’s voice calling WWE matches still sends me to my happy place. Anyway, JR and Lita threw to a video package about the finalists (following a quick shot of each of them preparing backstage) and then after that it was time for business to pick up.
Mae Young Classic Finals: Kairi Sane vs Shayna Baszler
Shayna Baszler hit the ring first, acknowledging Rousey and Duke at ringside. Kairi Sane entered in her usual pirate-themed gear, to a smattering of polite applause and some faint cheers. Not much of a reaction to either woman’s entrance to be honest; this was definitely more a SmackDown crowd than a Full Sail one.
Lilian Garcia made a welcome surprise appearance to handle the ring announcements, including a little hype speech to build the moment. This seemed to do the job in waking the crowd up a little, offering some boos for Baszler and cheers for Sane (though still not that loud). Baszler touched hands with Sane on the pre-match handshake – showing Sane relatively high respect given her previous form with handshakes in the tournament – and the bell rang.
A dueling chant got going as the women locked up; sounded like Baszler’s half of it came from closer to the crowd mics with Sane getting a few more voices out in the arena. Baszler took Sane down and looked for a cross armbreaker, rear naked choke and seated side headlock, but each time Sane swiftly reversed into a pin. Crowd appreciated that. Baszler pushed Sane down towards the mat with a test of strength, swept the legs away and hit a stiff kick to the back. Baszler shot Sane off towards the ropes but Sane countered with a hurricanrana. Baszler hit a loud roundhouse kick that drew a crowd reaction and knocked Sane out of the ring. As Sane was recovering, Baszler followed her out and hit another kick from the apron.
Back in the ring, Baszler targeted Sane’s elbow with a double wristlock and stomp in an effort to neutralize her diving elbow drop finisher. JR and Lita kept referring to it as her ‘insane’ (in-Sane?) elbow drop, suggesting WWE have already decided what they want to brand the move as. Baszler sidestepped an attempted spear and continued to work on the elbow. Sane slipped out of a suplex attempt and went to hit the spear, but Baszler caught her on arrival into a nice rolling gutwrench suplex combination for two.
Baszler continued to put torque on Sane’s right arm, but Sane made the ropes to force the break. Sane fired up and hit Baszler with a series of chops that Baszler soaked up. Sane went to run the ropes but Baszler cut her off with a high knee. Baszler went to run the ropes herself but Sane popped up and finally hit the spear – which Lita was referring to as her ‘interceptor’ (more branding?) – for a two count. Sane hit a sliding forearm, low dropkick and a springboard stomp for another two, then applied a bodyscissors. Baszler fought out but ended up sent into the turnbuckles. Sane marched across the ring and looked for her running forearm in the corner, but Baszler moved and Sane’s injured elbow ate the turnbuckle.
Baszler was selling her ribs after Sane’s earlier spear; JR and Lita were noticeably sharp on that call, making me wonder if they got a tip-off from the producers in their ears. Sane hit an axe kick and went up top looking for the diving elbow, but Baszler popped up and caught her as she came off the turnbuckle, into the rear naked choke. Sane started to fade, then managed to fight out with elbows to Baszler’s injured ribs. More of the crowd were starting to get into the match by this point. Sane hit a spinning backfist and went up for the elbow again, but Baszler cut her off and tried to apply a double wristlock on the top rope. Sane pushed Baszler down into the tree of woe position and hit a stomp off the turnbuckles for two as Baszler was close enough to reach the ropes. A ‘this is awesome’ chant started to break out. Sane fired up, hit her running forearm to Baszler’s ribs in the corner and went up for the elbow. Sane hit it clean and covered for three. The match went 12 minutes.
After the match, Baszler continued to sell the ribs. Sane helped her up and the two embraced. Baszler raised Sane’s arm to ultimately end her tournament with a show of respect. After the replays had aired, Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and Sara Amato were in the ring with the Mae Young Classic trophy. After the winner was formally declared, Baszler made her exit and Triple H presented Sane with a bouquet of flowers. The show went off the air with Sane celebrating on the turnbuckles, lapping up generous applause from the crowd.
The right woman won. The ethos of the Mae Young Classic was to introduce WWE viewers to dynamic, exciting, unfamiliar women and give them a platform to be unique and show a wider audience the talent and passion they’ve only been able to show to enthusiasts for years. With no offence to her opponent here, nor the other 30 women involved, Kairi Sane embodied that more than anybody else in the tournament. As much as there were several people to admire, she was clearly head, shoulders and diving elbows above the rest of the field. It was announced after the show that Sane would wrestle at the next NXT TakeOver, in Houston the night before Survivor Series, for the vacant NXT Women’s Championship against an opponent (or possibly opponents) to be decided. She’s ready to step straight into that program.
This probably wasn’t the best match of the tournament – it’s relatively easy to compare as almost all of the leading candidates were Kairi Sane’s other matches – but it told a logical story, was put together well and the live crowd in Vegas ultimately bought into it. I’ve not been hugely enthusiastic about Shayna Baszler’s matches during this tournament; I think at least part of that is the disruptive, slow and grinding shoot-MMA-badass style that WWE no doubt wanted to see her working. It’s not a match style that really does it for me. However, Baszler played her role excellently here and, if we are getting a Horsewomen vs Horsewomen feud in the near future, I think it’s fair to say she’ll go into that with her reputation enhanced. All things considered it’s been good business.
There was no Horsewomen angle on this show; in fact the previous angles we saw in earlier episodes weren’t even referenced. This was also the right decision, with all the focus where it should’ve been – on the two women in the ring. The Horsewomen feud can look after itself, if and when WWE are able to press on with it. Also a nod here to Ronda Rousey, visibly heartbroken on camera at the end of the match, showing that even when you’re one of the world’s most decorated combat athletes, pro wrestling can still move your needle. It’s still real to her, dammit!
Just a final note on the crowd, who asides from small pockets of enthusiasm (making tinny but earnest noises in an arena that was far busier than it sounded) started out fairly indifferent but thawed towards both women in the home stretch. The vast majority, no doubt, had bought their tickets to see SmackDown and many wouldn’t have watched the Mae Young Classic at all. But if you let two talented wrestlers chip away at a match for more than ten minutes, working to their strengths and with something at stake, even the unfamiliar wrestling fan will begin to find something to like. That’s equally true of men and women.
Looking forwards now and with the Mae Young Classic at an end, where do we go from here?
When the WWE brand split and draft took place last summer, NXT lost Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax and Carmella in one swoop. NXT poster girl Bayley followed them soon after and the developmental brand’s women’s division was looking pretty thin. Fast forward to today and, even after losing Asuka, NXT still has Ember Moon, Ruby Riot, Nikki Cross, Peyton Royce and Billie Kay. And things are now about to kick into overdrive, as the immediate legacy of the Mae Young Classic will likely be a new wave of female talent sweeping their way into Wednesday nights.
Established talents like Kairi Sane, Abbey Laith and Dakota Kai are ready to go in front of the cameras immediately, while prospects like Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley may still need work but will surely force their way into the spotlight sooner rather than later. And that’s just among the women who we know have already signed; there are several others from this tournament who surely have a good shot of being taken on. For those already trying to make their mark in NXT, such as Sonya Deville, Liv Morgan and Aliyah – none of whom were among the 32 here – things just got a bit tougher. In fact, for the men and tag teams in NXT, things also just got a bit tougher. With ratings and audience reactions for the Mae Young Classic being as positive as they have been, it’ll become tough to leave some of these women off future TakeOver cards.
Do you remember the days when the female action on the main roster was a pale reflection of what was going on down at Full Sail? Well, the golden era of NXT women’s wrestling is coming back and it could once again push the rest of WWE’s offerings to new heights, from the bottom up. Perhaps in a few years’ time, nobody will be claiming it was Paige, or Emma; perhaps everyone will say it was the Mae Young Classic that truly started the Women’s Revolution.
Thanks for reading – let us know your thoughts in the comments about the final, anything else about the tournament and what you think should come next for women’s wrestling in WWE.