Scarlett Harris investigates the recent history of the WWE women’s tag team championships and the broader issues that surround the narrative framing of women’s wrestling.
From the moment the WWE women’s tag team championships were re-introduced in early 2019 until the recent relinquishment by Sasha Banks and Naomi and subsequent retirement of the titles, they have been an utter shemozzle.
But first, some history: World Wrestling Entertainment, then World Wrestling Federation, initially had women’s tag team champions all the way back in 1983, when Velvet McIntyre and Princess Victoria brought the titles with them from the National Wrestling Alliance. (The territory system of professional wrestling in the U.S. which allowed wrestlers and their championships to be traded between companies is too convoluted to get into here, but I do write about it in my book, A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler.) They were cast aside six years later in 1989 when WWE transitioned into 1990s Attitude Era, which you may remember from your youth when women in the industry were seen as eye candy and women’s wrestling was cast aside in favour of cat fights and bikini contests.
But WWE underwent a “women’s wrestling evolution” in recent years when they were positioned as serious athletes once again, enjoying women’s versions of men’s matches such as Hell in a Cell, the Royal Rumble and the Money in the Bank ladder match, and culminating in women main eventing WrestleMania in 2019 (Becky Lynch VS. Charlotte Flair VS. Ronda Rousey, who is a wrestler now!) and again in 2021 (Bianca Belair VS. Sasha Banks, the first singles main event to feature all-Black wrestlers of any gender).
With the women’s wrestling evolution came the reinstitution of the women’s tag team titles, agitated for behind the scenes by the inaugural champions Sasha Banks and Bayley, known as The Boss ’n’ Hug Connection.
It’s clear that Banks and Bayley were perhaps the only ones taking the new championships seriously, because when they lost them to Australian tag team The IIconics a few months later at WrestleMania 35, so too did the titles lose the lustre they had while around the waists of Banks and Bayley.
This was through no fault of The IIconics (consisting of Peyton Royce and Billie Kay, since retired from wrestling), who were a legitimately entertaining tag team who embodied the larger than life personalities required of professional wrestlers, and they quietly dropped the titles to the team of Bliss Cross Applesauce, Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross, in a match in which The IIconics weren’t even involved in the final decision (Bliss pinned Kairi Sane to win the titles).
The championships were mostly traded back and forth between Bliss Cross Applesauce and the Kabuki Warriors, Asuka and Sane, for the rest of 2019. And then the pandemic hit, in which WWE was still in operation (having been granted essential status by the conservative governor of Florida, where WWE is based, who also received kickbacks from a pro-Trump SuperPAC run by Linda McMahon, the wife of disgraced WWE Chairman Vince McMahon), albeit with no crowds.
Enter: Banks and Bayley once again to ultimately save the women’s tag titles and the women’s division more broadly during a time when WWE was lacking one of its most important ingredients: audience participation. The Boss ’n’ Hug Connection also held the singles women’s titles along with the tag titles, a dichotomy that both adds to and takes away from the specialness of the tag team championships.
The lack of respect for the tag titles is a problem that would plague them for the next two years, as WWE decimated their roster due to pandemic “budget cuts” (despite record profits in 2020) and with it the women’s tag team division, with the cobbled-together teams of Nia Jax and Shayna Bazsler, Asuka and Charlotte Flair, Natalya and Tamina, Nikki A.S.H. (formerly Cross) and Rhea Ripley, and Carmella and Queen Zelina holding the titles from the end of 2020 to this year’s WrestleMania 38, which brings us to Sasha Banks and Naomi’s final reign.
Despite Banks and Naomi having an established relationship within the WWE canon (when Banks debuted in 2015, signifying what WWE called “the Diva’s revolution” which then became known as the women’s wrestling evolution, she was paired with Naomi and Tamina as part of Team B.A.D.), their reunion ahead of WrestleMania was very much a part of this hodge podge of women’s tag teams. Likely the only reason they were brought back together is because for two pretty big stars (Banks more so, having starred in The Mandalorian), they were left with nothing to do for WWE’s biggest show of the year, as was the case with most of the other teams they competed against to win the titles. So their title reign was doomed from the start, arguably like the titles themselves…
All of this culminated in the 16th May episode of Raw on which Banks and Naomi were rumoured to be competing against each other in a storyline that would see Naomi challenging the Raw women’s champion Bianca Belair and Banks challenging the SmackDown women’s champion Ronda Rousey for her championship with the women’s tag team titles would falling by the wayside yet again. Instead, Banks and Naomi expressed their dissatisfaction to WWE executives, relinquishing their titles on the spot and walking out of WWE six weeks after winning them, during which time they defended them twice against tag teams that no longer exist.
How, then, was WWE supposed to hold a tournament to crown the next champions, which was announced later that week on SmackDown but not before commentators thoroughly lambasted Banks and Naomi on live television and the company released an official statement about them (which they can’t even regarding the sexual assault allegations against multiple wrestlers under WWE contract, including its CEO)? (The tournament has since been scrapped.)
As Black women, Banks and Naomi are already subject to racism without their company adding fuel to the fire by breaking “kayfabe” (the fourth wall of professional wrestling) to inform viewers what had happened instead of writing it away in a storyline. And in the year of Beyoncé’s anti-work anthem “Break My Soul”? Blasphemous! When white men CM Punk and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin walked out of WWE, they were celebrated for sticking it to the man—hell, the latter’s entire character was centered on his connection to the everyman WWE viewer who was sick of the daily grind. And CM Punk was held up as a wrestling folk icon, his name chanted throughout arenas when fans didn’t like the storylines for seven years until his return to wrestling for rival promotion AEW last year. But when Black women—the most disrespected, un-protected and neglected people in America, to paraphrase Malcolm X—stand up and declare that they deserve better after years of being undervalued, their names are besmirched.
WWE’s reaction to Banks and Naomi’s walkout and their continued disuse of the women’s tag team championships prove their and, indeed, this article’s point: WWE never cared about the women’s tag team championships.