Bayley’s Risky Heel Turn Pays Off for the Woman Behind the Character

After more than six years as a lovable babyface, Pamela Martinez is relishing life as a villainous version of Bayley. She hopes it leads to a WrestleMania opportunity.
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WWE's Bayley cuts a promo in the ring on SmackDown

For Pamela Martinez, it feels so good to finally be bad.

Martinez personified pure sweetness as WWE star Bayley. She worked a throwback babyface style that made Ricky Steamboat smile, suffocating under the pressure of her opponent’s attack before making a crowd-pleasing comeback.

She made a significant career change by turning into a villain this past fall. In an environment where it is extraordinarily difficult to be a fan favorite, Martinez excelled at developing Bayley into a character that the audience could relate with and rally behind. Her wrestling in the ring is sublime, but Bayley resonated more because of the person playing the role than the moveset.

“I wanted a new challenge,” said Martinez. “I did the same character for so long and the same style of wrestling. At some point, when you’re so familiar, you know what works. You know what’s going to get a reaction and what won’t. And if I stayed the same, I could only work with certain people.”

Since 2015, Bayley has built an incredibly devoted fan base. Though it was packed, undoubtedly, with younger fans—she did, after all, enter the ring through a throng of wacky, waving inflatable tube men—Bayley’s work in the ring also endeared her to more seasoned members of the audience.

Bayley regained the SmackDown Women’s Championship from Charlotte Flair on Oct. 11, displaying her new willingness to use nefarious means to accomplish her goals. She also unveiled a new look, shortening her long hair.

“I knew how I wanted to look and how I wanted to approach things in my mind, but it turned out to be a lot harder for me than I imagined,” said Martinez. “Once I got my hair cut the morning of that SmackDown, it was a shock. I needed to get Sasha [Banks] to hold my hand. All I could see were eight inches of hair falling to the floor.

“When I finally looked in the mirror, I couldn’t believe it. I kept asking myself if I made the right decision. It definitely was hard at first, especially for people who were so used to seeing me the way I was before. But I think it’s starting to work now and I’m having fun doing it.”

Just because she plays a villain does not mean she has become one.

“There’s been a couple times Sasha and I made a kid cry,” said Martinez. “We try to always take care of them after.”

Martinez is in Florida and ready for a segment with Paige on Friday night’s SmackDown, which was moved from Detroit to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. WrestleMania, if it still takes place as scheduled, is rapidly approaching. Martinez would relish the opportunity to wrestle Sasha Banks on a stage as grand as the “Showcase of Immortals,” but knows that match would mean more with a longer build to a future ’Mania.

“If we were put in that position, there is no way we would let that slip through our fingers,” said Martinez. “I do believe one day we will get the opportunity to have a match at WrestleMania.”

Much more than a tag team partner, Banks is one of Martinez’s closest friends.

“I love this and I work really hard to push myself,” said Martinez. “But without Sasha, if I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know which direction to push myself sometimes. She definitely helps keep my head straight. If I believe in something, she’s always supporting me. She’s helped make me into what I am today.”

As for this year’s WrestleMania, Martinez is open to a multi-person match.

“It would be pretty crazy to have a one-on-one match at WrestleMania, but you need the story behind it,” said Martinez. “I would also love to include all the women on SmackDown. It’s kind of hard to say. I want to involve everyone, so bring them all to me. I’ll defend against all of them.”

The 30-year-old from Newark, Calif., is one of WWE’s most decorated athletes. Her current reign as SmackDown Women’s Champion is the longest in the title’s history, and she had the privilege of defending her title against Naomi in Saudi Arabia at last month’s Super ShowDown.

Unlike October’s pioneering Natalya Neidhart-Lacey Evans match in Saudi Arabia, the Bayley-Naomi match was more storyline driven.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Martinez. “Watching Lacey and Nattie’s match from last time, it was a very introductory match for a lot of fans who had never seen women’s wrestling. It was a great introduction to what we do, and I kind of thought that’s how it would go this time.

“I did a lot of research beforehand to see what I was walking into as a female athlete, and I learned that a community all-women’s soccer team just started in Saudi Arabia, which was so cool. And I saw Naomi ‘Feel the Glow’ signs and I saw a ‘I Came for Bayley’ sign. I was in awe they were so excited to see a storyline-driven match.”

Martinez was thrilled to share the ring with Naomi, one of WWE’s most underrated stars.

“I was very proud to be wrestling Naomi,” said Martinez. “That was our first singles match together, ever. She was a Funkadactyl, she had a WrestleMania match cut, she’s been part of the company for so long. She’s done so much, and sharing that moment with her was very special for me.”

There was once a time when Martinez never knew if she would be recognized outside of her home state, so the chance to perform in front of fans in Saudi Arabia meant a lot to her.

“My sister always tells me to take a moment, so there was a moment where I stopped and thought, ‘Holy crap, I’m defending my title in Saudi Arabia,’” said Martinez. “But I can’t go into Pam too much. I just get too emotional.”

The power of wrestling extends beyond the ring, and Martinez is hopeful that her performance served as inspiration for children watching, especially young girls.

“When I was a kid, I played sports,” said Martinez. “I played sports all through high school. I hope little girls watch us and think, ‘I want to be a soccer star,’ or ‘I want to be a basketball star,’ or ‘I want to a WWE star.’ That’s how I look at it. These girls in Saudi Arabia are seeing something right in front of them they wouldn’t have seen a year ago.”

WWE looks to provide some levity for its audience Friday evening with SmackDown, which is an opportunity to advance Bayley’s WrestleMania storyline. And every chance on television allows Bayley to become an even bigger part of the WWE lexicon, bringing an indefatigable blend of excitement and passion to the business she loves.

“I want to be able to do it all,” said Martinez. “Do the backstage stuff, the moments on screen where you’re fighting in a grocery store.

“That’s my goal: I want to make memories. I want to make people feel the way I felt when I was watching wrestling.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.