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Bayley’s Great Heel Work Makes Her the Perfect Opponent for Bianca Belair’s First Title Defense

What Bianca Belair needs in her first title defense at “Backlash” is an opponent who will highlight her strengths and help cement her as a babyface champ.

Bayley has spent the past year and a half doing everything imaginable to make viewers dislike her.

By cutting her hair and showing a different edge and grit to her work in the ring, Bayley completely transformed her character. She mocked the crowd, delivered beatdowns to beloved babyfaces and put together a heel run as champion that lasted for a solid 380 days. But although she has successfully delivered some of the most consistently compelling work in the entire industry as a heel, fans genuinely respect and admire her work.

So often in wrestling, the most endearing people are the ones that play the role of villain, and that is certainly the case with Pamela Martinez, who brings the Bayley character to life. Throughout the course of her career, she has championed women’s wrestling, not only by her gripping display of the craft but also by highlighting those around her. She helped carry WWE through the pandemic, bringing a purpose to the Raw, SmackDown and NXT shows at an empty WWE Performance Center. She also served as the perfect foil in Sasha Banks’s ascension to the top, with their feud playing an integral role in WWE programming and culminating in a spectacular celebration of pro wrestling in her Hell in a Cell match against Banks in October.

While WWE’s stated goal is to put smiles on people’s faces, the performers must make tremendous sacrifices to achieve that mission. And no one sacrificed more than Bayley. After a year of carrying the company, giving meaning to its shows, she was given a peculiar spot at WrestleMania 37. She was left off the card yet made the most of her role as an impromptu host, appearing on the show both nights—given the chance to highlight her character in every way except to wrestle.

“I was happy to be a part of it in a big way,” Bayley says. “You always want that match, or title match, or main event, but now I can say I’ve done something else at WrestleMania. I’ve defended the Raw title, I’ve defended the SmackDown title, I’ve defended the tag titles with Sasha, I’ve been in the battle royal, and now I can say I hosted with Hulk Hogan and Titus O’Neil, I was on stage with the NWO and got thrown off the stage by the Bellas. It’s cool when you look back on it, even though [not having a match] is a little salt in my wound.”

Bayley relishes the chance to play a villain, but she did concede that the outpouring of support from fans on social media advocating for her to have a match at WrestleMania meant a great deal to her.

“I could go on Twitter and see my name trending with people upset that I didn’t have a match, and it’s nice that people recognized how much work I’ve put in,” she says. “After all the names I’ve called them, the fans still had my back.”

Bayley didn’t balk at playing a different role at WrestleMania. She showed her commitment to the company, taking what she was given and adding meaning to the show by complementing Hogan and O’Neil in their role as guest hosts. She even dropped a harsh John Cena–inspired insult to Nikki Bella—and then got clobbered for it.

One of Bayley’s highlights of the weekend came on the first night, when she went into the crowd to watch the Banks–Bianca Belair main event. She was overwhelmed with emotion and passion as she witnessed Banks and Belair—the first Black women to have a title match at WrestleMania—make history on WWE’s biggest stage.

“It was an amazing moment, one that is going to last,” Bayley says. “I’m so close to Sasha, and we came up together and we’ve been together so much these past eight years, so I have an idea of how her mind works. She had prepared for this moment her whole life. It’s been hard to find the right words to congratulate her. I’m still not sure we’ve fully grasped what that moment meant. And Bianca stepped up to the plate. Sasha has main-evented plenty of shows and pay-per-views, but this was Bianca’s first. And that was a match for everyone in our division and from our past.”

Watching the match beside a collection of WWE stars, including Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Tamina Snuka, Mandy Rose, Sonya Deville, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan and Dana Brooke, Bayley could see the greatness of the moment even before it unfolded.

“I could feel it from the very beginning,” Bayley says. “The fans were ready to see Sasha finally live out her dream, and they were ready to see Bianca deliver. Within the first minute, I knew it was magical.”

Belair won the title, and she and Banks brought an air of magic to WrestleMania. Bayley now challenges Belair for the SmackDown title in a match on Sunday at Backlash, which is a program that brings instant credibility to the new champion. That first opponent is critical to the success of the title reign, and Belair benefits by having Bayley working across from her.

“This is the hard part,” Bayley says. “Bianca already main-evented WrestleMania, which is what everyone wants to do. Now she has to hold on to that spot. That’s a lot different than trying to get to that main event position.”

The title is unlikely to change hands this Sunday at Backlash, but the match is still must-see. By design, Bayley and Belair will offer a much different presentation than the Belair-Banks match at WrestleMania, as this is an encounter that needs to firmly cement Belair at the top of the division. There is no better performer than Bayley to help accentuate her brilliance, especially while working as a heel.

“I’m very proud of the past year,” says Bayley, who took a massive risk leaving behind her successful babyface character, one that she believed had run its course. “I believed I could I do it, and I knew I had so much more to give. I took that Bayley around the world and did all I could do, giving my heart to the fans, but it was time for a change. I have a lot of freedom, and I’m really grateful that WWE, the writers and Vince [McMahon] have given me the platform to let me be me.”

Bayley spent the first half of 2020 partnering with Banks before turning on her, ultimately leading to the payoff of their feud at Hell in a Cell in October. Incredibly, that match was even better than their highly acclaimed TakeOver: Brooklyn encounter from the summer of ’15, proving that, even if though it is rare, a sequel can be better than the original.

“We love that match, and it’s something I’m really proud of,” Bayley says. “That was Sasha’s third Cell match and my first, so I really wanted it to be different than her first two. I just wish it were in front of people. That would have been a game-changer, but I’m so grateful we had that match.”

Though her focus is centered around her upcoming match at Backlash, balancing out Belair’s bravery and strength with her own evil flair, the desire to main-event a WrestleMania has not waned for Bayley. After seeing Becky Lynch have her hand raised at WrestleMania 35 in a match that also featured Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey, and then Banks-Belair last month, the fire burning within her has only intensified for a main event of her own at WWE’s signature show.

“That’s the pinnacle, what you work your whole life for,” Bayley says. “I worked that whole year during the pandemic to get to WrestleMania in front of fans, and then I still didn’t have that. I didn’t have that moment, I didn’t have that match, so that only makes my desire stronger.

“I was the last one to come to Raw and SmackDown between the Four Horsewomen, and I can be the last one to main-event a WrestleMania.”

WrestleMania main event or not, Bayley’s defining legacy is her everyday brilliance. She carries that unremitting work ethic regardless of whether the cameras are turned on or she is by herself, and it will again be on display this Sunday at Backlash as she makes her match with Belair a must-see affair.

“I want to be the one the company can rely on to make anything great,” Bayley says. “A match, a talk show, a 30-second backstage, a promo, a five-minute match—whatever it is, I’m going to make it different and exciting. You’ll never see some cookie-cutter version. I’m going to make it me.”

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