Former Fighter Shayna Baszler Balances Pro Wrestling’s More Theatrical Elements

The Week in Wrestling: how a traditionally trained wrestler juggles WWE’s brand of sports entertainment, Tony Khan on Jungle Boy’s title shot and more.
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Shayna Baszler on the juxtaposition between pro wrestling and sports entertainment: “It’s always been a constant juggling act”

Shayna Baszler is one of the most fearsome, intimidating, legitimate wrestlers in the entire industry.

Trained by former UFC champion Josh Barnett and the late Billy Robinson, her style is hard-hitting and authentic. Baszler can grapple and brawl, as well as get technical on the mat with her mastery of joint manipulation. A former MMA fighter, there is simply no questioning her background in combat sports. This was accentuated in NXT, where she was presented in an incredibly authentic manner. Baszler ran through competition, which added even more meaning when she finally dropped the title to Rhea Ripley in December 2019.

The circumstances are different for Baszler on the main roster. She is working a program with Alexa Bliss, who has done a masterful job of committing to her hellish, fiendish character. But Baszler seems out of place on Bliss’s playground and swing set, and it just feels odd seeing her interact with a doll or even lose an intergender match.

The decision to have Baszler be someone she isn’t feels like a massive mistake. On the flip side, evolution is certainly real in pro wrestling. The legendary Mick Foley took the fearsome Cactus Jack character and, over time, transformed into a fan favorite who had a signature sock puppet. To be fair, Foley is one of wrestling’s most charismatic stars to grace the industry, so it is tough to use him as a comparison, but change is constantly happening in pro wrestling.

Baszler notes that this is an opportunity to stay true to who she is, while also capitalizing on the platform of Monday Night Raw by incorporating more pieces of sports entertainment into her work.

“It’s always been a constant juggling act, and that’s not just on Raw,” Baszler says. “That’s also [been the case in] my time in NXT and the indies. I come from a very old-school professional wrestling tradition. Josh Barnett and Billy Robinson were my main coaches, and they’re really, really old-school.

“Back in Billy’s day, the wrestling mentality was that you weren’t going to beat someone in the ring until people believed you could beat them out on the street. It was a very different mindset, and that’s just not how professional wrestling is presented today. It’s been a juggling act to stay true to my martial lineage in professional wrestling, that style I bring where people believe what I do. It’s two-sided. It’s special. There are wrestlers that work for 20 years to build that legitimacy in the eyes of the fans, and I have it when I come through the curtain. It’s also a curse. Not everyone on the roster knows how to deal with that style and mindset.”

Baszler uses a consistent barometer for her work. She thinks back to Robinson—a true wrestling great who developed a gritty brilliance and style of catch wrestling that will never be duplicated—and asks herself if he would approve.

“I always think about Billy when I get in the ring,” Baszler says. “After he passed away [in 2014], I remember Josh saying, ‘At the end of the day, if Billy would look at it and nod his head, then you’re doing fine.’ I hope Billy would be understanding that I’m trying to do this balancing act between my old-school, pure wrestling style and the way it’s presented on TV today.

Baszler’s match against Bliss at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view on Sunday was an example of that balancing act. While it would be easy to joke that the presentation of that match was not successful, Baszler is working extremely hard to build something special and distinct on the main roster.

“I need to show that I can be counted on to nail whatever it is I’m being asked to do,” Baszler says. “It’s easy to be a badass tyrant like I was in NXT. I can totally fit that role. After establishing myself as that, it’s important to show I can cover a wide range of what professional wrestling is today.

“It’s like music. Some people like country, some like heavy metal. Not everything is for everyone, so I understand why some people roll their eyes when I do comedy. But I’m established as what I am. All it takes is one sentence from a promo delivered properly. I am a legitimate badass; that’s always there for me. I’m glad I can be on Raw and show a wider range.”

Shayna Baszler stares at a cackling Alexa Bliss

Playing “What if?” is a dangerous game, but it certainly applies to Baszler’s main roster run in WWE. Namely, what if her featured WrestleMania 36 match against Becky Lynch was held at Raymond James Stadium? Did the finish change once it was held in the Performance Center? That night appeared to be Baszler’s breakout moment into an even higher tier of stardom.

“So I have a lot to say about that,” Baszler says. “I was on The Ultimate Fighter Season 18 [in 2013], which was the first season that had female fighters. At the time that got announced, I was already established. The Ultimate Fighter is, generally, for up-and-comers, and I had already been established in the top-five. But I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Ronda Rousey was one of the coaches in that season of The Ultimate Fighter, and she chose Baszler (as well as Jessamyn Duke) as members of her team. But despite her prior success in the cage, Baszler was defeated by submission in the elimination round by Julianna Peña.

“One of the things I remember is that fight we had in the cage with 30 people there watching,” Baszler says. “I had already done big arena shows with 30,000 people watching, so it was very difficult for me to get up for it. I’m not making any excuse—what I’m getting at is that it’s a very different feeling without an audience.

“I remember pulling up to the Performance Center for WrestleMania, sitting in my car, and feeling really angry. We’d worked too hard. I was so frustrated. Would things have been different with a crowd? Or did things change because of it? There are so many what-ifs, but you can’t sit and dwell on it.”

What could have been at WrestleMania 36 can never be replicated, but Baszler has taken pride in capitalizing upon this era of pandemic wrestling. Her in-ring style, particularly with joint manipulation, is amplified on television, so viewers now have an even better understanding of her work. She has also learned a lot from teaming with Nia Jax, especially considering tag team wrestling was not an area of her game that was well established.

“Teaming with Nia has helped me expand my pro wrestling repertoire,” Baszler says. “Obviously coming from a fighting background, we don’t do tag teams in MMA. It’s not something I spent a lot of time concentrating on. But it’s a craft and so much more in-depth than people realize. It’s a great sort of Rubik’s cube to solve, and I love solving those puzzles. Nia’s also been a big help for me behind the scenes.”

The key for Baszler is evolving while remaining true to herself. After developing and establishing her character in NXT in a manner that was so distinctly defined, she plans on continuing to show creativity on Raw while remaining authentic to what makes her so dynamic.

“I’m putting more tools in my toolbox,” Baszler says. “I worked for years to build this legitimacy. I walk through the curtain, and you know I can ruin someone. I won’t let people forget that.”

Tony Khan on Jungle Boy: “He’s going to come through on Saturday night”

Jungle Boy will challenge Kenny Omega for the AEW title Saturday on Dynamite.

Jungle Boy earned the shot at the belt by winning the Casino Battle Royale at last month’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view. That victory ranked among the top highlights of the night. It appeared as though the plan was for Christian Cage—with his “Out. Work. Everyone.” slogan—to enter in the first group and ultimately claim victory, similar to what WWE did with Edge in this Royal Rumble. In the end, Christian put over Jungle Boy, a decision that was met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction.

“I had a feeling about a week before the match, and it just felt right,” AEW owner Tony Khan says. “Based on the way our fans have been responding, I just knew.”

After the match, Christian got in Jungle Boy’s face, only to congratulate him and further put him over as the winner.

“That was a completely real moment,” Khan says. “For Christian to give his approval to Jungle Boy, it meant that much more. You can’t say enough about what Christian did. That’s an important moment in Jungle Boy’s career.”

Jungle Boy now faces Omega on a special Saturday edition of Dynamite. Omega has had a slew of compelling title defenses since winning the belt in December, and there is every reason to believe this match will stand out.

Incredibly, Jack Perry (the man behind the character) has yet to even scratch the surface of his stardom as Jungle Boy. The match with Omega could very well be a standout moment in his ongoing ascent to stardom.

“He’s grown so much in his time with us, especially over the past year,” Khan says. “It’s amazing to see what MJF and Jungle Boy have done since wrestling against each other at last year’s Double or Nothing. So putting Jungle Boy in this spot was never a gamble. He’s going to come through on Saturday night.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Overall, Monday’s Raw had more of a flow and purpose than usual. It was helped by a good opening segment between Bobby Lashley, MVP and The New Day, and then a Hell in the Cell main event with Lashley’s beating Xavier Woods. 

This flying elbow drop from Woods was outstanding, and the match helped effectively build the Lashley–Kofi Kingston program. 

  • Whether it is as a wrestler in NXT or a broadcaster on SmackDown, Pat McAfee continues to exceed expectations. 
  • NXT closed Tuesday night with Kyle O’Reilly’s defeating Kushida in the main event. If anyone can elevate the cruiserweight title, it is Kushida—but he needs the company to keep affording him big-match opportunities to present the title in a meaningful manner. Unlike the O’Reilly match, he needs to win them, and he will also benefit from a new program with Roderick Strong—who returned this week as part of Malcolm Bivens’s Diamond Mine. 
  • There were plenty of headlines from New Japan over the past week, including:

    The company’s return to California for a show in August. 

Shingo Takagi will defend the IWGP world heavyweight championship against Kota Ibushi on July 25 at Wrestle Grand Slam at the Tokyo Dome. 

Tom Lawlor defeated Jordan Young by unanimous decision last week in a Pro Fighters League bout, then placed his gloves on the mat, signaling the end of his MMA career. Lawlor defends his New Japan Strong title Friday on Strong against Karl Fredericks. 

The Good Brothers are back in New Japan. No wrestling company does tournaments better than NJPW, and Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson are in this summer’s Tag Team Turbulence tourney that will be held on Strong. 

  • Though I question whether this is the best use of Nikki Cross, I am hoping this leads to more quality time on television.
  • MJF has launched his own cryptocurrency. 
  • Brock Anderson, who is the son of Arn Anderson, made his AEW debut last Friday on Dynamite. Anderson teamed with Cody Rhodes to defeat QT Marshall and Aaron Solow.
  • On the subject of Cody Rhodes, congratulations to Brandi and Cody on the birth of their daughter.
  • If you haven’t already had the chance to watch, Stardom’s Utami Hayashishita and Syuri delivered a top candidate for match of the year. 
  • Blair Cobbs continued his undefeated streak in boxing on Saturday with a TKO win. Cobbs dressed like Randy Savage for his entrance to the ring, while shouting “Wooooo!” like Ric Flair. 
  • Toni Storm bravely shared a piece of herself on social media Tuesday. The world is a more vibrant place when people are themselves, and although social media can be a cruel place, I hope Storm gets the support she deserves. 

Charlotte Flair appears on A&E’s “WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures”

Charlotte Flair appeared on A&E Sunday during WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures, searching for her father Ric Flair’s missing butterfly robe.

Like her father, Flair is now synonymous with pro wrestling. She also wears those iconic robes, and she can also relate to the stress behind traveling with and protecting those expensive garments.

“I have a much different perspective of that now,” Flair says. “As a child, seeing his robes and trying them on, and then seeing his pain when he’d lose them or someone would try to steal them, it’s surreal the way we can now relate.”

The A&E show brought back some old memories for Flair. Surrounded by wrestling collectibles for as long as she can remember, seeing different pieces of memorabilia has always been second nature to her.

“When I was in second grade, we had a project where you needed to bring an old shoe into school and decorate it,” Flair says. “I brought one of my dad’s boots, and I decorated it with a bunch of glitter and superglue. A picture of it even made the yearbook, which was a highlight. It was just so normal to me to bring in a wrestling boot instead of a tennis shoe.”

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