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What’s next for Sasha Banks and Naomi?
Sasha Banks and Naomi are the reigning WWE women’s tag-team champions.
But, it appears, that will not be the case for much longer.
Banks and Naomi walked out of Raw on Monday over a creative dispute that included the direction of that night’s show, as well as their future together. After receiving assurances from Vince McMahon over the past few months that there would be a renewed focus on the women’s tag-team titles—which should be the case when someone with the star power of Banks is involved—that has yet to happen since the duo won the belts over a month ago at WrestleMania 38.
With frustration mounting, Monday’s Raw served as the breaking point. Banks and Naomi ultimately returned their tag titles to John Laurinaitis, who is head of talent relations, then walked out.
So how, exactly, did this happen?
The plan for Raw was a six-pack challenge match that would have ended with Naomi winning, including pinning Banks, and becoming the No. 1 contender for the Raw women’s title. She would have then challenged Bianca Belair for the title at Hell in a Cell on June 5, a match where all signs pointed to Belair winning.
A pay-per-view match against Belair, even if it ended in defeat, could have been a major moment for Naomi. But she and Banks are taking a long-term risk by walking out, which is viewed as one of the biggest sins in pro wrestling.
McMahon & Co. were quick to react—and did so publicly. WWE released a statement and had Corey Graves criticize their walk-out on the air during Raw. WWE’s official statement was undoubtedly designed to damage the reputations of Banks and Naomi, especially when stating Banks and Naomi “claimed they were uncomfortable in the ring with two of their opponents even though they’d had matches with those individuals in the past with no consequence.” Out of a half-dozen members of the WWE roster who spoke to Sports Illustrated for this story, no one believed that Banks and Naomi felt unsafe with any of their opponents in the match. But all those who spoke with SI agreed that walking out comes with negative consequences, and that neither Banks nor Naomi endeared themselves to the locker room with their decision.
Walking out is an absolute last resort. Typically, it comes with negative consequences. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin walked out on a Raw in 2002, and it took him a long time before he returned to McMahon’s good graces. To this day, Austin still refers to that decision as a critical mistake.
But this isn’t 2002, and Austin isn’t involved. There are options available now that others simply didn’t have in the past when walking out. And for those who have followed Banks for the duration of her career, it is a wise policy to never, ever bet against her.
Banks met with Vince McMahon before returning her title, sources close to the situation confirmed to SI. Walking out closes this particular chapter of Banks’s career, but she is simply too big of a draw for WWE to lose. While it is within the realm of possibility that McMahon could cut Banks and Naomi, it remains an unlikely proposition. As proven by her work in The Mandalorian, Banks is a star with or without WWE, a fact that undoubtedly is not lost on McMahon.
The view of this writer is that Banks will be back by the fall with a raise. WWE may try to replace her, but that will prove to be an unattainable pursuit.
Naomi, meanwhile, is in a difficult position. She is the wife of Jimmy Uso, who is part of the famed Bloodline—WWE’s most influential group behind the scenes, led by Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman. The potential exists that McMahon will treat her similarly to the way Paul “Triple H” Levesque was punished following his involvement in the “Curtain Call” from May of ’96. McMahon couldn’t make an example of his champion, Shawn Michaels, who was also involved in the infamous moment, so Triple H was the one who lost his push. He eventually overcame that obstacle, but there is no guarantee that the same will ultimately be said for Naomi—an extremely talented performer who would benefit tremendously from a consistent push from McMahon and his team.
If anyone can turn this into an even bigger moment, it is Banks. In time, hopefully the same will be said for Naomi.
The (online) week in wrestling
- Cody Rhodes cut another outstanding promo on Raw, again being presented as a superstar.
- After creative changed, Asuka defeated Becky Lynch in the main event to become the new top contender for Bianca Belair’s title.
- Liv Morgan joining forces with AJ Styles and Finn Bálor is a fantastic decision, and hopefully this leads to Morgan reemerging in the title picture.
- Hangman Page will defend the AEW title this week on Dynamite against Konosuke Takeshita, who currently stars for DDT in Japan. This has the makings of a fantastic match.
- It’s reassuring to know that Darby Allin and Jeff Hardy were both O.K. after their match last week on Dynamite, which featured some absolutely gut-wrenching spots.
- Juice Robinson is the new IWGP United States champion, pinning Will Ospreay last week at New Japan’s Capital Collision show in D.C.
- I had the privilege of joining Jimmy Stewart on his podcast Sunday night (though little did we know what was about to explode on Monday). The wrestling realm is perpetually active, and it was a pleasure breaking down and analyzing the space with him.
Examining Ric Flair’s return to the ring
Before the Sasha Banks and Naomi news broke, the biggest story on Monday was that Ric Flair is returning to the ring for one more match.
On Sunday, July 31—a day after WWE’s SummerSlam takes place at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium—Flair will step into the Nashville Fairgrounds for what he claims will be his last-ever match.
There are plenty of reasons this shouldn’t happen. The 73-year-old Flair has had a plethora of health issues, and he nearly died five years ago during major surgery. Stepping back into the ring is a risk, especially with a pacemaker in his chest electrically setting the rate of his heart.
So why is Flair wrestling?
Viewing this from Flair’s perspective, his identity is centered around his status as a pro wrestler. And not just any pro wrestler—a genuine legend of the sport. No matter what he was battling in his life, whether that be marital issues, loss of loved ones or financial trouble, Flair could always turn to the ring. He enjoyed such prolonged success, longer than he ever could have imagined, but struggled to find life outside the ring. He always found salvation in the ring, as well as from wrestling fans—and still feels that way today.
In a real-life story that parallels the film The Wrestler, Flair has found nothing to replace the feeling that fills his soul when he steps inside the ropes.
Flair will most likely wrestle in a six-man tag, Sports Illustrated has learned. His opponents have not yet been revealed. While Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat was rumored to be part of those teaming against Flair, all signs point to that not being the case. Flair’s last match was in 2011 in TNA against Sting, who could be a fit in this bout. But whoever Flair wrestles needs to be able to carry the match and allow him to work selected spots.
Flair is seeking to turn the past into the present. Right or wrong, the “Nature Boy” is not finished with professional wrestling.
Tweet of the Week
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.