With the Mae Young Classic, Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H, has produced his third tournament made-up of mostly relatively unknown talent. Following the Cruiserweight Classic last summer and the UK tournament from January, the Mae Young Classic elevated a number of stars to a wider audience, further feeding WWE’s increasingly deep and yet underutilized pool of talent.
The presentation once again demonstrated Levesque can construct a tournament that intertwines storylines throughout the rounds, building finalist Shayna Baszler as a dangerous intimidator who can choke out an opponent at any time.
Baszler meets Kairi Sane in the finals in Las Vegas on the WWE Network, right after SmackDown on Tuesday night. Sane, formerly Kairi Hojo from Japanese promotion Stardom, has lived up to the hype of GIFs of her sailing top-rope elbow drop, commanding the Full Sail audience through many of the best matches of the tournament.
The early rounds don’t blow you away with unforgettable matches, but establish story arcs for later rounds. On the whole, the brackets are short on great matches. I found it to be mostly solid wrestling with two very good semi-final matches, between Baszler and Mercedes Martinez, followed by Sane and Toni Storm. What the matches themselves may have lacked in any one of them being can’t-miss, the tournament itself is something more than the sum of its parts -- if you have time to watch all eight hours or so.
Besides the finalists, Storm, Piper Niven, Bianca Belair, Candice LeRae and Kavita Devi stood out as potential future stars. Belair is the only one known for sure to already be under a WWE contract, although Baszler and Sane have been appearing on the NXT Florida loop and are almost certainly going to be signed if they haven’t been already.
Belair had a breakout match in her second round loss to Sane, who she whipped with her long braid in one of the most memorable moments of the tournament.
Like the Dusty Rhodes Classic, this tournament is named after someone WWE sees as a legend. The contest getting Mae Young’s namesake has more to do with reinforcing WWE folklore and if anything, gives a mixed message. Almost no one remembers Young for her full-time wrestling career as much for being the recurring lightning rod of low humor in the recently-succumbed “attitude” era when she was used as an oversexed geriatric, the punchline of outrageous jokes as Vince McMahon reminded audiences that old people -- particularly old women -- are disgusting.
If WWE mythology is the guide, you might’ve thought the tournament would be dedicated to the more celebrated Fabulous Moolah, with whom Young is inseparably associated. But probably not wanting to invite further research into WWE’s appointed women’s wrestling pioneer’s alleged crimes, the company settled on the name of Moolah’s long-time sidekick instead. It would be expecting far too much of the company to recognize the truer pioneers of women’s wrestling like Mildred Burke, June Byers, Penny Banner or Jackie Sato -- the chief difference there being that none of the aforementioned showed their loyalty to the McMahons by being a clown for Vince’s juvenile sex humor in recent decades.
The commentary of Jim Ross and Lita improved as the rounds went on. Early on they seemed like they wanted to be excited more than they were actually able. The booth’s large collective name recognition didn’t offset what they lacked in knowledge. There’s a tipping point where the legendary sound of JR’s voice begins to fail to outweigh the lack of information and capable passion for contemporary wrestling that the likes of Mauro Ranallo, Corey Graves or Dave Prazak would’ve added. Commentary in later rounds was less distracting. As the tournament wore on and there was more backstory from prior rounds to draw back on, which Lita and Ross had obviously witnessed, they blended in better with the captivating, sports-like atmosphere.
I expect the Mae Young Classic “binge-watching” experiment to have been a success in terms of viewership. WWE already knows the answer internally and we can get an impression by looking at Google trends and Wikipedia pageviews. Anecdotally I felt there was more buzz throughout the Mae Young Classic than for the Cruiserweight Classic. While eight episodes in two weeks may be demanding on the viewer, not every episode absolutely needed to be watched, so I think the schedule chosen was the right balance to keep buzz from spreading too thin.
Triple H's third big tournament succeeded in elevating WWE's brand's prestige and in creating him another handful of budding wrestlers who can refill the void Asuka will leave in NXT and who will one day, too, be processed on the main roster.
The VOD series of episodes began and ended with a reminder that WWE is the great provider. There were dramatic shots of Levesque and trainer Matt Bloom staring powerfully at the gathered participants, gabbing in New England accents about “opportunity”. Sane and Baszler accepted flowers and congratulations from Paul and Stephanie. Stephanie babied Sane for a moment in a maternal embrace, as if the executive couple were the loving king and queen for whom all the days’ work is ultimately in tribute to.
WWE is the holy opportunity-giver that could’ve led rather than followed the industry on women’s wrestling any number of years ago but instead preferred a world of bra and panties matches, bikini contests, and diva searches. That the brand is subtly elevated above the talent here, unsurprising as it is, speaks to the hubris that is still alive that delayed a moment like this for so long, a moment that is allowed now not because anyone had an introspective moral epiphany but because it’s been recognized as corporately-correct to allow it.