After a year as one of the women’s division’s few tag team specialists, Nikki Cross is back in singles competition. Well, this Sunday she is anyway, challenging Bayley for her SmackDown Women’s Title at Extreme Rules. In terms of sheer exposure, this could be the biggest singles match of Cross’ career thus far. Now established on the main roster stage, Cross has become a trusted piece of the division, appearing regularly since uniting with Alexa Bliss. Tag teams come and go though so with the future in mind, it certainly feels like Cross has a point to prove at Extreme Rules.

For better or worse, this match isn’t about Cross’ story, not on the surface anyway. The centerpiece of WWE’s current programming, Bayley and Sasha Banks remain the focus, with their unique alliance leading the product in debate and discussion. That dynamic is capturing the headlines right now and understandably so, but Cross is up to the task at hand, quietly crafting a tale of her own. In truth, quietly is probably the wrong term for Cross’ recent work, returning to the wild, unhinged tendencies that she became so famed for in NXT.

Though the spotlight may be elsewhere, Cross’ sheer enthusiasm and commitment remain admirable. Cross is giving her audience a development to follow, totally embodying that character and refusing to concede defeat in terms of positioning. The endgame seems clear here, as Cross appears to be just another bridge to Bayley’s clash with Banks. Her performance continues to battle that perception though, bringing some uncertainty to her own future if nothing else. Cross has confidence in the character portrays, and it allows her a portrayal that far exceeds the presentation itself.

Clearly, the Nikki Cross persona is often comically excitable, throwing herself into every setting regardless of circumstance. There’s an attention to detail that’s lost in the chaos though, one that allows Cross to add layers that have only been touched upon on TV. That’s best shown with some of Cross’ recent in-ring promos. When opposite The IIconics, Cross refuted their dismissal, adding a gravity to her friendship with Bliss that had been lost in the on-screen storytelling. Cross explained that Bliss allows her to focus, keeping her crazed instincts under control.

Packed with passion, that promo was immediately effective but now almost two months later, it’s only more relevant. Though it may be in the background, that dynamic is unraveling before our eyes, as Cross’ inability to control herself becomes more pronounced by the week. The truth is that this story may be without a direct conclusion, it could simply be a route to some kind of tacked on stipulation. Just as likely, it could be an attempt at maximizing Cross’ presence as Bayley’s latest challenger, a way to give her credibility without the booking to go with it.

That much remains unclear, but it doesn’t make the thread any less useful. The attention here is obviously on Bayley and Banks’ next step but for those interested, Cross has a hook herself. Perhaps Cross and Bliss are headed in a different direction, perhaps the latter has lost control of Cross, perhaps a betrayal is ahead. You may deem those possibilities likely or not, but Cross’ aforementioned explanation only makes their dynamic more intriguing. Before, this may as well as have been any other friendship but with one promo, Cross tied up the loose ends perfectly.

We now understand their impact on each other, and that allows for an underlying investment that doesn’t really require weekly attention. It’s nothing particularly complex, it’s actually rather simple but at least it’s there, it’s a part of the story being told. That’s been a common trend throughout Cross’ career too, with her own creativity enhancing the product itself. There isn’t much subtlety to the actions of Cross now, let alone in her initial NXT incarnation. The performer always saw beyond those limitations though, striving to develop something more intricate and nuanced.

That doesn’t mean Cross’ behavior has to be any less loud either, it simply means that in each setting, she adapts well enough to paint a clearer picture. That’s one of Cross’ greatest strengths, allowing her to evolve from a dangerous supporting character to the mischievous focal point of a literal whodunit. It’s that versatility that’s stood Cross in such good stead on the main roster. Cross is only restricted by the time she’s given to grow as in terms of performance, she’s virtually limitless. That skill makes Cross very special, able to capture your attention whether she’s winning or losing.

The Nikki Cross character isn’t stagnant, but it’s not divorced from its roots either. Instead, Cross continues to evolve, even if right now it’s in the shape of a return to her prior form. Cross has a knack for character work, operating with an authenticity that can make even the most ridiculous behavior seem natural. Regardless of what happens this Sunday and beyond, Cross can be very proud of her first eighteen months on the main roster. Silencing skeptics and avoiding the system’s pitfalls, Cross has exceeded even optimistic expectations.

Lots of caution and concern surrounded this character’s fate away from NXT, but the performer herself was too dynamic to do anything but adapt. Clearly, Cross’ ties to Bliss are a major part of her success but she’s not just along for the ride. Far from it in fact, as Cross has instead maximized every minute of TV time that Bliss’ standing has allowed them. Eventually, this team has an inevitable expiry date but based on everything we’ve seen so far, Cross will be more than ready for the challenges awaiting her.

She certainly won’t be left wondering ‘what if?’ anyway, with Cross’ commitment ensuring that no matter what, she’ll do everything in her power to make any direction work. For now though, the focus is on Sunday and Extreme Rules. Moments like these shouldn’t be taken for granted, even if they may seem like nothing more than a stopgap in the grand scheme of things. Nikki Cross may be entering this event as a mere backdrop but if she has any say in the matter, she could very well leave as the center of attention.

That’s just what Cross does. Whether she has Eric Young by her side or Alexa Bliss, whether she’s a sinister singles star or a heart-warming friend and ally. Cross’ career could change on Sunday but if not, her character certainly will. That may not be immediately clear on WWE TV, but it will be to Cross herself and, in that sense, I’d say that her fans’ emotional investment is in pretty good hands. Cross genuinely cares and that provides an unusual protection, an impenetrable sincerity that can only be so contained.

As long as she’s allowed to, Nikki Cross will maintain her audience’s attention and that skill shouldn’t be trivialized. Even in a division stacked with unprecedented talent, it's an ingredient that places Cross among the elite. It may not be immediately apparent or obvious, but Nikki Cross is truly remarkable and ideally, Extreme Rules will be the perfect platform to prove that very point.

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