Monday night on Raw there were a lot of surprises, some awesome moments, but there was one moment that stood out for a different reason. Paige took the microphone after Mandy Rose vs Sasha Banks, Rose and Sonya Deville left the ring, and it suddenly took on a different tone. It’s been an open secret since the turn of the year that Paige was not going to be medically cleared by WWE, and this week Paige herself confirmed that, and announced her in ring retirement from WWE.
What has happened here is a tragedy. Paige was a prodigy, signing for WWE as a teenager, becoming a focal point of NXT and becoming champion. It looked like she was going to be the core of WWE’s women’s division for a decade or more. But in 2016 she got hurt and there was a lot of drama also involving Alberto Del Rio, and for all intents and purposes that was the end of her career.
Injury. Controversy. Unfulfilled potential. That could be the lasting memories of Paige. But it shouldn’t be, because as much as WWE wants to call every women of the last 30 years trailblazers, Paige was a huge part of what started the change in perception over these last few years.
And as a tribute of sorts to SmackDown’s new General Manager, I want to go back to that time period. I want to take a look at Paige’s main roster debut, which will possibly go down as the greatest moment of her career. This is my Retro Spotlight for Paige’s Raw debut.So first off, let’s take a look at where Paige was leading up to it. She had debuted on NXT TV in 2012, not long after the rebrand of it from a game show to a wrestling show. And quite quickly, she became by far the most popular woman on the show. Even in mostly throwaway tag matches, Paige was always the one that could be depended on to get something back from the Full Sail crowd.
WWE officials took notice. In the summer of 2013, a tournament was announced to crown the inaugural NXT Women’s Champion. Looking back, it’s really interesting. Sasha Banks and Bayley lost in the first round to Summer Rae and Alicia Fox. Emma made Aksana tap out, and Paige beat Tamina. Paige and Emma made it through to the final, and then came the match that opened a lot of people’s eyes to women’s wrestling under the WWE banner.
Paige and Emma have been called the fore-runners of the women’s revolution because of that match. They got a good chunk of time, and at that point they were two of the best women in WWE or NXT. They went out there, told their story, and when all was said and done Paige was the first ever NXT Women’s Champion at just 20 years old.
And they did it all again at the first live event on the WWE Network, the first TakeOver event, NXT Arrival. But Paige was so popular, and frankly so good, that she was running out of credible challengers after six months, if she had that many to begin with. So by March 2014, it was already looking like Paige was outgrowing NXT.
AJ Lee had been a dominant Divas Champion. She won the belt in June 2013, around the same time Paige became NXT Women’s Champion. She defended the title against Kaitlyn on multiple occasions, and had a SummerSlam match alongside Big E against Kaitlyn and Dolph Ziggler.
But the reason AJ was head and shoulders above the rest was that she showed personality. AJ had proven herself to be the best women in the company on the microphone. This was maybe never more obvious than just after SummerSlam, when the entire cast of Total Divas was at ringside for a match, and AJ interrupts them and seemingly shoots on them all. It was awesome.
That kind of promo started drawing comparisons with CM Punk, and it was possibly no coincidence that AJ and Punk were together by this point. And the comparisons drew stronger when AJ surpassed the record for the longest Divas Championship reign of all time.
In storyline, the promo against all the Total Divas cast turned everyone against AJ, and meant there was a target on her back. Things culminated at Wrestlemania 30, when every women on the main roster was in a single match with the Divas Title on the line – and once again AJ came out with her reign unscathed.
Which brings us to the next night. The after-Wrestlemania Raw, 2014. AJ Lee came out to the ring, title over her shoulder, and cuts a promo so reminiscent of CM Punk that he could have written it. She says she has beaten everyone there is to beat, and voila. Here comes Paige.
AJ’s cockiness got the better of herself. She goaded Paige into a match, even though she insisted she wasn’t ready to compete, and just for the hell of it AJ put her title on the line. A few minutes later, we had a new Divas Champion.
It was probably a good thing for AJ to take a break and regroup after that, even though the division suffered for her absence. She had already done everything there was to do, and now she had a ready made storyline for when she came back.
For Paige, talk about making an impact. She was still the NXT Women’s Champion, and on her first night on the main roster she won the Divas Championship. I believe to this day that makes her the only person to hold a title on the main roster and NXT at the same time. And she did it at 21 years old.
And it was a really interesting story they had to tell with Paige going forward. She beat the unbeatable champion in an impromptu match. To everyone else, it seemed like it must have been a fluke. So Paige, the Divas Champion (the NXT Women’s Champion was vacated because Paige had moved up to the main roster), had to win matches to prove she belonged on the main roster. It was a really cool dynamic.
Of course, she kept retaining the title, and in time she proved to the roster, and the casual fans, that she belonged on the main roster. And just when she had done so, AJ came back and beat her for the belt in a reversal of the post-Mania Raw scenario. And then we really kicked off the Paige vs AJ Lee feud.
It was a really well told, multi-faceted story that played out over several months. But in terms of a wow moment, in terms of the crowd reaction, I don’t think anything matched Paige’s debut. She was also one of the first NXT debuts to show up post-Mania, which has obviously become a major tradition.
And let’s not forget, everything I wrote about here was before the women’s revolution. It was all before the #GiveDivasAChance movement. Paige and AJ Lee managed to become stars in a time where it was really difficult for women to rise to any sort of prominence. Without their story on the main roster, and without Paige’s influence at Full Sail at NXT, we could very easily have missed out on the great crop of talent that have come out of there since.
Think about it. Since Paige, the NXT production line has seen Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax, Carmella, Asuka, Ember Moon and many more becoming key parts of the shows. I know Asuka was a star before NXT, but if Paige hadn’t set the groundwork for changing the perception of women’s wrestling there’s a good chance WWE would never have been interested in someone like her.
Paige started what we’ve come to expect from women’s wrestling in WWE. For that, a lot of people owe her a great deal. As fans, we owe her a great deal. As a fan of her, I’m gutted that things have ended this way. But if I can steal a phrase from Daniel Bryan, I’m hugely grateful that I got to see her journey play out, and I’m hugely grateful for what she has contributed to this company. I truly wish her the best of luck in whatever she does next.