After Hell in a Cell on October 25th, 2015 Nikki Bella, our newly crowned longest reigning Divas champion (at 301 days) took a break from television. Nikki did this not from any urge to leave the ring or for any waning passion for what she has famously called, on the hit E! Television series Total Divas, “Broadway with body slams.” Her break from the ring was to get surgery for her neck, damaged from the strain of performing tirelessly for the majority of a decade — particularly by performing her finisher the Rack Attack — before career-threatening could become life-threatening.
The neck is by far one of the most dangerous areas to injure in sports entertainment. We’ve lost the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Lita, Edge, and most recently everyone’s hero Daniel Bryan to the epidemic. It is well established that where the neck is concerned the smart and safe thing to do is hang up your boots so that you can have any life at all. Nikki herself spoke to E! about the severity of her condition in January of 2016, giving us our first real update since her departure:
“I have basically a broken neck, a pretty bad herniated disk. What makes mine a little bit [more] difficult than most people is that I have some disk behind my vertebrae so with a lot of prayers… we’re gonna pray that the doctors can get the piece behind my vertebrae with just a bone fusion.”
Make no mistake, this was not a vacation featuring drudged-up fodder for the reality show she stars on with her sister, Brie. This was life or death, or at the very least, continuing to live her dream or closing the door forever. And yet, compare the coverage of her injury, her return, and her role in the WWE since with that of any other Superstar who has faced such perilous injury recently and you will find that the coverage for Nikki falls short.
How it might’ve gone for a male Superstar…
After only ten months of rest and healing on an entirely rebuilt and re-fused neck Nikki Bella returned to the WWE on the pay per view SummerSlam, August 21st, 2016. She interferes in the title match between Charlotte and Sasha Banks, reminding Charlotte that she’s still the woman to beat, costing her the title. Nikki, though drafted to Smackdown, shows up on Monday Night Raw the follow night and embarrasses Charlotte, ambushing her and reminding the WWE Universe what the phrase natural selection really means. Charlotte shows up at Smackdown and costs Nikki a match against Carmella. Eventually Raw and Smackdown GMs are forced to come together to create the Universal Women’s Championship, in hopes that it will restore order to the division and the two brands.
What really happened…
After only ten months of rest and healing on an entirely rebuilt and re-fused neck Nikki Bella returned to the WWE on the pay per view Summerslam, August 21st, 2016. Disappointingly, the return to the ring was not about Nikki. It wasn’t an interruption to the proceedings. It wasn’t even a one-on-one match to highlight that the former champ was back, hungrier than ever, ready to brutalize anyone who stood in the way of the new Women’s championship. Eva Marie was sick or injured or whatever it is she does, so someone needed to fill a slot in the latest lazily thrown together women’s 3-on-3 tag match. Her role on Smackdown showed no more promise, tossing her into a feud with Carmella that was based on… something that still has not been established. She and Carmella did a fine job of working the neck injury. What was made very clear was that Nikki dates John Cena.
Nikki is ambushed repeatedly after winning the Universal Championship clean. Her neck worsens and Daniel Bryan, her general manager and brother-in-law, tells her to take a break. Nikki refuses, stating she’s medically cleared, and will never back down. Against the wishes of everyone around him, Bryan says okay, and backs off, because he knows more than anyone how you want to go out. Natalya reveals that she’s been the attacking Nikki, calling Nikki disrespectful to legacies, to real empires, Flairs and Harts, and reminds her that she’s a farm girl with a pretty face, and will never reign the way a Hart can.
At some point and for some reason that I don’t recall and feel no need to look into because I don’t want to waste my life or hurt my own feelings any more than I already have that feud ended, seeing Carmella tossed to the side as a sometimes scrappy valet to the incredibly ableist, astoundingly unfunny gimmick of James Ellsworth, because she finds him “uniquely attractive.” What did this mean for Nikki? Oh, well, Carmella let her know that really it was Natalya who had been ambushing her for weeks, not Carmella. Why does she know this? Why did that happen? This is the WWE, kids, we don’t need reasons.
After this reveal, Nikki has no choice but to defend her honor, her title, and her family, by feuding with Natalya. Spanning from late December until early March, the feud is about two veterans struggling to find respect in the WWE, in the shadow of men… the men’s division, their families, their lovers, the company itself. Natalya, with a stable of Hart devoted newbies, plays dirty and wins the Universal Title at Fastlane in a falls count anywhere match, but both women look strong. Natalya, unassuaged, continues her reign of terror on any woman she can get her hands on, interrupting matches that have nothing to do with her. The roster splits, going to Stephanie and Mick, to Shane and Daniel, saying this is bigger than Raw or Smackdown. Sides — Queens — are chosen.
After this reveal Nikki, of course, feuded with Natalya, who confessed that she had been the one going straight for Nikki’s neck in vulnerable moments backstage. The feud could have been about so many things, spanning from late December until March, but fell short. We had two of the most talented veterans on the women’s roster, or hell, on the roster in general, going face to face so brutally that they had to be restrained by security, a move typically reserved for male superstars. General managers got involved, matches never started because of how severely they were beating each other before a bell ever rang, and I saw one of the best falls count anywhere matches of my lifetime. But what was the feud about? A title shot? Old Queen, New Queen? This is my yard now? Jealousy gone sour?
John Cena’s name is never mentioned.
Nope. It was about John Cena… I guess. That’s the only consistent thing. Nikki dates John Cena. So let’s fight, I guess?
WrestleMania is only a few weeks away. Team Natalya will face Team Nikki in a madhouse elimination chamber the women’s division has never seen. The winners will then fight amongst themselves in a women’s rumble to decide who will be the next Universal Women’s Champion. Lana, Maryse, and Carmella break away from the men they’ve been aligned with, because this is bigger than anything else. This is about the future of women’s wrestling, about the way we respect and honor women in professional wrestling. Every woman who can wrestle, will wrestle.
And now here we are, moments away from WrestleMania, with Nikki slated to face Maryse at the biggest event of the wrestling year. Nikki hurled Natalya’s body into Maryse during a particularly brutal match, which saw Maryse respond by costing Nikki the match after taking to her long-established surgically repaired shin with a lead pipe. So finally, right? Nikki Bella, who rebuilt an entire human neck, gets to have her big moment, her one on one match, where she reestablishes herself as the greatest gift to women’s wrestling, and comes out either a reinvigorated face or the heel goddess deserves!
Wrong. Because the lead pipe is never called back to. This is about The Miz and John Cena. This is a mixed gender tag …because… Nikki dates John Cena.
Maryse is always by The Miz’s side and she’s damn good at it. She’s his wife, his valet, but she can hold her own in a fight. If you step to the Miz, you step to Maryse and the pair is doing some of the best work in the business. But that’s not Nikki’s role. Nikki and John have never addressed their relationship as part of story in the WWE and have never paired together outside of dark matches. Nikki’s involvement in this story is justified as “you messed with my man,” and the most character development she’s gotten is using the word bitch twice. So at Wrestlemania, this fight will ultimately be about the boys. When will it be about the women? Oh, it won’t. At least not until Total Divas, on which all four of the aforementioned currently star, comes back for another season.
- February 23rd, 2015: #DivasRevolution trends on Twitter and does not lose traction.
- July 13th, 2015: Stephanie McMahon takes #DivasRevolution to TV.
As of March 23, 2017: Seth Rollins’s knee has a 24 special on the WWE network, followed by a return that gave him the mic and a revitalized heel image, a second hiatus storyline via social media that made him a top face because that’s what was best creatively, a second comeback featuring the King of Kings Triple H, and perhaps the most anticipated match at WM33, oh, and a brand new T Shirt.
As of March 23, 2017, what does Nikki have to champion her return? But hey, maybe Nikki and her neck will get proposed to at the end of the mixed tag and that’s gonna be so fun on Total Divas, right?
Comebacks are for men. 24 specials are for men. New t-shirts and revitalized gimmicks are for men. Titles are for men. Legacies are for men. Good girls get one of six storylines on Total Divas. Good girls get to stand in the shade of their boyfriend’s shadow. Good girls get to be included at Wrestlemania as a token, even though merch packages and Smackdown alike rely on footage of young girls dressed head to toe in Bellas gear, smiling, cheering, sometimes crying, at the appearance of their hero. Good girls maybe possibly get marriage as a prize if they shut their mouth and keep serving a man who told them “no” long enough.
As a lifelong wrestling fan, Nikki Bella was the first time I got to see anything like myself in the ring. Girly tomboy. Insistent on being the best, proud of her curves, her strength, and the women around her, and for every horrible spray tan angle she did on camera, she and Brie gave a bruising criticism of the treatment of women at cons and in interviews. Nikki became a cornerstone of women’s wrestling history, of women in sports, before she ever hurt her neck.
But if the lights go down on our longest reigning Divas champion, not as a victorious Superstar, a once again ruling Woman, but as a fiance, a ride or die, an arm decoration…
I’ll hope one day my hypothetical daughters feel like a Seth, not a Nikki. But they’re just hypothetical. There are millions of real little girls in Fearless gear who it’s already too late for because, as I hope my fever dream fantasy booking illuminates, watering down any one woman is strangling the future of women’s wrestling at the roots.
image credit – WWE