In case you’ve had WWE programming on mute for the past several weeks, WrestleMania 35 is fast upon us, which means it is our eminent duty to periodically roll out excruciatingly detailed previews of each individual match in the month-plus leading up to April 7. It is, to be pointed, The Ringer’s WrestleMania Match Book.
As of this writing, and with Fastlane in the rearview, the card for professional wrestling’s biggest night has swelled to feature several confirmed clashes, a few of which we’ve already covered in depth. But it’s high time we wended our way toward the riotous three-way main event among Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. As has become customary in this series, the following is our finest effort at distilling the participants’ dovetailing fates, deducing why we care and taking a best guess at who will hoist that bejeweled belt high to close out wrestling’s starriest night.
WrestleMania Match Book, Chapter 4: Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair for the Raw Women’s Championship
The Dublin-bred 32-year-old born Rebecca Quin was competing in the squared circle by age 15, having trained under no less than fellow countryman Fergal Devitt, a.k.a. the future Finn Bálor. Halfway across the world, another teenager named Ashley Fliehr had already made a splash on national television for World Championship Wrestling, coming to the aid (or trying to at least) of her iconic real-life father Ric Flair. Over the next decade, their paths were wildly distinct. In 2006, Lynch—by then a known entity named Rebecca Knox—was sidelined after suffering serious cranial-nerve damage during a match in Germany. That’s when Lynch sojourned into the broader performing arts (while making ends meet as a flight attendant and a bartender, among other gigs) for the better part of a decade, until coming full squared-circle and signing with NXT in 2013.
Around the time Lynch was first making strides as Rebecca Knox, Fliehr was first nabbing headlines for her volleyball skills, which she brandished as both a high school standout and prize recruit at Appalachian State University. By the end of the aughts, she’d ended her spiking days, graduated from North Carolina State and become certified as a personal trainer. But thanks to a bit of nudging from wrestler-turned-talent-exec John Laurinaitis and her brother Reid (who died in 2013), Ashley Fliehr signed with NXT in 2012 and began her metamorphosis into the Queen, Charlotte Flair.
Prologue, Part 2
Before “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey was a dominant Raw women’s champion, she’d established herself as one of professional combat sports’ biggest names—and biggest wrestling marks. She was a WWF fanatic by age 3. Even as she racked up signature accomplishments in other fighting arenas—Rousey was a 2008 Olympic medalist in Judo and UFC’s first Bantamweight Women’s Champion by December 2012, fast becoming an international phenomenon—the hybrid athlete flirted with crossing over to sports entertainment. A rousing cameo at WrestleMania 31 sparked widespread speculation about not if, but when, Ronda would retire from UFC’s octagon and step between the ropes for WWE. Turns out sooner than anyone thought. After three years of utter rule over women’s MMA competition, Rousey was dealt successive losses in 2015 and 2016 by Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes, respectively. The following fall, UFC president Dana White publicly disavowed the notion of Rousey returning to his promotion, a statement that may well have been a defense against her “surprise” appearance at WWE’s Royal Rumble in January ’18. The baddest woman on the planet was now a full-time professional wrestler. But in the years between her UFC and WWE debuts, Flair and Lynch had helped spearhead a women’s revolution.
Even if the women’s division was getting short shrift in the big leagues of WWE in the first half of the 2010s, NXT’s ranks were stacked. British supernova Paige and Australian upstart Emma were among the preeminent names in developmental at the time. But by 2014, Flair and Lynch had climbed the ladder, with the former becoming NXT women’s champion by toppling Natalya in an instant classic. On-screen, both performers ping-ponged from heel to fan favorite, dueling opposite one another other and in various tag-team scenarios involving rising stars Bayley and Sasha Banks. Those four women also gelled behind the scenes, dubbing themselves the Four Horsewomen. The informal faction was a nod to Flair’s dad Ric’s legendary stable, though it would later serve as kindling for bad blood with then–UFC fixture Rousey (more on that in a bit).
Flair and Lynch took their most significant steps forward when they were called up simultaneously to Raw (along with Banks) and introduced by Stephanie McMahon as pillars of a new women’s revolution. They made up two-thirds of thrown-together trio Team PCB (the P being Paige). It was part of a broader shakeup in which some of the biggest female names—the Bellas, Banks, Naomi, Tamina, Alicia Fox—were placed in warring factions while WWE live-workshopped their individual potential. Fast-forward all of two months: Paige turned on her pals C and B (tear), Charlotte reigned supreme and soon thereafter teased a scripted betrayal of real-life BFF Becky with the disingenuous pinky swear of doom.
In the mode of her father, Flair would flip-flop from selfish tyrant to reformed baddie over the next few years. And like dear old dad, she’d never languish for long without gold around her waist (to date, Charlotte has claimed seven total women’s and diva’s championships). For a large chunk of 2016-17, she and Lynch competed on separate brands, allowing Lynch to flex her muscles against fresh NXT grads including Alexa Bliss and make her mark as inaugural SmackDown women’s champion. (Plus, she got to show her range in her turn as La Luchadora.) That was, until Charlotte migrated back to SmackDown in April ’17, leading to her most historic title run thus far—a 147-day streak that included a somewhat surprising win over undefeated 2018 Royal Rumble winner Asuka at WrestleMania 34. Lynch, conversely, was pigeonholed in her role as good-natured also-ran: She lost ingloriously at 2017’s Survivor Series and got literally tossed aside in battle royals at the ensuing year’s Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. To quote the late, great Owen Hart, enough is enough. It was time for a change.
As Charlotte shored up her legacy and Becky barely buoyed her head above water, Ronda Rousey experienced some serious growing pains in those several weeks spanning her post-Rumble debut. Rousey’s physical tools were bona fide, but WWE’s biggest mistake in handling her early on was asking her to carry the burden of being a garrulous babyface. Like many crossover athletes who preceded her, Rousey’s gift of improvisational mudslinging within the claustrophobic quarters of UFC bouts, weigh-ins and deferential press opps did little to prepare her for connecting with an audience of tens of thousands of restless wrestling nuts assessing her every cadence and turn of phrase. Turns out her fists (and arms, and legs, and feet) did all the jousting for her at Mania 34, shutting up all her doubters within half a minute of being tagged in by partner Kurt Angle and unleashing hell on Stephanie McMahon and Triple H.
Before that same summer’s end, Rousey was Raw women’s champion. And still is. As one victim after the next—Nia Jax, Ruby Riott, Sasha Banks, Mickie James, etc.—succumbed to Rousey’s righteous armbar, the champ’s bipartisan beatdowns were turning into rote exercises. Rousey’s abundance of success demanded that to keep our attention, WWE would have to mix things up.
Fast forward to July 2018. With Flair on the DL, Lynch started accumulating SmackDown victories, putting herself in line for a title match at SummerSlam against Carmella. But at the last minute, Charlotte reappeared and got inserted into the title match, justifiably irritating her buddy Lynch and teasing the fans with a reality-bending narrative: Charlotte did seem to have a monopoly on the main event, didn’t she?
Charlotte got the W at SummerSlam, and Lynch lost it. Her angst was justifiable, but her attitude represented a 180. She went on SmackDown and ripped into the fans, who, despite the ostensible heel turn, were thrilled with the change.
Nevertheless, Lynch stuck to the script, snatched gold from Charlotte at Hell in a Cell, and sauntered around like a conquering despot. Heading into that November’s Survivor Series, she declared herself “The Man” in WWE, a statement of personal purpose, but also an acknowledgement of the company’s closing qualitative gender gap. (And not insignificantly, a dig at Ric Flair.) She was programmed into an inter-brand Survivor Series bout against Raw champ Rousey, and, it seemed, the occasion had arrived to prove it.
That certifiable dream match between Lynch and Rousey was preempted by what could have been a complete nightmare for all involved. On the November 12, 2018, edition of Raw, Lynch led a SmackDown army in what’s become an “invasion” of Monday Night Raw. A scrum ensued inside the ring, and, whoops, Nia Jax leveled Lynch with an unintentionally real punch and legitimately broke her face. A bloodied Lynch stood defiant on the way out and made the moment hers. Through the transformative powers of unscripted violence and inborn charisma, the Man immediately became the most buzzworthy commodity in wrestling.
Alas, Lynch was also shelved for Survivor Series, handpicking nemesis Charlotte as her replacement, which was partly a concession to the fact that Lynch was entirely too popular to play the villain straight. It was also a kind of sick serendipity that only pro wrestling can give us: Becky’s unplanned derailment only boosted her hoped-for ascent, as WWE was forced to further delay gratification. Charlotte proceeded to brutally flog Rousey with a kendo stick, culminating a Survivor Series meltdown and slow rotation back toward her antagonist pose. At December’s TLC PPV, Rousey prevented both a recovered Lynch and reinvigorated Flair from winning the SmackDown women’s title, which was just as well—it was Rousey’s Raw belt that they were going to beef over.
At the Royal Rumble in January, Lynch stepped in for an injured Lana at the 11th hour (or 28th pick, to be exact) of the women’s battle royal and sabotaged Charlotte’s deserved win, putting Lynch in line to face Rousey at WrestleMania. But swerve alert! Becky was hobbling around with a story-line knee injury courtesy of old foe Nia Jax, and then got herself suspended for beating up Stephanie and Triple H when they dared compel her to get medically cleared for competition. (She went to story-line jail and everything.) And in an enraging echo of the most recent SummerSlam and Survivor Series, Charlotte was inserted into the fight by Chairman Vince McMahon, who’s always willing to risk a crowd’s ire to raise the temperature on a match.
But hark! Becky kept violating her suspension and any reasonable clinical caution by ambushing Flair and Rousey at every turn. And lo! Ronda at last got rowdy like she meant it in early March, verbally eviscerating the same fans who’d been so critical of her for so long and then assaulting a virtually defenseless Lynch. Transformation complete! Moreover, in the interest of expediency, Lynch was reinstated. She and Flair were slotted for one last one-on-one at Fastlane, with Becky’s shot at re-entering the Mania title match on the line. That Sunday, Charlotte dialed up the ruthless wrath and Lynch sold the heck out of her bum knee. It appeared The Man was doomed, but then: Rousey ran in and attacked Lynch, deliberately (if brutally) handing Becky the win by disqualification. The Rowdy one got what she’d wanted for months—her two irksome SmackDown spoilers in the ring at once, on wrestling’s most storied night. (And, in a true bit of redemption for Rousey, a viral, kayfabe-agnostic, shit-talking feud with Lynch and overall coordinated intimidation campaign to beat the band.) There was no shortage of volatility in the setup, but the circumstances are clear: Three once-in-a-generation athletes-cum-entertainers with a shot at ensuring that Mania 35 is the true high point in a wrestling revolution.
Remember my allusion to the Four Horsewomen faction rubbing up against Rousey? As NXT devotees can tell you, Rousey has been a cornerstone of another quartet of killer female combatants who’ve deigned to consider themselves the real Four Horsewomen. It’s a group that also features MMA-turned-NXT standouts Marina Shafir, Jessamyn Duke, and Shayna Baszler, a multiple-time NXT Women’s Champion. The fractious foursomes have let the theoretical drama surrounding apocalyptic-equestrian preeminence spill over onto social media, to the delight of smarky fans. And it’s hard not to fantasize about what might happen if—years removed from that July ’15 ribbon-cutting on the Women’s Revolution—natural alliances coalesced and opened up an inter-stable rivalry not seen since the days of DX versus the Nation of Domination.
In the interim, there’s a lot that needs to be addressed no matter what happens at Mania. If Charlotte or Becky win, will they then shift to Raw? If Rousey loses, will she stay put there? Is a roster shake-up imminent regardless?
But here’s a few statements: 1. Lynch and Rousey have riotous momentum, which could easily have one overthinking whether it’s Charlotte who needs the belt to keep catching up to her dad’s record of 16 championships and not get lost in the sauce. 2. If this match isn’t actually scheduled as the night’s finale, there may just be an actual riot. And 3. The credit for this coming together belongs to Rousey, Lynch, and Flair. They’ve taken the risks, put their bodies on the line, believed without wavering in what they were on the precipice of, and are all deserving of this moon-landing moment in women’s wrestling—and wrestling—history. The world is watching.