Last Monday, all of the superstars of the Raw women’s division gathered in the ring to announce their presence in the upcoming Money in the Bank ladder match, wherein the prize is a future shot at the Raw title, which currently rests on the shoulder of ascendant standard-bearer Becky Lynch. Alexa Bliss, Natalya, Naomi, and Dana Brooke were all accounted for, but there was one notable absence from this scrum (aside from champ Lynch and challenger Lacey Evans, who will be squaring off on the same night): Sasha Banks. The former women’s champion, inaugural women’s tag-team champion, one of the first women to ever main-event a WWE pay-per-view event, and all-around trailblazer of the division, was nowhere to be found.
On a very early episode of The Masked Man Show, I made an aggressive prediction: Sasha Banks had the potential to be a superstar on the level of the Rock. I hope you can forgive me for that. Back in 2016, when Banks’s career on the main WWE roster was just getting started, that didn’t seem like all that much of a stretch of the imagination. She had a memorable look; a brash, cocky, modern character that sold tons of merchandise; and an unmistakable if understated charisma. More importantly: She was putting on some of the best matches in the company.
Now, three years later, Banks is adrift, far from the picture of mainstream acceptance I had envisioned. Instead, Banks is on the sideline and out of the ring. Her absence from the Raw Money in the Bank match lineup was a blinking light confirming that she’ll be gone for some time. Reports and rumors swirl through the wrestling gossip network that she’s quit the company, but WWE refuses to release her from her contract. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, it seems unlikely that she’ll get the opportunity to reach her full potential and prove me right in WWE. It’s a sign of the times in an industry that is weaponizing talent contracts and a test of the bargaining power of today’s ascendant female performers.
It’s impossible to know what Sasha Banks’s future would have been had she not decided to step away from WWE (if indeed she has decided to step away from WWE). The fortunes of professional wrestlers, especially those in WWE, tend to fluctuate wildly. One day, you might be next in line for a mega-push. The next, you’re not even on television. If your name is Zack Ryder, an Intercontinental Championship victory at WrestleMania could lead to being one half of a lower-card tag team, then a few years as a healthy scratch enjoying the salmon in catering (which I heard from a guy I know is pretty damn good). Vince McMahon’s pet project is never all that far away from being his punching bag. Just ask Dolph Ziggler.
Banks seems to have bet that the remainder of her run in WWE would be more famine than feast. The tantalizing prospect of greener pastures in companies like Ring of Honor and the upstart All Elite Wrestling offer disgruntled workers a chance to ply their trade elsewhere. The international and independent wrestling scenes are thriving in a way they haven’t in the modern era. But it’s precisely those options that have put the performers in a contractual purgatory that could fundamentally alter the wrestling business.
It wasn’t all that long ago that WWE would engage in a yearly purge of lower card talent, malcontents, and underachievers. WWE wrestlers—independent contractors who made most of their money from live event revenue and merchandise sales—would occasionally work on nothing more than handshake agreements in the 1980s and ’90s. Sometimes talent contracts would fall through the cracks, leading to defections to the competition during the Monday Night Wars era. Famously, Lex Luger was able to leave WWE to sign a WCW contract without anyone noticing until Luger showed up on the first episode of Monday Nitro. Rick Rude pulled off the nifty trick of appearing on Raw and Nitro on the same night, thanks to a loosely enforceable per-appearance contract and Raw’s being taped ahead of time, while Nitro aired live.
As recently as 2016, when Cody Rhodes was unhappy with his creative direction, WWE released him from his contract to let him go ply his trade elsewhere. This was in the bygone era, when the alternatives were slim. No one could match WWE’s size, reach, or ability to compensate talent. AEW, ROH, and New Japan Pro-Wrestling still can’t quite offer everything WWE can, but the gap is closing. There’s a direct line from Rhodes being released to the recent creation of AEW, which he cofounded—the first domestic wrestling company since the collapse of TNA to invest significant money into its product. In a twist out of comic book lore, WWE created its own archrival. AEW seems to be on the cusp of a TV deal of some sort, which, combined with its substantial startup budget, could give WWE a decent fight eventually. That’s a long way off, but that hasn’t stopped WWE from treating the threat with the utmost urgency.
Even if they haven’t been on television in a major story line in years, main roster talent like the Ascension and the Colons continue to be employed. Despite rumors that Lio Rush is not particularly popular in the locker room, he is also still employed, with talk of him going back to NXT. It appears that WWE would rather tuck away these cast-offs in its jacket pocket than set them free and let them potentially become stars elsewhere. Consider the saga of British cruiserweight wrestler Neville, now known in AEW as PAC: He became frustrated with WWE and wanted to leave, but he was paid not to wrestle for nearly a year. The same thing happened before that with living legend Rey Mysterio: Mysterio had other opportunities, and so WWE unilaterally extended his contract to keep him off the open market.
You can put a positive spin on it, sure: sit at home and earn a good living without having to wreck your body in the process. It can’t hurt your physical and mental well-being to take some time away from the grind of WWE’s never-ending touring schedule. But there’s also the matter of long-term earning potential for talent like Banks or Luke Harper, who is also reported to have been iced in lieu of a release. Social media and other digital tools will allow talent to continue cultivating fan support, but not being in front of millions of eyeballs on national TV isn’t ideal.
And what could this mean for contracts going forward? Talent might look at multiyear agreements with WWE that are riddled with iron-clad language and no easy out and wonder whether it’s truly worth it. WWE’s latest olive branch to disgruntled tag team the Revival was reportedly for five years at $500K per—and they declined. The wrestler formerly known as Dean Ambrose passed on a WWE megadeal, too, and all signs point to him working under his old Jon Moxley moniker with other companies. Ambrose is by far the biggest name to turn down WWE’s money, but he probably won’t be the last. If someone signs a long deal and it doesn’t go well, the options are Zack Ryder’s intimate relationship with catering or going home and sitting out.
We’re not just talking about weeks or months on the shelf. In some cases, it could mean years off. Pro wrestling will likely never have the kinds of talent-friendly contracts that exist in the NBA and allow players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James to opt out and test the free-agent market seemingly every year or two. Wrestlers are assets to be hoarded, and WWE appears content to hoard as many as it can right now. It has the legal backing and, more importantly, the money to do whatever it wants.
For Sasha Banks, there’s a bright side to all of this. For maybe the first time in WWE history, female performers are being seen as valuable enough that they can be as defiant and obstinate as the top names on the men’s side. Few women got to the level of stroke that people like Sable, Sunny, and Chyna did when they were in their prime, but even those three were given their walking papers eventually. Banks is a more gifted performer than them and still has so much of the potential I, and other wrestling fans, saw in her all the way back in NXT. As workers like Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair become more and more crucial to WWE’s bottom line, women wrestlers can demand more from their employer. The problem is, without talent on the level of Sasha Banks floating around the indies or in mini-majors like ROH and AEW, the women’s scene outside of WWE won’t ever grow into a top-of-the-card attraction. It’ll take a Sasha Banks—a few of them, actually—to change the game.
The rise of the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Rhodes, and the rest of the AEW founding brain trust has not been mirrored in the women’s division. There are female performers out there like Sienna, Rosemary, and Kelly Klein in companies like Impact and ROH that do good work. AEW appears quite bullish on Dr. Britt Baker, whose gimmick is that she’s a legit dentist. The joshi wrestling scene in Japan is filled with elite female performers. But none of those names are draws yet. If Sasha Banks finds a way out of WWE, she’ll find a very different landscape than what she’s used to. Instead of living in the deep shadows of Lynch and Flair, she’ll be the biggest name in whatever locker room she’s in. With that comes the responsibility of carrying matches with workers who don’t have the experience she does. It will mean selling tickets and carrying entire divisions. That kind of pressure is surely what Banks craves, considering her clear, undying love for her chosen art form. Success or failure is less important than simply having the chance to try. It remains to be seen whether Sasha Banks will be given that opportunity.
Dave Schilling is a Los Angeles–based writer whose work has been seen at The Guardian, Vice, Bleacher Report, New York Magazine, and Grantland.