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UNDR CTRL: Bayley’s Success in the Misery Business and Her Quest for Bianca Belair’s Title

An examination of the world of sports entertainment, where off-camera, performers like Bayley routinely lose everything to put themselves into the position to win when the eyes of the world are on them

Jonathan Bartlett

There’s a lot you can learn by spending too much time on For instance, did you know that a promotion called Big Japan Pro-Wrestling held the fourth round of its Shopping Street Wrestling series at the Kanagawa Hodogaya Ward Shopping District in Yokohama on October 23? Or that the wrestling charity Dropkick Depression had its Fall Formal the day before?

More relevant for our purposes (though your mileage may vary on shopping whilst wrestling and/or dancing in fancy clothes) Cagematch tells us that Bayley worked both Saturday Night’s Main Event and Sunday Stunner house shows for the second consecutive weekend, bringing the number of total matches that she’s worked since stepping back in the ring two months ago to 20. See! Isn’t learning fun? On top of making you, dear reader, aware of the (somewhat) new branding WWE has put on its reduced house show schedule, this weekend’s appearances help tell a story about where the former Hugger (and current Role Model) is in her recovery after what appeared to be a pretty serious knee injury and what the next couple of months may look like for her.

Since making her return to WWE at SummerSlam with her new stablemates Iyo Sky and Dakota Kai as Damage CTRL, Bayley has worked what can only be described as a “light” schedule (considering how dangerous wrestlers’ jobs are literally every time they take a bump, there is no such thing as a “soft” or “easy” way to earn their money, but some paths are more taxing than others). Though it’s not particularly light in terms of her opponents, as Bayley has mostly worked with (and lost to) current Raw Women’s champion Bianca Belair, which she balanced out with singles victories over multi-time world champion Alexa Bliss and former tag team champions Raquel Rodriguez and Aliyah. Or even the amount she’s worked, as the eight-matches-per-month pace she’s on would have her in second behind only Drew McIntyre out of everyone on the roster had she kept it up from the beginning of our tracking (which of course nobody does, and she wasn’t trying to do so in 2021 either).

Instead, the relative levity of her schedule comes from the kind of matches she’s been put in: Nearly 40 percent (including five of her first eight) have been standard (or six-woman) tag matches, almost none of which have gone well. Somewhat shockingly (given both her status and overall record in the company before she left), roughly 14 months after her last match, her return to the ring was a tag team loss against Bliss and Asuka (while partnered with Kai) at a house show. And the losses have continued to mount: Bayley is just 7-13 in 2022 overall and has managed only a 2-6 record with varying combinations of Damage CTRL since making her comeback.

It doesn’t feel like that, though, does it? Some outlets certainly began to concern themselves with Bayley’s record before her “win” on Raw against Belair, but their focus was on her coming up short in her championship ladder match against Bianca at Extreme Rules or the somewhat fluky loss to Candice LeRae last week, not her losing 65 percent of her matches so far this year. This is because, of course, her performance on TV (and PLEs) has been as solid as that of anyone else in the company and most people don’t know or care about the actual card-by-card results of house shows. Bayley’s seven wins, including both of her victories in matches involving other members of Damage CTRL, and even one of her two losses (against Belair in a championship ladder match which should have been the main event at Extreme Rules) on-screen has more than made up for whatever it was that happened to her when the cameras were turned off.

That made Bayley a legitimate contender for Bianca’s title in the eyes of the majority of the audience. Even before Nikki Cross interrupted her most recent match against Belair and gave Bayley a clearer path to winning the world title again (we don’t fantasy book around here, but there’s certainly some kind of three-way feud for the Raw Women’s title that would let Bayley get the belt without Belair having to “lose” it, which Cross’s involvement seems specifically designed to make happen).

It’s also how Bayley debuted as the third-highest-ranked woman on the Big Board despite losing 11 consecutive matches at events no one except the folks in the arena get to see.

House shows don’t really matter, and they absolutely shouldn’t (especially not on a per-show basis) to the average fan. However, beyond simply providing sheer volume to promote statistical integrity, house show records—at least in the previous regime—and the numbers they generate often tell a much deeper story about how the company wants (or believes) fans to feel about performers and what plans it has for them in the future. That’s why house shows play a role in our system at all despite, counterintuitively, being actually detrimental to whatever “excitement” we might have around the Institute of Kayfabemetrics from week to week.

Although the stability they provide makes things less “fun,” so we could be “better off” (read: super viral on the TikToks) without them, that same stability allows what appears at first glance to be a massive lot of individual trees to become, just by slightly shifting focus, a very clearly defined forest that makes obvious whether WWE wants its fans to love or hate a given performer. Of the performers we track, nearly every one had a record on live events that directly reflected which side of the heel and face divide someone was “supposed” to be seen on, even if they were consistently booked differently on TV and PPVs.

And this was especially true for someone like Bayley, who when she was a dyed-in-the-wool babyface consistently won 80 percent of those matches. Since her very direct heel turn at the end of 2019, the results have been different, including going oh-for-2022 (so far).

One particularly egregious historical example of this split was Alexa Bliss’s 2017, when she lost 66 of 113 house show matches but held on to the SmackDown and Raw Women’s championships on two separate occasions each (as part of four reigns which cumulatively lasted the supermajority of the year) and won nearly 70 percent of her total singles matches (including exactly half of the 20 she had on PPVs or TV). Runs like Bliss’s work the same way a carnival game does, as despite knowing the game is rigged, fans seem willing to pay money to watch heel characters lose (or a babyface character win) even if they know it doesn’t “count,” presumably just for the adrenaline hit of seeing what they came for coupled with the off chance that they might be there the one time the results end up mattering or translate into what they eventually see on TV.

This at least partially explains how this simultaneous shift in winning percentage on house shows and the widening gap between TV and live events records so often happens. This phenomenon even has (very technically) happened to someone as high up on the card as Roman Reigns, though it’s not something we like talking about all that much, as we don’t want to get on the Bloodline’s bad side: Since turning heel in 2020, the Tribal Chief’s run on house shows was spectacularly, egregiously bad (at least for him) with a 15-21 record in the 36 untelevised six-man tag matches of which he’s been a part. For context, those 21 losses are three times more than Reigns had house shows in the entirety of his post-Shield solo career to that point, after his babyface run was jump-started by Seth Rollins’s heel turn on June 2, 2014, and quickly became one of the most forceful babyface pushes in wrestling history. (It feels important to note that this imbalance hasn’t extended to his singles work, as Roman Reigns has won his last 123 straight non-tag matches stretching back to 2018 on live events, with his most “recent” losses coming as a participant in two fatal four-ways for the IC title in March of that year.)

While house shows give fans what the WWE assumes they actually want to see (even if it doesn’t make sense in the big-picture story the company may be telling elsewhere), their most important function from an infrastructure perspective at this point is to provide a place to experiment wildly without necessarily risking anything of significance on any given night. For performers recovering from injury in particular—especially when they are simultaneously attempting to get over an evolution of their character and starting a new group with young stars hand-picked by the veteran performer themselves—these shows provide the closest thing to a “safe space” to shake off any ring rust and ease back into one of the hardest schedules in all of professional sports.

Because, as is so often the case with professional wrestlers, they must deal with all the risk that other professional athletes have while also having to engage in all the indignities that come with being forced to stay in character as a performer in a scripted entertainment product. Not unlike an actress who is pregnant off-screen but not pregnant on their show, wrestlers who come back from injury usually must find a way to hide much of the effect that a major medical event can have. This means, in a weird way, that the six-person tag match (and its analogs) has become the sports entertainment equivalent of a strategically-placed handbag on a sitcom set and an innings restriction in a traditional sport with a more traditional infrastructure like baseball. Thankfully, the nature of house shows from an existential point of view—they are almost entirely irrelevant to the “canon” of the show but are still based on the same story lines and feature the same characters as their television show and a captive audience which cares enough to actively pay to see it, as opposed to passively doing so with their cable bill—creates a perfect atmosphere for experimentation in the same way a rehab assignment can work wonders from a recuperating major league ball player.

New movesets, spots, story lines, and gimmicks are all trotted out on shows like this simply because the risk is so low to a given performer’s long-term marketability in an environment like that. This holds true even at the greatly reduced rate the WWE now puts on these shows post-pandemic. (Rather infamously, before the shift to a live SmackDown and, eventually, two house shows per week, WWE performers would get Wednesday and part of Thursday off before having to travel to house shows and TV tapings for the next five days, often getting home following a red eye after the Tuesday SmackDown taping night, all so they could start the entire process over again and again until their bodies broke down.)

For Bayley, once the consummate fan favorite—her legendary victory over Sasha Banks at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn is (a) still the loudest pop I have ever heard in person in my life as a wrestling fan, times 1,000, and (b) the only time your correspondent has ever cried tears of joy after a wrestling match—the goal of these shows should be to use them as a laboratory to test the bounds of both her knee and her resolve to make the fans miserable, no matter how much she may have missed them when she was gone. After spending much of her first run as an antagonist in the ThunderDome bubble, The Role Model is working with live rounds for the first time (at least after the initial honeymoon phase that nearly all major stars are granted when they make massive alignment shifts like Bayley did). With the initial shock of her destroying her Buddies long in our rearview mirror, she’s going to have to establish more directly what is sustaining her anger and animosity toward the fans and the rest of the women’s division on Raw.

Bayley’s commitment to the bit—and willingness to absolutely dunk on children via the medium of Twitter—has us rooting for (against? … we’re never sure how this works with the heels) her in the Palace of Wisdom, though (for the reasons we mentioned above), we are probably hopelessly biased in her favor. It’s possible (though not likely) that Bayley may not be able to fully reach the heights on the dark side she did as one of the best white-meat babyfaces of her generation. The climb to the top is longer and stranger than it’s ever been, with new paths that performers will need to take and a group of challengers now standing in the way that simply would not have been there just a year before.

But, no matter what, even if she ends up a phoenix not quite capable of fully rising from the ashes of her demise, it should still be a sight to see, because although Bayley’s in the misery business, it will always be a joy to see her work.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.