Bianca Belair fell short in her championship match at WWE NXT TakeOver: Phoenix, but the way she lost has set her up as a stronger protagonist and a future title holder.
In her first championship match at WWE NXT TakeOver: Phoenix, Bianca Belair turned in her strongest in-ring performance against NXT Women’s Champion Shayna Baszler, but it wasn’t to be.
While the challenger used her athleticism and strength to keep pace with her more technically proficient opponent — including powering out of the Kirifuda Clutch to drive Baszler to the canvas with a vertical suplex — Baszler took advantage of a ref bump and interference by her Four Horsewomen cohorts Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir to lock in her signature rear naked choke, scoring the referee-stoppage win and retaining her title.
Even though Belair lost the match — ending her “un-de-fea-ted” streak in the process — she firmly established herself as the top babyface in the NXT women’s division, which should put her on the path to winning her first NXT Women’s Title.
As deflating as that loss was (as it should be when heels win), the NXT creative team made the right choice by not moving the title onto Belair right away. Sure, they could’ve booked her to win the belt in her inaugural title bout, but the timing didn’t feel right.
For one thing, even though she received near universal cheers from the Talking Stick Resort Arena crowd and has gotten similar responses over the last few months, Belair still came across as a babyface-by-default against one of the best heels in the company in Baszler during the build to their match.
Her most recent televised bout prior to TakeOver: Phoenix saw her work as a heel, as she sent Nikki Cross packing to the main roster on the Jan. 9 NXT and the writers did little to show that Belair had shifted into the protagonist role outside of a brief confrontation with Baszler the following week.
Given the relatively modest hype for this bout ahead of the big show in Arizona, you couldn’t blame fans if they viewed Belair as a wishy-washy babyface challenger-of-the-month that would move back into her usual role following a loss to Baszler.
After Saturday, you can erase any thoughts of Belair moving out of the title picture as well as any ideas that this face run is temporary. If the goal was to present “The EST” as a legitimate foil to “The Queen of Spades” in this contest, then mission accomplished.
No matter the promotion, a good babyface must be able to do two things: generate sympathy and effectively fight from underneath against the right wrestler.
Given that she has spent almost the entirety of her young career as a cocky heel that overwhelms most of her opponents, Belair did a great job selling Baszler’s wrenching offense (the moment when she reaches for the ropes to reenter the ring only to wince in pain, leading to a great near-countout spot, was one of the subtle highlights of the match) while also showing a level of determination not unfamiliar to anyone that has watched Baszler’s previous matches against Ember Moon and Kairi Sane.
No point in the match better exemplified this than when Belair deadlifted Baszler while trapped in the Kirifuda Clutch before powering out and tossing her to the mat. Within that one spot, Belair displayed her elite gifts in a different context.
Instead of using them to batter an opposing tecnico, Belair utilized her speed, strength, and ever-growing ring IQ to overcome her grappling-versed adversary, which brought her to the precipice of a career-defining victory until Duke and Shafir got involved. The layout and finish of this match gave Belair another thing that every great babyface needs: an obstacle to topple.
We will likely see this match again in the near future; the creative team made sure to give Belair a visual pinfall victory before the other two Horsewomen ran in, so Belair has a legit claim to another match. Plus, Belair’s post-match smirk at Baszler and her goons as the backpedaled up the ramp indicated that Belair wasn’t done with the nefarious trio.
A Baszler/Belair rematch — preferably at the pre-WrestleMania NXT TakeOver in New York — would give the writers another chance to give fans more of a reason to cheer for Belair than they already have. They can hammer home the point that Belair had Baszler beat and that she took the champ’s best shot and persevered. If they do that, it would build genuine anticipation for her eventual conquest over Baszler.
As a face, her character wouldn’t require much tinkering; the writers don’t need to morph her into a smiling, plucky, white-meat babyface.
Granted, the writers would have to do more than they did during the lead-up to this match, but Belair has more than enough material in her backstory for them to craft a slightly more down-to-earth narrative for her character.
It could be something as small as forming a tenuous-at-first alliance with Io Shirai and Kairi Sane — who are also feuding with the Horsewomen and have a match with Duke and Shafir on this Wednesday’s NXT. Or she could do another sit-down style interview where she cuts her usual promo but with a babyface spin to it.
Again, they don’t have to do much since most of the fans cheer her anyway. They just need to do enough to show the fans that the NXT officials are invested in Belair as a centerpiece babyface; that their sentiments match up with the audiences.
Belair’s performance at this TakeOver event cemented her as a top babyface. If everything goes right, she’ll be cemented as the new NXT Women’s Champion by the end of the next one.