2020 in Wrestling: Sasha Banks and Bayley Are WWE’s Wrestlers of the Year

Wrestling has been difficult to enjoy in 2020, and often WWE most of all. The efforts of the company’s talented roster have been frequently overshadowed by the company’s layoffs, political ties, handling of #SpeakingOut allegations, and general response to the coronavirus pandemic. And just from an entertainment standpoint, WWE’s no-crowds production choices (whether empty PC or Thunderdome) and creative output in general have left a lot to be desired.

This made it even more impressive when WWE performers transcended their environment to deliver top-notch wrestling and entertainment, and no one did that more consistently this year than Sasha Banks and Bayley.

Banks and Bayley’s 2020 accomplishments culminated in the long-awaited main roster follow-up to their acclaimed NXT rivalry. Back in 2015, pure-hearted underdog babyface Bayley faced her former friend Sasha Banks, whose Boss heel persona had recently elevated her to another level, at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn. What they had wasn’t just a great match, but an important one in the development and elevation of women’s wrestling in WWE.

Their history together added both hype and gravitas to the main roster moments that made it look like we could see their rivalry maybe get a worthy second round, like Sasha’s extremely Scar-from-The-Lion-King elimination of Bayley in the 2019 Elimination Chamber or when The Boss ‘n’ Hug Connection became the first Women’s Tag Team Champions in February 2019 only to lose the titles less than two months later.

That tag title loss didn’t lead to a real tag team breakup angle for the duo, but 2019 still saw both women evolve into the versions of themselves who would finally feud for real in 2020. Banks went on hiatus for a few months after the tag title loss, training in Japan while rumors of her leaving the company abounded, then returned on the Raw after SummerSlam with a fantastic (and fantastically revealed) blue wig, a revamped heel attitude, and beef with Becky Lynch. It seemed like Bayley might finally find something like her NXT level of success as a babyface on the main roster when she won the Smackdown Women’s Championship at Money In The Bank, but she really ascended after the first heel turn of her WWE career, when she abandoned her morals and slew her inflatable tube men on the first episode of Smackdown on Fox, turning from kid-friendly hero to evil mom friend in order to regain her title.

The renewed alliance between the now mutually evil, leveled-up Sasha and Bayley was a major highlight of Smackdown at the beginning of 2020, and even more so once WWE moved production to the empty Performance Center in response to pandemic-induced event bans across America. As this bleak period of programming (both in the context of real-life events and in itself creatively) began, Banks and the Smackdown Women’s Champion were two of the few WWE performers who (along with Asuka, who I’m only not writing a Best of 2020 article about because I already praised her Pandemic MVP status here) seemed to require little to no adjustment time to the company’s new normal.

Like Asuka, Sasha and Bayley had the combination of wrestling skills, big personalities, and strong characters that could fill the newly empty space as much as it was possible to fill. And also like Asuka, Sasha and Bayley benefited from that previously mentioned special audience interest and goodwill earned by their memorable NXT accomplishments, compounded by the importance of those accomplishments to the history of how the world’s biggest wrestling company’s presentation of about half of humanity. Their success was more reality-flavored than other wrestlers’ successes. It meant something extra, to some wrestling fans at least, for them to be WWE’s standout stars.

The fallout of WrestleMania 36 made it look like The Golden Role Models’ new dynamic, with Banks beltless and running interference, could blow up at any time, but they didn’t feud until months later. Instead, Sasha and Bayley began an impressive belt-collecting spree with the underlying tension of an inevitable breakup, like building a Jenga tower with a precarious-looking gap on the fourth level.

The summer of 2020 saw Sasha and Bayley continue to be some of the most entertaining figures in WWE, have exciting matches, and build up their legacies both as individuals and as a duo. Bayley continued to hold the Smackdown Women’s Championship and eventually set a record for its longest reign. In June, Banks and Bayley won the Women’s Tag Team Championship for the second time and went on to have (the no-fans version of) the reign people wanted for them the first time.

They put on quality defenses against teams from the main roster and NXT— leading to, as a bonus, the dream match of Sasha Banks vs. Io Shirai becoming a reality at July’s NXT Great American Bash. Tag team clashes with Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross and with the Kabuki Warriors also led to singles feuds at Extreme Rules later that month, and though Sasha and Bayley weren’t immune to the weird booking decisions that plagued the company at the time (Sasha won the Raw Women’s Championship from Asuka by countout), their other strengths carried them through.

When the Role Models’ tower began to fall, it cleared the path for the feud everyone had been waiting for— thankfully with better writing than some of the participants’ other recent feuds. The trend of Sasha being bad at defending singles titles continued when she lost the Raw Women’s Championship back to Asuka in her first defense at SummerSlam, and then Sasha and Bayley lost the tag titles to Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler a week later at Payback.

Without the tag titles to unite them, their split was now truly inevitable. But while fans could easily see the feud coming, part of what made Sasha vs. Bayley 2k20 Edition so good was how it swerved longstanding expectations.

Most predictions for a main roster Banks vs. Bayley feud before this year featured the Boss once again turning on her more morally upright partner, and for good reason. A heel Bayley seemed impossible (or undesirable) for a long time, a significant portion of fans wanted to see Sasha return to her NXT characterization and level of dominance, and there was that Elimination Chamber Lion King moment, not to mention the way Corey Graves always talked about Banks. But in September of this year, it was Bayley who turned on Sasha, and their fortunes had changed enough by that time that it totally made sense. The longest-ever reigning Smackdown Women’s Champion blamed her friend who was on a big-match losing streak for the loss of her Bayley Dos Straps status and attacked her for it.

Sasha and Bayley’s feud climaxed, after a period of promos, attacks, and contract drama, at Hell in a Cell in what was arguably the match of the show, as well as arguably WWE’s match of the year. Banks vs. Bayley in the Cell had everything one could want from a match between these wrestlers and from a modern HIAC match, even soundtracked as it was by extremely fake-sounding Thunderdome crowd noise.

The aggression felt real, the spots were creative and painful-looking, and the finish, Banks tapping out Bayley in a chair-assisted Bank Statement while stomping on her hand, referenced both their current feud and iconic Brooklyn match five years earlier (and looked very cool and brutal.)

The Cell match and the excellent rematch that followed on Smackdown weren’t just entertaining in themselves and as culminations of a feud but as well-executed next steps in the evolution of Sasha Banks. The best babyface turns don’t erase the strengths of a wrestler’s heel characterization, and the same could be said of post-betrayal Sasha. The extra attitude and brutality she’d had since she went blue were very much still present as she fought through a feud that turned out not to be just about revenge on her former friend, but about achieving those accomplishments that had eluded her since she moved to the main roster.

Banks had been in both previous women’s HIAC matches and this time she got to win, after entering the cage in big-match white with the confidence of one of the few women who could say she’s been there before. Sasha’s inability to retain singles titles (a subject of real-life booking criticism over the years) was brought up by Bayley when she challenged for a rematch, and that rematch saw Banks finally break that V1 curse.

Like Bayley’s dominant Smackdown Women’s Championship reign, Banks’ HIAC win and successful title defenses leveled her up in a way many fans felt she deserved but weren’t sure if WWE would ever do. And in a year when WWE didn’t do much in the way of new First-Ever-type Women’s Evolution developments, watching Sasha and Bayley continue to evolve was one of the company’s biggest strengths.

From the cage match and the consistently strong tag title defenses to Bayley’s “ding-dong”s and “sister”s and Sasha’s impeccable onscreen looks, Sasha and Bayley’s accomplishments as individuals and as a tag team, as friends and as enemies, in themselves and in the context of their WWE histories, shone brightly even through the obscuring pollution that was the state of the world and of WWE this year.