Asuka stared down champions Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss. Who would she choose to face for their title at WrestleMania 34, an honor she had just earned by winning the first ever women’s Royal Rumble match in 2018. As she considered the two competitors in front of her, the strains of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” came over the sound system at the Wells Fargo arena in Philadelphia and Ronda Rousey made her much anticipated first appearance as a wrestler under contract to WWE.
It could have been worse: Rousey could have made her in-ring debut in the match, which the internet was going gangbusters with rumors of. But in stealing Asuka’s thunder as the winner of the first women’s Royal Rumble match, Rousey became the embodiment of how WWE would consistently undercut the momentum of the wrestler formerly known as Kana.
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Up until her match at WrestleMania 34, in which she ended up challenging Charlotte Flair for her SmackDown Women’s Championship, Asuka was enjoying a 914-day undefeated streak throughout her tenure in NXT and during her move to the main roster in late 2017. She made quick work of every opponent put in front of her, from Bayley to Mickie James to Nikki Cross to Ember Moon, so much so that a viable usurper seemed unfathomable. It seemed that NXT agreed, opting to have Asuka forfeit the women’s championship, which she held for 522 days, rather than make her look like anything less than the killer she is by losing it in a match, the exception to the rule of NXT’s female babyface booking. While I don’t hate the end of the streak as much as others (I’d rather Charlotte end it than Rousey), WWE has only diminished Asuka’s fearsomeness since the end of the streak, portraying lesser wrestlers such as Carmella and Alexa Bliss as viable challengers.
The Difference a Roster Makes
Asuka continued to languish on the main roster for the next couple of years or so, playing second fiddle to Charlotte and her feud with Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey, winning the SmackDown title in late 2018 during a Tables Ladders and Chairs match in which she seemed like an afterthought. This theme has carried on today, with Asuka seeming to be the sidekick—despite being the champion!—to other women’s stories. But more on that later.
The most egregious example of Asuka’s diminishment, to my mind, is the lead up to WrestleMania 35. Everyone was excited for the first women’s main event of the “Super Bowl of wrestling”, including myself. It was a no brainer ever since Becky Lynch got her face busted open and went viral while getting the better of Rousey several months before during what was supposed to be their first meeting at Survivor Series in late 2018. But WWE did what WWE is wont to do and severely fucked with the booking, adding Charlotte and the SmackDown women’s championship—which Charlotte had won from Asuka two weeks before—to the match, making it a winner-take-all stipulation. This resulted in Asuka and the rest of the women’s division (bar an equally-as-messy eight-woman tag team championship match) being pushed off the main card and into the women’s battle royal on the pre-show. It was later revealed that Asuka was supposed to defend the title against the winner of an advertised match between Carmella, Sonya Deville, Naomi or Mandy Rose, but that was scrapped in favor of beefing up the women’s main event to make it more meaningful. As if the first women’s main event wasn’t meaningful enough on its own, without all the additional bells and whistles.
Auska’s propulsion as a singles star was further thwarted by putting her in the poorly-named Kabuki Warriors tag team with Kairi Sane, inexplicably managed for the first half of their run by Paige. Asuka’s Japanese heritage has always been a big part of her character, but in foisting her into a team with the only other Japanese woman on the main roster and having a white woman as their mouthpiece (Asuka and Sane leaned heavily on their native Japanese dialect during their time together), felt hollow at first, continuing the long-running argument that WWE doesn’t know what to do with wrestlers of color apart from lumping them together. Despite this, the team got themselves over and saw success, going on to hold the Women’s Tag Team Championships for the longest reign as of this writing.
Money (Left) in the Bank
With Sane leaving WWE, freeing Asuka up to get back into singles competition, it seemed like 2020 would finally be Asuka’s year. Along with Sasha Banks and Bayley, Asuka carried WWE through its audience-less pandemic year, and she was rewarded for it by being crowned the Raw women’s champion for its majority. But for those who care to see smell it *raised hand emoji* the same stench that has permeated the rest of Asuka’s main roster run was evident.
She may have won the women’s Money in the Bank match but, like in the two years prior (which make up 75% of total women’s MITB cash ins since the inception of the women’s version of the match in 2017; a dismal track record), the briefcase that usually contains a championship contract was cracked open within 24 hours to reveal that Asuka had actually won Becky Lynch’s Raw women’s title due to Lynch’s pregnancy.
Surprisingly, this was not the only time that an Asuka storyline was foiled by a pregnancy: save for a brief period in mid-2020 when Asuka lost the title to Sasha Banks due to shenanigans, Asuka seldom defended it. When she did, especially in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021, it was secondary to another feud, namely Lana being bullied by the entire Raw women’s division, a returning Charlotte teaming up with Asuka to challenge tag team champions Shayna Baszler and Nia Jax, and Charlotte’s beef with her father, Ric Flair, and Lacey Evans, whose aforementioned pregnancy led to Evans’ match with Asuka being called off with nothing to replace it.
As recently as three weeks prior to this year’s WrestleMania, Asuka did not have an opponent. Rhea Ripley made her main roster debut to challenge Asuka for the title on the grandest stage of them all, and their storyline consisted of… feuding with Baszler and Jax, just as the SmackDown women’s title contenders Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair had been doing, because although the introduction of the tag titles was supposed to provide more storylines to the women apparently WWE can’t think of any.
Poor writing and lack of opportunity have plagued WWE’s women’s division for a long time, resulting in social media movements such as #GiveDivasAChance in 2015. The muddled booking in recent months—on Raw in particular, where Asuka resides—have led to murmurings of another #GiveWomenSuperstarsAChance campaign. Until she suffered an arm injury earlier this year, Auska found herself still in orbit around Ripley and Flair, who were feuding over Auska’s former title, lost to Ripley at WrestleMania. At least she was on the show, which is more than I can say for the IIconics and Mickie James who were unceremoniously let go from their WWE contracts days after WrestleMania.
Sure, Asuka’s treatment is symptomatic of booking problems in WWE more broadly, but when it’s all laid out here, it’s plain for anyone to see that WWE has an Asuka problem.