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Ex-WWE star Saraya, formerly Paige, debuts in AEW


Saraya

Saraya
Screenshot: AEW

No…not that one. Though it’s a good one, if the movie was a touch of WWE propaganda. We’ll get back to this.

It has been a rare occurrence that after an AEW show, the women’s division was creating the most buzz. It’s even rarer after a big AEW show, which Grand Slam most certainly is, as it’s probably their biggest non-PPV show on the calendar. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to think it has ever happened. The only other contender was the first match between Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa, which took place during the pandemic and is getting a little small in the rearview mirror now. Maybe you could argue the backstage drama surrounding Rosa, but of course, that got drowned out by the backstage drama of the dudes.

But that’s been about it. Like all the other failings of AEW’s handling of the women’s division, the lack of being able to create any flash or magnetism, or wanting to, might be its biggest. Because all the other issues get a whole lot easier to solve when people really want to see what happens next. AEW has rarely provided the “happens” or the “next.”

That’s not the case now.

The biggest story to come out of Grand Slam last night was the return of Saraya (Paige in WWE). Saraya is a wattage that the AEW women’s division hasn’t ever come close to having. Ruby Soho was a cherished get when she arrived, but in the “underused talent in New York” fashion. She was never a champion in NXT or WWE. Athena was in the same mold, though she held the NXT title for a while. Toni Storm, same case. Unquestionably talented, all could have the women’s division in AEW built around them with a little time, a little patience, and a little work. But those are three things that Tony Khan has never demonstrated he’s going to put forth for the women.

Saraya is as plug and play as it gets…at least we hope so. Because the big matzo ball hanging out there, and one of the big reasons her appearance last night was so surprising, is her neck. There was a time when it wasn’t thought to have much more stability than jack cheese. And still, no one is really sure, except we assume (hope?) Saraya herself, Khan, and whatever doctors each had looked at it. She certainly appears to be coming back as a wrestler. She repeatedly said in the past that’s what she wanted to do, and here we are. It might lead to fans watching her first few matches through their fingers, but that’s no different than fans have had to do with Bryan Danielson, Edge, or Christian Cage. And she’s significantly younger than any of those was when they returned from their injuries.

Saraya comes with a pedigree unmatched by anyone on the AEW women’s roster, and honestly, there are few men who could claim as much as she can. Because they didn’t actually flip the industry on its head, which Saraya (then Paige) did. Most fans will tell you the women’s revolution in WWE and NXT started with Saraya’s matches with Emma in NXT, demonstrating to everyone just what the women in the division were capable of. The Four Horsewomen came after that. Those four may have blown open the path, but the opening was created by Saraya.

She brought that to the main roster, famously winning the women’s title the night after WrestleMania in New Orleans in her first ever match in WWE. She is still seen as the pivot point for WWE to take the women’s division as seriously as it did the men’s. She was from a wrestling family, after all. You might have heard about it. A year later, Sasha, Becky, and Charlotte were up, and you know the rest.

Adding to the depth and feeling of Saraya’s return is that she never hit the heights that Sasha or Charlotte or Becky have, and a lot of that is down to her. There’s a redemption story that AEW doesn’t have to do anything with and could just let play out. Before her retirement, Saraya’s tale was a messy one, with drug and alcohol abuse, abusive boyfriends (which might still be something of an issue), leaked sex tapes, and wavering commitment to the business. It’s kind of hard to believe she’s still only 30 with how much she has packed in, both good and bad, in her career.

And AEW certainly isn’t afraid of a redemption arc. One needn’t look any further than its current champ Jon Moxley, who has had the best year of his career fresh out of rehab for a drinking problem. Saraya making it back to the ring just physically is a story in itself. Pile everything else on top of it and it couldn’t be any easier to get fans on her side (which judging by the massive pop when she appeared last night, they already are).

Saraya has that connection with fans because unlike most of the women wrestlers at the time of her ascent, she didn’t feel constructed from something else. She was a genuine wrestler, raised in it, who loved it, not imported from some other place and made up. Everything that’s happened since, and now her hopeful overcoming of all of it, only makes her more human. That’s someone you can build a division around.

All AEW has to do is want to. What the women’s division has badly needed is storylines that aren’t just a title match — and they’ve so rarely gotten them. It’s been since that first Rosa and Baker match that any women’s feud not around a title felt vital. While Saraya shouldn’t be used to sideline Storm, the current champ, she certainly provides a second line of storytelling as she begins her career again, and might buy some time for others like Storm or Athena or whoever else to truly nail down their character.

There are myriad possibilities here, including the hard-to-miss one of Saraya finally creating the permanent fissure between Jamie Hayter and Baker that should have happened already. It would be a boon if Saraya were a complete ace on the mic, which she’s not quite. But her star power will cover up most if not all of what she lacks, something perhaps no other woman on the AEW roster can say. Fans will enjoy having Saraya on the screen no matter what, she’s just that magnetic.

This is hardly the first time fans have hoped that a new dawn is upon the women’s division. And it just hasn’t ever been. But they truly haven’t had someone like Saraya to work with before. And room may be opening up. For weeks there have been rumors that AEW is going to get another show on TV. It could be the long-awaited Ring of Honor show, which would free up all the TV time that’s been getting on Dynamite and Rampage. It could be a women’s-exclusive show, as has been whispered. However it works out, there’s an opening here.

It isn’t that hard. All it takes is simply sending Saraya out there regularly. If she’s anything like she used to be, she’ll do the rest. 



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