In a 2016 interview with Bleacher Report, WWE Superstar Bayley predicted that the women's division would be the main event at WrestleMania in five years. Ambitious talk, no doubt.
Less than two years later, though, the biggest women's match in the marquee event's history is taking place on Sunday in New Orleans. Charlotte Flair, the SmackDown women's champion, will face the undefeated Asuka at WrestleMania 34. And while it may not be the main event, the showdown approaches that caliber of importance.
The match pits the two most dominant competitors in the women's division against each other, and it also carries the weight of history, in that it's a representation of WWE's past, present and future.
First and foremost, this is another watershed moment in the ongoing WWE Women's Evolution.
In 2015, fans demanded female WWE Superstars be given equal time and respect as their male counterparts.
These arrivals were a long time coming, the tangible end result of a long development period that began quietly when WWE hired Sara Amato as the company's first female training coach in 2012.
The Mentor of Female Champions
Before she signed with WWE, Amato—more commonly known by her ring name Sara Del Rey—was an established, dominant presence in various independent wrestling promotions.
She had been all around the world. She trained at the All Pro Wrestling Boot Camp in Hayward, California, where WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan took an interest in her work. He tutored her in one-on-one sessions, taught her the finer points of the craft and exposed her to different international wrestling styles.
Amato wrestled from Japan to Mexico and worked with promotions such as Shimmer, Chikara and Ring of Honor. Eventually, she was named the fourth-best female wrestler by Pro Wrestling Illustrated in 2012, the same year she retired from active competition.
The hiring of Amato was a major step forward for WWE, which hadn't always pushed women's wrestling with the seriousness it deserved. There were great talents from the late 1990s to mid-2000s such as Lita, Trish Stratus, Jacqueline and Ivory (a GLOW alumnus from the mid-80s). Too often, though, the division was promoted on the basis of its sex appeal, often to the detriment of its in-ring work.
However, Amato had a library of different holds, throws, strikes and wrestling styles. She knew ring psychology and how to advocate for herself backstage, because she had worked her way up through varied locker rooms and often emerged as a de facto leader.
One of her first edicts as a WWE trainer was to get back to the fundamentals—to forward the sentiment that ring mastery and beauty were not mutually exclusive.
Amato's arrival roughly coincided with the building and opening of the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. The facility serves as the company's official training school, and it funnels its best students into the NXT developmental brand.
In prior years, WWE had farmed its talent from affiliated promotions such as Ohio Valley Wrestling and Deep South Wrestling. NXT (renamed from Florida Championship Wrestling, or FCW) was a concerted effort to bring the entire development cycle in-house.
In a business that had traditionally prided itself on paying dues and working the road, the state-of-the-art Performance Center begged the question: Could a completely green wrestler, with little or no prior wrestling experience, train in NXT, move up to WWE's main roster and become a top competitor?
Several years later, Charlotte would provide an affirmative answer to that question, She was a bonafide, homegrown talent, almost entirely molded by WWE's official developmental system. She caught Amato's eye in FCW—soon to be rebranded NXT—almost immediately.
All Hail The Queen
Charlotte wasn't always interested in becoming a professional wrestler. She wasn't even much of a fan as a young girl. But when she sat in the audience for Ric Flair's WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2008, she began to realize the impact her father had on so many people's lives.
Ultimately, it was her younger brother, Reid Flair, who convinced her to sign WWE's developmental contract and give the world of sports entertainment a shot.
"The first time I met Charlotte was at FCW," Amato said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "She'd only been training a month or two, but she was the ultimate athlete. She was super hard on herself. ... She wanted to carve her own path and not rely on her father's name. She was very aware of the expectations placed on her because of [the name]."
Charlotte took part in multiple sports when she was younger: gymnastics, cheerleading, basketball and volleyball. A two-time state champion volleyball player in high school, she continued playing for another two years at Appalachian State in North Carolina.
"Anything athletic [in the ring] came easily to her, because of her sports background," Amato said. "What Charlotte needed to work on were the smaller details that come with time and experience—the comfort of being in the ring with an opponent, knowing what story she wanted to tell and knowing how to tell it in front of her audience.
"You want to be giving [in the ring], but you also have to be protective of yourself. Charlotte's size and superior athleticism meant she needed to know when to give and when to be a little selfish."
Typically, these are big-person problems in professional wrestling. A wrestler who is significantly taller or more muscular than his or her opponent must decide how hard to sell a punch or a kick. Sell too little, and it's an insult to your opponent; sell too much, and you risk losing your intimidation factor.
Before Flair could find that balance, she first needed to understand her own strength.
"I didn't know what a presence I had at the time. Sometimes, I still forget that to this day," Charlotte, who is 5'10", told Bleacher Report. "I didn't think of my size as an advantage or as something that I could use to be dominant. I didn't carry myself in the ring with the confidence that I should have.
"There were girls who were 5'5", 5'4" and 5'6" who were bumping me around, when it should have been the other way. But because I was a gymnast, I thought, 'Oh, I'm flipping around!' I wasn't thinking about the big picture—my character and the story I was trying to tell in the ring.
"I grew up watching my dad, and all he did was bump around. So maybe that was in the back of my mind. To this day, however, I'm trying this happy medium. I still have a long way to go. I'm not the total package, but I definitely have more pieces."
Amato knew Charlotte would inevitably be compared to her father. So whenever she adopted one of her father's moves, Amato worked with her to put her own twist on things.
The Figure Four Leglock, thanks to Charlotte's gymnastics background, became the Figure Eight Leglock with the addition of an acrobatic backbend.
Charlotte also learned that just because she can do something evocative of her father doesn't mean she always should. Over the past two years, she has left many of the Ric Flair-isms behind.
"The reason I don't do the Flair Flop anymore is because women's wrestling is being taken so seriously," Charlotte said. "I'll only perform something comedic like that at a house show. Especially when holding the title, I'm sensitive to when it is and when it is not OK."
And as the record books show, Charlotte is one of the most accomplished women in WWE. Since her main roster debut—including her current reign—she is a six-time world champion and has held both the Raw and SmackDown women's titles in a short period.
Even so, she is humble, especially when the topic turns to her opponent at WrestleMania 34—the woman who won the first Women's Royal Rumble and has the longest winning streak (265-plus and counting) in WWE history.
"It's funny that going into this, I'm the champion; I've won every title in WWE," Charlotte said. "And even though Asuka has to beat me for the title, I feel like she's the one I have to beat. I'm honored to have this opportunity."
Bow To The Empress
Colorful: that's the first impression one gets of Asuka, both literally and figuratively.
Her clothes have a visual pop to them, as though they were assembled by a wild fashion designer. She saunters to the ring in a disarmingly playful manner, yet she juxtaposes that with one of the most dramatic masks and creepiest smiles in all of sports entertainment.
However, what WWE fans see in the ring is the end product of close to 15 years of development.
Like Charlotte, Asuka wasn't always a wrestler. She began her career as a graphic designer. And when she decided to pursue wrestling, she started on the bottom rung of the industry and worked her way up through hard work and stubbornness.
Amato, who worked for the Japanese promotion AtoZ, remembers Asuka well.
"During my first tour of Japan, Asuka was the youngest girl in the dojo," Amato said. "[AtoZ] was a new organization at the time, and Asuka was the only young girl. And the way the culture and the system works [in Japan], she took care of all the older girls. She was the grunt. She did all their work. She did all their laundry.
"I saw her work really hard to become this amazing performer and amazing character. And so when I had matches with her [in Shimmer], I knew she had seen it all and been through it all. She was 100 percent committed to her in-ring style."
Just what that style is, though, isn't easy to convey. Charlotte noted Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka share several attributes in common.
"Whenever I see Asuka and Shinsuke, their style is just so crisp and hard-hitting and trained," she said. "You can see they know what they're doing. And technically speaking, no one can top Asuka's mat skills right now. There's a variety; she knows how to work every part of the body."
In an email to Bleacher Report, Asuka described her style as one that prioritizes opportunity.
"The base of my wrestling style is philosophy and logic," she wrote. "For example, if there is a leg there, catch the leg. If there are arms there, I catch the arms. I value the importance of continuity of attacks, and continuity from offense to defense."
Her biggest challenge has been adjusting to life and work in the United States. According to Amato, Asuka had to be cutthroat to get to the pinnacle of the Japanese wrestling business.
In contrast, the women of NXT want to succeed together as a division. It's more of a group-oriented, team environment. Part of being a team member is excellent communication, which Asuka has found to be a struggle other female Superstars don't face.
"[The language barrier] is definitely a challenge to this day," Amato said. "But wrestling is universal. If you can't speak verbally, you have to speak with your body. And thankfully, Charlotte has a physical style that matches up very well with Asuka."
Asuka added: "Because I am still not fluent in English, my fans may not get to hear me very much on the microphone. However, WWE action is a universal language—maybe even beyond language. You do not need to translate the action.
"I always have performed for the audience, and I want my fans to know that I compete to justify their support. The fans' belief in me is the key to success."
A Clash of Wrestling Royalty
On April 8, two Superstars who have never fought one-on-one will do battle for the SmackDown women's championship.
In one corner will be the daughter of a legend—living proof that WWE's development program is a success. In the other will be one of the company's most successful signings—a woman who has bolstered the company's image as a global brand.
Charlotte and Asuka embody the best of the present, but they also signify an investment in the company's future, one that has to navigate different cultures.
Beyond their pre-match trash talk, both Charlotte and Asuka see their match at WrestleMania as an opportunity to bridge the gap between American and Japanese-style wrestling and to celebrate the handed-down lineages of the athletes who came before them.
"My dad was able to wrestle so many great Japanese wrestlers," Charlotte said. "And before my little brother (Reid Flair) passed away, he actually lived in Japan. He loved the culture, and he loved the talent he got to meet.
"So for me, it's a dream to wrestle this larger-than-life Japanese star, knowing that Japanese wrestling meant so much to my family. Obviously, Asuka will be my biggest challenge yet. But [through her] I'll be the best performer I have the ability to be."
Asuka added: "Our match styles vary greatly, but our underlying spirit is the same. She carries the brand of Ric Flair just as I carry the brand of Fujiwara Yoshiaki. It is a surrogate war beyond the generation of the legends.
"The biggest similarity between Charlotte and me is our pride. We are two women with a great deal of pride in what we do and ... in the WWE Women's division."
Even among those who live and breathe the wrestling business—who have seen it all and know how the sausage is made—the excitement is palpable.
"I can't call who the winner is going to be," Amato said. "I'm so interested and intrigued to see these two styles come together on such a big stage."