#WomensEvolution: The Forgotten NXT Innovators

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Paige Summer Rae Emma NXT

The Women’s Evolution, from NXT to the main roster, is routinely touted by World Wrestling Entertainment. It signifies that the old guard had changed in terms of women’s content. Once upon a time, a women’s wrestling match in WWE going longer than a few minutes seemed like a pipe dream. This was no fault of the talent, but rather, the situation they were in. Simply put, they were not afforded the opportunity to show what they were capable of. To learn how the guard began to shift, which ultimately led to the Women’s Evolution, we must go back to February of 2010.

NXT

What was once a live event/reality show hybrid began to take on a new form. Enter NXT, which found itself in not only a new location but with a vastly different presentation. NXT would serve as WWE’s developmental platform, allowing new stars to hone their craft. It also helped more established talent refine their skills, rebuild their personas, or simply regain lost momentum.

NXT was home to a number of groundbreaking developments, chief among them the revitalization of women’s wrestling in WWE. The names that immediately come to mind are Bayley, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch. This isn’t to take away from the accomplishments or collective influence of “The Four Horsewomen,” but these four women intensified the spark created by three: the forgotten NXT innovators.

Paige NXT
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment

Paige

In the early days of the NXT women’s division, one star immediately stood out: Paige. From Norwich, England, “The Enchanting Raven-Haired Lady” sported a unique look and fought with brutal offense. Compared to many women in the company at the time, Paige stood out. This didn’t go unnoticed by the NXT Universe, as fans quickly took to her, despite being introduced as a villain. Her skill and popularity saw her ascend to the top of the women’s division on the brand, becoming the first NXT Women’s Champion in the summer of 2013. To this day, she remains the youngest competitor to hold the title at 20 years old.

Early in Paige’s WWE career, she was known as “The Anti-Diva.” Essentially, she wasn’t preoccupied with what it meant to be a “Diva” in WWE. She couldn’t have cared less about photoshoots on beaches or fights where hair-pulling was the name of the game. Everything about Paige went against the aforementioned label, which only made fans gravitate to her more. This wasn’t to say that she was alone in establishing the foundation of the Women’s Evolution. In this writer’s view, this performance wouldn’t have been possible without other cast members.

Summer Rae NXT
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment

Summer Rae

Tall, blonde, and mean-spirited, Summer Rae was the perfect foil for Paige. She began her NXT career as a ring announcer, but this changed in early 2013. She attacked Paige in a fit of jealousy, which sparked a program between them. As she feuded with Paige – as well as Emma, who we will get to shortly – Rae began to form alliances. She recruited Sasha Banks before she was “The Boss” and Charlotte Flair before she adopted the title “The Queen.” One could argue that, had it not been for Rae’s influence, the two Horsewomen wouldn’t have had the catalyst to grow.

While she was perfectly competent from bell to bell, where Rae succeeded was in her character work. Simply put, she was the perfect villain during the early stages of the NXT women’s division. Not only was she manipulative, which helped her create the aforementioned alliances, but the nefarious Rae had no qualms about receiving her comeuppance when the time arose. This level of versatility made her invaluable to WWE, NXT and beyond. Those that go back to NXT’s early episodes will be hard-pressed to disagree.

Emma NXT
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment

Emma

Compared to Paige and Rae, Emma was the wildcard. Hailing from Australia, Emma signed with WWE in 2011. It wasn’t until early 2013, however, when she began to catch fire with a unique character. Emma found popularity as a clumsy dancer, complete with earworm entrance music, who was still formidable from bell to bell. Everything from her entrance to her in-ring theatrics reinforced the silliness of her character that became lovable to the NXT Universe.

Emma saw a fair amount of success in her initial NXT run, too. Not only did she pick up victories against such opponents as Rae and Natalya, but she competed against Paige to determine the first-ever NXT Women’s Championship. Eventually, Emma and Paige would form a brief alliance, targeting the trio of Rae, Banks, and Flair. However, the main roster would call her name. Despite the hopes that many fans had for Emma, her highs and lows on the main roster are worthy of a column all their own.

The three-woman group of Paige, Summer Rae, and Emma proved to be a solid foundation for the NXT women’s division that would develop. They were given entertaining angles that focused on their characters and in-ring abilities. No longer were they held down by drawn-out romantic angles that went nowhere, limited time frames for matches, or anything of the sort. The time that this group spent in NXT would be temporary, however, as each competitor took different paths.

How the NXT Innovators Followed Up

AJ Lee Paige
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment

Comparatively, Paige became the most successful of the trio. Her accolades alone speak for themselves. In addition to being the inaugural NXT Women’s Champion, as stated earlier, she went on to win the Divas Championship from AJ Lee in her main roster debut. Given that the latter title win took place on the RAW after WrestleMania XXX, in April of 2014, the moment couldn’t have been sweeter. With this victory, Paige became the only woman in history to hold the NXT Women’s and Divas Championships simultaneously. To say the least, this wasn’t bad for Paige, who was only 21 at the time.

Paige remained a prominent part of the WWE women’s division in the years that followed. Even if she wasn’t directly involved in the title picture, she was part of big moments. For example, she formed an alliance alongside the debuting Lynch and Flair in the summer of 2015. By 2016, however, injuries became problematic. By April of 2018, Paige had officially retired from in-ring competition due to said injuries. However, she would remain with the company in different roles, including SmackDown General Manager. She serves as an on-screen personality for WWE to this day.

Summer Rae Fandango
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment
Summer Rae’s main roster run can be best described as “varied.”

In April of 2013, she debuted on RAW as Fandango‘s valet. She would accompany the husky-voiced dancer to the ring and stand in his corner during matches. They would remain a tandem for roughly a year before Rae went on to other angles. These included, but weren’t limited to, becoming the new manager for Rusev, who had recently split with Lana on-screen. Due to Rusev and Lana’s real-life engagement, this angle came to an abrupt conclusion.

After an extended period of floating around WWE, Rae was released from the company in late 2017. Though she remained largely absent from wrestling since then, she made sporadic appearances at conventions and shows alike. Her last documented match took place on October 25, 2019, for Battle Championship Wrestling in Australia. She competed against Emma, who since became known as Tenille Dashwood, and BCW Women’s Champion Mortar in a losing effort. The former “Mean Girl of NXT” is currently focused on different ventures, including modeling.

Depending on who is asked, Emma’s run on the main roster might be the most tragic of any NXT call-up.

She was brought to the main roster in January of 2014. Despite being the first female wrestler from Australia to be on WWE television, she did little of note. She formed an alliance with Santino Marella, feuding with Rae and Fandango after. Emma maintained the same awkward character that helped make her a fan favorite in NXT, but the magic failed to carry over to the main roster.

Emma WWE
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment

It was only in 2015 when Emma returned to NXT, defeated that her time on the main roster failed to pan out. She soon turned heel, forging the fun-loving dancing persona for a more grounded, vicious demeanor. Her biggest match during this run took place at NXT TakeOver: Respect, in October, when she was defeated by the debuting Asuka in a competitive match. Emma would return to the main roster in May of 2016, but much like her first run, the second yielded few results. She was set for a repackaging as “Emmalina,” which would have been a character reminiscent of the likes of Sable, but plans fell through. By October of 2017, she would be gone from WWE entirely.

This didn’t spell the end for the career of Emma, as she would return to the independent circuit under her real name, “Tenille Dashwood.” She also appeared for larger promotions, including Ring of Honor and IMPACT Wrestling. “It’s still all about me,” Dashwood would declare as she found herself competing around the world. The future may be uncertain for the former leader of “The Emmalution,” but her contributions to the growth of WWE’s “Women’s Evolution” can’t be understated.

In Closing

Had it not been for the efforts of Paige, Summer Rae, and Emma during the infancy of NXT, perhaps the women’s wrestling scene in the company wouldn’t have grown to the scope it has. This goes far beyond the popularity of the Four Horsewomen, too. Consider the fact that, in recent years, we have seen the company sign high-caliber talent. Case and point, Io Shirai, Kairi Sane, and Asuka were immensely popular in Japan prior to signing with WWE. Since then, they saw varying levels of success.

WWE Evolution
Photo / World Wrestling Entertainment

Women also began competing in matches that were specifically contested by men. We saw female talent become involved in everything from Money in the Bank to Hell in a Cell matches, which made for history-making moments. WWE wasn’t afraid to feature the women in these types of bouts and those involved maximized every opportunity. The success of the women led to the first all-women’s wrestling pay-per-view in WWE, aptly named “Evolution.” There have also been rumblings of a sequel event to take place this coming August.

Like any evolution, however, the women’s scene in WWE is ever-changing. For those that have been watching said evolution since the efforts of the forgotten NXT innovators, it’s safe to say that the differences have been stark. Paige, Summer Rae, and Emma were able to establish a foundation for future stars to build upon. Regardless of the forms this evolution will take, this will be a journey worth following.

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. WWE fan? You can check out an almost unlimited array of WWE content on the WWE Network.

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