Look back to the AEW women’s division of 2019. “Smiley” Kylie Rae, Nyla Rose, and Britt Baker were looked at as potential faces of the division. A wave of joshi names like Riho and Hikaru Shida leapt to the forefront with their unmatched experience. Outside talent like Bea Priestly and legends like Awesome Kong and Aja Kong popped up out of nowhere. The roster was tiny, but every basic role was represented.
A lot of the division’s depth in the early stages came through frequent use of non-regular talent. Between 2019 and early 2021, a variety of names could conceivably have their moment at the top. Shoko Nakajima pinned Riho and didn’t come back for the rest of the year. Emi Sakura had one of the promotion’s best women’s matches on PPV against World Champion Riho. NWA’s champion Thunder Rosa faced AEW’s champion Shida for the AEW title on PPV. Ryo Mizunami earned the same shot against Shida by sweeping a through a 16-woman tournament.
Which brings us to the rest of 2021, and the impact of Britt Baker’s first World title reign.
1. Baker or bust
Once Baker had won the World title from Shida, the latter, AEW’s longest-reigning champion of any kind, just vanished from TV. Rosa, who (unofficially) pinned Baker in their classic Lights Out match, would be a fixture on Elevation for the better part of 2021. Then, we’d go on to see the doctor on TV every week, with Ruby Soho and others sprinkled in. With Baker at the top, you were constantly told there was an active World title scene on TV. But it was near-impossible to name a definitive list of peers when they’d all stay on Elevation or just be away.
2. Emphasis on promos
Prior to Baker, the charisma of AEW Women’s World Champions had not translated to the microphone. Riho and Shida both made their mark as the smoothest top names that fought with honor and heart. Rose was the imposing foundation of the division. Baker’s most prominent skills upon winning the title would arguably be her mic presence and her toughness amid injury and hardcore matches. Having a champion with a popular catchphrase and venomous live promos, along with memorable matches, was a breath of fresh air in the division.
3. Much of the same
Promos are great fun and a necessity in pro wrestling, but the problem was Baker largely stayed the same. It held true whether on the mic or with how she won the better part of her defenses. I am the face of the division, yours truly, Doctor Britt Baker, DMD. Didn’t matter who the challenger was, it was roughly the same snarky intonation. Same promos on Dynamite, similar matches on TV or PPV. All these combined — and for as long as they did — became a glaring issue.
AEW is so compelling because people (1) constantly go through changes, or (2) stay defiantly the same amid changes around them. Around the time of the CM Punk feud, MJF’s promos evolved into less zingers and more storytelling. “Hangman” Adam Page continues to go through changes with his self-confidence and his relationship with The Elite and Dark Order. In contrast, Cody Rhodes’ entire arc was about him thinking the crowd’s perceptions of him were the same in 2021 as they were in 2019. And Orange Cassidy is Orange Cassidy no matter what, a unique foil for anyone in wrestling. It wouldn’t have been a lot to want 1 running development in the women’s division.
4. Lack of material
In all fairness, Britt Baker can’t change if nothing ever happens around her. Despite solid in-ring pairings against Shida, Rosa, and Kris Statlander, Baker’s promos kept her both in a box and in a league of her own. For the longest time, the top TV stories were Jade Cargill’s undefeated streak, the Shida v Serena Deeb series, and who was getting strapped to the dentist’s chair next. As long as Baker defended in regular singles bouts, her opponents had as much chance of outtalking her as they did escape Hayter and Rebel’s ringside shenanigans.
Could we not have revisited The Waiting Room? That was an adorable show.
5. Resetting expectations
Criticisms rained down on the next World Champion Rosa and challenger Deeb for their live promos ahead of a PPV. Rosa’s TV time was also noticeably smaller compared to the previous champion’s.
And I wonder about that.
With the success of 2022 addition and interim World Champion Toni Storm; the reactions for Jamie Hayter now, and for inaugural champion Riho all 2019; and Shida being a top merch-seller despite not being a TV constant nowadays. None of these women have ever been relied on for promos, but they are all World Champion-ready anytime.
I wonder if Rosa and Deeb would have been tasked with live promos if Baker hadn’t just been champion. I wonder if Storm would be as popular and dominant as she is now had she debuted in 2021. But when it comes to the depth of the World title scene now — Storm, Hayter, Deeb, Shida, Rosa, and Baker — I know for a fact that that didn’t happen because of a promo segment.
Britt Baker’s 2021 title reign was marred with sameness, stemming from a lack of depth at the top of the card. This was the result of a developing, wrestling-centered division suddenly emphasizing promo work to match Baker’s. Any improvements Baker made in singles bouts were overshadowed by the formulaic interference finishes, resulting in a feeling of staleness both in and out of the ring. Baker earned her position as the face of AEW’s women’s division in 2021, but it never should have been at the expense of Shida, Statlander, and others. And not for that long, and not with the same things going on.
For over a year, Britt Baker did interviews while Jamie Hayter stood beside her. The longest Hayter ever spoke came within a month of the dentist leaving after dropping the World title.