Over the past 13 months, WWE has found dual-purpose success in a pair of bracket events — the Cruiserweight Classic last July and the United Kingdom Championship Tournament — as both exclusive content for its streaming network and an opportunity to cultivate future stars.
Both tournaments were lauded by hardcore fans for their raw and indie feel, a refreshing alternative to the more refined and produced main roster on Raw and SmackDown Live.
Beginning Monday with the release of the first four episodes on the WWE Network, the promotion has a new offering for fans with the debut of the Mae Young Classic, a 32-woman tournament which concludes with a live finale on Sept. 12 in Las Vegas. The majority of the matches were filmed from July 13-14 at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida.
The timing for an all-female showcase feels right for WWE, which is currently in the midst of what has been called a women’s revolution helped spawned by a talented class of former NXT superstars dubbed “The Four Horsewomen” — Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch.
All four have graduated to the main roster and brought with them a more serious working style within women’s matches. There has also been an improved attention to detail in regards to booking.
WWE executive and 14-time world champion Paul “Triple H” Levesque admitted that the idea of a women’s tournament to create a deeper roster of talent was something he had been pushing behind the scenes for a long time. But what was originally planned to be a 16-woman bracket quickly evolved.
“I went around the globe and started digging for women, and we started getting more and more pleasantly surprised at what we were finding,” Levesque
“We ended up with this 32-woman tournament that I was really excited to produce and thought was going to be really good. Even talking to the girls there, I was really excited about it during the shooting and having the women fall in place doing the car wash and all the media for us. Just watching them train, I was blown away by it.”
But Levesque’s excitement only grew once the shooting was complete and he spoke with his team, the majority of them having helped create and produce both the CWC and UK tournaments.
“A lot of people thought it was going to be good, but a lot of people came up to me after it was done saying, ‘Wow, this might have been better than the Cruiserweight Classic,'” Levesque said. “The level of athleticism and the level of storytelling and the level of what these women brought to the table, of the heart and soul, I think in some way they knew that this was their opportunity and their moment in the sun. And that grind for them has been huge.”
Levesque believes the tournament offers female wrestlers something that their male counterparts around the globe on the independent scene have had for years: opportunity.
“These girls all got into the business for the same reason the guys did. They saw this and it became everything to them,” Levesque said. “They thought it was the best form of entertainment they had ever seen and they said, ‘I have to do this.’ Except, there was no pot of gold anywhere for them.
“The guys jumped on this rainbow and started riding it and then there was this opportunity for this pot of gold and they made it. The women didn’t have that. The women got into it and they grinded and put their bodies through the same things, and yet, you look at all the independent cards around the world and there is maybe one women’s match on it.”
Among the tournament’s 32 competitors is former mixed martial artist Shayna Baszler, who helped provide the tapings in July a viral moment of sorts when her former training partner, UFC star Ronda Rousey, appeared in the front row to support her. WWE instantly posted a video of Rousey and Levesque talking outside the arena, whichfor the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
The tournament’s 32 competitors consist of the following: Baszler, Abbey Laith, Ayesha Raymond, Bianca Blair, Candice LeRae, Dakota Kai, Jazzy Gabert, Kairi Sane, Kavita Devi, Kay Lee Ray, Lacey Evans, Marti Belle, Mercedes Martinez, Mia Yim, Miranda Salinas, Nicole Savoy, Piper Niven, Princesa Sugehit, Rachel Evers, Reina Gonzalez, Renee Michelle, Rhea Ripley, Sage Beckett, Santana Garrett, Sarah Logan, Serena Deeb, Taynara Conti, Tessa Blanchard, Toni Storm, Vanessa Borne, Xia Li and Zeda.
The tournament broadcast team includes a trio of WWE Hall of Famers: Jim Ross, Lita and Alundra Blayze.
The remaining four episodes will be pushed live on WWE Network in one week on Monday, Sept. 4. The final match will stream live on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 10 p.m. ET after the conclusion of SmackDown Live, presumably preempting 205 Live. There are rumors that WWE may name the winner of the tournament the new NXT Women’s Champion after Asuka was forced to vacate her title last week due to injury.