Sasha Banks knows firsthand what it means to the WWE women to wrestle in the Middle East – and is looking forward to experiencing it all again.
Banks, 29, was part of the first women’s wrestling match in the region when she faced Alexa Bliss for the Raw women’s championship in Abu Dhabi in 2017. The chants of “this is hope” still stick with her.
“To see little kids’ faces and women’s faces of just … they’ve never seen anything like that before,” Banks said in a phone interview. “In Abu Dhabi that was such a special moment for me. It’s one of the top-five things that I’ve ever done in my career. It’s something that I take with me for the rest of my life, just the feeling alone.”
She will get another chance to perform in that portion of the globe, where in many countries women are still fighting for basic rights. Banks will face champion Becky Lynch and Bianca Belair in a triple-threat match for the SmackDown women’s championship at the Crown Jewel pay-per-view at Mohammed Abdo Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Thursday (Noon, Peacock). She expects the feeling and the energy for the match to be greater — partly because of the larger area — than what she experienced in 2017. But she won’t really know how it will truly feel for her until she’s in the moment.
“I can promote the match, I can get excited for it, I can get my mind mentally ready for it, but not ’til I’m fully there will I feel all those butterflies and feelings that I usually get for a match like this,” Banks said.
There has been some positive progress in terms of WWE’s female performers in Saudi Arabia after they were originally not allowed to partake in the promotion’s shows in the country. The government even apologized when women were featured on a promotional video during the first Crown Jewel in 2018. A year later, WWE announced a day before the event that Lacy Evans and Natalya would wrestle the first women’s match in the country and Bayley and Naomi had a match in Saudi Arabia in 2020. The women have had to wrestle covered from the neck down to conform to the Saudi culture.
This year’s Crown Jewel will be the first time two women’s matches will happen on the same card at a WWE event in the Middle East. Along with the SmackDown women’s championship triple-threat match, the final of the inaugural Queens Crown tournament – the female version of the King of the Ring – between Zelina Vega and Doudrop will also take place.
“I feel like they [WWE} always strive to be more,” Banks said. “Now we are having two women’s matches on the card and two dominant women’s matches on the card.”
WWE entered a lucrative 10-year deal in 2018 with the Saudi government to put on regular large-scale wrestling events. It’s been a controversial pact because of the Saudi government’s history of human-rights issues and its treatment of women. That includes a U.S. intelligence report assessing that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved the murder of critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018. Also in 2018, the government targeted and jailed female activists such as Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada who were peacefully advocating for freedom for women in the country.
Under pressure from the international community, the Saudi Arabian government released Badawi, al-Sada and others and has taken baby steps forward with regards to equality. In 2019, women were given the right to drive and those 21 or older were allowed to apply for a passport without authorization from a man to travel abroad. A landmark ruling this June made it legal for females to live on their own without the permission of a male guardian. According to a Brookings Institution blog post, the participation of females in the workforce jumped from 20 percent in 2018 to 33 percent in 2020. Yet even with all the progress, Saudi Arabia is ranked 147th among 156 countries in terms of gender gap in a 2021 World Economic Forum report.
Banks wants to do her small part by “representing women the best way that we can.” Her goal has always been to show that she is the best regardless of gender.
“When I go out there and perform, I want not just only females, [but] children, males, I want them to all know that I can do anything,” said Banks when asked about the message she hopes comes across in the women’s matches. “They can accomplish anything no matter what as long as they put their heart and their soul out there. Anybody can have their whole dreams come true.”
It will be Banks’ first pay-per-view match since her clash with Belair stole the show in the main event of the first night of WrestleMania 37. She was not cleared to wrestle at SummerSlam in their scheduled rematch. It led to the 34-year-old Lynch’s return to WWE after having her first child with husband Seth Rollins. While Banks would not say why she missed SummerSlam, she did say it was not hard for her to do so.
“We always have to roll with the punches and go with the flow,” she said. “I’m back in the title mix and I’m about to make history in Saudi Arabia and win back that SmackDown women’s championship.”
Banks has called watching Lynch’s return and seeing her balance being a performer and a mom “inspiring” and the two had one of the best matches of the year on SmackDown last Friday. She’s also enjoyed seeing Belair, 32, grow into a main event star. She and Belair were the first Black women to wrestle a singles match at WrestleMania.
“Bianca Belair just came on the scene just full force,” Banks said. “She is legit the strongest, the fastest and she’s on her way to being one of the greatest of all time. She has a lot to learn and she is definitely making a name for herself. I’m super proud of her and I love watching her grow into the performer that she is today.”
Banks, Belair and Lynch will get a chance to contribute to something bigger than all of them for women at Crown Jewel.
“I know the impact is going to be amazing,” Banks said. “It’s going to be incredible, but once I’m really there and I can feel the energy and see the crowd I’ll know how much more it means then then what it feels right now.”
Credit: Notigroup Newsroom.
[This article may have been written with information from various sources]