The former NXT superstar's departure reveals odd cross-currents behind the scenes at WWE.
Screen capture via WWE Network
When Emma was at the height of her powers, in 2013, crowds would rise to their feet and start mimicking her. She was working a lovable goof gimmick, one where she'd come out to a staccato electronic theme song with arms akimbo, jutting to either side in a vain attempt to dance. A bubble machine would fire up at the top of the ramp and the net effect was that the pings of her music sounded like the bubbles popping as she stabbed wildly at them with her hands.
It was precisely the sort of feel good gimmick pro wrestling needs. Adults loved it because Emma was wrapped in irony—anyone that uncoordinated could never actually be a successful pro wrestler. Kids loved it because they're kids, and high pitched music, bubbles, and bright colors is all they really need.
The other thing about Emma is that she could go. She was a competent, high energy mat wrestler with a decently honed sense of dramatic timing in the ring. She did not, however, have the force of personality to escape the weight of her gimmick. Good as the bubbles and dancing were, comedy gimmicks define wrestlers. Few can escape the idea of being comedy relief once it sets in—ask Matt Bloom how quickly his redebut as Lord Tensai went from promising to lingerie dance-offs with Brodus Clay, all because nobody could forget his run as the hirsute, quasi-funny Prince Albert/A-Train.
Even after reinventing herself as a self-involved heel alongside Dana Brooke, there was a sense that Emma couldn't quite shake the expectations of the earlier gimmick. WWE never really seemed to trust her, either, perhaps owing to a 2014 incident in which she was arresed for shoplifting an iPad case from a Wal-Mart. She insisted it was an honest mistake at a self-checkout line. The cops seemed to agree: the charges were dropped after some extremely light community service. WWE briefly released her due to the charges, a draconian move by a promotion which historically tends to fudge its own rules around legal issues. Emma was quickly reinstated after an outcry over just how wild it was to fire someone over what seemed like an honest mistake over a 30 dollar item, but the speed with which WWE acted seemed to point to other underlying issues.
Emma was finally released for good by WWE over the weekend with little fanfare and no explanation, along with Summer Rae and Darren Young. All three occupied firm, if unspectacular, spots in the lower midcard. And that was a good thing. Compelling, solid wrestlers are needed in the early parts of shows and Emma, Summer Rae, and Young were all compelling and solid. But there was always a sense that Emma could have been a bit more and that her release, in particular, reveals odd cross-currents behind the scenes at WWE.
Primarily, we need to begin to question the NXT project, at least as a means of getting greener wrestlers prepared for the main WWE roster. Folks like Nakamura, Kevin Owens, and Asuka will be fine, at least as far as their ability to wrestle and talk (the quality of the material they're given is another matter). But for wrestlers without as high profile a background and shorter indie careers, NXT should be what makes them. Emma was one of those wrestlers and, increasingly, it feels as though NXT talents stall out when they make the step up. This is not necessarily an indication that the Emmas and Summer Raes of the world can't make it in bigger arenas, but even if it is, what is NXT for? Most of the indie veterans who sign with WWE don't need much more instruction than remembering where the hard camera is. The less experienced wrestlers coming through are mostly stalling on the main roster or end up getting released. NXT costs a lot of money that it doesn't, on its own, bring back in. NXT hasn't had an unambiguous success on the main roster since Owens made the move in 2015. It needs one.
Asuka may provide that story, but the outgoing Emma curiously played a role in Asuka's lukewarm debut. Asuka's much hyped, highly anticipated main roster debut was on October 22's TLC pay-per-view. She was coming off an unrivaled run in NXT as a nearly two year undefeated super-wrestler. Her opponent at TLC? Emma.
Emma's role had so diminished that she was firmly in curtain jerker territory. Setting aside what Emma could've been, this is what she was. She did it professionally and well. The debuting Asuka was set up for something of a squash match and that is precisely what should've happened. Not because Emma is bad (she's really good) but because this is how you establish a new wrestler as dangerous and intriguing.
Against all expectations, what we ended up with was a match which saw Emma get about 50% of the offense. Then we got a rematch with more of the same thing the next night on Raw. Asuka won both, but you could feel the air get sucked out of the arena each time. Weeks of hype videos and buzz for Asuka coincided with Emma appearing on television to job to others and get run down by the announcers culminated in jokey Emma, bad Emma, jobber Emma getting at least as much from the feared Asuka as vice versa.
It was bizarre, and the reaction online was equally bizarre. Perhaps owing to an affection for Emma and her underrated ringwork, plenty were saying the closely fought contests were the right decision. The influential Voices of Wrestling podcast network had a running Twitter exchange over days with fans who insisted Asuka was fine and that the 50-50 booking wasn't going to hurt her. Even better, so the theories went, it might mean a push for Emma after all this time.
It was the sort of thing which made you feel like you might be losing your mind. Of course if you bill a new wrestler as cool, mysterious, and badass you make them look great on their debut. It's one of the most basic rules of pro wrestling: well-done, early wins set expectations for a wrestler and those expectations stick.
Now here we are, a week after Asuka's debut matches and Emma is gone. There was no plan for an extended feud. There's not even the sentimentality of seeing the woman who grew up from bubble stabber to competent heel work one of the world's best and moving on to something which grows from that. There's nothing. Emma's gone, Asuka doesn't get a second Raw debut, and none of it made any sense.
Emma will hopefully find a home in the indies. She grew into the roster, even if she didn't cement her place with title reigns and high profile feuds. If she wants, she can return to Shimmer, where she briefly cut her teeth before hitting NXT. But for WWE, Emma's release points to other things: a lack of logic in booking which extends to an inability to predict who will be employed even a week into the future and possible dysfunctionality between NXT and the main shows. WWE seems utterly impervious to financial damage from these sorts of issues, but the creative gaps are all too frustrating.