SmackDown Women’s Champion Asuka isn’t as big a star as she used to be, which tells us something about WWE’s creative limitations.
If you took a poll of WWE fans, you could probably find at least one person to argue that every single member of the main roster is being “misused,” or not getting the title shots or storylines worthy of their talent. It’s rarer that you see someone affiliated with WWE state that they think that the company has “grossly underutilized” a wrestler, but that’s a phrase Jim Ross used on his podcast to describe how WWE has handled Asuka, the current SmackDown Women’s Champion.
According to the veteran commentator, “the ball was dropped” with Asuka after WrestleMania 34 and she could be “a major star,” especially considering how many people are invested in the “female elements of creative storytelling” on Raw and SmackDown right now — but she isn’t.
Ross is far from alone in this view. Fans have been debating the state of Asuka on the main roster since last year’s WrestleMania. Some become even more critical as WrestleMania 35 approaches and the Raw Women’s Championship feud receives airtime on both the red and blue brands while the match to determine Asuka’s April 7 opponent was announced on social media.
Asuka is a fan favorite, an incredible wrestler and holds the top championship of her division, but still feels incredibly unimportant due to her frequent absence on TV and lack of compelling feuds. And her booking isn’t happening in a bubble — it’s happening in the WWE Universe, a world where stars are born and die out and flicker and are sometimes relit for reasons that can be hard to understand. What does the perceived fading of such a bright star say about the company in charge of making them?
First, let’s review Asuka’s WWE journey. When she signed with WWE in 2015, she was by far the most previously successful female performer the company had hired since Bull Nakano and Aja Kong were recruited to battle Alundra Blayze. In NXT, Asuka was a compelling character who had high-profile, high-quality matches against wrestlers like Bayley, Nikki Cross and Ember Moon.
When she was drafted to the Raw brand in 2017, she brought the story of what would become the longest winning streak in WWE history with her. Women lined up to beat this unstoppable force, from Dana Brooke suffering the fastest submission loss since the company was founded to more competitive matches with Sasha Banks and Nia Jax.
The most symbolic moment in Asuka’s rise was — intentionally — the way she won the first Women’s Royal Rumble. When she eliminated Nikki Bella, whose character had already been used to symbolize the status quo when the “Divas Revolution” generation of NXT came up to the main roster in 2015, the nickname “The Empress of Tomorrow” had never felt more accurate.
Of course, the winning streak couldn’t last forever, and at least it ended with the best women’s match in the history of WrestleMania, Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka for the SmackDown Women’s Championship. The match was built up as “title vs. streak,” “Queen vs. Empress,” and with the use of the phrase “iron sharpens iron.” It was epic and sports-based and felt like the future, and the future felt awesome for women in WWE.
However, Asuka’s future in WWE has been less compelling since then. After a goofy feud for the SmackDown Women’s Championship with Carmella, she was placed in more light-hearted angles — a tag team friendship with Naomi and the reunion of Team Awe-suka (with The Miz) for the second season of the Mixed Match Challenge. Nobody can be in the world title picture all the time and at least she was consistently on TV and/or Facebook Live.
When Asuka won a spot in the triple threat match for the SmackDown Women’s Championship at TLC along with Flair and Becky Lynch, it looked like the badass Empress was back and wrestling fans rejoiced. However, she has yet to rise to her previously-held status. Her title reign has so far included a good TV defense against Naomi and tapping out Lynch in a banger of an opener to the Royal Rumble pay-per-view. But with WrestleMania fast approaching, it looks like the champ is in the backseat to the story of Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville’s breakup.
A major reason for this downgrade could be that even as they flex their international roster, it’s clear that WWE struggles to tell stories with performers who do not speak English as their first language. When they aren’t wrestling to further a storyline, we often see SmackDown wrestlers cut promos in the ring. The performer gets in the squared circle and talks for several minutes in a way that does not resemble how humans talk in real life or even how characters talk on other TV shows. A big indicator of whether a WWE character is truly over and valued is if they are given one of the company’s near-identical talk show segments — in recent years, Miz TV, Chris Jericho’s Highlight Reel, The Kevin Owens Show, A Moment Of Bliss, The Ambrose Asylum — in which they and other characters speak to each other in this manner for even longer periods of time, sometimes escalating to a brawl.
An indicator that a WWE performer is struggling is if they get the dreaded, “What?” chants, a holdover from the ’90s used to punish a wrestler for being boring or talking too slowly. Live audiences in many areas of the U.S. have not hesitated to use these on wrestlers who are clearly struggling with wordy WWE dialogue due to it not being in their native language. Andrade and Shinsuke Nakamura have been recent examples of this.
Due to her popularity, Asuka has been spared the “What?” chants, but due to her having more limited English skills than, say, Paul Heyman, she’s been given much shorter promos than, say, Paul Heyman. She’s appeared in some shorter backstage sketches, but those are a less common WWE storytelling device. Basically, when she’s not wrestling, it doesn’t seem like WWE knows what to do with Asuka, and that’s because they don’t seem to know many different types of things to do with wrestlers at all, especially if they can’t deliver a very specific type of monologue.
This brings up another issue: Since she won the SmackDown Women’s Championship, Asuka has not often been seen wrestling live on Tuesday nights on the USA Network. She’s not the only titleholder to have experienced this since the brand split. U.S. Champion Shinsuke Nakamura’s reign was fairly long, but much of it was off-screen. The SmackDown Tag Team division is also often absent for entire episodes. However, this phenomenon is even more noticeable when it happens with the women’s division. In these cases, it’s not just a title scene that isn’t wrestling on TV, it’s an entire gender of people — one that WWE claims to be prioritizing more than ever before.
Though the average episode of SmackDown, at the time of writing, is usually a lot stronger than the average episode of Raw, the cutting of the women’s division is more of a SmackDown-specific problem. On Raw, women outside of the title picture often wrestle repetitive tag matches week after week. On SmackDown, women’s segments outside of the Flair-Lynch feud are often cut for time, even after they were announced by WWE before the show aired. This happened multiple times during the Naomi vs. Mandy Rose feud and continued with the Rose vs. Asuka (with Deville) angle.
The Rose vs. Asuka title match for Fastlane was announced off-screen, as was the previously mentioned No. 1 contender match. The latter occurred after the same episode in which Rey Mysterio vs. Samoa Joe for the U.S. Championship was made official via brief backstage interview. The AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton feud — nontitle — was also heightened with one, as it had been for a few episodes leading up to the WrestleMania challenge. The inter-brand Women’s Tag Team Championship picture got air time on SmackDown that week, but the show’s own Women’s Championship has gone unmentioned for episodes at a time.
Ultimately, the fact that so much of what was exciting about the Asuka character has not been maintained says something about WWE. They have a cool badass who everyone wants to see wrestle and has a charismatic personality that has transcended language barriers. But the stagnant WWE format, and specifically the creative limitations and priorities of SmackDown Live, have kept her from fulfilling her star potential on a regular basis, even while holding the highest level of championship available to her.
Maybe the Empress will have a brighter tomorrow, a sudden rise to prominence like Lynch in 2018, or maybe she’ll sporadically appear on TV until she drops the belt, like Nakamura. Overall, that seems to depend more on if she is perceived as fitting a very specific mold rather than any effort by the performer or the fans.