And, while Sane and Baszler will be competing for the grand prize, many superstars have caught the eye during this 32-woman tournament. From well-traveled veterans on the independent scene to promising upstarts from NXT and WWE's Performance Center, a substantial number of the Mae Young Classic Competitors have shown they have potential to stand out on the grandest stages of WWE.
Here, some of the Smark Out Moment team highlight their favorite wrestlers from the Mae Young Classic, analyze their potential and discuss what they'd like to see them accomplish in WWE or NXT going forward.
Let's begin with inarguably the most popular of the finalists among hardcore wrestling fans. Kairi Sane is widely regarded as one of the greatest wrestlers in the world today, male or female, developing her reputation as part of World Wonder Ring STARDOM. If you are looking for a promotion that builds and develops women's wrestling icons, this is the place to look. STARDOM is well-known as one of the best (if not the best) joshi puroresu promotions in the world, and Kairi Sane was one of its figureheads.
Known then as Kairi Hojo, she began training in 2011 and stayed exclusively with STARDOM until signing with WWE in 2017. In that time she won virtually every prize it was possible for her to win. Kairi Sane is a 4-time Artist of STARDOM Champion, 3-time Goddess of STARDOM Champion and a former World of STARDOM Champion. She also developed the character that she continued in the Mae Young Classic of 'the Pirate Princess' due to her background in yachting. WWE's signing of Sane was widely regarded as a huge coup, with many aware of the incredible talent and charisma she possesses.
Kairi Sane's performances in the Mae Young Classic have done nothing to damage her impressive reputation, as she has truly lived up to the hype. She has competed in some of the tournament's best matches, against a wide variety of performers. This includes a much better than anticipated match with relative rookie Bianca Belair and a stellar Semi-Final against Toni Storm. Her speed, intensity and charisma have been on display throughout, and it she has had ample opportunity to show off her signature Diving Elbow Drop.
With Sane already signed to NXT, she will be most people's favorite to win the Mae Young Classic and use this as a springboard to her career in WWE. With the incredible success of Asuka in the developmental brand, the sky's the limit for Sane to reach the same level, or possibly even surpass it. While she doesn't possess the size and power of Asuka, she will make an incredible babyface due to her slight stature and willingness to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of victory. No matter if she wins or loses on Tuesday night, Kairi Sane is unquestionably a future NXT Women's Champion, and an inevitable showdown with Asuka in a few years time sounds like a money match to me.
Shayna Baszler is pretty much as opposite to Kairi Sane as you can imagine. Baszler is a decade older than Sane, but has less than half the experience in professional wrestling, having started training in 2015. However, she has made quite the impression in that short space of time, racking up appearances in Absolute Intense Wrestling, Shimmer and STARDOM, including a tag match against Sane earlier this year.
Baszler's origins can be found in mixed martial arts, where she competed between 2006 and 2015. In MMA she earned a relatively good record of 15 wins and 11 losses, including four consecutive losses before her retirement from the sport. While her professional fighting record is far from spectacular, Baszler developed a following as part of the famed Four Horsewomen of UFC alongside Ronda Rousey, Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke. These connections have gained her notoriety and have undoubtedly aided her rise to the finals of the Mae Young Classic (a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by most fans), but her intensity, natural heel aura and legitimate fighting background has plenty of positives.
While Shayna Baszler's matches in the Mae Young Classic indicate she is still developing and were nowhere the quality of Kairi Sane's overall, she has made a lasting impression. Her Semi-Final clash with Mercedes Martinez was extremely physical and hard-fought, while her Quarter-Final brutalization of the popular Candice LeRae cemented her as a vicious fighting machine. Similarly to the United Kingdom Championship, the Mae Young Classic has been based more on storytelling, and Baszler has firmly established herself as the top heel and her finisher, the Kirifuda Driver, as the move to fear.
While most would argue Baszler should not win the Mae Young Classic, her reputation and connections in UFC make it a significant possibility. Especially as rumors swirl of a potential Four Horsewomen clash with Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch in the future. As we've seen in recent years, WWE like to push former MMA fighters to the summit (something I personally feel has become too heavy-handed for my tastes), but it does indicate that Baszler could easily win the tournament and launch herself in either NXT or the main roster. She's significantly older than Kairi Sane so she has less time to make her mark on WWE, so if they're serious on pushing her as a top star, she might need this win more than her Japanese opponent.
Final Thought: Out of these two competitors, Kairi Sane has the most potential as a top star, due to her experience, technical ability and charisma. But, Shayna Baszler will also make waves in WWE and could easily be wearing championship gold within the next year - especially if it helps the company get one step closer to signing Ronda Rousey for a match or a run in the future.
With so many amazing performers in this year's Mae Young Classic, my choice for a standout star managed to surprise me. I expected to be wowed by the likes of Toni Storm, Piper Niven, Kay Lee Ray and Candice LeRae, and I definitely wasn't disappointed. But, a relative unknown stole a march on these performers with an unexpected level of confidence and composure. Of course, I'm talking about Bianca Belair - get used to the name, because I feel we're going to be hearing it for several years to come.
Prior to signing with WWE, Belair already had a successful athletics background. As mentioned numerous times on commentary she was a hurdler in college, becoming an All-American at the University of Tennessee, as well as a Crossfit competitor and power lifter. She assigned to WWE's Performance Center in April 2016, and had been working the NXT Live Event circuit before competing in the Mae Young Classic. But, in only two matches at the tournament, Belair has already turned a lot of heads, mine included.
Belair's presence and confidence for someone of her inexperience is astonishing - particularly in her match against Kairi Sane she felt like she belonged. Her use of her braided hair as a weapon is so simple and yet so ingenious, as I don't recall ever seeing a wrestler employ that as a weapon. Belair whipping Sane with her hair ramped up the heat for their match immensely, the crowd yelping with every strike. Beyond her intimidating hairstyle, Belair's athleticism and power also caught the eye, as well as a picture perfect 450 splash on Sane. Her facial expression when Sane kicked out at the last moment was a great sight, showing she has the character to match her size and strength.
As a WWE Performance Center creation and oozing star potential, Bianca Belair is going to be a huge deal for years to come, mark my words. Her hair gimmick makes her unique, she is extremely charismatic and will only continue to improve in the ring. She's far from the finished article, but she already would stand out among NXT's women's division. As far as I'm concerned, Belair is a future NXT and WWE Women's Champion as long as she stays on this trajectory. If she approaches her promos with the same flair and confidence she displays in the ring, she could prove one of the best homegrown talents to come through WWE's ranks in years.
Also, I'd like to give a special mention to Piper Niven's performances in the Mae Young Classic. North of the border from me in Scotland, Niven has always stood out to me for her unique look and unexpected athleticism. The fact that she comes off as very likable, passionate and funny just adds to her character - someone you'd love to hang out with anywhere but inside the ring, because that domain belongs to her. I'd say WWE would be foolish not to try and sign her, but with what they're doing with Nia Jax currently, Niven would likely steal her thunder. Plus, she loves to work in Japan and tour Europe, so it will be up to her when WWE inevitably come knocking in the future.
CANDICE WRESTLING *clap clap, clap clap clap*
You can bet I was doing that in my living room during her Mae Young Classic matches. Now, I'll preface by saying I have been a fan of Candice's for a while and was a little disappointed by her showing in the MYC. It's not that I thought she performed poorly or I was upset by her departure, I just wanted more of that Mighty Mouse Candice. She's already a star in NXT, so I don't think it'll hold her back, but anyone who's watched her matches knows the high-risk stunts she's capable of. Personally I don't quite have the stomach for the Ring of Honor Mask of Blood match that made her into a megastar, but if you do it's certainly worth a watch. She's been in the ring with countless male stars and almost all of them give her respect for what she does between those ropes. Kevin Owens and her have a particularly interesting history.
It's clear that Candice is the toughest competitor most of them have ever worked with and she isn't afraid to let everyone know. Cody Rhodes, another guy she's gone toe-to-toe with, has commented that there are only two people who he felt helpless in their arms. One is Brock Lesnar, the other is Candice LeRae. Her strength is something to be feared, especially from someone of her size and stature. She will so easily, and without much thought at all it seems, fling herself at her opponent and use her momentum to make her smaller body create the impact she needs. That also means that she can come at you from almost anywhere - she's quick and doesn't wait to be scouted.
We got a taste of that during her last, and in my estimation, best match in the MYC. The moment it started I could see the writing on the wall, that she would put Shayna over in dividend of a larger story. Still, it was the first time in the tournament that it really felt like Candice brought her all. Maybe she was slowing herself down to match other competitors or maybe she was saving it for this, but that suicide dive into a DDT was a thing of beauty. Yeah, it was basically one spot in a whole tournament, but damn was it a great spot. She has an air of Mick Foley, willing to put her body on the line to get the win. If there were a women's hardcore title, she would be its longest reigning holder. Candice has worn a mask of blood to get her championship, and she will not be intimidated by anyone.
That brings us to her character - the little engine that could, the underdog in all instances, and the seasoned veteran who knows her stuff. She is already over with the Full Sail crowd, and doesn't seem to be concerned with distancing herself from her husband Johnny Gargano. If the timing works out nicely, with Johnny in NXT until his storyline with Tommaso Ciampa can be resolved, it's entirely possible that they could both hold their respective titles for at least a short while. WWE's recent love of their organically occurring power couples gives them a good shot at running a mutually beneficial angle. In fact, so far in Gargano vs. Ciampa, one of the absolute best things has been Candice's involvement. They can do so much with the fact that she is hurt and betrayed by Ciampa's actions and build her character off of that deep-seated emotion. She's got the character work, the motivation, the charisma, and the physicality. In no uncertain terms Candice LeRae is the total package.
I'd also like to take a moment and highlight the green talent that we got to see for one round of the Mae Young Classic. We know in any tournament they're going to pad the first round with rookie talent in order to make others look strong out of the get-go. For Vanessa Borne, Bianca Belair, Taynara Conti, and Miranda Salinas, this was their first taste of the spotlight. Here's my thing, if you're green, I don't need you to be great on your first night (Bianca Belair being the exception here, because she really was). I want you to do the fundamentals really well and I want you to know who you are. They all showed a bunch of personality, even if some of their gimmicks need to be toned down a bit. Belair's a future champion no doubt, but the other three are on my radar now thanks to their showings.
Let's talk about Alpha Female for a moment, okay?
Jazzy Gabert, known as Alpha Female on the indie circuit, has been killing the game for years. She has wrestled for promotions such as STARDOM and Pro Wrestling: EVE, and her talent and charisma is undeniable. Let's dig into her, shall we?
It says a lot that my standout of the tournament is a talent who only wrestled one match. But in the span of that match, Jazzy Gabert was able to put her character on display and bring the Full Sail crowd to their feet. She wrestled in a losing effort to Abbey Laith, but weeks later, people are still talking about her and asking WWE to sign her. She performed astonishingly, and even though she was portraying a heel, the crowd was all over her. They couldn't get enough of her roars and stiff strikes.
Jazzy Gabert's character is as no-nonsense as they come. She stalks into the ring, German flag in hand, and glares at her opponents, questioning their sanity for daring to stand against her. However, there is something uniquely empowering about watching her work. She commits to her character fully, so all of her growls and glares feel convincing. I'd compare her to a feral animal, but her work has a sort of intelligence to it that makes her more akin to a gladiator than a lioness. And, of course, anyone who follows her on social media can tell that she has a heart of gold, which almost makes her ferocity in the ring more fun to see.
As the resident STARDOM fan, I also have to give shout outs to the incomparable Kairi Sane, Viper (Piper Niven) and Toni Storm, who showed the calibrate of talent being showcased and produced in Joshi wrestling. High-impact, quick pacing, and crisp storytelling can be found in any match featuring talent hailing from STARDOM. I implore anyone who enjoyed the Mae Young Classic to check out promotions like STARDOM and EVE and support the women who give their all. You never know, you might just see some of those women in the next Mae Young Classic.