This is a long-form article recollecting the last 13 months for WWE superstar Bayley, who made her triumphant return last year at SummerSlam 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. The multi-time WWE Women’s Champion was kind and gracious enough to sit down with The Comeback to talk about the best and brightest moments of the last 13 months, and what might lie ahead for her and Damage CTRL. We want to thank Bayley and WWE for making this possible.
It’s July 30, 2022. Several tens of thousands gathered at Nissan Stadium for WWE SummerSlam in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a remarkably fascinating time for WWE, who were just eight days removed from longtime chairman Vince McMahon’s retirement. This event came on the heels of a Monday Night Raw episode held at historic Madison Square Garden, and with SummerSlam, a lot of hype traveled along with them.
What many of those tens of thousands of WWE fans likely didn’t know was what was behind the curtain. Better yet, who it was behind the curtain. Sure, fans expected to see Becky Lynch and Raw Women’s Champion Bianca Belair rock in their one-on-one rematch after their showstopping WrestleMania 38 bout. They got their money’s worth. Little did anyone know, though, that someone that WWE fans literally had not seen in person in over two years was waiting in the weeds. And that they had some surprises with them.
Belair defeated Lynch in a hot opener and celebrated with her championship in the corner. When Belair raised the title, the mood in Nissan Stadium changed instantly, but not because ‘The EST’ celebrated her successful title defense; instead, because somebody crashed the celebration.
Bayley, who had missed over a year of in-ring action after suffering a costly ACL injury, shocked the world with her much-anticipated return. SummerSlam didn’t just start with a bang – it began with fireworks. Bayley shuffled through the tunnel, giving everybody in Nissan Stadium a jolt. A jolt that came around more than once, to be sure.
Bayley reached the end of the entranceway and stared Bianca down. It was then, at that moment, that The Role Model’s career and story would change forever. And this is that comeback story.
Bayley’s story began long before her dramatic return. She aspired from a young age to become a professional wrestler. The San Jose, California native’s passion has become an emblem of hers. Often, her passionate fanbase sees it as a badge of honor. While growing up, she famously wrote a letter to herself and read it in an emotional vignette that fans greatly appreciated.
In NXT, WWE’s proving ground developmental system, Bayley became one of the most influential figures in the industry. She, alongside peers Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks, known affectionately to many as The Four Horsewomen, took nearly every idea about women’s wrestling in the United States. Then, they powerbombed it through the mat and established a new standard that called for respect. Years later, all of that respect has been taken, and it has all felt earned.
Bayley first made history on August 22, 2015. While a sold-out crowd packed Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Bayley and Banks painted a masterpiece. In what many consider the most outstanding women’s wrestling match of all time, Bayley, a beloved underdog at the time, triumphed over the supernova Banks. It was one of the greatest title switches in wrestling history to conclude one of the greatest wrestling matches in history. And in turn, it changed the perception of women’s wrestling forever.
Known as ‘The Hugger,’ Bayley captured the imagination of fans of all genders. But little girls found themselves a hero to believe in, and Bayley’s impact on them can’t be understated. She debuted as a tag team partner of Banks at Battleground in 2016 in Washington, D.C. They defeated familiar faces Charlotte Flair and Dana Brooke, and a month later, it was off to the races. In February 2017, Bayley beat Charlotte to become the Raw Women’s Champion on Monday Night Raw from Las Vegas. It was another massive moment for Bayley, as Flair had already built up a strong reputation for herself at the time of this match.
Things don’t always go according to plan, though. After Bayley lost the Raw Women’s Championship in April 2017, she didn’t fight for the championship for nearly two years. In 2019, Bayley and Banks made history again by becoming the first WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions. Their reign was cut short at WrestleMania 35, though, and then an abrupt departure by Banks seemed to put her in limbo.
But then, things changed for the better. Bayley led off Money in the Bank in May by winning the coveted briefcase. Then, she cashed in the opportunity she won with the case and defeated Flair for the Smackdown Women’s Championship. In doing so, she made history again. The trailblazing Bayley became the first woman to be a Grand Slam Champion in WWE history. Her title victory meant she held the Raw, Smackdown, NXT, and Women’s Tag Team Titles at one point in her illustrious career.
For 520 of the next 525 days, Bayley reigned as Smackdown Women’s Champion. She showed off a new side to fans during this run. Bayley cut her trademark side ponytail and rocked a bob haircut. She made children cry when she debuted her new look and destroyed the inflatable tube men that accompanied her entrance for five years. Bayley was meaner, nastier, and a bit crazier. She turned on her best friend Sasha and eventually was all alone. But in July 2021, trouble struck.
While training in Florida, Bayley tore her ACL. She had been fortunate for a long time, not racking up serious injury time. In a business like pro wrestling, injuries are part of the job description. But, even while she probably wasn’t completely unscathed, Bayley only had one prolonged absence in her entire career. So, a long time away from the ring was unheard of. But because of the injury, she didn’t have a choice.
As Bayley waited to make her return to WWE behind the curtain, she felt a range of emotions. One thing that was true: This was not something, the entirety of it, that was planned far in advance. Far from it, actually. While Bayley had desired it for some time, this was something that had been pieced together very quickly off the mat. She later convened in Tennessee, and the rest is history.
“I do remember, as soon as my music hit, I’ve thought about a million times how I would be coming back,” she said.
She questioned a few things. Namely: How would the people react? She had been off TV since July 2021. But she hadn’t appeared in front of fans since March 6, 2020. WWE shut touring down after the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit the United States hard in March 2020. So, Bayley didn’t have the opportunity to connect with the audience with her new character entirely. And so much had happened.
But when she came out, the crowd reacted and bellowed out loud.
“As soon as my music hit at Summerslam in Nashville,” she said. “Hearing the crowd like; first it was confusion, shock, then exciting right when I walked out.”
“The cool thing about the walkway at Nashville is that there’s like three separate turns in the aisleway. One part got to see me, then more people got to see me, and now everyone could see me. Three reactions.”
Bayley didn’t just return by herself, either. She brought two friends along with her, two brand-new faces to most of the WWE audience. Dakota Kai and IYO Sky joined The Role Model in a pair of heart-stopping arrivals that brought Nashville to its feet.
Women’s wrestling fans worldwide adored both Kai and SKY in NXT, and the fact that they were around fan-favorite Bayley made for an unforgettable moment to begin a new era in WWE.
Still, there was some reservation beforehand, given all the time spent on the sideline.
“You wanna make sure it’s the perfect timing, no regrets, it’s hard to do. Best crowd. There’s so many factors when you think about making a big return like that,” Bayley said, but by the scene’s end, perspective arrived.
“The fact we did it on one of the biggest shows of the year, I think, is really special to be part of and for Damage CTRL to take off.”
And so Bayley was back and soon returned to Monday nights. She spent two years on Smackdown but returned to where it all began on Monday Night Raw. Bayley and her new friends Kai and SKY, named Damage CTRL, quickly made enemies out of Belair, Lynch, and veterans Alexa Bliss and Asuka. A six-woman tag match was set for WWE’s special premium live event in Cardiff, Wales, dubbed Clash at the Castle last September.
This presented a unique opportunity for Bayley. Her first big match back in WWE was going to be in front of an audience that arguably loves her the most. UK fans since 2015 have a tradition any time that Bayley comes out to wrestle for them. They sing to her. The crowds march to the beat of the drum of Otzi’s renowned favorite, “Hey Baby.” Instead, though, they sing, “Hey Bayley.” It sounds a little like this.
“Heyyyyyy, hey, Bayley!
I wanna knowwwww… if you’ll be my girl!?”
And so on and so forth. Naturally, as soon as the Role Model arrived and got her feet settled in the ring, the crowd began to sing. And Cardiff sang awfully loud, which inspired reactions from her. It quickly became a tricky thing for the multi-time Women’s Champion to work with, especially considering she never played this role in front of that audience.
“I find, like, being in the ring when they’re singing and I’m trying to be in this character can be challenging. I enjoy it so much, but I’m trying to make it work for me and what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to do in the ring. That was the tricky part,” she said. “That was the first time I experienced that as a new character. Tricky to manage or figure out, but ultimately, just really enjoyed it.”
But she remarked that the trip, as a whole, was a great experience.
“That was so fun,” Bayley said. “The shows we did and the few shows I’ve done there, they’re always loud like that. Ready to sing. Always so, so hyped and excited for everybody. I knew that was gonna be a really big show, really special.”
She said she had a few days there with everyone, including her new running buddies, and she made the most of it. She got a tattoo, and she got to explore Cardiff.
As it turned out, though, she forgot one crucial item on the agenda: To inform her new buddies about the singsonging.
“IYO and Dakota were a little thrown off; they didn’t know what was going on. I guess I should have warned them.”
It’s not easy to change directions in the wrestling industry, but leading a faction is something Bayley has wanted to do. When Damage CTRL was formed, it immediately sent her off on a new path. She diverged from some of the massive singles stars of her era and began to create something new. But with that new power came a greater responsibility. She had to lead two women who, while longtime professionals, were new to the ropes on WWE’s main roster.
She described it as a challenge that was harder than anticipated from a few particular notes. Bayley described a pressure-packed situation. But in the thick of the pressure cooker, her new friends proved to be exactly what she needed while crediting them for being a huge help to her mental mindset.
“When something goes wrong, I put it all on me. That added a lot of stress and pressure I wasn’t ready for or expecting,” Bayley said. But her new friends were there to lessen the blow.
“You’re okay, don’t worry, we’re all in this together, we’re so grateful to be here. It’s all of us,” she said of the lasting thought that came from any hiccups.
“I’ve grown to love their friendship,” she said. “And aside from watching in the ring, when they were tag champs, and watching from the outside, I see the little things I don’t do and can learn from and benefit from.”
Bayley may have chosen a different path than her contemporaries to be at the top. But her story to this point can’t exclude her excellence.
In October 2015, two months after she and Banks – now wrestling as Mercedes Moné in New Japan Pro Wrestling/STARDOM – clashed in the first Women’s Iron Man Match. In February 2019, she and Banks became the first Women’s Tag Team Champions. Then, in May 2019, she became the first-ever Grand Slam Women’s Champion.
This past fall, she crossed another ‘first’ off her list. Bayley challenged Belair for her Raw Women’s Championship in a ladder match, the first-ever one-on-one women’s ladder match in WWE history. She then later captained Damage CTRL, Nikki Cross, and mega-star Rhea Ripley against a team of five popular wrestlers, including Belair and Lynch, at Survivor Series in the first-ever Women’s War Games Match.
It would be easy for someone who’s accomplished so much to take it easy, for somebody who’s been a trailblazer in the industry to think about staying content. But not for Bayley, who says she does reflect on her achievements. However, she also has a short-term memory.
“This business moves so fast it’s like, ‘Onto the next thing.’ I think this is something I’ve heard from John Cena, or maybe he got it from somewhere else, ‘You’re only as good as your last match.’ To me, with our wrestling fans’ minds, we have short-term memories. So when I do these things, I reflect a little; now I have a live event this big. ‘Ah damn…’ or, you get to a TV, and things change, and the story changes, and you feel like crap.”
“So you move back up and down. A rollercoaster of emotions of things. Being proud of things. In the moment, I still feel like, right at this moment, on this day, I feel really hungry to do more,” she said matter-of-factly. “Last night, I thought about, I haven’t had a singles match on a Pay-Per-View in a while, and I want a singles match at WrestleMania, and so many things I want.”
She has, lately, backtracked out of the picture. She’s aware of that backseat she’s taken, but “to see IYO shine and our stories progress, it’s worth it. But you still get hungry on the other side.”
The dust settled in 2022, and 2023 then arrived. Bayley and Lynch began to become rivals. Those two were the only ones without a lengthy rivalry in the Four Horsewomen’s illustrious history in WWE. Lynch had built up feuds with Banks and Flair, and so did Bayley. But they never really crossed paths before. That all started to change after Survivor Series.
Bayley scored the win in the first battle between them and furthered her hold over her as the month went on. ‘The Ultra Star,’ as she dubbed herself, gained more confidence and had more bravado now against ‘Big Time’ Becks. They ran into some trouble along the way because nothing ever comes easy. At Raw’s 30th Anniversary Show in Philadelphia, Bayley and Becky were set to have a match inside a steel cage. But, pressed for time, the match was cut in favor of a heat segment between the two, in which Damage CTRL beat Becky up in the cage and stood tall.
Two weeks later, they got their opportunity again. This time, it happened to occur in a special place: Orlando, Florida, the site of NXT, where they all made history together. Going into the match, Bayley had a lot on her mind but said she felt a certain way.
“I felt like a badass, to be honest,” she said. “I love stipulation matches; I love the creativity in there.”
Fans of hers and otherwise have marveled at her creativity before, namely in both Hell in a Cell matches she’s wrestled in. She also highlighted that herself.
“Being in front of the Orlando crowd again with Becky when we never had a proper story or feud or anything like that. And probably the last time we did in NXT was at Full Sail. It was really cool.”
Some fun was added along the way as well. WWE Hall of Famer Lita, who Bayley has credited as being her inspiration to wrestling, also made a dramatic return to WWE. Lita came down to the ring to Becky’s aid, surprising fans everywhere, and helped Lynch defeat Bayley to get revenge. Amid the commotion and the loss, Bayley recognized the moment.
“Sharing that with Lita? Like, one of my heroes I grew up watching? And ten years ago, I was just not sure if I was gonna make it? That was very cool and a very fun match.” While she wished and craved that moment to happen again, for a longer story, she once again said, “I felt like a badass. And I felt like it was one of those things I hope that people, or women coming up, look at and get inspired by.”
The road to WrestleMania is significant for everybody. For Bayley, WrestleMania 39 represented something more than just having a match at the biggest show of the year. She hadn’t been able to participate in the festivities in quite a few years.
At WrestleMania 35 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Bayley competed in a four-way tag match with Banks for their newly won titles. WrestleMania 36 was held inside the WWE Performance Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bayley competed, but not in front of fans. The following two WrestleManias wound up being misses for The Role Model. She appeared at WrestleMania 37 with a microphone in hand, and The Bella Twins sent her down the ramp to jeers from a crowd that likely wanted to see her compete. She missed 38 due to injury, meaning 39 would be her first WrestleMania in three years. And what’s more: Her first WrestleMania in front of fans in four. And four years in the wrestling business can feel like an eternity.
Fun was added along the way to WrestleMania. Wrestling legend and WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus entered the fray to add a third to Becky and Lita’s recently formed alliance. They had three, and Damage CTRL had three, so squabbling at WrestleMania made all the sense in the world.
“The fact it was us three versus them three is what I’ll remember most about it,” Bayley said. “We didn’t get there how we wanted. But as soon as we walked out on the stage, I forgot about everything and just really enjoyed the moment.”
Considering that Bayley was such a fan of Lita’s, it was probably an interesting experience for her to be beating her up in the ring. Now imagine how her mom, sister, and brother felt as they sat and watched from close by.
“There was a spot in the match where we were choking Lita on the ropes. My mom, and my sister, and my brother were sitting behind the commentator’s table. And that blew my mind because they’ve been there since I used to obsess over this woman. And now here I am, annihilating her. They were right there to witness literally how far I’ve come… win or lose, in that match; it didn’t really matter at the end of the day.”
“I did what I wanted to do, which was bring Dakota and IYO to the highest stage, face-to-face with two women I grew up watching, someone I grew up with; I couldn’t have asked for a better WrestleMania story.”
Bayley’s story marched on after WrestleMania, and while she’s taken a backseat, Damage CTRL has gone through its own peaks and valleys. Kai sustained a torn ACL during a tag match on Smackdown that appeared to put her out for a while. But as the first anniversary of Damage CTRL came and went, SummerSlam in Detroit allowed for new possibilities.
Magic emerged in the air again in the Motor City. SKY, who won the Money in the Bank contract the month before, raced to the ring with Bayley behind her. Bayley clocked Asuka and Charlotte, two of her old arch rivals, and then pursued Belair in the ring. IYO then took hold of the situation and scored with her picture-perfect moonsault. A three-count later, IYO SKY was the new WWE Women’s Champion. 13 months after their debut, Damage CTRL was the topic of discussion again.
“That was one of those special nights that I couldn’t stop thinking about for the whole week after,” Bayley said. “Like until we got to Smackdown. ‘Man, I can’t believe that actually happened.'”
Bayley was able to get Kai to get up to Detroit so that the three could embrace and share a special moment.
“I always knew, and she will have her time as well,” Bayley said of Dakota. “I knew these girls were going to be WWE Women’s Champions, and there was only a matter of time. That it already happened in such a fairytale way is something I’m so proud of. And I’m so happy that we’ve gotten to this point where, like, we didn’t break up. We didn’t have issues where I couldn’t have been part of that moment. Selfishly, I’m so happy I was part of that.”
Bayley says Damage CTRL is just getting started. By the looks of things, she might be onto something.
Thirteen months after her dramatic return, Bayley is forging a new path. It’s a difficult path, especially with so much pressure. But the dice has rolled her way quite a lot, and as far as what she wants? There are so many things.
“I really have been trying to reflect on what I want personally out of what I want my legacy to be. After the Bray Wyatt tribute show, I felt I really needed to figure it out. I’m working on my legacy every day and every single week,” she said. “Sometimes, you get lost in the shuffle or the travel and the busy schedule, that at least me personally, I kind of lose sight of what the bigger picture is. And what I’m trying to do.
“I wanna make sure that I’m cementing my legacy, and that goes for Damage CTRL too. IYO, I want her to have the best title run of all time. Dakota should get a title shot. All of us end up at WrestleMania in a Triple Threat for the title as best friends? I’m fine with that, too. Let’s put that in the universe,” she said through laughter. “I just want to continue to cement a legacy and be able to still inspire the fans and have a connection that I’ve had since Day 1. And watch us all grow every day.”
From the looks of it, with how passionate her fans are to this day, Bayley will have no issue keeping that connection strong.