Sasha Banks just may be the Beyoncé of pro wrestling
From California to Boston, from villain to hero — the new superstar talks about what it means to be The Boss
Here’s when I realized Sasha Banks was the best wrestler in the world.
In August 2015, Banks was wrestling archenemy and perennial superhero Bayley in front of a sold-out Barclays Arena crowd in Brooklyn, New York. Banks had Bayley in a submission hold called The Banks Statement, in which she places her enemy on her stomach and wrenches her head and neck back. Bayley was using her free hand, which had just been broken a month earlier (in real life) to try to reach the ropes and cause Banks to relinquish the hold. Banks responded by using her free foot to viciously stomp Bayley’s hand.
The crowd erupted, screaming at Banks’ dastardly act. Screaming for Bayley to persevere. And screaming out of pure passion for what they were watching. The moment illustrated Banks’ ability to improvise and to draw crowds into the emotion of a match and make everyone forget we’re watching something with a predetermined outcome.
“I wasn’t even thinking,” said Banks. “I was so in the match I just thought, I need to stop her from reaching the ropes.” The moment wasn’t planned. The moment was genius. Banks, at just 24, understands how to make matches work. “Me and Bayley … the stars aligned. It was voted Match of the Year, the first time for women. That’s how special that match was.” And that’s how special Banks is.
Banks’ real name is Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, She is the reigning two-time WWE Women’s Champion. And she is obliterating the idea of a glass ceiling.
Banks has headlined WWE Network events. You might think Sable had done it, but no. Banks has been in a match that was voted by WWE fans as Match of the Year. You might think Chyna had done that, but no — no woman had ever done that either. On Oct. 3, Banks was the main event on WWE’s flagship RAW. She won the WWE Women’s title in the process, which no woman had done since Trish Stratus wrestled Lita, and that was 12 years ago. And on Sunday she’s headlining a WWE pay-per-view event against Charlotte, a great wrestler in her own right who also happens to be daughter of Ric Flair, the greatest wrestler of all time. Headlining a pay-per-view: That’s also something no woman has ever done before. Until Banks.
Fans chant “We want Sasha” while other women wrestlers wrestle. The loudest reactions on any given night are when Banks returns from any kind of temporary break. She’s one of wrestling’s hottest acts — male or female — and she’s nowhere near her prime.
What it’s about is Banks’ “The Boss” persona.
The Boss is no-nonsense. She’s as trill in the ring as she is on the microphone. Banks strides to the ring in a bedazzled leather jacket, a four-finger “Boss” ring, and Kanye West shades. She’s 5 1/2 feet of cockiness — with all the fire of a Love & Hip-Hop reunion episode. When Charlotte’s hair clip-ins occasionally fall out during a match, Banks picks them up and parades around with them, yelling about how she “snatches edges.” “The Boss is a mix between Nicki Minaj … Kanye West, Floyd Mayweather and Snoop Dogg,” said Banks. “It’s me turned up to 100.” Perhaps, more accurately, it’s Kaestner-Varnado turned up to a thousand.
Because when she’s not on camera, Kaestner-Varnado is an anime fan, a self-proclaimed nerd, and a relatively shy, somewhat awkward everygirl. That’s exactly how she appeared when she first got to WWE’s minor league organization, NXT, which trains wrestlers and allows them to compete in live shows at Full Sail University near Orlando, Florida. By her own account, Banks was bland and foundering when she got there in 2012.
She had the chops in the ring, though. And needed a character. NXT has “promo class” as part of its curriculum: Wrestlers develop characters and how they will present themselves on camera. That class was run by Dusty Rhodes, a legendary wrestler known for his iconic promos.
“Dusty would always say [mimicking his trademark lisp], ‘There’s something to this, babyyy. I want to you to be sassyyyy.’ People would wonder why I’m dressed like I’m dressed and acting like Kanye West, but I just kept coming to class and working on it. It became this persona.” And in the blink of an eye, Kaestner-Varnado disappears and The Boss starts talking like she’s back in Rhodes’ promo class — or in front of 10,000 fans.
“I’m a boss,” she said. “I was born to do this. I’m built for success. I’m here to show the world I’m the best. I’m not cocky. I’m confident. Any time I walk into the room, people are going to see me because I am a boss. When I walk into the room, people will know they’re in a room with the boss.”
The Boss is the Beyoncé of the WWE. Mentioning this adds fuel to her performance. “Oh, hell yeah, you’re right. I am the Beyoncé of the WWE. I am. The Beyoncé of the WWE. Beyoncé is the greatest, so I am the greatest. Not only in the Women’s division, I’m trying to show the guys I’m better than them. I can close out RAW every week if you give me the opportunity. I want to be the face of the women’s division and I will be.”
She lets out a light chuckle as if that’s her cue to turn back into Mercedes. The Boss has gone back behind the curtain.
As Banks started to hone in on her Boss character and show more attitude in her early days at NXT, joining a Mean Girls-like faction called the BFFs, the Full Sail audience began a now-infamous chant: “Sasha’s ratchet” … clap clap clapclapclap … “Sasha’s ratchet.”
Ratchet, of course, is synonymous with “ghetto.” There’s racism in a mostly white crowd chanting that label at Banks — and only Banks — who is black and German. “It’s one of those things,” said Latoya Ferguson, who covers wrestling for The AV Club. “The people at Full Sail don’t understand the racial connotations … Luckily ‘ratchet’ isn’t as popular a phrase with white people anymore.”
Banks told fellow wrestler Chris Jericho on his podcast, last summer: “[Ratchet] means a trashy ghetto girl, sadly.” But that’s not why the chant rattled her initially.
“I heard the chant for the first time during a match with Emma and I thought they were saying ‘Sasha’s rat s—.’ It was the worst feeling in the world. I went to the back after the match and thought they hated the match. It hurt.”
Some wrestlers have been known to fold or fall apart when crowds react unexpectedly, especially in a negative way. What Banks did in response to the “ratchet” chants showed her promise for greatness. She started wearing “I’m not ratchet” shirts to the ring. She talked about how much better she was than the audience, about how she’s a real-life star — and they’re just peasants. And when the crowd yelled at her, she improvised and fired back. Soon half of the Full Sail crowd would yell back “No, she’s not!” at the top of their lungs to counteract the ratchet chants. Banks had won over the crowd, which created a problem: The Boss is a “villain,” so she had to find ways to make the crowd keep hating her.
And this is where Banks is a master. She plays with the crowd’s emotions. She gets a little sadistic if she has to. She does things like stomp on Bayley’s hand. She makes little girls cry. Really. A month after that Barclay’s match, Banks and Bayley’s rematch was a 30-minute Iron Man match. It was the first time women competed in such a contest in WWE, and Banks amped up the evil. Bayley’s biggest fan, Izzy, an elementary school-age girl, attends every NXT taping and cheers rabidly for her favorite wrestler. During the Iron Man match, Banks walked to Izzy’s seat, yanked her headband off of her head and posed with it in the ring, mocking Izzy while the little girl cried her eyes out. Then Banks threw the headband at her to add insult. The moment was unplanned and fans, again, erupted.
“I love it when I first come out and people cheer me,” Banks told Jericho. “And to see if I can change them. I love when … I can see how to make them turn on me — just like that.”
Ironically it was her popularity as a villain that led to her becoming a hero. Since she got the call last July to move up to RAW, she’s been allowed to embrace the crowds who have fallen in love with her over the years. “It’s an adjustment,” she said. “It’s hard for me to believe that fans like me now. I think it started from fans respecting my matches. And when I wasn’t on TV, they wanted to see me. But I’m happy. I can do [wrestling’s term for “good guys”] baby face, I can do it all.”
And when she finally won the Women’s title from Charlotte for good on that Oct. 3 episode of RAW, the outpouring of love from fans was insane. The reaction was like a live sporting event — fans cheering like their fave had won the Super Bowl. “I,” said Ferguson, who attended that match, “hugged a stranger.” The next step is to become WWE’s next big marketable star. Not bad for a shy girl from Northern California.
Banks was born on the wrestling mats of NXT, but Kaestner-Varnado was born in Fairfield, California — about equidistant between Oakland and Napa. She moved around a lot as a child because her family was always searching for the right schools and doctors for her brother, Joshua, who has autism and tuberous sclerosis complex — a disorder that causes tumors in the heart and brain.
The family moved from California to Iowa when she was 8, and then there was Iowa, and Minnesota. Banks’ mother struggled to find steady work while taking care of her son. When Banks was 13, she opted to take online classes from home so she could look after her brother while her mom worked temp jobs. “That’s how much [my brother] meant to me,” said Banks. “And how much he means to me.”
Ever since Banks was 10 and became a wrestling fan, she sent emails to wrestling schools asking for tryouts, but couldn’t get accepted until she was 18. She fell even deeper in love with the sport while tagging along with her cousin, Snoop Dogg (really) to WWE events. She hoped she would get WWE CEO Vince McMahon’s attention and get signed on the spot. When Banks’ mother got a job in Boston after seven years of unemployment, Banks sent an email to the New England Pro Wrestling Academy and got a tryout. “I call Boston my hometown,” said Banks, “because that’s where I found myself and came into my own.”
After a few months at the academy, Banks started doing wrestling shows across New England, mostly at Chaotic Wrestling, where she wrestled as “Mercedes KV.” She made a name for herself in the local territories, and after a couple of years she sent a tryout tape to WWE. She was quickly signed to join NXT. This is where the legend of Sasha Banks was born.
Banks, along with the other members of the four Horsewomen — Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Bayley — who joined NXT at roughly the same time, are credited with elevating women’s wrestling in WWE. The company had a long history of treating women wrestlers as pure eye candy. Women wrestlers were referred to as Divas and more often than not competed in matches where they’d strip each other down to bras and panties, slam each other into pools of pudding, or have pillow fights in lingerie.
“There were the Trish [Stratus] and Litas of the world who rose above the objectification,” said Ferguson, “but I try not to watch those old episodes of RAW.” While black male wrestlers sometimes played pimps or gangsters or crooks, black women were, for the most part, treated like the other women on the roster, for better or worse. So while there weren’t too many race-related stories for women wrestlers, they were simply objectified on account of being women. Bras. Panties. Eye candy.
Banks and the other Horsewomen were determined to break the tradition of short women’s matches that simply showed off their bodies. They pushed and they were given more time for their matches — often at least 10 minutes long as opposed to the previous three or four minutes for women’s matches on WWE’s main roster. And they were allowed to be more physical. That physicality has added to the greatness of Banks’ matches, but it’s also caused some concern among fans, and even allegedly among those in WWE’s front office.
In 2016, Banks has had to take time off multiple times to heal from various injuries. She suffered a concussion after being kneed by a referee earlier this year and was on rest in September to recover from “nagging injuries” that were aggravated by a miscue in which Charlotte dropped her on her back and neck in the corner of the ring during their Summerslam match in August. Banks is slight with a billed weight of 114 pounds and has a style like a wrestling Russell Westbrook. Her size plus style have raised questions about her long-term health. But she has no intention of slowing down.
“I try to outdo myself with every match,” she said. “But I’ve learned that you can’t try to outdo yourself every time. You have to do what comes natural. Really, I just want to go out there and be better than the guys.”
But then the Boss returns.
“S— happens,” she said. “People thought I had a serious neck injury after Summerslam. If it was that serious, would I have come back in a few weeks? No. I get more injured wearing high heels to the arena than wrestling.”