Who’s the Next Big WWE Superstar? Look No Further Than Emma
When you think about the most popular wrestlers in WWE, your mind probably goes to the unstoppable T-shirt marketing juggernaut that is John Cena, or maybe to Daniel Bryan, who has arenas across the country chanting "Yes! Yes! Yes!" and losing their minds when he bashes his knee right into some dude's face.
Over the past few months, however, there's someone else on the roster who, pound for pound, is every bit as beloved by the crowd as anyone else in the company. Her name? Emma.
Of course, she's getting those reactions at Full Sail Arena during NXT tapings and not at Madison Square Garden on Pay-Per-View, but still. She's as over as anyone can be -- and when you consider that she got that way with a gimmick like "girl who likes to dance but is not very good at dancing," that's a pretty impressive feat.
To be fair, a pretty good part of Emma's success as a character has come from the audience she's working in front of. The crowd at NXT is notoriously good at responding to characters. As Brandon Stroud has pointed out multiple times in his Best and Worst of NXT column, the people at Full Sail are this weirdly perfect mix of a local wrestling crowd that's there every week and a smart WWE crowd. Even if you're watching the show at home, NXT is a show that takes effort to find; you need to be a certain kind of wrestling fan to actually go and hunt for it instead of just leaving Raw on for three hours every week because that's the wrestling that's on television -- and that's exactly the kind of fan that NXT's characters appeal to. It's why Bo Dallas has become the most enjoyable heel on television, and why a guy doing a Zoolander voice and spending the first two minutes of each match taking a dozen selfies is getting cheered just as hard as Sami Zayn, one of the best professional wrestlers in the world.
But those are subjects for another time. Getting back to Emma, her character could've gone very bad, very easily, if the crowd hadn't responded well. And to be just as fair as I was in crediting the crowd, every bit as much of it comes down to the way that she owns every second of what she does. Anyone else might've stomped out onto the stage like a supermodel on the catwalk and started up those (literally) offbeat arm-jabs to that oddly hypnotic theme music, and that would've been the end of it. Emma, though, took it as far as it would go, and then pushed it even further.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I knew that Emma was going to be amazing in the first match I watched her wrestle. She did her entrance, and ended it with attempting a skin-the-cat style backflip into the ring, and she just couldn't get it. She flopped around, kicking her legs, and eventually pulled herself over, and the crowd... ...went...nuts. There were a lot of laughs, sure, but more than that, there was applause and cheers. Instead of seeing her as the klutzy girl who didn't realize she wasn't a good dancer -- the same kind of gimmick that made Jillian Hall an enjoyable but one-note character on 'Raw' and 'Smackdown' a few years back -- they were solidly in her corner, rooting for the girl who was a little bit awkward, but was up there giving it her best shot. She was the instant underdog, and there's nothing wrestling fans like more than cheering for an underdog.
And when she actually did nail that entrance a few weeks later? The crowd was behind her even more.
That's the thing about Emma -- She keeps building on what's already established, making a character that keeps getting easier to like every time she does an interview. The awkward klutziness is still at the core of what she's doing, but there's another layer there. There are interviews she does with Renee Young (who, for the record, is also amazing and one of WWE's best kept secrets at the moment) where she comes off as an Australian lady version of Joel Hodgson from 'Mystery Science Theater' -- all laid back, sleepy-eyed and half-smirking, bluntly mentioning that her favorite video game is Dance Dance EMMAlution and then acting like you're the dummy for thinking that's a weird thing to say.
It's paid off, too. In a tournament to crown the NXT Women's Champion that seemed like it was going to be a vehicle for Paige and Summer Rae, who had been involved with the most prominent (read: only) feud in the women's division. I expected that Summer Rae -- who is herself doing a pretty enjoyable version of the ol' arrogant narcissist gimmick that's recently gotten to hilariously, absurdly cartoonish levels of evil when she poured bubble fluid into Emma's eyes and then appeared in Sasha Banks's mirror to lure her to the dark side -- would beat on Emma to cement her rudo status, in the same way that Daniel Bryan solidified his heel turn by choking out Santino in the Elimination Chamber a while back. That's how comedy characters and heels work, after all. But instead, Emma was the swerve, the wrestler who pulled an unexpected victory that knocked Summer Rae out of the tournament and landed in the finals herself.
I don't think there was ever any doubt that Paige would be crowned the Women's Champion, but winning over Emma instead of Summer was a great move for everyone concerned. Emma got the legitimacy of being a serious contender that balanced out her role as a pure comedy act, a role that seems to have since been passed down directly to Bayley, and got to show off her considerable in-ring ability on a relatively big stage. Paige got a challenger that made sense for when Summer Rae was off accompanying Fandango on 'Raw' and 'Smackdown'. Summer Rae got to ramp up her character with the kind of cruelty that you can only get from bullying an eternally happy dancer who comes to the ring leading the crowd in asynchronous arm flailing. Everybody got something, but while Paige left with the belt, Emma came out of it the best. Everything she's been involved in has just made the crowd love her more.
There are a lot of popular wrestlers in WWE, but there aren't a lot who come to the ring in T-shirts that were made for them by fans, swatting at bubbles being showered onto the entrance ramp by fans who brought their own bubble-guns to the arena. Emma is that wrestler, and she's built that popularity piece by piece in a way that's made her one of the most enjoyable people in the company.