Sasha Banks and Naomi (whose real names are Mercedes Varnado and Trinity Fatu) — two of the WWE’s biggest stars and current women’s tag-team champions — walked out of a Monday Night Raw taping on May 16, refusing to perform in the main event. According to a statement released by the WWE, the two took issue with some creative decisions and then “walked into WWE Head of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis office with their suitcases in hand, placed their tag team championship belts on his desk and walked out.” While walking out on a show is not unheard of — Stone Cold Steve Austin and CM Punk have both famously walked out over similar disputes — Sasha and Naomi’s punishment has been so swift and severe even the New York Post thinks it looks bad. But the reaction has also practically turned them into folk heroes, particularly for those critical of the WWE leadership.
It started during Monday Night Raw when color commentator Corey Graves announced the pair had “unprofessionally left the arena.” Though the Raw team managed to write the main-event walkout into the show and deliver a main event between Becky Lynch and Asuka that was perfectly good, the WWE released a statement later that night to explain the absence of its tag-team champions.
“They claimed they weren’t respected enough as tag team champions,” the statement read. “And even though they had eight hours to rehearse and construct their match, they claimed they were uncomfortable in the ring with two of their opponents even though they’d had matches with those individuals in the past with no consequence. Monday Night Raw is a scripted live TV show, whose characters are expected to perform the requirements of their contract.”
The statement seemed to confirm the rumors that Sasha and Naomi had taken issue with a new story line set to start that night that would’ve separated them just weeks after winning their tag-team title — something they’d been working on together since February and that saw Sasha Banks’s first (very emotional) Wrestlemania win. The story line set to begin that night reportedly would’ve had Sasha and Naomi turning on each other, with Naomi pinning Sasha, winning a shot to challenge Bianca Belair for the singles Raw Women’s Championship, then losing to Belair. Sasha would then have challenged the Smackdown Women’s Champion Rhonda Rousey, before also losing. This would’ve put their tag team on ice as WWE utilized Naomi and Sasha’s star power to generate more buzz for its individual champions. A viral Twitter thread by someone who appears to be a friend of Naomi’s — or at least a fan she follows and interacts with online — alleged that when they expressed their frustrations, they were called “spoiled,” told to “fix their attitudes,” and there may have even been some screaming, which ultimately led to their decision to walk out.
The statement’s adversarial tone was particularly obtuse given recent events. To say that Sasha and Naomi “claimed” they felt uncomfortable with two of their opponents that night — assuming that’s true — is an odd thing for the WWE to get snarky about, as the promotion just saw another superstar, Big E, break his neck during a botched suplex on Smackdown just two months ago. Banks also has cause for concern as she recently suffered a shoulder injury during a match in 2019 that nearly sidelined her. Why the promotion would seemingly want to publicly shame any wrestler for expressing discomfort is anyone’s guess, but it’s possible this comment is just a bit of strategy designed to create bad blood with the other performers. The fact that this particularly condescending reaction just happens to be directed at WWE’s first Black female tag-team champions — not to mention that Sasha and Bianca Belair were actually the first Black women in history to headline Wrestlemania just last year—makes it feel all the more outrageous.
Naomi and Sasha remained tight-lipped about the matter all week — save for Sasha’s decision to unfollow the WWE, Vince McMahon, and a number of other superstars on Twitter and Naomi removing all mention of WWE from her Twitter bio — even after the WWE announced on Friday, May 20, during Smackdown that it was indefinitely suspending the duo and revoking their tag-team championship.
“Sasha Banks and Naomi let us all down,” commentator Michael Cole said. “Their actions disappointed millions of WWE fans and their fellow superstars.” Fans noticed that Cole’s words were belied by fellow commentator Pat McAfee’s baffled facial expressions, which McAfee addressed later on his podcast, The Pat McAfee Show.
“That was my first time hearing what Cole was saying live there,” McAfee said. “They were our champions,” he continued, adding that he’s as confused by this turn of events as anyone. “I honestly have no idea what to believe in this whole thing.”
The severity of this punishment is very clear: Banks and Naomi’s merchandise has already been pulled from the WWE store, and they’re no longer booked on any upcoming shows. WWE says it’s planning to hold a new tag-team tournament to redistribute the title. However, Banks and Naomi reportedly have not been released by the promotion, meaning they are still contractually beholden to the WWE.
This puts Banks and Naomi in the very unenviable position of working for a company that seemingly wants nothing to do with them but can also prevent them from working anywhere else. Current superstars and veterans alike have been voicing their support for the duo, albeit carefully. Former WWE Women’s Champion Mickie James told Busted Open Radio, “I actually applaud them standing in their convictions and how they felt,” she said. “There’s always, ‘Card subject to change,’ and there have certainly been people who have left, just left, packed up, and went home, or have been deemed ‘unprofessional’, but it’s never been called out before. So I find that a bit ironic.” Hall of Famer Mark Henry was careful to say his main issue was with Corey Graves’s “unprofessional” comment. Shayna Baysler posted photos of her matches with the duo over a Warhammer quote, and CM Punk shared a tweet many are reading as a call for other wrestlers to show Banks and Naomi some good ol’ solidarity. “Doesn’t matter if your opinion of your coworker is positive or negative. Stand with them,” he wrote. “Because they’ll do the same thing to you and you’ll wish someone helped. Trust me. You’re expendable. Together you’re unstoppable.”
While neither Naomi nor Sasha have posted or said anything publicly since before the walkout, Sasha’s cousin Snoop Dogg has been posting photos with her to his Instagram feed (one with the caption “Bloodline,” which could be read as a reference to WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns’s cabal of villainous wrestlers called the Bloodline), and she was seen Sunday night dancing with his son Cordell at a Steve Aoki show.
The Naomi-Sasha walkout could end up being something of a watershed moment for the WWE. When All Elite Wrestling debuted on TNT in the fall of 2019, it marked the end of Vince McMahon’s functional monopoly on professional wrestling. Performers who are unhappy with the way WWE does business can now build careers elsewhere — something that would’ve been almost impossible just a few years ago — and the fans who aren’t interested in seeing the stars they love disappear over petty backroom squabbles can follow them.