Photo Credit – David Falcon
Now you might be wondering how I could be saying this when she just recently became one half of only the 3rd ever female tag team champions in NXT history. It is an impressive accolade and responsibility to bestow on anyone – but Candice LeRae is not just anyone.
Prior to debuting in NXT, LeRae was arguably the best female wrestler on the American independent circuit, going toe-to-toe with a significant portion of both WWE and AEW’s rosters – male and female. Through the storytelling in her matches and feuds, she developed the ultimate underdog persona – a 100-pound Disney-loving blonde that was tough as nails, and crowds were overwhelmingly behind her. Her speed, wit and willingness to take the nastiest bumps I have seen have led her to deliver unforgettable bouts and elevate the intergender and women’s wrestling scenes as a whole. One of these unforgettable bouts came in the form of a guerrilla warfare match, where she became the first and only woman to hold a PWG world title after pinning Matt Jackson of The Young Bucks in the center of the ring. Her presence was undeniable, and Jackson has even gone on record as calling her ‘the best in the business’. So where exactly did things go wrong?
LeRae was formally introduced to the NXT Universe in the main event of NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia, aiding her real-life husband, Johnny Gargano. She received a thunderous reaction from the Philly crowd, with chants of ‘Thank you Candice’ breaking out. It didn’t take a genius to tell that people were excited to have her there. While her inclusion in the Gargano/Almas storyline did make sense at the time, her continued involvement in Gargano’s feuds quickly trapped her in the bubble of being ‘Johnny’s wife’. The moniker seemingly took center stage as she was consistently losing matches as a result of being too ‘concerned’ and ‘affected’ by Gargano’s state, and was focusing most of her energy into his affairs rather than establishing herself in the women’s division. This rocky start to her WWE career was incredibly disappointing to those already familiar with her work and painting her as a helpless wife was a disservice to the woman who took a thumbtack-superkick from the Bucks and still won the match.
This did turn around for the better however, as LeRae was finally developing momentum through sustained wins, and was ultimately crowned number one contender to Shayna Baszler’s NXT Women’s Championship, which she was unable to capture. LeRae continued to be a prominent feature on NXT, being a part of the winning teams at both the first ever women’s WarGames and Survivor Series matches and putting on great showings with the rest of the division. A true breakthrough came for her though, when she turned heel, reinventing her Disney-lover gimmick to reflect the darker sides of the fairy tales she had always adored. That same year, she led her team to victory at the second women’s WarGames match, put on show-stealing matches with Io Shirai and aligned herself with newcomers Indi Hartwell and Austin Theory, as well as Gargano, setting up the stable ‘The Way’. She began tagging with Hartwell regularly, and their efforts finally proved successful when they defeated Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart for the NXT Women’s Tag Team Championships in May of this year.
LeRae has accumulated impressive accomplishments in her four-year tenure in NXT; however, it must be pointed out that nearly all of these have come in team settings – she has never gotten the spotlight to herself. LeRae is a nearly 20-year veteran of the business and is even responsible for training current AEW Women’s World Champion, Britt Baker, so it is wise of the NXT creative team to use her experience and knowledge to advance their women’s roster, but it must not be done in a way that compromises the singles run she deserves. As NXT Women’s Champion, she would be able to continue bettering the division as its leader and most prominent figure, while also basking in glory that has been long overdue.