The Ballad of Toni Storm

Toni Storm, the talented female athlete known primarily for her work on the NXT UK brand, was trending on Twitter this afternoon because of the news that she finished up with the WWE after she requested her release. After competing in the Mae Young Classic in 2017, Storm, who had a notable stint in the Japanese promotion, Stardom, inked a WWE deal the following year. However, after three years under the WWE banner, her run there was rather undistinguished.

Storm’s request to be released from her WWE deal makes a statement about not only the company, but also the industry as a whole.

As mentioned, Storm worked extensively for the NXT UK brand and defeated Rhea Ripley to win the NXT UK Women’s championship. That being said, even before the pandemic shuttered live events in 2020, the general consensus was that the UK brand had lost its luster, particularly because the novelty of the British expansion wore off after it became very apparent that it had very little cache in the grand scheme of things. Despite a talented roster of European grapplers, the UK project got lost in the shuffle of the countless hours churned out by the WWE machine for its streaming network on Peacock, as well as Raw and Smackdown. NXT UK was rarely mentioned on actual WWE television, and unless a fan was willing to dig through Peacock to find it, nothing was promoted as major league on the UK brand, with the exception of the absolutely incredible Walter vs. Ilja Dragunov that was booked for an NXT Takeover event.

Storm surfaced on Smackdown in July for a one-off appearance, but did nothing of significance until she had a match against Charlotte when she was defeated earlier this month.

In truth, the random call up to the main roster suggested that the office didn’t really have plans for Toni beyond the pop for her debut on Smackdown for that specific week. It’s a pattern that is seen too often within the WWE landscape, a performer is booked on television without a specific plan or any meaningful angles that would solidify them as stars in the audience’s view. This adds merit to a potentially much bigger problem within the organization, as you hear rumors all the time of scripts being scrapped just hours before a show is set to go live on television.

Keep in mind, the diehard fans in America that follow the Japanese scene or those in the European market already know how talented Toni Storm is, but it’s very important to remember that even with the expanded access to other wrestling with streaming technology, the causal WWE fan doesn’t know anything about Toni Storm beyond what they watch on Smackdown. Part of what makes the general public casual fans is they aren’t going to search for nuance details of professional wrestling.

No matter how talented Toni Storm is as a wrestler, and she’s certainly a great athlete, did any of her booking on the main roster present that to the television audience? Obviously, it’s not her fault since she’s not writing the scripts, but her first impression to a national television audience was a random new wrestler that didn’t do much and then disappeared from before she eventually lost a match to Charlotte. Was anything that Toni was booked for on Smackdown designed to make her look like a star?

The most puzzling aspect of all of this is that the WWE had a renewed focus on the women’s division in recent years, but have also cut many female athletes in recent months as well. In fact, some of the best stars in the entire company are the female talent on the shows with Becky, Bianca, Charlotte, and others. At the same time, I think the company might’ve put too much stock into Charlotte as one of the main draws of the division because she’s already worked with the majority of the division for several years and it’s possible her tenure as champion could get stale without fresh opponents. Ruby, Ember, and Toni would’ve provided that new group of challengers on Smackdown.

Of course, anytime there’s a release of a talented WWE star, there will be rumors of a potential All Elite Wrestling jump, but I’m really not sure if that will be the case for Toni or not. Considering her history in Japan, it’s very possible she could opt to return to Stardom. On the flip side, it would be wise for Tony Khan to at least make an offer to her, particular with the addition of the TBS title to the organization because Storm would undoubtedly add depth to the AEW women’s division.

Toni Storm didn’t really get a chance to became a major star with the WWE so on the surface isn’t not a major exit, but it speaks volumes about the shift in the industry in recent years. There was a time, specifically about 15 years ago, that a WWE run was seen as the top level in the industry, mostly because it was truly the only major league option in the professional wrestling world. Outside of a few rare exceptions, nobody willingly left WWE to go to TNA, but rather took a job there after they were released from WWE, which unintentionally gave TNA the reputation as minor league. In 2006, Japanese business was still shaky because Yukes, the video game company that bought New Japan before it was eventually sold to Bushiroad in 2012 to give it some stability, rescued Inoki’s group from the brink of collapse the prior year.

Again, Toni didn’t get the opportunity to do much in the WWE, but it seems like she has all the skills to be a major star somewhere, and while it remains to be seen, it’s very possible that the WWE might’ve missed the boat on her if she has a better run elsewhere. Although, it says a lot that Toni would rather get a release than continue being underutilized in the WWE, which shows how the dynamics shifted in the business over the past decade. The WWE didn’t have quite the status or leverage with talent today as it did in the past because there are other options to make a full-time living in the industry. Obviously, AEW has given underutilized talent a better chance to make a name for themselves and Japan is more of an option now than it was in the past. It will be very interesting to see where Toni Storm signs next and if she will be a major star for another company.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta