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There’s a lot of animosity toward Nikki Bella even though the former longest reigning Divas Champion has come a long way. She’s a focal point, a tenacious and relentless force in the evolving landscape of the women’s division. Nikki’s transformation from just a Diva to a full fledged wrestler changed my heart and my mind about her. I think it’s time we pay her some respect.

Flashback to 2014 and The Bella Twins held a tight grip on the then Divas Division. They represented everything I disliked in professional wrestling, high school mean girls who relied on their looks to get ahead while having minimal wrestling abilities. I’d constantly ask myself if these women knew they deserved more, they could be more than this.

Matches were short, bouts were sometimes tragic, and stories were consumed by stereotypical tropes where every woman hated each other just because they were “jealous.”

The Bellas, Nikki Bella, in particular would have an immense following online. Divas reigned supreme. Many would come to the defense of a struggling division that was just about to be reborn with the next NXT class and women who would follow in the Four Horsewomen’s footprints. The main issue of these days was the fact that no one emphasized the women enough. They are competitors who should be held up on a strong pedestal like their male counterparts.

The Bellas admitted in interviews that they wanted much more for the women and called out management for not taking the division seriously enough. Nikki wanted to compete in hardcore matches, raise the bar for competition, leave an impact that showed that she was more than just a pretty face dating John Cena. These would be just words until 2015 when a new era would arrive.

Fans demanded a women’s division and now the Bellas had to step up or get out. Nikki time and again risked life and limb to continue her reign as the longest Divas Champion. Because the division was thin and mishandled, Nikki carried the division on her back as she inched her way towards a record setting reign. She’d push herself and wind up injuring her neck.

Once the three horsewomen arrived Nikki mixed it up in the ring. Her particularly strong moveset was put to the test and she was allowed to work it like never before. She presented herself like a hoss with multiple power move variations including Alabama Slams, powerslams, back body drops, spinebusters, and other mat slams. She continued to hit hard with her forearm and enzuigiri kicks. Her opponents were now other women who could dish it out and bring a depth of competition to the forefront. Now the arena was primed for longer, harder matches.

Her last few matches with Charlotte Flair began to show signs that Nikki’s heart was truly in this and she wasn’t just a Diva, she was a wrestler.

Stories for the division still lacked creativity but it was all about stable wars before the fearless one could ultimately pass the torch to Charlotte and bow out to undergo surgery, her career suddenly on the line. Brie stepped up her game to fill the gap slowly but surely each time she got into the ring with Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch. The division was rebranded back into the Women’s Division with the reintroduction of the Women’s Championship. Representation was finally coming after so many years of being an afterthought.

After Brie’s retirement, Nikki’s recovery was featured on ‘Total Divas’ and ‘Total Bellas.’ She also recently admitted in an interview with People that her injury was so severe that “I literally was told, ‘You have that one percent chance of getting back in that ring,’ and when I did, woo!”

Nikki continued to endure criticism from fans online, time and again forcing her to reiterate her passion for the business. She’d work with brother-in-law Daniel Bryan on new moves.

She went to the performance center to train with Bayley, Billie Kay, Natalya and many others before returning at Summerslam for the SmackDown brand.

Upon arrival the same criticisms cropped up, she’d bury the division and become the first SmackDown Women’s Champion, people asserted.

The opposite happened. When she returned from injury, Nikki went from a petty high school girl to a veteran determined to make a comeback in a newly populated division. With renewed purpose she looked to capture some former glory after almost suffering a career ending injury. Her story bares fruit to heartwarming outcomes.

Because she stepped back into the ring to prove she still belonged, SmackDown made her a babyface. Her narratives with other women in the division centered around her shallow tendencies, her relationships, and belittle her skills but she’d persevere. She put over three women in the span of seven months.

Though her in ring abilities are still a little limited because of her neck, Nikki took multiple bumps in numerous backstage brawls that lead up to her first hardcore match, something she’s said she’d always wanted. She whipped out a new finisher, became a hard hitter, and pushed to stay in step with the rest of the women. Carmella went from a face to a heel and finally got some name recognition because of her feud with Nikki.

Brawls continued, this time with Natalya. Nikki took even more spills. Because Nikki is so recognizable, her opponents are elevated with every match or backstage beating. Natalya came into her own as an affable heel. Natalya and Nikki’s chemistry was palpable as they entered a Falls Count Anywhere match. Nattie gave Nikki her best match to date as they would throw everything and the kitchen sink at each other. Nattie would win the feud via Maryse‘s interference.

Maryse and The Miz solidified themselves as top heels by ruthlessly targeting Nikki and John’s relationship. For weeks the pair would call them reality star shams. They went hard in promos and cut deep by telling Nikki her dream of getting married would never come true. Though the match at WrestleMania was short of a mat classic, Nikki’s dreams of an engagement came true and shortly after she announced another hiatus to rest her neck. Rumors circulate that she came back to the square circle too soon, originally slated to return in the fall instead of August 2016.

Nikki made me eat my words. Nikki’s evolution from a babe with a twin in 2008 to barely there celebrity escort in 2010 to Nikki “Queen of Strongstyle” with that brutal forearm, changed my heart and mind.  Yes, her acting work can improve, her promos could be less wooden or monotone, her attitude a little more sincere, but she’s a work in progress that continues to evolve.

If she didn’t love this business, she would have never come back. Every time a wrestler steps into the ring, their neck is on the line. Nikki has done more than enough to prove she belongs.

In defense of Nikki Bella, take a moment to reflect and admit that she loves this business. Enough with the Bella hate, it’s so 2014. It’s time to recognize that there’s a place for women like Nikki and celebrate her dedication to this craft.

What do you think about Nikki Bella’s evolution? Sound off in the comments below.