It’s without question that WWE knows what to do with big guys. The company seems to have no clue how to manage and appropriately push cruiserweights and often struggles to understand the process of multiple women’s angles on one card, but they can push the hosses. It explains why Pay Per View events and television tapings are littered with four and five woman bouts, rather than two singles matches or a singles and a tag bout, where each participant has individual skin in the proverbial sports entertainment game.
Also without debate is that 2017 has been the year of Braun Strowman. Still very young in his career, the 6’8″, 385 pound behemoth has gone from extremely green to shaky in the ring to very basic to the most must-see attraction in the entire company. While he’s never going to drop an AJ Styles or Cesaro classic, he’s already becoming an epic brawler and big match performer.
WWE hasn’t had someone this white hot in quite some time, with Brock Lesnar being very much part time and John Cena on the tail end of his career. The last two candidates prior to those two would be Daniel Bryan, whose health has forced him out of the ring for the time being, and CM Punk, who left the company nearly four years ago. You might not know that, considering the constant “CM Punk” chants that irritate us on a regular basis from obnoxious crowds interested in getting themselves over.
When you have someone on fire, you don’t extinguish the flame when it’s figurative. Braun Strowman was on top of the world entering Sunday night’s main event clash with Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal Championship in Los Angeles. Now, less than 48 hours later, he again feels like just another cog in the machine. I don’t believe that’s what the company wanted, but their presentation has done this to him in record time.
There was no reason whatsoever (actually there was one) to beat Strowman at this stage. The fans would have left just as satisfied if Brock and Braun had walked out of Staples Center following a no-finish, a double count out, or any other smoz conclusion to their first singles encounter. Most of us expected that would be the result, because it leads to the obvious rematch, with neither man harmed in the process. We want an ending, but this should be an epic clash, and a lasting one, even if match two sits months down the road.
I argued in the run-up to the No Mercy PPV card that I would go ahead and drop the gold on Strowman, both because he’s so popular and dominant right now, as well as because Lesnar would be heading back to the Minnesota wilderness until WrestleMania season. We’ve spent far too long without the Universal Championship on the RAW brand, and with a fairly weak Intercontinental Championship, no singles title means much of anything on Monday nights.
Yet, with all Strowman had going for him, there’s one thing he couldn’t control, and it’s the same reality every WWE male superstar – sans one – deals with every day of his life.
Braun Strowman is unlucky enough not to be Roman Reigns.
We all know the drill by now. Vince McMahon is going to make Roman Reigns the guy, regardless of any evidence his audience provides him to the contrary. I dig Roman quite a bit actually, dating back to his main roster debut, which was almost two years prior to when I had a chance to sit down and interview him in September of 2014.
However, the babyface Roman Reigns experiment remains problematic, because every audience is telling WWE they’ve got this superstar positioned incorrectly. Vince wants a new John Cena, and doesn’t realize that historically, the “next guy” is nothing like the “current guy.” A second Hulk Hogan didn’t emerge until Cena, who replaced both Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, who replaced Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. The attempt to move from one Cena to a younger Cena will never work to the levels McMahon hopes.
Reigns is talented, but ideally needs to play the tweener role between hero and villain, leaning in the direction of the former much more so than the latter. This is a temporary state, as once the antihero gets him over, he can then flip back and become the babyface Vince McMahon so desperately craves. The only true current exception is when he’s associated with his former running buddies, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. That’s actually the case now, as WWE is building to a Shield reunion within the next month.
What’s readily apparent from everything we’ve seen in 2017 is that guys are being built for the main purpose of mattering long enough for Roman Reigns to beat them and become an even bigger star. That’s Vince’s goal, and it’s failing.
It’s failing because no Reigns victory means anything.
Most fans that dislike Roman do so largely because they consider him to be an artificial, Astroturf creation. He’s not the best in any capacity, but in a fictional construct, he can always be placed at the top. Anyone can. The Ultimate Warrior was by no means a ring general, but he main evented WrestleMania VI. The beauty of pro wrestling is that within reason, a promoter can turn anyone into a superstar. Whether the audience accepts it is a byproduct of the writing and the timing.
For example, Jinder Mahal has been the WWE World Champion for over four months, yet no one really buys it, because for many years, he was a total joke of a character. He was known most for existing within a throwaway comedy troupe, the 3 Man Band. Incidentally, all three of them have held some kind of Championship in the company within the last 18 months, with Heath Slater being a Tag Team Champion and Drew McIntyre currently the NXT Champion.
There was zero groundwork to give Mahal credibility, even in the weeks prior to earning a title shot against Randy Orton. He beat no one. He was a job guy, someone put in as talent enhancement to the stars, and now, he’s WWE Champion. He wasn’t prepared to speak, because he’d never been asked to do it before. His promos are rudimentary, because as my colleague and an occasional radio guest of mine, Bryan Alvarez of the Wrestling Observer notes, he’s learning on the job.
Braun Strowman also learned on the job, but he learned enough to become indispensably must-watch in rapid fashion. Had he beaten Lesnar on Sunday, very few would have batted an eye or in any way balked at the decision. That’s because, unlike Mahal, he’s been formidable and creatively protected for many months. He fits in the main event slot, and he’s Championship material as a larger-than-life character WWE desperately needed.
But, he’s not Roman Reigns, which means all of his gains can be wiped out for the SAKE of Roman Reigns. Think about this as a timeline, and then it will all make complete sense. Brock Lesnar defeated The Undertaker in New Orleans at WrestleMania XXX, which took place three years ago. Since that point, Lesnar has been the most monstrous force in the company, often destroying opponents in record time.
One year later, Vince McMahon planned for Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns to main event WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, but the fans still wanted Daniel Bryan, or quite frankly anyone else. Very late in the game, the decision was made to have Seth Rollins cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase during the match and walk out as WWE Champion. That turned out to be one of the biggest and most universally appreciated moments in the now 33 year history of the Showcase of the Immortals.
But, Brock Lesnar was built like a deity…for a purpose. The more powerful he is, the more a Roman Reigns victory over him would mean for Roman Reigns. Lesnar runs roughshod over the roster for years, stays away from Reigns for the most part, and in comes a returning Bill Goldberg for a nostalgia run that proved wildly entertaining in November of 2016. Goldberg defeated Lesnar in less than two minutes, which brought all of Bill’s best memories to the surface. Brock would get his win back, and in fact would win the final battle this past April in Orlando at WrestleMania 32.
Braun Strowman has been protected and has beaten virtually everybody, even receiving a passing-of-the-torch so to speak from The Big Show in a cage match a few weeks ago. But, the plan for WrestleMania 34 has always been Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar. It’s the match Vince wants every year, and for the exact same reason. Roman Reigns is supposed to defeat Lesnar, clean, and ascend to take over the WWE throne. So, Strowman was carved out of granite to be fed to Brock (for the time being at least), to give Lesnar one more notch on his belt to add to the prestige that comes with a Reigns victory over him at WrestleMania.
Coincidentally, Brock’s career saw its biggest surge following the win over the Undertaker, and Roman’s would ideally do the same, both in the exact same building in New Orleans four years apart. But the big issue is what it’s done to Strowman. Originally, Brock was to face Braun in Brooklyn at SummerSlam, but because Roman Reigns and Strowman worked well together, and because Samoa Joe was so excellent in his short feud with Lesnar the month before, the proper decision was made to put all four in there and let them go crazy.
However, Strowman was going to lose to Brock all along, because this is about Brock looking as strong as possible to ensure a Reigns win has maximum impact. Again, though, I argue this is strategically fallacious, because no Reigns victory will ever be seen as legitimate. He pinned John Cena after kicking out of four Attitude Adjustment finishers, one off the middle rope. Cena raised Reigns’ arm after the match, then did a post-show interview where he asserted Roman as the top guy going forward.
Everything WWE does is geared towards that singular goal, and it continues to be rejected, because even in a scripted industry, fans know Roman is on top because Vince wants him there, maybe more so than anybody not named John Cena this century. House show and television taping attendance is down, Reigns merchandise doesn’t move at anywhere near the levels Cena’s does, and again, everyone becomes fodder to get Roman to the top of the mountain. Yes, it’s always true that there are tiers of stars, and some are there to prop up others. That will always be true, but Braun Strowman isn’t, and never should be considered one of them.
Last night on RAW, Strowman’s reclamation project began as he destroyed Curt Hawkins, a curtain jerker that hasn’t won a match in over 100 tries, and a back-and-forth bout with Dean Ambrose. Braun should have destroyed Hawkins and several other lower card guys last night in various segments in order to regain some of his heat, rather than engaging in a long bout with Ambrose, however decent that match might have been.
The Lesnar-Strowman build was tremendous, but the match was incredibly underwhelming, and Strowman was pinned after just one Brock F-5 finishing maneuver. Compared to Reigns vs. Cena, it made Braun look weak, and worst of all, it made him appear ORDINARY, when he’s anything but. That was an immense miscalculation, and it damaged the rare megastar WWE has been able to create this decade. You strike when the iron is hot, especially when we have so much time to kill before WrestleMania 34. Vince, if you’re set on Reigns-Lesnar, that’s perfectly fine, but you can get back there.
If you don’t want to beat Lesnar, recognize you don’t have to beat Strowman either, or just don’t do the match. It’s usually a negative when a promoter puts two guys in the ring and doesn’t want either to lose. Here, he must have wanted Braun to lose, but if so, he’s wrong.
Sure, Strowman will have his day, but Vince McMahon took one key point for granted and entirely missed the reality staring him in the face (and thundering in his ears) two nights ago.
Strowman’s day already arrived.
And WWE blew it.
I’m @JMartOutkick and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I worked in professional wrestling from 2000-2009, and have written on and off about the industry since 1999. I also host the popular weekly Squared Circle Radio program along with David Reed and Brandon Haghany on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville. It’s available via podcast anywhere in the world through Apple and Android platforms.