Monday, February 26, 2018

A Whole Lot of Thoughts about Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, Elimination Chamber, and WrestleMania

Reigns winning the Chamber was the right call, but is his WrestleMania opponent the same?
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So, Elimination Chamber was a decent enough show. Nia Jax and Asuka went out and had a Match of the Year candidate, Ronda Rousey had her road to WrestleMania mapped out through MCMAHON COUNTRY, Alexa Bliss MADE HISTORY thanks to Sasha Banks and Bayley finally coming to the first real blows since Takeover: Respect, and The Bar kept their RAW Tag Team Championships. However, the narratives shifted and focused on one singular decision, which felt like it was set in stone since at least SummerSlam, Roman Reigns ending up as Brock Lesnar's opponent for WrestleMania 34. If you have an intense feeling of deja vu over this, congratulations, you're justified. Reigns once again heads into Mania challenging for a title against a mostly vacant part-timer after a Royal Rumble took place in Philadelphia. The main difference is that Reigns got there via other means, namely the Elimination Chamber.

Honestly, Reigns winning a match to get to the main event, or to A main event of WrestleMania wasn't exactly a bad call, no matter what any of the chatter from dissident fans and critics might suggest. Reigns is ostensibly set to close his fourth WrestleMania in a row, a number not really seen since Hulk Hogan went on last in the scheduled match from Mania V through VIII, with an additional coda coming in IX when he felled Yokozuna in an impromptu "encore" main event after the giant defeated Bret Hart in the promoted main. Hogan to that point had headlined seven of the eight flagships, taking a break only at IV, when Randy Savage defeated Ted DiBiase in the final match of the WWE Championship tournament that was held over the course of the entire event. He's not a lock to close the show, mind you. If the rumored John Cena vs. the Undertaker has a career vs. career stipulation attached to it, you can bet that match has a good shot to go on last. Conversely, if WWE is out here having women MAKING HISTORY, then either Asuka vs. Charlotte Flair (the rumored match for the women's Rumble winner at current time) or Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H could headline. Mania is known for having "multiple" main events, you see, and WWE will try to sell you that no matter what goes on last, every match that is sold as a main event is one.

But honestly, if WWE is going to be redoing Mania 31's main event, Reigns/Lesnar II should get the same slot Reigns/Lesnar I got. The problem I have with all of it though is that II shouldn't be necessary. Whether or not I agreed at the time, Reigns going over Lesnar in that main event was the right call. The Seth Rollins cash-in was fun and a great "moment," and lord knows WWE loves to jack off to the moments it creates, but ultimately, it was destructive to the progression of Reigns as "The Guy" and led to one of the most disastrous title reigns in company history. Still, even with the mistakes of the past looming large and unable to be changed, analyzing last night's match is more complicated than yelling at the dissatisfied that they're wrong (which fuck man, don't do that) or saying "LOL REIGNS WINS AGAIN."

The Right and Wrong Decision

Again, Reigns standing tall at the end of the match was the right call. WWE had a story to tell with Reigns entering WrestleMania as the huge underdog challenger, even without surfing the waves of time and changing the past. Well, at least it wouldn't have taken too far to travel back in time to change. Basically, the main event of this year's Granddaddy of Them All should have been Universal Champion Braun Strowman defending against a Reigns who had one last chance to vanquish his greatest foe from the last year for good.

For a company that hasn't gotten long-term storytelling right a whole lot in the last 20 years, the writers and executive decision makers on the RAW side set up a scenario where Reigns and Strowman were on an ultimate collision course for Mania, starting even before last year's big event. The extent to which it caught fire in the summer feels unprecedented for two post-WCW buyout WWE wrestlers who didn't have prior hardcore fan cache and were built totally from the ground up on RAW. And yet, with the wars they had and the memorable encounters they engaged in outside of actual matches, their feud never finished with one, climactic showdown. After SummerSlam, where the focus was shared with Samoa Joe and Lesnar, each went his separate way with major issues dangling. Reigns was drawn away via the clarion call of a war with John Cena, dealing with The Miz, and reuniting The Shield, and Strowman got sucked in a black hole vortex with post-usefulness Kane. Their one collision in that time that was scheduled got derailed thanks to some kind of microbial infection that kept Reigns out of the big five-on-three handicap match headlining TLC.

Still, Strowman WASN'T FINISHED WITH Reigns yet, and frankly, the reciprocal was the same too. Reigns never proved he could defeat the Monster among Men in definitive fashion. Every victory by either man felt incomplete. Sometimes, Pyrrhic victories can have resolution, but every time Reigns and Strowman thrashed each other, it didn't feel like it was truly over, which is what made it special. Every time they fought, they caused the equivalent damage of destroying Tokyo (and Yokohama, and Chiba, and well, the surrounding area of prefectures stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan), and yet they kept getting back up to throw hands, whether or not they were "medically cleared."  It was a feud that maybe not from Fastlane of last year, but at least from the summer felt like it was destined to end in a clash of the titans at WrestleMania.

Even if WWE was never planning on going that direction, it definitely built infrastructure for that story. Strowman had tension with Lesnar that he still hasn't resolved despite having two run-ins with him, once in a solo match at No Mercy and another in a triple threat with Kane at the Royal Rumble. Either one of those matches would've been perfect opportunities to transition the Universal Championship onto Strowman to set up a final showdown at Mania. Even though it would've had a lot more impact to have Strowman pin Lesnar clean, you could've had the funny-business decision of Kane eating the fall. But instead, WWE stayed the course in the name of...

Long-Term Storytelling?

The best long-term story WWE has ever told was a love story that lasted longer than the couple did in real life, and oftentimes, it took a backseat to the major thing that the guy was doing at the time. I've definitely romanticized Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth my fair share because honestly, it was an anomaly for anything Vince McMahon booked, even if Savage's cruel treatment of Elizabeth cast a lot of the heartwarming story development in a pall. Still, it's hard imagining McMahon or even Paul Levesque (for as much as everyone seems to think he's the messiah) committing to a story like that for as long as it went on, especially with the breakneck pace of narrative shift that goes on thanks to 52 weeks a year of new, first-run content in bulk. A more comparable example that would still suffer from the same pitfalls of modern booking today was a chapter in that longer story, the Mega Powers. It provided the platonic ideal for WWE's yearly booking model. It's where people get the idea that McMahon has a main event for the next year's Mania written down before this year's version is even finished. If it had happened in the era of Monday Night RAW, Savage and Hulk Hogan vs. DiBiase and Andre the Giant would've headlined Payback instead of SummerSlam, Savage would've accused Hogan of having jealous eyes the next night on RAW, and the Mega Powers EXPLOSION would've concluded no later than Money in the Bank.

In the age of compressive storytelling, the fact that McMahon seems to have laid off the easy route of having Reigns go over Lesnar in short order within a year of WrestleMania 31 feels anomalous, so much so that it is being analyzed by some as "long-term storytelling." On the surface, maybe it is. One could see the path laid out that Reigns had to go into the wilderness, hunt for some big game prizes to find himself or level up so to speak before coming back and taking Lesnar in a rematch, except a lot of that analysis relies on the headcanon that Reigns was singularly taken by the fact he couldn't beat Lesnar, that Triple H and Undertaker were substitutes that didn't fill his craving to take out the best. Admittedly, the best stories are left open to interpretation, and if supplemental understanding of what is being presented to an audience is what's needed to enhance viewing, then it's not anyone's place to discredit it as invalid at least on a personal level. Wrestling is nothing without audience participation, after all. Why limit it to noises created at an event and not strains to the story added by creative consumers?

That being said, storyteller intent is always an important thing to look at, and Reigns was never presented as the Rocky Balboa to Lesnar's Apollo Creed at WrestleMania 31. Reigns didn't lose the match; Rollins usurped his moment, and thus Reigns' heat transferred from Lesnar to his former Shield brother. At the time, it wasn't seen as the first stroke in a master story. Dirtsheet minds saw it as a "political hit." Real critical analysis was more muddled, probably as best recollected more focused on Rollins' cash-in than anything else. But anytime Reigns has mentioned it since the fact, he's mentioned it as a victory that was never really official. It's not the proverbial white whale. The Triple H and Undertaker feuds were not attempts at filling any void, at least in the narrative sense. If anything, the Trips match at Mania 32 was the logical end of what started with Rollins' cash-in the year before. Whether or not that was the intended final match or not (Rollins suffered a knee injury between the two signposts) isn't as important as the fact that that arc in and of itself felt like something planned out a year in advance. Whether or not it was the right story to tell is another thing altogether, reiterating that Rollins' title reign was a dreadful misallocation of his talents, and Triple H probably should've hung the boots up after Daniel Bryan vanquished him two years prior at Mania XXX. The Undertaker thing felt like something McMahon threw against the wall because he had nothing else to slot for Reigns and thought for sure Taker was hanging 'em up for good. Oops.

WWE is infamous for talking the talk and not really walking the walk, but it has caused a lot of its fans and critics to do the same. If something looks like it's taken a long time to develop, then it must be long-term storytelling right? Again, that's dirtsheet mind, Dave Meltzer-level analysis, which is fine if you want to look at money and shit, but if you want to look at wrestling as a performance art, even as one that is staged for lengths and in circumstances that are wholly unique to any other staged media, you have to look more critically than an eye-test. WWE has really given no clues that Reigns/Lesnar II was always the endgame. Reigns hasn't designed his character to beat Lesnar as much as he has to beat "all comers" or be The Guy. For him, the WWE Championship or claiming Undertaker's yard were good enough trophies. Where was the sense of longing? Where was the exposition that showed him always with an eye askance towards the monitor when Paul Heyman was gassing his bag about "my client?" Headcanon is a nice supplement, but you can't sell me a bill of goods based on personal interpretation when that personal interpretation may be as unique as that person's DNA. Authorial intent matters, and I've seen nothing really in WWE's narrative process that tells me that Reigns has a Lesnar-sized hole in his soul that he needs to fill with victory. The long-term storytelling is just not there on WWE's end, at least not for the three year period that some want to give it credit for.

Long-Term vs. The Hot Hand

However, I can cop that maybe McMahon made the call last year to have Lesnar regain the Universal Championship and Reigns (possibly) retire Undertaker to put them on a collision course for Mania this year. When Strowman caught fire the way he did, and honestly, no one in the company got as organically red hot as Strowman did since CM Punk in 2011 (or Daniel Bryan in 2013/14, your choice), it brought up the question as to what you go with, a vision you've had for a year or more, or something that comes up and just cannot be denied? One can glibly state that "plans change" all the time in WWE, but if one is to be real, week-to-week operations of a monolithic entity that produces SO MUCH content like WWE are insignificant compared to a greater direction. It's easier to change the main event of WWE Wrestling Match: The Pay-Per-View than it is to change that of WrestleMania, much in the same way it's easier for, say, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to course-correct new characters like Nikki and Paolo in season three of LOST in an episode's time than it would be for them to change the endgame of the entire series even as they got within a year or two of the finale.

But with wrestling, sometimes you get phenomena that are way too big to be denied, and it's not a question that's easily answered, but yet so many other times, WWE opted for choices that were similar to headlining with another Reigns/Strowman battle. It loves recycling matchups for weeks, months, sometimes years (remember the endless cycle of Dolph Ziggler vs. Kofi Kingston matches, many times for a secondary title? PEPPERIDGE FARM REMEMBERS). It's almost like McMahon hasn't heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns, and yet he has in front of him a match if done one more time would land with the greatest magnitude. The new thing might not be sustainable, sure, but in this case, if Strowman falters after Mania (and I see no signs he will, but hey, I've been wrong before), he got a big-time, climactic battle of the titans out of him. If he falters after Mania as planned, he'll do so as a footnote in Miz's career if that Intercontinental Championship match happens as planned.

So then the question becomes "Is putting Reigns over Lesnar now more important than striking on the hottest iron in the company in the last three years?" In honesty, the booking move feels like one of regret, that McMahon feels like he should have put Reigns over Lesnar three years ago. You can't turn back time, even if that would be the best way to fix this entire situation, at least from a critical standpoint. I can't see the year that Strowman had where he was arguably RAW's protagonist, or at least a co-headliner with Reigns, and not put him in a feature match because you have to divvy up prime real estate for characters artificially in the top tier like Stephanie McMahon, Triple H, or even Kurt Angle. It's not to say they shouldn't be on the card and someone like The Bar should be given a main event shot because they've been around longer or whatever, but the physics of storytelling almost demand that Strowman is in the final showdown in Mania this year, against the guy he carried the narrative with. Of course the question then becomes what would you do with Lesnar, and honestly, you could do anything with him if you think he's a draw, whether or not the numbers bore out. Hell, I'd have fast-tracked a match against Bobby Lashley or maybe fed Jinder Mahal to him finally. I don't know. But he didn't feel as important to RAW or even WWE on the whole as Strowman and Reigns did.

So now, WWE has arrived at the precipice of WrestleMania with its vision, and it's one that a lot of people will sign up for to get excited for. I'm not naive enough to think that the dissatisfaction in the bubble of people I hang around with online is enough to say this is a bad call, but honestly, what the people want is hardly reason enough for entertainment producers to do anything. A good wrestling promotion does fanservice. A great wrestling promotion makes the fans want what you're giving them anyway, right? However, Reigns/Lesnar II from a critical standpoint doesn't feel like the right call. It feels like the decision of a regretful storyteller who can't retcon a bad decision out of existence with a fictional deus ex machina and must work within the confines of real life and the timespace continuum to fix that error. I'm sure it'll be a good match, and I'm sure the almighty dollars won't be too far off the mark. Sometimes though, I just wish the people who made wrestling stopped being carnies and started being artists, even if that's a tall order for the biggest wrestling promotion in the world with tangible ties to the fucking Trump administration. C'est la vie.