When Brock Lesnar decisively earned the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam last year it changed the face of the title race itself with the introduction of something the WWE had been lacking for some time: a real threat.
No offense meant to talented stars like John Cena and Randy Orton, but the main event scene in WWE was stuck in a lull for a while. The Yes movement provided much-needed energy among fans, but the depth of the main event roster – or lack thereof, as it were – was showing. The Shield and The Wyatts were still on the rise, CM Punk went home, and Daniel Bryan was left to carry the title on most likely into late 2014. Unfortunately, injury sidelined Bryan and WWE gave the ball back to John Cena to carry instead.
Then came Brock Lesnar. No underdog story here, but a legitimately dangerous man. An ex-champion both in the ring and the octagon, Brock Lesnar has been built up as a merciless mercenary, a fighting machine that is only out for himself. This mercenary status has reincarnated the drama created by the presence of the “shooters”, as they were called in the early days of carnival shows, the birthplace of sports entertainment.
Before television broadcasts and pay-per-view, before football stadiums full of screaming fans, there was the sport of wrestling, which gained popularity as a spectator sport in the late 1800s. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, the modern “catch” style which is used in pro wrestling these days had replaced much of the legitimate sport-fighting that existed, favoured for its entertainment value. However, the sport still employed men who were trained and practiced wrestlers and submission fighters afterwards taught to pull back their moves for the show, in essence to “go soft” with holds and punches. But at any moment, any of those men could choose to go “hard” and alter the course of a match in progress.
This still occurs today. It happens for various reasons, none of which are very proper and sportsmanlike. Sometimes there are personal issues that end up bleeding onto the mat, so to speak, or sometimes it’s done as part of a hazing ritual, or to put someone in their place. At various times in the history of the industry there have been “policemen”, enforcers who were loyal to the company who would put dissenters in their place. These men were always seasoned shooters who could back up tough talk with skills, and often caused real injury.
It is beneficial to have shooters around who are loyal. They can regulate trouble-makers on the roster, step in case anyone gets funny thoughts of screwing the organization over. In an industry that thrives on what happens live, the risk of one performer changing the whole game on a whim is ever-present, and trust is paramount to business running smoothly.
But what happens when the champion is a shooter? This has happened many times in the past, with the legendary Lou Thesz being often referred to as “the last of the shooters”.
Thesz was the champion who carried pro wrestling through the tricky transition from stadiums and auditoriums to its Television Era in the 1950s and 60s. He was a dynamic showman, a great talker, and a trained submission wrestler. It must have been a concern for the promoters at the time to have a man holding the belt who could essentially keep it for as long as he wanted. This is partly why a $25,000 deposit was put up by the champ upon being crowned, as an insurance policy discouraging anyone from skipping town with the title.
This hasn’t been a concern for years. The enforcers of old have been faded out. Wrestlers are kept in line using finances instead of fists these days; if a performer steps out of line, they get kicked off the big show and thus the big payday. If someone really pisses the bosses off, the title is stripped or the performer is “released”. The Montreal Screw-Job hammered the message home: you will do what’s best for business, whether you want to or not.
But again the question comes up: what happens if the man with all the gold doesn’t want to do the job? What if the champ just decides he’s not going to lose tonight, or any other night after. What if the man who does that is a legitimately dangerous man who is absolutely capable of keeping the title if he so decides?
This is just the situation we are in.
The owners of the company, the WWE itself, could it be just one single consciousness, has put the world’s championship on this man, this dangerous man, this shooter, this legitimate fighter, this utterly dominating performer. They have asked him to remain dominant and win matches, and he has done this duty gladly. He has been a dominant, convincing champion.
Now, far be it from me to know exactly what to expect at WrestleMania in the main event between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns. Regardless of who stands at the match’s end as victor and regardless if the title will change hands that night, at point one would imagine the WWE will ask this man to do the job and put over his successor to the title. In essence, the WWE must put all their faith in this man to play ball. But what guarantees he will do such a thing?
In April 1925, such a situation altered the course of the world heavyweight championship. The title had been put on an impressive physical specimen, a former football player who looked great but unfortunately possessed no real fighting ability. Ed “Strangler” Lewis did the job for him earlier in the year, and the new star was set to face former champion Wladeck Zbyszko’s older brother Stanislaus. But Zbyszko, a tough old shooter, pulled a surprise swerve on the champ and stole the belt. He did this partly to get revenge on the promoters who controlled the belt at the time, and partly for a nice payday from the competition. He dropped the belt to ex-champ Joe Stecher, who would hold the title until 1928.
So, the answer to the question posed a bit earlier is: nothing. Nothing guarantees Brock Lesnar will do as he’s told, stick to the script, follow through on whatever finish is predetermined on the morning of March 29th. The plain and simple fact is that regardless of what outcome is decided by Vince and Triple H and Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman backstage, should Lesnar decide to pull a double cross at the last minute, I sincerely doubt Roman’s ability to stop him.
This makes Paul Heyman’s treatment of the main event hype masterful. He is playing this angle up, paying tribute to wrestling’s rich history of shooters and double-crosses, traditions which go as deep as the sport itself. He declared it loud and clear so there could be no mistake last Monday on Raw; Brock Lesnar will be the champion as long as he damn well pleases.
It’s interesting that at the same time Heyman is making these declarations before the masses of marks on television, the internet community is meanwhile a-buzz with controversy and uncertainty surrounding Lesnar’s contract talks. Will he jump ship and go to UFC? Will he take the title with him? Will he hold out for more money? Is there conflict between the champ and Vince McMahon? Will he stay or go? Nobody knows, and that is just the way they should keep it.
This angle has been played out before, it’s nothing new. Rob Van Dam beat John Cena for the WWE Championship and declared he was claiming it as property of ECW. But that was a work. CM Punk created a huge stir at Money In The Bank when he won the belt the day his contract was set to expire, swearing he would walk with the belt if he won. Won he did, but it was later revealed that he had signed a new deal with WWE the night before the event. That was close, but in the big picture it was all going according to plan.
The difference with this angle being played out this time is the big X-factor missing before: legitimacy. It can be argued and debated, but it seems that not since Kurt Angle has the WWE employed a performer with the legitimate ability to conquer in a shoot match. And Angle, although a fierce competitor, was still a smaller than average superstar.
Brock Lesnar is the real deal. A true powerhouse with explosive speed and deadly skill. As long as he carries the WWE Championship, the future of the company is held hostage in the iron grip of a monster. It’s a riveting storyline, made all the more plausible by Lesnar’s history in both UFC and WWE. It would be wise to lean on this angle going into WrestleMania, it adds intrigue to a main event that otherwise is lacking real electricity because of its nervous new-comer.
Will Brock Lesnar do what is best for business? Or will he choose to use the immense amounts of leverage at his disposal to put the company over a barrel and get what is best for himself and his career. Are the mutually exclusive? What is the game that the power players are playing here, and what’s the real work?
The joy is in the knowing and in the mystery, and so I stay tuned…