All photos courtesy of the WWE.
Ever since he took over the WWF in the early 1980s, Vince McMahon has had a consistent, simple dream: to make giants the stars of his pro wrestling empire. The overriding impulse to put giant men at the top of the card is a recurring theme. There was Andre, of course, and that Wrestlemania moment when Hulk Hogan slammed him down onto the mat and nobody knew if Andre would allow it, brother. It's easy to forget that the Undertaker is one of those giants, at nearly 7 feet tall. The Big Show has lingered on as a special attraction to get other guys over, but he had his day, too. The Great Khali, well, we won't talk too much about him.
It's hard to make a big man the sympathetic babyface, which is why they're so often heels. But what you can do is make a big man cool. You can make him flip ambulances and throw other giants through cage walls. Which is exactly what they've been doing with Braun Strowman over the past year and it's exactly why he's the coolest giant they've had since the Undertaker debuted as a robotic zombie monster who nobody could stop.At No Mercy this past Sunday, WWE did the right thing by putting him in a match for the Universal title, held by Brock Lesnar. Unfortunately, nothing else went right. Everything that makes Strowman look so cool—the insane feats of strength, his tendency to throw other wrestlers around like ragdolls—disappeared. He was just another guy who, after an opening few minutes of looking like he was immune to Lesnar's offense, ended up working just another match. It was remarkably frustrating to watch, but even more than that, it was confusing. Theoretically, Strowman as champion is what McMahon has always wanted and he didn't get it—not because Strowman wasn't truly over with fans or health problems or anything else. There's no telling why that is; we only know that he didn't win.This is the last chance that the septuagenarian McMahon will have in his lifetime to achieve his dream of a truly over pro wrestling giant. He blew it. He threw it away. Strowman may very well be the top champion one day, but there will be something missing from here on out no matter what. You cannot spend a year making one wrestler look like a uniquely strong, dangerous threat and then have him or her lose cleanly while showing absolutely nothing which makes them special. The Lesnar-Strowman match could've been Lesnar versus anyone; in fact, it was extremely close to a replay of Lesnar's one on one match with Samoa Joe at Great Balls of Fire. As soon as the Lesnar-Strowman match was over, the details of the action disappeared from the memory like sugar in water.
The main event wasn't even the sole recreation of an earlier match. Roman Reigns and John Cena had a match which was, like most things they do, just fine in a not particularly exciting way, while trying to recreate the look and feel of the scintillating Cena vs AJ Styles matches from last year. Not in terms of content—Reigns can't work a third as well as Styles, and wouldn't be flying through the air or doing chain wrestling in any event—but mood and storytelling. It was all there: the kickouts from finishers; the dejected Cena at the end, leaving with a pained expression so as to make everyone wonder whether he's going to retire (he won't be); the "upstart" taking down the bedrock of the company. Unlike last year's version, however, this one felt forced and frankly a little insulting to the audience.Why attempt to recreate all that pathos, which was genuinely affecting when it was Styles and Cena last year? Because we're barreling toward Reigns vs Lesnar. Because Reigns is the future no matter what, and AJ Styles was not and will never be. Because a thousand genuine moments aren't worth a single manufactured one to WWE, whether the genuine moment is the sincere, overdue reappraisal of Cena after his losses to Styles or the unfulfilled potential of Strowman beating Lesnar. WWE is in the business of manufacturing moments, of course, but so often they fight against the tide of what a vocal mass of their fans are urging so they can conjure lesser reactions which they find predictable. It's maddening.
It's easy to write off the return to the baseline storytelling they always do as laziness, that they don't need to alter things because they have a captive audience. All of that is true, but I'm beginning to think there's an extremely unhealthy dose of plain cowardice to proceedings at WWE. It feels like they don't do new things because they're scared shitless at the idea of even a small decline if they screw it up, so they take the easy, predictable route every time for fear of a slip.Never mind that their periods of sustained popularity have always coincided with a heavy dose of risk-taking and flinging the doors open to the non-traditional: Steve Austin was stuck as the godawful Ringmaster until he was given license to do his own thing, and The Rock as Rocky Maivia was a disaster. For WWE (and its investors, which is part of the problem), a slow, plodding road to the same general stuff they've always done is a nice cocoon from the harsh realities that they may screw it up and their television contract renewal is in better hands at a predictable low ebb than the fluctuating potential for worse, even if the upside is way higher.The thing is that I don't really know for sure that Braun Strowman is the next guy with a sustained mega-popularity. I'm not a booker or a pro wrestler; I'm a media critic and fan. I've got a very solid hunch that he would at least be a big deal as top guy for six months and maybe you get way more. Maybe he's the next Hogan. Maybe he bombs and you have to take him down the card after only two months.
But why not try? How is the world of 2.5 million viewers each week and never reaching the promised land of 2 million WWE Network subscribers better than what could be? If Jinder Mahal, an objectively miserable wrestler who botches his own finishing move on a regular basis, can be champion for four months on the basis that the McMahons doggedly, crassly believe the entire Indian subcontinent will eventually subscribe to the Network if a man of Indian heritage is Smackdown's champion, then surely you can chuck a short test reign at the hottest big man in 20 years.Instead, we'll almost certainly get Reigns and Lesnar at Wrestlemania for Reigns' third or maybe fourth (I can't even remember anymore) attempted coronation as king of the wrestling world. We may get it at Survivor Series so we can get an even more hackneyed Reigns vs Cena part two at Wrestlemania. That's what we're getting. Strowman will slowly dip in popularity because he's now just another guy, and WWE will say, "see, we knew we made the right choice", thereby eliding that this is all artifice and they control the storylines.What finally makes this most frustrating is that I'd rather be writing about how frankly amazing the first half of the show was. We had a spectacular—and gross, given Cesaro's knocked out teeth—tag match, a surprisingly good five-way for the Women's title, an Intercontinental title match which saw the Miz keep his best heel on the show streak going while showcasing what an absurdly athletic man Jason Jordan is, and maybe the best Bray Wyatt match in two calendar years. No Mercy was, until Cena and Reigns, fun.Instead, we're here, once again, with these technical masterpieces of pro wrestling appended by the continuing, multi-year screwup which is WWE storytelling. And I know that, in two weeks after Hell in a Cell, I'm going to be writing something similar, about how the show had exquisite moments of pro wrestling marred by Jinder Mahal getting a win over Shinsuke Nakamura once again but he screwed up his finisher or broke his nose by tripping or whatever the hell is going to happen to mess it up, but whose net effect is that when Nakamura finally does win the title and get to that dream Wrestlemania match with AJ Styles, it will fell irrevocably diminished.That's where we are with WWE. I can't and won't say I hate it, because I don't. In fact, I quite like a lot of WWE's stuff, which is a terminally uncool opinion. But it's so easy to imagine a world where they just don't screw up these big storyline matters. It is, in fact, easier to imagine than the world we actually have, the one where nothing ever happens and Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar are eternal god-kings, trading thunderbolts until the heat death of the universe. All it would take for better would be for someone over at WWE to have a little courage so they can stop being so scared of the potential for success.