WWE blew a chance at something huge on Monday. The stars had aligned for one of the most difficult angles in pro wrestling to work, and it did. Then WWE squandered it, as it so often does these days, and the promotion, the wrestlers, and the fans are all the worse off for it.
The letdown happened on Monday Night Raw, which followed one of the best shows the promotion has had this year, the inexplicably named and branded Great Balls of Fire pay-per-view. Every match on the GBOF card, save for one filler, was excellent, but the bulk of the drama hinged on Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns.
Strowman and Reigns have been going at it for several months now, in a pleasingly violent series of hoss fights that keep coming back to ambulances as a means of destruction. Strowman flipped an ambulance with Reigns inside of it back in April, only for Reigns to slam Strowman's arm inside an ambulance door, setting up still more escalation—as well as providing a convenient excuse to get Strowman off television for his very real arm surgery.
An ambulance match—where the loser is the person to be shut inside the back of a waiting ambulance—was the only logical climax to this feud. Wrestling demands that motifs be elevated to the status of prelude: if you're flipping ambulances, slamming ambulances, and talking about ambulances, you are damned sure going to finish the feud (or at least this arc of it) with an ambulance nearby. They did just that, and Braun Strowman won.
It seemed straightforward enough, but then WWE introduced one more twist: a double turn, where both characters switch allegiances, the heel to face and the face to heel, in the same match. Sure enough, there was Roman Reigns, the purported face, charging out of the ambulance, ambushing Braun Strowman in order to put him in the ambulance, and then, in one of the more violent episodes in recent WWE history, backing the vehicle up at high speed into a wall in order to try to kill his nemesis.
It was goofy, slightly edgy fun, the sort of thing you thrill to as a pro wrestling fan while feeling kind of embarrassed about it at the same time—and WWE pulled it off flawlessly. That in itself is no small feat.
The double turn is the rarest of pro wrestling angles, and the reason is because it's so hard to do well. It requires a confluence of storyline need and baseline popularity for both wrestlers, who also have to be ready for the crowd to either cheer or boo more wholly with just the right nudge. Once you have those in place, though, double turns are difficult to mess up—they take so much skill and such impeccable storyline timing to set up in the first place that it's almost impossible for things to go off the rails once they're in motion.
The gold standard for double turns is, of course, Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13. There, the drama of the double turn meshed perfectly with what is one of the greatest matches in history and the enormity of the two men as characters. Hart was at the height of his powers and Austin essentially turned into the most popular pro wrestler in history starting with this match.
One of the main connecting threads in every successful double turn is the newly minted heel taking physical liberties with his or her opponent. It's the immediacy of it that's key, not what happened before, and this, in turn, is followed by the new face refusing to back down. It's physical heroism—Austin refusing to submit to Hart, choosing to pass out, bloody-faced and injured, rather than give up.
If Reigns upped the physical violence to an unconscionable level for a babyface—and if attempted murder by vehicle doesn't qualify, I'm not sure what else would—Strowman did his part as the hero. He staggered from the ambulance after being cut out, bloodied, limping, and refusing all aid. He even said, "Leave me alone," before wandering into the night.
It was magic. Everything clicked into place in that moment, right as Strowman disappeared into the bowels of the arena after the Great Balls of Fire match. Yet wrestling Twitter seemed restive. We had clearly just watched a double turn, and yet I wasn't sure, and I wasn't alone; everyone from casual watchers to prominent pro wrestling journalists hedged on whether it actually was. Because we have been trained by now to expect WWE to screw up the basic pro wrestling logic that has worked for a century.
Sure enough, by the time Raw opened its third hour, it was obvious that WWE was not treating what had happened as a double turn. In fact, they didn't treat it as much of anything at all.
Roman Reigns waltzed to the ring and the commentary centered on whether that was a little too much. Had this been a full-throated heel turn, by contrast, the commentary team would have played up their disgust at Reigns' actions and expressed a graver sense of concern for Strowman's well-being. Instead, Kurt Angle, who plays the part of Raw general manager, agreed that, hey, maybe Reigns went too far. And then Roman Reigns got a title shot at SummerSlam against Brock Lesnar as if nothing had really mattered.
It was all so stupid and irritating. Usually when WWE screws up, it's in a very mundane, boring way. It's the stretches of nothing that happen while the actual in-ring quality remains at above-average level. It's the way the NFL and the NBA screw up: the level of play is great, but sometimes the lead-up to the fait accompli of the New England Patriots or the Golden State Warriors just grinds you down.
This was different. It was aggravating because there was so clearly a historic moment for the taking if they just went with it. Fans want to boo Roman Reigns. And they have to be allowed, by WWE, to boo him as a heel before they can cheer him as the face Vince McMahon wants him to be. Instead, Reigns lingers in whatever godawful in-between stage he's occupied for two years now, with WWE thinking they're being very clever and postmodern by insisting the era of babyfaces and heels is over just because people chanted for heel Dolph Ziggler for six months in 2012.
At the same time, Braun Strowman was given the ultimate babyface allowance, something that happens once a generation for big, scary forces of nature: he was allowed to be vulnerable. He looked hurt when he mock-staggered out of the ambulance, not just physically but emotionally. Under the bushy beard, he's got a baby's face (I swear, no pun intended) and sad eyes. You wanted to hug him, even though it would make him angry and he'd throw you off the stage. We ended up with nothing but a ten-second injury update about how he was kayfabe in the hospital.
At this point, centering all the ire on Roman Reigns, as the internet is wont to do, is too much. He's not to my liking as a character or a wrestler, but he's going to be near the top of the card for a long time; more than that, he's just working with what he's given.
At the same time, WWE isn't doing Reigns any favors by fighting against the tide, and that was never more obvious than in the aftermath of what should've been a historic moment for both him and WWE. The double turn is a preciously rare commodity in wrestling, and you can't go back once the chance has passed. Now it has, and that's terrible for everyone.