A few years ago, Paul Heyman was on Stone Cold Steve Austin's podcast giving a history lesson. The two men shot the shit for awhile—they've been friends for decades, with Austin a central piece of Heyman's criminally underrated WCW faction, the Dangerous Alliance—before Heyman succinctly explained WWE's business model.
Paraphrasing (because the Steve Austin Show - Unleashed! archives are paywalled), Heyman said that there was a strict difference between how pro wrestling was conducted in the North and South. Down South, in places like Jim Crockett Promotions, the heel was the perpetual champion. Ric Flair would tour, narrowly escaping his comeuppance after shit-talking the hero of the month repeatedly, with the pure hatred the audience felt towards him buoying ticket sales.
The North, by contrast, loved its heroes. The belt would go on the waist of a beefy, all-conquering champion for years, with the draw being that the audience would pay to feel good, rather than angry. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in WWE, where Hulk Hogan and Bruno Sammartino would fend off all challengers, to the point that they became blank orange demigods; they won so much that when they did (rarely) stumble, the audience was incensed on their deities' behalves.
This basic structure has never really loosened its grip on WWE's storytelling. There was the brief dalliance with Southern-style drama with Stone Cold Steve Austin and the newly onscreen Vince McMahon, but that was largely borne of desperation; WWE's swollen parade of heroes was getting its ass kicked by WCW's story of Sting chasing then-heel Hogan's title. The perpetual championship reign of Triple H in the early '00s WWE didn't help much, either. It was a situation derived, again, from oddity: the son-in-law of the man in charge gets a lot of leeway to do as he wants.
It's somewhere between a tendency and a tic, but WWE almost always reverts to the conquering hero archetype. Recognizing that there's always going to be a capital H Hero in WWE, and that he's going to win an awful lot, is the only way to derive any enjoyment from it. It takes the focus off wins and losses somewhat, and that can work if the main event material delivers.
That's precisely what we have been getting from WWE of late, thankfully, and Sunday's Money in the Bank pay-per-view continued the trend. The titular match, involving the participants going after a briefcase that allows them to start a match with someone anytime they want, and which has historically been used to move the top titles between wrestlers, was mostly an afterthought; it was, for the record, a good-but-not-great affair which was set up to hand the briefcase to Dean Ambrose from the moment the contestants were finalized. Sandwiching the match in terms of hype were AJ Styles versus John Cena and Seth Rollins against the promotion's current Hero, Roman Reigns.
The conventional wisdom about AJ Styles coming in was that he desperately needed a win. After a lackluster feud with Chris Jericho, culminating in a Styles loss at Wrestlemania, he moved on to main event two pay-per-views with Reigns. The matches were electric, almost certainly the best of Reigns' career, but they resulted in two more Styles losses.
You don't beat Cena clean, so Styles got that needed win after interference by his buddies in the Club, which prompted online grumbling that he needed a clean win more than anything else. But reducing Styles' WWE run so far into raw win percentages seems to miss the point. In WWE, the Hero goes over no matter what; that's the rule, and how this particular narrative world works. It's worth figuring out why that world exists, but it exists, nonetheless. That's the world in which AJ Styles works, and since January, we've gotten to watch AJ Styles in a WWE ring putting on shit-hot matches. That's a pretty good outcome, and it's all attached to a broader story—Styles' quest to prove himself in the final stop of his globe-spanning career—that's compelling enough to set the hook.
The pay-per-view's other big match, between Rollins and Reigns, was rife with drama, too. Rollins was stripped of the title when he blew his knee out last year. Reigns won it, but Rollins never lost; that's a natural, simple story, and enough to get the audience invested. Lurking in the background is that Rollins betrayed Reigns and Ambrose, his former stablemates in the Shield, nearly two years ago and never got his proper comeuppance.
With two big stories in one, the match was high on drama but surprisingly light on action. It was most interesting for the way the men worked. Rollins was clearly the face and Reigns purged the last vestiges of his babyface persona, perhaps only for one match, to embrace pure heeldom from start to finish. Rollins won clean to get his title back—a truly unexpected event because Reigns, like Cena, does not lose clean—only to have Ambrose cash in his just won Money in the Bank briefcase to ambush the new champion and steal the title for himself.
In both matches, the nature of the wins and who got the pinfalls—the symbolic drop obsessed over by wrestling fans as proof of who's getting pushed and, much more importantly, who's getting buried—faded into the joyful noise of good matches and high stakes storytelling. Wins and losses at the top just don't matter very much, truth be told, if the story's already mostly written.
The problem is that wins matter very much once you get to the midcard, but not as a mystical signifier of backstage esteem. They matter because, for wrestlers outside the promotion's mega-narratives, there's no storytelling going on besides that told by the raw numbers. When there's no story to a feud, wins take place in a vacuum, and pushes become matters of career life or death. Witness the now departed Cody Rhodes and Wade Barrett, who had their input rejected and were left to fight for wins in an imaginary sport just to stay on television. Or, say, the sad spectacle of once white hot Dolph Ziggler, now stuck in a perpetual feud with new call-up Baron Corbin, with no story attached to it other than these guys dislike each other for ill-defined reasons. Ziggler will almost certainly bolt sooner than later; he's been given nothing to work with for three years, leaving us with nothing but the steady drip of his regular losses for us to figure out if he's worth investing in.
This is the bizarre context that WWE creates for itself. There will always be a Hero, and losses against him aren't really reflective of how the loser is regarded. The guys at the top can take defeats, like AJ Styles has, because they have storylines and high profile matches to mitigate damage to their brands. And for the rest, who have nothing but the wins and losses, we're left to endlessly debate who's being buried and why, based on nothing but their records.
We need more stories in WWE, a lot more. With three hours on Mondays, a brand split coming up, and fresh faces clamoring to join, a sane wrestling world would create them. We'll see if WWE is up to it.