Pro wrestling logic is pretty simple, and it (nearly) always holds true. Take two wrestlers, one a face and one a heel. You build the heel up by making him look dangerous—"feeding" him weaker wrestlers, having him torment the face, and letting him cheat or force his way to the top. The face, in turn, is involved in a chase, with the heel thwarting him at every turn until a big event like WrestleMania culminates in a win for the forces of good, resolving the feud and sending everyone home happy.
There are endless permutations to this formula, broadly sketched, but that's basically it. WWE's best-loved story of the decade—Daniel Bryan's long quest for the world title—followed it to the letter. That the story was so well regarded wasn't despite its simplicity, but because of it.
The main exception is WrestleMania season, the four-month stretch from December to April every year when the McMahons' craving for the eyeballs and credit-card numbers of lapsed WWE fans means we enter a strange alternate reality of part-time wrestlers and celebrity guests. This is when the rules get thrown out the window, and at Sunday's Fastlane pay-per-view—the last big show before WrestleMania 33—they were helped on their way out by storytelling that was actively antagonistic to established wrestling norms. The result was terrible.
Take Braun Strowman. A former strongman and legitimately massive human, Strowman is still green, but WWE has meticulously built him up as a monster heel with a story that has been surprisingly thoughtful, albeit simply told. He doesn't cheat to win; he beats the hell out of people, particularly small people. He has been unstoppable.
Which isn't to say that he would never lose. Of course he'd lose. Strowman exists to be beaten, but not on a B-quality show with WrestleMania right around the corner. Holding off on the loss for one more month—or even into the summer—would have made perfect sense.
Instead, we were treated to the sight of Roman Reigns once again winning, hand raised, barely emoting, after beating Strowman clean. The match wasn't bad in terms of the actual wrestling; WWE has established such a deep bench of talent that the in-ring stuff rarely descends to the realm of the terrible, and Reigns excels in matches involving furniture, weapons, and metal posts. But the outcome made no sense in terms of either selling tickets—which is ostensibly WWE's main business—or story.
The other story that got ruined at Fastlane 2017 was the ongoing feud between Bayley and Charlotte. Charlotte's claim to fame over the past year has been that she never loses on pay-per-view. It's not the biggest reason to brag ever, particularly when she keeps losing on weekly television, but it was her story and fans seemed to be latching on to it.
Everything was pointing to her winning the title back from Bayley at Fastlane and setting up a rematch at WrestleMania, where Charlotte would finally lose on a pay-per-view to the triumphant, thoroughly saintly Bayley. It's predictable, but the predictable in pro wrestling is sometimes precisely the correct way to go.
Instead, Charlotte lost and, just like Strowman, what should have carried her into WrestleMania was thrown away for next to no payoff. The only redeeming aspect is that Sasha Banks interfered, setting up what will probably be a perfectly good match between the three women next month, but the Ms. Pay-Per-View thing that had been working for Charlotte is now simply gone.
But the worst part of Fastlane this year was the main event, between the champion Kevin Owens and the returning part-timer Bill Goldberg.
There's not much to say about the actual match. It lasted around 30 seconds: Kevin Owens was distracted by his rival, Chris Jericho, and Goldberg took advantage. This comes on the heels of Goldberg's minute-and-a-half win over Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series, and his brief appearance at the Royal Rumble. All told, Goldberg has had about ten minutes, if that, of ring time since his return.
Squashing opponents is kind of Goldberg's thing, and always has been; even in 1998, when Goldberg was in his prime, he was famously prone to running out of steam after about 10 minutes. But there's something different this time around, and it's apparent to anyone watching the trajectory of Goldberg's return: the 50-year-old can't go anymore. WWE's top champion heading into its biggest event of the year is not just a man who won't wrestle or who isn't particularly good, but a man who physically can't.
It's hard to think of a comparable situation at a top company. Even David Arquette worked harder in his brief, bizarre reign as WCW world champion. Sunday's title match started with Kevin Owens pacing around the ring for several minutes; this was framed as Owens playing mind games with Goldberg, but he was clearly killing time to make up for his opponent's inability to actually wrestle a match.
The part-timers like Goldberg exist in a bubble of their own. When they show up, the enjoyment to be gained by their presence is in direct relation to how much the border between their bubble and the main storyline in WWE is blurred. Goldberg's return was one of the best stories in wrestling last year because it was a sideshow. Even as the probable main event, the upcoming match between him and Lesnar at WrestleMania 33 should have been a sideshow.
WWE's insistence on adding the world title to Lesnar-Goldberg changes everything. The border between part-timers and the main storyline has been shattered, and what was a feel-good nostalgia trip for an aging veteran on his last hurrah is now putting all his flaws in the harsh light of reality. That reality—that a 50-year-old man lacking in cardio physically can't wrestle, that full-time wrestlers have to pace back and forth to fill the allotted time in a show featuring him, and that WWE apparently believes 30-second matches will lead to great ratings—is, frankly, pretty ugly. Fastlane making sure that we couldn't ignore it was even uglier.
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