I keep thinking that one day I will grow out of my pop culture pursuits; comics, movies with aliens and explosions, action figures, and the one that gets the most side eye from other serious adult people: Professional Wrestling.
I know its “fake,” I know its lowbrow, I know that watching two grown men in tight stretchy pants getting sweaty and pinning each other to a mat is kind of suspect, but the thing is… I just don’t care.
If you had tickets to a Maple Leaf Stanley Cup final game in one hand and tickets to NXT TakeOver in the other, let’s just say that you would still have Leaf tickets while I was running out of the room trying to catch people with a classic “too sweet” high sign.
Most (all) of the guys I used to watch wrestling with have grown away from the product. A few have taken a dive down the indie wrestling hole and left the WWE machine behind, but most have moved on to just reading about events or ignoring them all together. Not me. I watch, I PVR, I listen to as many as four different wrestling podcasts on a given week… it’s a bit much and I know it… but, again, if it’s a choice between this and “real” sports, you can hand me my old NWO shirt and an ice cold Steve-weiser, and keep batting averages and free throw percentages for yourself.
Which brings me to the current WWE product and this Sundays No Mercy PPV/Network event. As a WWE Network subscriber, one of the great things about my life right now is that I never miss one of these monthly(ish) big money shows. Whereas my younger self had to rely on his girlfriends grandmas house or that one dude with the cable descrambler, grown me is there at ringside every time for the low price of twelve bucks. Which this month is a steal when I look at the top of this weekends card featuring two enormous matches: Brock Lesnar vs Braun Strowman and John Cena vs Roman Reigns.
First up, with the WWE Universal title on the line, “The Beast” Brock Lesnar against “The Monster (Among Men)” Braun Strowman. Although fans, marks and smarks alike love to complain about how infrequently Lesnar appears on TV, there can be no argument that the guy legitimizes the business like no one else ever. He is a legit badass, a product of a different age, a real fighter that commands respect and attention simply by entering a room. His pairing with Paul Heyman has proven to be a complete recipe for success, allowing Lesnar to keep his sound bites simple (“Suplex City, bitch.”) while keeping his presence felt even when he doesn’t make it out to TV. The creative challenge he presents is finding opponents that can believably challenge Lesnar without exposing the business or making Lesnar look weak. Enter: Braun Strowman.
If Lesnar is a beast, and he is, Strowman truly is a monster. Hes absolutely huge, deceptively fast and has been wisely protected from loses to smaller opponents and talking too much. He is a physical threat to Lesnar, a guy that can stand toe to toe with him and toss him around without Lesnar having to look soft. It’s a classic match from the Vince McMahon playbook, with two giants facing off in the middle of “this very ring”. But, unlike the clashing titans of yesteryear, both these guys can really move.
The question left hanging in the air is: who walks out champion? Is Braun ready for a run? Can Brock lose the belt and still look tough? I don’t know the answer, but I’m totally invested in finding out.
The other half of this “Wrestlemania-worthy main event” is an incredibly intriguing match between sixteen-time world champion, John Cena and the man that retired The Undertaker, Roman Reigns.
In a different era of the business, these two would not be the polarizing forces that they are today. In the world of 80s wrestling, Cena would be a Hulk Hogan level baby face (good guy) who’s “five moves of doom” would be three moves more than anyone else was using and who’s “good guy that never gives up” personae would be embraced by adults and kids alike. Instead, Cena is serenaded with “John Cena sucks” to the tune of his theme music every time he enters the arena and is the focus of much, if not all, of the IWC’s (internet wrestling community… it’s a thing) displeasure with their perception of where wrestling has evolved as a product.
Reigns on the other hand, could be easily be a top heel (bad guy) of the attitude era. Cut from the same cloth as corporate Rock, the smugness that drips off Reigns like the grease from his hair and that shit eating smirk would have been a dollar bill filled punching bag for Stone Cold Steve Austin or DX. Instead, Roman is viewed as the guy that people didn’t want. The guy that doesn’t deserve it. And, perhaps most impactfully, the guy that wasn’t Daniel Bryan when everyone wanted Daniel Bryan.
Yet for all the boos, both guys also draw a massive positive reaction from different aspects of the fan base as well. Kids love both, women love Reigns and portions of any given audience actually respect the guys for being solid workers capable of putting on tremendous matches. Whats left is a symphony of competing chants, cheers and boos all orchestrated with the delivery of a European soccer crowd.
Where at one time the WWE would see two stars that elicit such a loud, divided reaction from fans and push them all the way in one direction or the other. Today, however, the WWE saw two guys that make noise and decided to let them make more of it. They allowed Cena and Reigns to take the gloves off and work “shoot” (real, not scripted) promos, fuelled by the actual words of the IWC, almost trolling themselves and the fans at the same time. They allowed each guy to spit in the face of the other all the accusations, complaints and twitter rants that dog their careers. WWE broke their transparent fourth wall invited fans to cheer, boo or just yell to their hearts content. No good guys, no bad guys, just two guys that don’t like each other that are going to fight.
Build up and fan response aside, its also worth stating that both Reigns and Cena are really, really good at what they do. Cena has proven, with his current body of work, that he can have a great match with just about anybody. Reigns, though still early in his career, has been thrown off the deep end into some huge matches and not come up short. Yes, the “Attitude Adjustment” is just a really aggressive fireman’s carry and yes, the Superman punch is ridiculous, but all the moves in between are going to be snug and they are going to mean something. There is no doubt about the ego going into this one as both guys, regardless of who is booked to win, are aiming to steal the show. I expect stiff punches, heavy slams and the one of the loudest crowds of the year.
Wrestling fans love to look back at their favorite era of the business as being the best there was (and perhaps ever will be), but the truth is that the business is at its best for different reasons at different times. The 80s was the best for its purity and over the top cartoon characters. The attitude era was the best because it reflected a change in the times and pushed the envelope of what a “wrasslin” show could be. And right now is the best because, like the world around it, WWE is letting us choose our own heroes. Want to cheer for the bad guy? Want to boo the good guy? Want to sit back and wonder if that punch was just a little close not to be real? Sure. Go ahead. Do what you want, just don’t be quiet about it.
For a company that has now got thirty-two years worth of Wrestlemanias behind it, the WWE continues to grow, change and adapt to the needs of its audience. It isn’t always great, but when they get it… they get it. So until the day that I finally stop marking out for a great false finish, I’m in.
See you guys Sunday.