When I think about how much the main roster WWE product has been stagnating over the past eighteen months to two years, and when I think about how refreshing last Monday was, there’s only one answer as to why these two things were connected: Brock Lesnar. I have written and podcasted extensively on this topic over this timeframe, but I felt that now was the right time to put together the definitive column on The Beast Incarnate’s effect on the product over his six year run with the company, analysing all the ins and outs, and all the pluses and minuses of his considerable presence.
It seems a long time ago now, of course, but when we think back to April 2012, in the post-Wrestlemania XXVIII landscape, it’s easy to forget that the late-PG/early-Reality landscape was not quite the flaming hot success it would become through the course of 2013. Then, as now, there was a sense of stagnation, of creative inertia. Change is a process that happens slowly, as myself and my colleague ‘Plan often note, and although Money In The Bank 2011 had begun the process of change, it had stalled somewhat in the face of the handling of the so called ‘Summer of Punk’ and then the Wrestlemania build had been dominated not by CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, but by the ‘once in a lifetime’ bout between John Cena and The Rock. It was in the face of Cena’s somewhat surprising loss that Brock Lesnar suddenly appeared back on the scene, and there’s no doubt that it was an iconic and electric moment. It was kept completely secret, which is so rare in pro wrestling, and when that first squeal of his entrance music echoed across the arena, the crowd lost it. Add in a clever piece of camera work which showed a mark at ringside doing the signature Lesnar pose, and an F5 to John Cena, followed by a contemptuous kick of the baseball cap across the canvas, and it’s fair to say that the whole wrestling world was enthused.
In the eight years he had been gone, Lesnar had secured a reputation as a legitimate combat sports athlete, and it was this that WWE chose to play on. First career Brock was a monster, for sure, but he was also a technical wrestler, a supersize Kurt Angle, if you will, capable of outrageous athleticism for a man his size. The Lesnar that appeared for that Extreme Rules match with The Franchise Player was very different, wearing his UFC style attire, and working a stripped down style based around his MMA days. The match was booked as a one sided beatdown, with Cena not standing a chance until a lucky turn of events with a chain and the steel steps let him squeak out a victory. I remember widespread criticism of this at the time, as The Anomaly had signed on only for a limited number of dates, and most felt that he wouldn’t make it through them all before he got fed up with the grind of the pro wrestling travel schedule again. And yet, WWE initially handled these concerns very cleverly. They brought back Paul Heyman to be their expensive acquisition’s mouthpiece, which also enabled them to fill the long gaps between his limited pay-per-view dates and hype them more effectively. However, on the negative side of the ledger, they booked three successive matches against a waning babyface COO Triple H, of all people, and all of those were poorly received (though in retrospect they are not so bad), partially because it was Triple H, and the cynicism is almost automatic when it comes to that particular performer, and partially because they burned three dates of a limited contract on one feud.
However, enthusiasm picked up again when it became clear that Lesnar had re-upped his deal and would feud with CM Punk for Summerslam 2013, ostensibly over the betrayal of Punk by Paul Heyman at Money In The Bank that year. The Best vs Beast match up that year was the very best thing that Lesnar did in his second run with the company, and it gave him a lot of credit with the fanbase moving forward. WWE seemed to have hit on a good formula to use him. Yes, he was a mighty force, but that didn’t mean he could not be hurt. Punk lost that match only because of Heyman. A one sided destruction of Big Show followed at Royal Rumble ‘14, but in the feud with The Undertaker moving into Wrestlemania XXX, The Deadman very much had the better of things. The decision to end The Streak, of course, has been discussed ad nauseum. Some feel it should never have happened, whilst others felt that to mean anything, The Streak had to end some day. Sadly, being concussed during the intro of the match meant that the action in the ring was sub-par, but nobody could deny the impact of the moment itself. And yet here I think was the first signs of danger with the way the Lesnar character was developing into this definitively dominant character that would disrupt the WWE eco-system in an adverse manner. The squash of Cena at Summerslam was fantastically bold at the time, but again, here a pattern seemed to be set; the multiple suplexes and F5s, the lack of offense from his opponents, and most of all, the possession of the WWE Championship by an absentee champion.
Now, at first, this actually led to some very creative television, where Raw was headlined by whatever the hottest angle of the time happened to be, but the more time went on, the more it began to sap the energy from the product. A brilliant triple threat between Cena, Rollins and Lesnar at Royal Rumble 2015 certainly kept everyone on the Brock bandwagon, and it was widely assumed that his time with the company would end after he dropped the title to Roman Reigns at Wrestlemania XXXI, and if that had happened, although there might have been some grumbling about Reigns in the short term, at least Lesnar would have left the company with everyone thinking he had done a great job as a special attraction. Instead, he unexpectedly re-signed with the company for another three years, and the “heist of the century” took place, as Seth Rollins used his briefcase to run away with the title. Now this was fantastic in and of itself, but the delay to Reigns’ coronation as THEE GUY did far more harm than good, as WWE ended up locked into a never ending cycle of building Roman up only to pull out at the last minute. In the meantime though, Lesnar still had some productive feuds, including a title match with Seth Rollins which was used as the gateway to a second Undertaker feud, which ended up massively eclipsing the first. In fact, I’d venture to say that the two matches at Summerslam and Hell in a Cell 15 were the last time that Lesnar was entertaining in WWE. Although people have their problems with the finish of the Summerslam match (I am not one of them, personally), the Cell was about as good as a PG TV Cell possibly can be. Although I was starting to cool on Brock at this point, I had no idea just how bad it would get.
The feud with Dean Ambrose should have been the thing that propelled The Lunatic Fringe into the stratosphere, but amidst claims from Ambrose that The Beast was difficult to work with, the match ultimately let a lot of people down, as by this point, Lesnar’s suplex heavy, uncreative work was wearing thin. I like that match more than most, but as a hardcore Ambrose fan, I would have much preferred to see something in the style of the Punk match…but that version of Lesnar was a thing of the past, as also seen in a disgustingly lazy effort up against Randy Orton at Summerslam that year. As 2016 drew to a close, a “shock” squash loss against Goldberg began a depressing feud inspired by a video game, of all things, and even worse, the Wrestlemania XXXIII match between the two squash artists led to Lesnar holding the Universal Title, and this time, the absentee title reign would not go over quite so well. In fact, it was going to be a drain on the entire product.
There were numerous opportunities in 2017 to pass the belt onto more deserving parties. Braun Strowman was hot as blazes. Samoa Joe was a legitimate badass who actually turned up every week. Seth Rollins had burnt Triple H’s kingdom to the ground. Even Roman Reigns, for all the smart fans’ protests, was far more deserving than Brock Lesnar, whose act was tired, whose appearances were phoned in at best, and whose advocate was as creatively burnt out as his client was. Raw was in flux; nothing could move forwards until Lesnar was finally gone, and yet he never seemed to be any closer to walking out the door. Nowhere was that more obvious than at Wrestlemania XXXIV, when yet again, Roman Reigns was built up to beat the Beast and yet booked to lose at the last second. Some have guessed that Vince wanted to eclipse CM Punk’s title reign before Lesnar was let go, but whatever the reason, it cast a cloud over the creative. Another pointless crash bang wallop cage match at The Greatest Royal Rumble also led to no title change, and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever be rid of this millstone around our necks. I cannot possibly explain to you how relieved I was to see Reigns finally hoist that title, and ever since, WWE seems like a more fun place again, something you’ll actually want to invest in every week. Just think about the effect Lesnar’s departure has had: there was a Universal Title match on Raw, and the champion intends to defend his gold at every opportunity. The Shield have returned to prevent Braun Strowman from cashing in his Money In The Bank briefcase. There are multitude of potential number one contenders out there. Most importantly, bar a lamentable Triple H vs Undertaker match in Melbourne, this is now a show focused on full time performers. And that’s all we ever really wanted.
At the beginning of his return, Brock Lesnar gave the early Reality Era a shot in the arm that it most certainly needed. At its peak, his second run produced some incredibly intense matches, particularly that against Punk and the triple threat with Rollins and Cena. And yet, the abiding memory will be that Vince McMahon went to the well too many times, so that Lesnar’s act ceased to have any impact. It became tired, predictable, and it held the product hostage at a time when it desperately needed to move forwards. In the end, a Raw built on Suplex City proved to be structurally unsound, so let’s be thankful that it’s finally been dismantled.