As fans voice their displeasure with Brock Lesnar recapturing the Universal Title, we look at why WWE are still so reliant on "The Beast" and other stars of previous eras.
Depending on your perspective, the ending of WWE’s Extreme Rules 2019 represented one of two things: compelling, edge-of-your-seat storytelling or a listless re-tread of the same old, same old. The incident in question, of course, was Brock Lesnar finally cashing in on Seth Rollins and regaining the Universal Title. After losing the belt to the self-styled “Beastslayer” at Wrestlemania 35, many thought that we’d seen the swansong of the former UFC Heavyweight Champion’s time as an integral cog in WWE’s main event scene.
Three months after relieved of the company’s top prize, “The Beast In The Bank” capitalized on a bedraggled Rollins to recapture the belt that he’s become synonymous with. Since it was unveiled back in 2016, Lesnar’s three reigns have equated to a combined 663 days as champion to date; as a percentage, that works out to a staggering 62.5% of the time. Spurred on by feelings of déjà vu, many of wrestling’s commentariat took to social media to voice their displeasure with WWE’s decision to revert back to the same man that once held the title uninterrupted for 72 straight weeks.
Led by emotion rather than lateral thought, much of the discourse surrounding his reclamation of the strap has been predicated on personal bias. If you examine the data and Brock’s persistent placement at the top of the card, the reasons for his lofty perch becomes abundantly clear. When the road ahead looks bleak or uncertain, Brock Lesnar is the failsafe employed to reinstate stability. Career-affirming as Rollins’ Wrestlemania victory seemed at the time, his ensuing run with the belt has been anticlimactic. Positioned as the company’s top “face,” Rollin’s drop-off from feuding with an established pillar of the industry such as Lesnar to squaring off with Baron Corbin was met with a marked decline in momentum. Anointed as the next top ‘heel’ by the company’s increasingly belligerent Vince McMahon, the chairman refused to yield when faced with a lukewarm reaction to the Corbin-Rollins rivalry, interjecting the champion’s real-life relationship with Becky Lynch into the storyline as a last-ditch attempt at resuscitation. But when forced to share the spotlight with his girlfriend—who ostensibly became the company’s biggest star towards the end of 2018—Seth’s status withered even further.
Forced to contend with lapsed fans flocking to AEW and the looming specter of bringing Smackdown! Live to FOX in October, WWE can no longer afford to tolerate a bland upper card. In response, you deploy the 286-pound life raft that is Brock Lesnar. Willing to shoulder the burden of the company but unable to do so profitably, Seth has reverted to his familiar role as the challenger, pursuing the belt at all costs as they hurtle towards a title match at Summerslam. In reality, Lesnar’s tireless work ethic is seen as the antithesis to the “part-timer,” bag-chasing variant that hardcore fans have taken to openly criticizing. Whether or not that’s true, their feelings of indignance highlight a crucial disconnect between the diehard’s perception of Lesnar and that of casual observers who only tune in for their marquee shows.
Across the UFC and WWE, the decorated Minnesotan athlete has proven himself to be a box office draw. In fact, during his MMA heyday, he headlined four of the seven UFC pay-per-views that surpassed a million buys. By the same token, WWE’s weekly viewing figures demonstrably rise when he’s on the show. However, casting the net further afield shows us that this isn’t exclusive to Lesnar alone, but rather endemic of a wider issue. The analytics show that the appearance of legends from previous eras simply brings in more viewers than their modern-day counterparts. At a time where R Truth’s comedic exploits with the 24/7 title are seen as the company’s “biggest draw”, sporadic appearances from Undertaker, Triple H and John Cena completely supplant the attention whenever they roll around. Look no further than this excerpt from Vince McMahon’s appearance on a 2014 Stone Cold Podcast. Despite his tendency towards micromanagement, the chairman provided his own hypothesis for why this era has yet to produce the sort of transcendent stars of the past.:
“This is a different group of guys and gals. It’s millennials. They’re not as ambitious, quite frankly. I just don’t think that they necessarily want to reach for that brass ring… The last person that did in all likelihood was John Cena. No-one wants to fail and there’s this insecurity that if you fail, you’re exposed.”
All evidence suggests that there’s more than a kernel of truth to Vince’s argument. Beyond their farfetched demands for deceased wrestlers such as The Ultimate Warrior and Yokozuna, you need only look at their divisive Saudi Arabia shows for further evidence. Nonplussed by the attractions of today, the company are forced to coerce stars of the past like Goldberg and Shawn Michaels out of retirement just to satiate the need for name recognition. Elsewhere, it’s been reported that next week’s RAW Reunion wasn’t a WWE concept but the brainchild of The USA Network as a way to upturn flailing ratings. Set to feature iconic figures such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Ric Flair, and Kurt Angle, it’ll no doubt bolster the viewing figures but it’s ultimately a short-term solution to a long term problem.
With Brock is back atop the heap, WWE has a chance to legitimize Seth Rollins on one of their biggest shows of the year. Primed to face one another at Summerslam, this gives them another opportunity to allow some of Lesnar’s star power and crossover appeal to seep into Rollins just by remaining in his orbit. Agile, charismatic and driven beyond belief, Seth has all of the attributes required for a top guy but it hasn’t yet materialized into the success that they’d anticipated. Forced to do a factory reset in order to salvage ratings, fans may short-sightedly view Brock’s latest reign as a sleight on younger talents but it’s all intended to make new superstars in the long run. Despite working for AEW, Chris Jericho acted as the voice of reason in the wake of Brock’s win and encapsulates exactly why they’ve taken this course of action:
“I always just look at like ‘just enjoy the show’, Chris remarked, “and if there’s some sort of plan or endgame to Brock getting the title… just watch the show! If I stopped watching Star Wars after Empire Strikes Back then I’d be pretty pissed off. But guess what? Return Of The Jedi came out and everything got righted again. They’re telling a story and you need to buckle down for the whole ride. You can’t get off after one show and just be angry about it.”