Vince McMahon has a Brock Lesnar obsession, and it’s becoming a problem.
Paul Heyman announced Friday on social media that Lesnar will cash in his Money In The Bank contract this coming Monday on Monday Night Raw. He plans to challenge Seth Rollins for the WWE Universal Championship.
— Paul Heyman (@HeymanHustle) May 31, 2019
If that comes to fruition it will be Lesnar’s first Raw match since 2002.
Think about that. Brock Lesnar is Vince McMahon’s golden goose, and he hasn’t wrestled on WWE’s flagship show in 17 years.
I mean, for sure it’ll pop a big rating. In recent years, Lesnar has been one of the only major WWE commodities to spike the company’s dismal TV ratings.
So why is the continued reliance on Lesnar a sign of a problem? The devil — or the Beast in this case — is in the details.
“Brock’s A Special Attraction.”
On the first Stone Cold Podcast on the WWE Network back in 2014, Steve Austin asked McMahon why WWE fans don’t see more of Brock.
“Well, [Brock’s] a special attraction,” was Vince’s answer.
Longtime Brock Lesnar manager (and advocate) Paul Heyman echoed the same sentiments on Austin’s podcast a few months later.
“When we come on television and say Brock Lesnar is going to be on this show in this state, don’t you dare miss it, be there, then guess what?” Heyman explained. “Don’t you dare miss it, be there!”
And they’re absolutely right. Pro wrestling is a 52-week a year television product. There’s no hiatus, there’s no midseason break, there’s no off-season. And in no other corner of entertainment is the phrase, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” more appropriate than in pro wrestling.
But here’s the thing. Love it or hate it, the Attitude Era changed the wrestling business itself, and it changed the fans’ perceptions and, more importantly, their expectations of the business.
For four years from 1998 to 2002, we were conditioned to expect that Steve Austin or the Rock would be on our TV every Monday night doing something weird and wacky with Mr. McMahon. And that expectation hasn’t changed in the intervening 17 years. If fans see something cool this week, they want it next week, too. And so on, and so on.
So if we see Brock Lesnar come out pretending the MITB briefcase is a boombox two weeks in a row, guess what? We want to see something like that again next week. The problem is that we’ve figured out WWE’s game when it comes to Brock Lesnar.
Now the expectation is that he will leave, but we know he’ll be back three, four, five months later. And each time he comes back again, it’s less special than the time before.
“The reigning, defending, undisputed …”
As much as WWE has tried to move away from its pro wresting roots and vehemently deny what business it is in, that word still carries weight.
WWE still reveres its champion as the company’s “top guy,” which is a phrase and idea the company needs to move away from, but that’s a subject for another sermon.
Vince is irreversibly convinced that Brock Lesnar, whether he’s on TV or not, is his company’s top guy. And the money and ratings Lesnar bring in make that pretty hard to deny. But Lesnar and any top WWE championship are not compatible with one another, and they need to be kept as far apart as possible whenever they can be.
If WWE is going to continue to link the notion of being the company’s top star with its top championship, then the two concepts annihilate one another if Lesnar occupies that spot.
From a storytelling perspective, the WWE title is the Infinity Gauntlet. It’s the Iron Throne, the stolen Death Star plans — choose your analogous fantasy McGuffin, the WWE title is it.
It’s the thing that everybody wants and chases after, and it’s at the center of all of WWE’s top stories. Now, put the championship on Brock Lesnar and watch him disappear for months at a time. What’s everybody else supposed to chase?
See, this is the misconception wrestling pundits have about the way crowds turned on the absentee Lesnar in the lead-ups to the past few WrestleMania events he headlined. It isn’t about hating Brock Lesnar for taking the championship away from them. It’s about the fact that WWE made the championship and the man the same concept.
On a deeper level, fans turned on the championship itself. And if they turned on the company’s tangible symbol, its Excalibur, then they’ll turn on WWE.
“Eat. Sleep. Conquer. Repeat.”
Brock Lesnar, true to Heyman and McMahon’s promotion of him, is wrestling’s greatest conqueror. So what does it say when the only thing people are talking about in the aftermath of this past weeks’ Raw is Sami Zayn uttering three letters?
Sure, the memes and gifs of “Boombox Brock,” some of which were covered by Cageside Seats, are all over the place. It’s not as though nobody cares at all about Lesnar’s appearance on the show. But for the money they’re paying and the television time they’re investing, shouldn’t the Lesnar thing be the segment that a huge majority of the audience should be talking about?
Lesnar will pop the big (well, bigger) ratings. That’s not in dispute. He will bring in the money for Vince McMahon and WWE. No question.
But aside from pieces from armchair bookers and Internet Wrestling Community complainers like me, who’s really talking about him?
And please don’t mistake this point. This isn’t me saying, “See? I told you! Vince is scared of AEW! The Monday Night Wars are back! Cody’s a genius!” Because none of those suppositions are valid (yet), I’m not saying that, scrub it from your mind.
It’s an endless cycle. Ratings go down? Give Brock Lesnar another giant check to show up on Raw. WWE Network subscriptions aren’t growing as fast as expected? Okay, put Brock Lesnar in a PPV title match. It can’t work forever, but all indications point to Vince McMahon trying anyway.
Actually, when I saw Heyman’s video announcing Lesnar’s plan to cash in this coming Monday, you know what my first thought was? I thought back to 1998, when WWE showed that its momentum wasn’t slowing down, and WCW had to do something. So, on a random episode of WCW Thunder, they announced that Hulk Hogan would defend the world title against Goldberg the following Monday on Monday Nitro.
It was one of the biggest ratings victories of all time for WCW, but it was fleeting. They gave away a giant pay-per-view match on free television, and the very next week, it was back to business-as-usual.
There is definitely still a lot of gold for WWE to mine from Brock Lesnar and a lot for him to mine from them. But Vince McMahon has to be much more careful in terms of how he goes about it.
Or all of the Saudi paydays and one-week ratings spikes in the world won’t be able to save him from the real Mark of the Beast that’s just around the corner.
Okay, so this was a little bit about AEW.
All images courtesy of WWE.