I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to finish this, but the context of when I’m writing this particular piece of the piece is important. It’s December 27th , 2019 and I’m in a coffee shop listening to Tom Petty and writing this article. As is the spirit of the times, I’ve been thinking about my life ten years ago and how different things now. Of that list, one item is particularly relevant for this article. I did not watch professional wrestling ten years ago. I was too cool for it. I had better things to do on Monday and Friday nights. All the wrestlers were lame.
Or so I told myself. Ten years later has proven that none of those things are true. The biggest win of the all of that for the WWE is that they have somehow made Friday night programming appointment viewing, largely due to the incredible work done by the Fiend, Bray Wyatt. Not to be confused with the fiend mentioned in my last piece.
If you’ve listened to the podcast I’ve been test running, you’ve heard me rant about the current Universal Champion. If you haven’t, you might need a little background. Bray Wyatt is a former WWE champ with a long history of doing weird, creepy shit. Career highlights include leading a group of followers in a weird cult, being thrown into a lake of reincarnation which exercised an evil spirit from his body, and watching his childhood cabin get burned down by Randy Orton. I might have cherry picked some of the most insane moments, sure, but let’s agree that those moments set the bar pretty fucking high.
But, eventually, Wyatt wasn’t able to differentiate the different phases of his character and found himself mired in the tag division with a stale character. Wyatt decided to take some time off. The product didn’t really miss him.
It turns out people can only handle weird nonsense if it isn’t done in a rut. The Undertaker understood that. Kane understood that. It’s why one became a thug biker and the other was in a paternity battle over Lita’s baby. You need to shake things up. And it can’t be a gentle one either. You’ve really gotta grab that fucker and throttle it. Go all the way to the grocery store. Shoot some lightning from your fingers. Run for mayor in Tennessee. Murder your dad with cement. Shake. It. Up.
When Bray returned to the ring earlier this year, he listened to that advice. It seemed like he agreed. In fact, he hadn’t just agreed, he had written it down and circled it with big notes in the margin that read “TURN THIS UP TO ELEVEN AND RIP OFF THE KNOB”.
He’d become the host of a children’s television program titled “The Firefly Funhouse”, where he and his host of puppet friends (including Vince McMahon with devil horns) warn the WWE universe against the dangers of Bray Wyatt’s twisted alter ego: the Fiend. The entire roster of superstars, Wyatt says, should do their best to avoid the Fiend, or they’ll regret it. His puppet friends must agree, or, surprise, they’ll be killed in a relatively gruesome fashion. Wyatt, it turns out, might not be the clean cut nice guy after all. But he’s trying. In his defense, the most disagreeable puppet is very annoying.
The Fiend would appear on programming randomly, with one purpose: to destroy whatever legend was in the ring. Kurt Angle was assaulted. Jerry Lawler was sent to the hospital. Mick Foley was humiliatingly choked out with the “Mandible Claw, the very move he had made famous. Like the Joker in the Dark Knight, the fiend was seemingly a dog chasing after very famous, older model cars. His business was havoc, and, as the axiom goes, business was good.
Finn Balor, former WWE Universal and NXT champion, was the first man to try to stop Wyatt. I’m going to include a picture of him here because, let’s be honest, the guy brings in numbers in the female 0-99 demo.
Balor’s attempted at stopping the fiend ended so badly that he was subsequently removed from WWE programming for a few weeks thanks to the beating he received. When he returned, it was on the company’s NXT show, where he instantly turned heel by brutally attacking fan favorite Johnny Gargano. He started calling himself Prince again, a callback to his time in Japan before he signed in the WWE. He was firing guns. He was too sweeting AJ Styles. Balor’s run in with the Fiend, it seemed, had flipped some kind of switch in him. And, personally, it made Balor interesting again. Again, people can only handle so much of the same thing. Shake it up.
With Balor dispatched, the Fiend set his sights on Seth Rollins and his Universal Championship. Wyatt runs a fun-house after all, and he knows that a new toy is always going to be a big hit. It’ll shake things up. Rollins, being the face of the WWE and the man that brought the Universal championship back to Raw from part-timer Brock Lesnar, was sure he would be the man to stop this lunatic. Despite the warnings of the fiend and has puppets, Seth would accept Bray Wyatt’s offer to fight at Hell in a Cell.
Their match in the Cell ended in controversy. A Hell in a Cell match is supposed to be no holds barred. It’s supposed to be brutal. Bad things happen in the cell:
The match ended when Rollins, unable to defeat the Fiend despite a barrage of stomps and chair shots and superkicks, pulled out a sledgehammer and attempted to bash in the Fiends head. The referee tried desperately to stop Seth’s Gallagher impression, but he was unable to do so. The referee, stunned, immediately called for the bell. Seth Rollins had retained his title by using a sledgehammer, the symbol of his former sworn enemy and mentor HHH, to do something so heinous that the referee had no choice but to end a Hell in a Cell match. These didn’t seem like the actions of the good guy who had become the face of Monday Night Raw.
The two would meet again a few weeks later in Saudi Arabia, and the Fiend this time, would prevail. No referee could save Seth Rollins. Wyatt would indeed be bringing his new toy back to the fun house (which was now airing on SmackDown). After an embarrassing performance at Survivor Series a few months later where Seth was the “captain” of a team that won a singular match (on the pre-show no less), Rollins would follow Balor’s lead and turn heel. He shook things up. The Fiend brought out all of his self-doubt and insecurity in himself and he ran back to his security blanket of being the leader of a destructive group that essentially controls the show. Seth Rollins, in my opinion, has become interesting again.
Next, the Fiend turned to the WWE’s resident eco-terrorist Daniel Bryan. Earlier last decade (it’s not December 27 anymore) Bryan was the chosen son of the WWE. His story of winning the championship at Wrestlemania 30 after nearly a year of struggling against the entire company’s effort to hold him down is possibly the finest in the history of wrestling. This run ended with him being forced to retire due to an injury. After a several year hiatus, Bryan would fight his way back into the ring to compete at Wrestlemania 34. He was the ultimate underdog. When he returned however, he slowly turned bitter and abandoned his principles, instead choosing to preach a sermon about the environment that even the most left leaning person in the crowd didn’t want to hear. He would cheat in matches. He won the title by kicking a guy in the dick. Bryan understood, like everyone else we discussed, that you need to shake it up.
Wyatt and Daniel Bryan had a history during that first one. That match at Wrestlemania 30 was on the heels of Bray Wyatt trying and failing to convince Daniel Bryan to join him. This would prove to be a defining moment for both of them, with Bryan surging to the main event of the biggest show of the year and Wyatt losing to John Cena in the undercard.
Previous history aside, the Fiend would defeat Bryan in a match for the title at Survivor Series that saw Bryan nearly topple the Fiend after tapping into the power of the crowd, who was now fully supporting him again. Bryan had noticed this, he said, during the match. He realized he needed the crowd. And the Fiend noticed too. He would appear, drag Bryan under the ring, and rip out his hair. Earlier in that show, the Fiend promised us a new face for his show. We got a new Face alright. A babyface Daniel Bryan. He’d changed back. Can’t stay in one place too long. He shook it up again.
The next target was the Miz, the WWE’s resident A-Lister and reality TV show. Miz had undergone a revelation since the birth of his first daughter. Vintage Miz would do whatever it took to win. He wasn’t afraid of kicking a guy in the junk, putting his feet on the ropes, using foreign objects, or even using his wife as a human shield (if the time was right of course). But, as a dad, new Miz started to fight the “right” way and was eventually rewarded with a tag team championship run with Shane McMahon. When this new attitude cost them the championships, Shane embraced his last name and attacked the Miz, setting up their Wrestlemania match and firmly cementing the Miz as a babyface. He shook it up and came out a good guy. And like so many men before him, fatherhood had made the Miz a better one. He would use this newfound spine to perform the most dangerous stunt of the night in his match with McMahon. He was a good guy. He was, more importantly, a real man.
But, as the sage advice from the rock group Poison goes, every rose has its thorn. The Fiend would look to exploit this newfound character trait. He would test it. And he wouldn’t ease into it.
I don’t know if you noticed, but if you watch it back, you’ll see that the Miz resorted to one of his old chestnuts – he sent his wife into the bedroom first. This is not an action befitting a true man. After Daniel Bryan made the Miz tap out for another opportunity to take on the Fiend, the Miz would attack Daniel Bryan after the match. Then again on the following Smackdown after a loss to Kofi Kingston. Again, not stuff you’re doing as a good guy. He was so desperate to show the world that he was a real man, he ironically stopped being a good one. And he’d do whatever he had to do to prove that he was, indeed, a man. His buddy and former tag partner the returning John Morrison returned last week and, wouldn’t you know it, we’ve shaken things up again.
I know there’s been like, a metric shit-ton of exposition here, but that’s because it’s all important. This is the sort of long term storytelling that makes wrestling awesome. You can’t just shoehorn a piece about the most interesting anything of 2019 into an article shorter than 3,000 words (if you’re sane anyway) because the story that the character and the writers and the company have told need more than that. This story has been going on for almost a year now and it’s got no signs of slowing down.
But it’s important to note that this entire thing started last spring, after last Wrestlemania. With the Royal Rumble happening later this month and with the Fiend likely being part of one of the biggest stories of the season, we should probably start asking questions about who Bray Wyatt will face at Wrestlemania 36 (which the fans have dubbed PirateMania) in April of this year at Raymond James Stadium (home of the Buccaneers, hopefully the Pirate thing makes more sense now) in Tampa Bay.
This is where I get to take off my writer hat and change it out for my fantasy booker sombrero. There’s only one direction to go for the man who appears to be playing a twisted game of his own rules, and that’s to try to win the biggest fish in the pond. If he’s going to turn someone else, it needs to be better than good. That’s not a question. The real question to ask is: who might that fish be?
Conventional logic tends to point to Roman Reigns, the cancer surviving big dog that runs Smackdown’s yard. He’s had little interaction with the Fiend to this point, despite being on the same show, and would be a fresh opponent for the champ. He’s been in the main event in four of the last five Wrestlemanias so placing him in the top spot isn’t a major leap. He’s also been a good guy for nearly all of his time as a singles wrestler, so a potential tease to the dark side following a feud with the Fiend would make sense as well. If you ask a the fans, a big number of them would probably say that Roman Reigns could stand to shake things up. There’s something there and it could be terrific if the story is told the right way. But that’s the easy answer. And we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, if we get to it But there’s something even better in play here that most people aren’t seeing. And the answer to that much debated question actually isn’t that far off from Roman Reigns.
Of course, that depends on your definition of far, because we have to get to the right answer look outside of the ring. At least at this moment in time. We’re going to find the answer to that question on the big screen, riding in a boat with Robert Downey Jr. and a pack of wild animals. Well, his voice will be there at least, in the former of a wise cracking (I assume, I’ll never see this movie) Polar bear in Dolittle. That answer, like the answer to many WWE related questions I suppose, is none other than former top draw turned major Hollywood star, John Cena.
Cena, like Reigns, has been urged by the WWE Universe to give his character that big shake we’ve been talking about and turn from a good guy into a bad guy. Never mind the fact that Cena receives more boos on a nightly basis than most “bad guys” when he shows up; sometimes things need to be moved from murky to crystal clear. Cena, in his over fifteen years with the WWE and his record tying sixteen title reigns, has really only played a “bad guy” during his early years as a wannabe rapper and has since spent his time draped in loud primary colors, jean shorts, and corny slogans like never give up or rise against hate. He never does anything bad. He follows the rules. He rarely even toes the line, match less cross it. Despite his reception, he’s the most white meat babyface in the entire business. And that might be because on it’s surface, it genuinely might not be a gimmick. Cena has more make-a-wish visits than anyone in the history of the organization. His other philanthropic work is equally impressive. In a world supposedly full of carnies and scumbags, Cena seems like one of the few, genuine, good guys.
But even a good guy, the best guy, can’t pop up to TV in jean shorts forever. Eventually, a sixty year old man in sweatbands and sunflower colored t-shirts is going to look a little… hokey. At some point, every wrestler needs to outgrow the gimmick. Kane needs to take off his mask. Shawn Michaels needs to cut his hair. And John Cena is going to have to take off those fucking jorts. His character, does, admittedly, need a change if he’s going to remain in the WWE forever. And it’s in both of their interests, both the company and the performer, for that to happen. It’s not exactly a rule, but it might as well be, you’ve got to shake it up if you want to stick around. Even Hulk Hogan, Mr. Nanny himself, did it. You need to shake it up.
And as good of a guy as Cena might be, nobody is perfect. Nikki Bella and the fifty page contract she signed with him when she moved into his place in front of millions of viewers of the E! network can attest to that. Every man, if Carl Jung is to believed, has a shadow inside of them. An unknown. A faucet of darkness into which one can tap. No tree, it is said by Jung, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell. John Cena, the man we see in and out of the ring, is all branches and no roots. We know there has to be something on that shadow side of him. He’s grown as tall as any metaphorical tree as nearly everyone in his industry; so one would think he has to have some fucking deep dark roots slithering around down there. The idea of what lurks beneath the ground for Cena? That’s intriguing. That’s really what the audience wants to see here. That’s a shake up. Him taking the jorts off and putting on a suit is just icing on the cake.
And now the WWE, on several fronts, is in a position to capitalize on that. Cena hasn’t had a proper Wrestlemania feud in years. He wasn’t at any of the company’s pay per view events last year. He is usually one of the top merchandise sellers (bad guys sell less shirts, the argument hoes) but he hasn’t had a new one on the WWEshop since 2018. The company seems to have found other performers to cover his charity work. They don’t need the pole of good guy John Cena holding up their circus tent anymore. They’ve got so many tents and so many poles that no one is critical. Essentially, he’s no longer essential.
That’s liberating. It provides for a ton of creative flexibility. If Cena were to say, return at the Royal Rumble this year and win it, you would set up a very interesting story where he has to go through the character who changes any opponent from good to bad, to get to his record breaking seventeenth title reign. Would the ultimate good guy sacrifice whatever it takes to get to the absolute top of the mountain? Even if that meant showing us his roots? That’s a story worth telling. There’s a lot of meat on that bone. It works for Bray too. Corrupting the uncorruptable is kind of his MO.
Wyatt actually kicked this off for them six years ago at Wrestlemania XXX. Wyatt, desperate to show the WWE Universe he could corrupt one of their favorite sons, challenged Cena for a match at the biggest show of the year. We’d see, said Wyatt, that there might be one exception to the rule, but all others would join him. He would spend weeks needling Cena. Torturing him. At the peak of the match with Wyatt in control, things took an odd twist.
Where his corruption of Daniel Bryan failed, Wyatt was sure he could turn the leader of the Cenation to darkness. This would be his triumph. This would be where he built his grand group of followers that would lead him to the top of the wrestling world. Cena, of course, didn’t oblige and won the match clean as a sheet. But another match this year would allow him to revisit his previous failure, which he’s shown a penchant for in his feuds with Rollins and Bryan.
Going this route and having the prototype good guy sell his soul and win the title to get back on top of the mountain accomplishes a lot of things. This gets him his record title seventeenth reign, which is surely coming. This allows him to get out of the jort wearing goofball and into a more serious, hopefully suit-wearing Hollywood type. This gets the strap and all the eyes and social media that go along with it on him during the build up to his potentially life changing role in Fast and Furious 9. It shakes him up; and if there’s one takeaway from this manifesto it’s that shaking things up is usually a good idea.
This is a good idea for him, it’s a good idea for Fox, and it’s good for the WWE. Hell it’s even good for Universal pictures. It’s probably even good for Vin Diesel. More importantly, perhaps most importantly, it’s good for the fans. Opportunity is knocking at the door for everyone. Now we just have to wait and see if the WWE decides to let it in.