In spite of the growing perception that WWE is willing to simply accept poor ratings because the world is moving into a new direction where streaming is king and traditional cable television is antique, it has become clear that the 2017 run of bad TV rating after the next has made an impact. There is a lot of evidence to support this. John Cena's role as a free agent who can move between shows is a clear indication that poor ratings will no longer be accepted. The dramatic shift in ideology of the Roman Reigns character from a vanilla, new-age face to a vindictive back fighter with murderous rage and sociopathic callousness is a second indicator. The third is the incredibly real-feeling feud between Brock Lesnar and Samoa Joe.
In watching Raw last week, I saw something that has been missing from WWE for a really long time; performers who cared enough to make me care. Seriously, for the first time in forever, Brock Lesnar didn't seem like a part-time guy going through the motions to collect a paycheck. He was invested. He absolutely sold his performance. It started when he got in the ring with long-time rival, Kurt Angle. His demeanor, his facial expressions, all of it worked. There was viable tension. Then, Roman Reigns came out for a confrontation and Brock, along with his advocate, Paul Herman, sold a confidence that they didn't sweat Reigns. At one point, Heyman exuded so much confidence that there almost appeared to be a bit of dissension between beast and advocate. It was beautifully subtle and could have been a planted seed toward an eventual double-cross by Heyman. Either way, it fit. As the segment continued, and Samoa Joe's music hit, the normally cocky Brock Lesnar’s expression changed. He took a small step backward and looked like someone who was anything but eager for another brawl with the Samoan submission machine. Then, as Joe began his line of trash talk, a nerve appeared to be touched as Brock’s face turned a bright shade of red and he went nose to nose with the challenger. The intensity of that moment was palpable.
For his part, Joe, looked like a prize fighter ready to take a second piece out of the champ's posterior. Joe was angry. He was confident. He was steady on the microphone, delivering a monologue that would have fit perfectly into a well-written film. He paced like a caged predator ready for a hunt. He was in the ring with two Titans of WWE, (pun intended) and his magnetism was supreme. Joe revealed himself to be a world-class performer who was putting on a very public clinic.
And to his credit, Roman Reigns looked like he belonged in the world of shoot fighting that Lesnar and Joe have recently created. He was cocky. He was fearless. He wasn't stumbling through rehearsed lines, but was trash talking like a natural. His tongue was a dangerous weapon that surgically picked its spots and got both of the other would be competitors a bit hot under the collar. It was the best version of Reigns in the best possible environment. And to all their credit, it felt like dangerous physicality loomed.
Never to be outclassed, Paul Heyman interjected as he saw fit in the role of instigator and promoter. He wore the face of a confident manager of an indestructible champion, but he was very eager to dismiss Joe, as though he doubted his own beast’s ability to conquer the Destroyer for a second time. He was also a bit too eager to accept the challenge of Samoan Badass Roman Reigns. Heyman was setting something up. He was working his magic in a way that he alone is capable of.
And of course, there was Kurt Angle. Angle has been a natural since the day he stepped foot inside a WWE ring. He played his part as the concerned executive struggling to maintain order, perfectly too. His facial expressions showed concern. He repeated over and over that the men would lose their opportunity if they didn't back down. He physically restrained each man at various moments during the build-up. His performance wasn't over the top or cheesy, it was just right. He conveyed the message that he was in the middle of the jungle and doing everything he could to keep three wild tigers from killing each other.
This segment wasn't a typical WWE dopey contract signing. There were no silly Dean Ambrose shenanigans. There was no staged fighting. This wasn't a hokey setup chalked full of long, rehearsed dialogue where the end was given away before the beginning. What Brock Lesnar, Samos Joe, and Roman Reigns did was bring an element of Raw back to Monday Nights. Their time together was a moment that UFC would kill for. It was what Mick Foley would call suspension of disbelief. It was as close to perfect as wrestling gets.
I can attribute what I saw on Raw to two of my all-time very favorite rivalries. The first came in 1989. It was feud between “Middle Aged and Crazy” Terry Funk and Nature Boy Ric Flair. It was the technician versus the madman. It was two performers who fought each other in a personal way. They conveyed hatred. They were physical. Their time together was emotional. I was a kid then, and I was scared to death that Terry Funk was going to blow a gasket and somehow murder the Nature Boy. Funk was out of his mind, and Flair fought with everything he had just to survive. Their feud was so different than everything else in wrestling and for me, that's what really worked. People remember 1989 fondly because of the athletic showcase matches between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. They were spectacular and changed wrestling. And as great as the matches between Flair and Steamboat were, for me, the “I Quit” match that Ric Flair had with Terry Funk was even better because it seemed so real. I saw a glimpse of that on Raw.
In late 1996 and into 1997, there was another rivalry that I'll never forget. It was between Bret “Hitman” Hart, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. I had loved Bret Hart as a kid. He embodied everything good. When Steve Austin zeroed in on him, I was legitimately scared for Bret's life. It's funny now as I look back because Bret always seemed to have Austin's number in the ring, but I kept thinking that Stone Cold was so dangerous that wasn't stopping when the matches ended. In their rivalry, I pictured him attacking Bret at home, or in the grocery store. He had me believing that he would never stop until he ended The Hitman. WWE played this up as the two men fought in the back of the arena, they fought in the crowd, they fought after the bell. Whenever I least expected it, Bret Hart and Steve Austin were fighting. As a kid, I thought that they must have really hated each other. And in their masterpiece at Wrestlemania 13, where a bloody Steve Austin passed out rather than submit to Hart's Sharpshooter submission, I knew that WWE had just given me something rare and special. The three men in the ring showed last week that they are capable of delivering a rivalry that believable and that intense.
The rivalry between Flair and Funk acted as a fitting send off to the incredible business that their organization, The National Wrestling Alliance (World Championship Wrestling), had done in the 1980s. It was the crescendo that perfectly ended their wonderful song. Had the company been less short-sighted, it might have been a beginning of a magical era. In the case of Austin and Hart, their feud was the beginning for WWE. They represented a spirit of reality and rebellion that would define wrestling for the several years to come. Their rivalry was an epic opening scene to an all-time classic movie. In that feud, Steve Austin transformed himself from a middle of the card technician to a legend worthy of a place on professional wrestling's Mount Rushmore. My hope is that this wonderful, believable, intense segment follows the course of Austin and Hart. That this marks a philosophical change in WWE creative, and that all of the players involved, Brock Lesnar, Samoa Joe, and Roman Reigns, are better because of it. If they are, if WWE does this right, things could get very exciting from here. If not, we'll always have the July 10th episode of Monday Night Raw when I forgot that I was watching a performance rather than a fight.