The Curious (Brief)Case of Brock Lesnar as WWE’s Mr. Money in the Bank by Mike Holland

Going into Money in the Bank, there were many valid choices to lay claim to the briefcase and thus assert claim to a championship opportunity during the next WWE calendar year. None of those valid choices were Brock Lesnar, who as we all know by now was indeed the “up-and-coming” superstar who reached out and grabbed that brass ring. Lesnar, whose focus on professional wrestling could most nicely be described as a flirtation and as honestly as a Plan B when UFC isn’t allowing him to compete, served as a bulwark of sorts for WWE for much of the last couple years. Their desire to have a “credible” champion in the eyes of other sports commentators and viewers (read: not wrestling fans) far outweighed the rather elementary need to have your top champion defend his title regularly to keep credibility intact. That argument is, perhaps, for a different day. I would merely posit this: being a Universal Champion isn’t nearly as impressive when you’re not even regularly defending it on your home planet.​

As a fan of both wrestling AND WWE, it would be my hope that sacrifices such as this would lay the foundation for the greater good. If Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, or anyone else brings pizzazz and star appeal to a pro wrestling championship, that is a very good thing indeed if those eyeballs stick around and buy merchandise. We’re not talking WCW and David Arquette here. The issue as I see it is that Vince and friends (or just Vince, if the scuttlebutt is to be believed) seem to be using that presence alone as the driving story behind their character. Generally, in wrestling, even accepted characters that have been around for eons get some sort of reason or motivation behind their actions. Those storylines can both elevate the talent in some cases and turn very good talent into exceptional talent in others. In my experience, most wrestlers worth their salt appreciate taking the reins of their character and directing it while creative fluffs it out and provides suitable opportunities for them to grow and blossom. ​​

Some of these talents are currently on WWE’s own roster. Both former WWE Champion Daniel Bryan and current WWE Champion Kofi Kingston are excellent examples of organically grown talent that blossomed into stardom. Bryan had an enormous indy following before he ever stepped foot in WWE. Many wrestling fans knew of him and had tons of respect for him long before the “Yes!” movement was even a thing. But it’s been that movement and his hilariously appropriate vegan heel turn that have kept him both relevant and eminently watchable since then. As for Kingston, the jury is out on whether his individual prowess as champ outside the friendly confines of New Day will be a lengthy journey. We can clearly say this, though: There was more than enough story naturally told with Kofi up to that point that by the time creative made their move, much of the heavy lifting was complete. The fans already wanted to support someone they saw as underutilized and underappreciated.

This, then, is part of the issue under the current WWE regime: Letting the fans and their feelings partially dictate what you do. There is no question that fans (like any group) can be a fickle bunch, and certainly the more you’re into something, the harder it can be for you to accept that there are other ways to go about it. One need look no further than the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones to bear witness to the idea that you ignore fans at your peril. It doesn’t necessarily make one side or the other “right,” but it does mean that in alienating your core you run the risk of making them prefer something else. Whether that something is in-house (as NXT’s massively excellent TakeOver once again demonstrated), or outside (AEW), the premise is the same: by refusing to listen to what is being said and pretending that in itself is a storyline, you’re creating one hell of a potential mess. And to what end?​

Lesnar’s ring work is what it is. I personally have enjoyed a few of his matches, but most aren’t even the third best thing on the card. This is not entirely his fault. Wrestling has departed the era of “big men rule,” and having Lesnar execute a competitive and believable matchup against someone a third of his size is possible but challenging to say the least. Toss in age, injuries, and a general ennui, and you have all the hallmarks of a major issue. Look at it this way: Brock has in his corner one of the most effective and entertaining talkers in all of professional wrestling’s HISTORY. When is the last time you were excited about whatever angle he was involved in? I rest my case.​​

Monday’s Raw was a prime example of this nonsense. WWE spent a week essentially negating the whole purpose of the briefcase by openly telling us that Lesnar was going to cash in. Whether he actually did or not is silliness: of course he didn’t. Beyond the obvious ratings grab by WWE at a time when their competition is fiercest, my even larger issue is that it doesn’t make any strategic sense. WWE has teased Lesnar/Heyman friction before, granted, but no advocate worth their salt would allow their client to be so cavalier about when the cash in will happen. The whole point of it is that it’s a surprise. WWE exhausted similar avenues with Braun Strowman, which was a mess of a similar ilk. If you’re not going to book the briefcase properly after the win, it becomes just another silly and meaningless gimmick match. That’s why Lesnar is exactly the wrong choice to have it in the first place. The best option is a heel too weak to win it by regular means, or a fan favorite struggling to take the jump to the next level. That builds anticipation and makes things interesting for the viewer. Having your marquee talent walking around with it is foolish, because it’s obvious Lesnar will get another title shot even without the case.

There is some truth to the idea that creative is in a bit of a no-win situation at times. I have never as a writer or a viewer claimed that anyone adhere to my choice in order for me to be satisfied. Make it interesting and I will watch and support it. It’s just that simple. Perhaps it’s timing, but Jon Moxley’s recent interviews have pointed out this problem even more boldly. Say what you like about Moxley’s in-ring abilities, as I realize they may not be for everyone, but you’d be hard-pressed to back up a claim that he’s not interesting. The very idea that he is limited or strictured in his presentation due to soap opera writing is ridiculous. There must be a give and take between the writers and the talent in any entertainment: I’m fairly sure most big movie stars aren’t ignoring copious sections of the script and replacing them. That said, there is an opportunity to ad-lib when you’ve earned it. Lesnar is not and has never been a talker. He’s not ad-libbing anything. That puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of creative to make his character compelling, particularly when he’s not even on the show. I don’t know that WWE could have pulled that off on their best day. They are completely at sea on it now.​

As I write this, we’ve moved to Friday’s international event as the date and place Lesnar will cash in. Much has been made of WWE wanting Brock to be champion in time for their debut on Fox, and that’s a fair assessment whether truthful or not. The larger and more pertinent issue looming over these proceedings, though, is whether Lesnar NEEDS the title to be interesting. That is a poser that WWE seems intent on ignoring. You can decide for yourself whether Brock Lesnar being Intergalactic Champion makes anyone not into wrestling opt to buy the Network. I’m fairly sure you know where I stand on that question. What matters far more is whether the fundamental pro wrestling component of building an effective story has been reached.​​

Lesnar winning the MITB briefcase should have, for all intents and purposes, been a shock moment. The irony is that nobody who regularly watches WWE was at all shocked. Even though Brock wasn’t in the match, we’re all too familiar with how they have carried out business of late, largely ignoring the opinions of the majority of their fanbase in a futile effort to curry favor with those who won’t be sticking around for the long haul. The death of WWE has been predicted before and it will be predicted again: When you’re on top by a country mile, it’s basically a fait accompli. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform like every event is your last. Vince McMahon knows that all too well, as some of his best creative came at a time when his very business was on the line. Perhaps he should take a page from the book his soap opera writers are cobbling together for his talent: You have to earn the respect before you will get it. And once you get it, you have to keep earning it. Resting on your laurels will be the death of you. Brock winning the briefcase isn’t just bad business, it’s also a bad storyline. We can (and should) expect better.

 

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