When I started watching wrestling, my favorite part of the week was the Saturday-morning Continental Wrestling Association show that aired out of Memphis, and Jerry “The King” Lawler was CWA wrestling. They had a handful of enduring characters — Dutch Mantell,1 Bill Dundee, Austin Idol — but anybody could see that it was Lawler’s show. The only wrestler who managed to dent Lawler’s principality was a newcomer named Jeff Jarrett. Jarrett was young, good-looking, and wholesome, but more importantly, he was the son of Jerry Jarrett, an old-school wrestler who sometimes appeared as CWA’s authority figure. Which he was — he was its co-owner with Jerry Lawler.
Rewatching those old episodes on YouTube, it’s impossible not to notice how the show abided by the tropes and conventions of Territorial Era wrestling: the stark morality, the avuncular announcers, the improvised tough-guy monologues, the grave threats of whichever villain of the month was passing through. (Or, in the case of mainstays Mantell, Dundee, and Idol, whichever was called up to the main-event heel spot.) All of that was fairly evident at the time, sure. But in retrospect, there’s one convention that is clearer than all the others: Always keep the title in-house.
As far back as when pro wrestling became a work, there have been instances of wrestlers going off-script and “stealing” titles from unsuspecting champions. Dick Shikat is probably the most famous example; he flipped the script on the woefully underprepared Danno O’Mahoney in 1936 and stole the NWA championship from the Boston-based Irishman. Such shenanigans were a significant problem in an era when many wrestlers were legitimate shooters and fully capable of taking the story into their own hands. But even a scripted title switch can go awry when contractual terms are handshake deals, as they often were in those days, and on through the 1980s. The best time to negotiate a new rate is when you’re holding the belt hostage, after all. Promoters soon got wise to this routine, and so they did the most logical thing they could — they partnered with their biggest stars and made them co-owners and unofficial permanent champions. The wrestlers held on to the belts for dear life until they could find suitable replacements. The best candidates, more often than not, were wrestlers’ or promoters’ sons, who were as honor-bound to the territory as their fathers. That these sons were often mediocre didn’t really matter; practicality took precedence over popularity.
After Memphis wrestling, my favorite was World Class Championship Wrestling out of Dallas, since I moved to Texas as a teenager. The stars were the Von Erichs, pretty boys who were all the sons of local legend Fritz Von Erich.2 They were the stars of the show no matter what; that was how Fritz maintained control. If another wrestler threatened to match their popularity, the potential usurper would be booked as a friend of the Von Erichs so that they could leech his allure, and then he’d be booked to turn on them to cement the Von Erichs’ integrity.
All of which is to say that the no. 1 rule of running a wrestling promotion is to keep the championship belt close. Scary villains — “monster heels,” in industry parlance — would be imported on a regular basis to strike fear into the local hero and his loyal fans, but the fear was only transitory. There were guys who made careers out of being this sort of itinerant leviathan — Abdullah the Butcher, Bruiser Brody, Kamala the Ugandan Giant — but despite their nationwide infamy, their careers lacked championship reigns. They were diabolical props, the CGI of the pro wrestling ring. They weren’t viable champions, precisely because they weren’t controllable.
Coincidentally, the two big territories that didn’t have wrestlers in the family tree are the ones that outlasted the others — the WWF, run by Vincent J. McMahon and later by his son Vince K., and NWA Mid-Atlantic, run by Jim Crockett Sr. and then his sons David and Jim Jr. (Vince Jr. and David Crockett were both positioned as career announcers for the sport, though David had a brief, ignominious in-ring career and Vince Jr. was a bodybuilder who would wrestle some memorable matches in his fifties. Thankfully, they weren’t lacing up boots on a nightly basis.)
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, these outfits had occasional problems protecting their titles — see Ric Flair bringing the WCW title belt to the WWF, or Bret Hart refusing to drop the title before leaving the WWF for WCW, or even CM Punk holding up Vince McMahon when he threatened to leave the company in 2011.3 Popularity doesn’t abide by contract terms, and even the truest employees are subject to fits of pique. The greatest heels in pro wrestling are often money and pride.
In Vince McMahon’s modern WWF/WWE, there has been a subtler code governing champions. The guys on top are usually dependable, long-term employees. But more importantly, McMahon has kept them in check like their territorial forerunners through financial partnership. If Vince didn’t make them full partners in the corporate structure, he made them functional cohorts in a money-making machine. Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and John Cena have made more money than the guys below them on the roster by degrees. Cena, for his part, was said to have sold five times as much merchandise as the no. 2 guy on the list. Even his most vocal detractors will tell you that he’s an invaluable part of the company, and even the fans that want so badly for him to turn heel acknowledge the impracticality of such a development.
So when Cena reclaimed the title a couple of months back, after Daniel Bryan’s injury, it was hard to argue. After all, he’s been the most dependable star in wrestling over the past decade. Daniel Bryan was dependable until this year, when a neck injury sidelined his career; Randy Orton has had his Wellness Policy issues; Punk threatened to leave and then eventually did; the Rock and Batista are more invested in their acting careers than in their wrestling ones; and Brock Lesnar is part-time, with a track record of indifference.
Which makes the ending of Sunday’s SummerSlam so shocking. Don’t get me wrong — the ending was shocking on its own terms. In a title match pitting Cena against Lesnar — the NCAA heavyweight champion wrestler turned WWE superstar turned UFC champion turned occasional WWE wrestler — the company flipped every conceivable script, casting its dependable superstar as mere fodder at the hands of the monster heel. Lesnar opened the match by hitting Cena with his finisher, the F-5, and then proceeded to German suplex him 16 brutal times. Kids throughout the arena didn’t understand: Why wasn’t Cena fighting back? How was Brock doing this?
Early in the match, the voice of a young boy pierces through the audio of the broadcast: “Let’s go, Cena!” He continues throughout, even as Cena is getting beaten into the canvas. It was one kid sitting too close to a hot mic, but it felt like a metaphor for Cena’s performance that night: He was persistent, but it was a meager showing. At one point, announcer Michael Cole discarded his bombast and mumbled, “It’s very uncomfortable.” After a string of suplexes, his broadcast partner, JBL, yelled “Jesus Christ!” which had to be edited out of the broadcast.
When Lesnar finally put Cena out of his misery via a second F-5, Staples Center was hushed. It wasn’t the dead quiet that ensued after Lesnar’s beating of the Undertaker at WrestleMania, but it was close. Cena losing would have been one thing. Cena losing in what was basically an extended squash match? That was bizarre.
What makes it even more bizarre, though, is that they took the title off the most dependable star on the roster and put it on the least. By all accounts, Lesnar is reasonably easy to work with backstage, but his dedication to the craft will always be in question. He has walked away from WWE stardom just like the monster heels in eras before him did when they would split town to work a new territory. Except that, unlike them, when Lesnar left in 2004, his story arc hadn’t concluded. He left because he wanted to do something else. When John Cena called him a mercenary in the run-up to SummerSlam, it had the ring of truth.
It’s an odd moment for wrestling fans with regard to our idols’ commitment to the sport. After CM Punk walked away, fans kept chanting his name for months. There was a CM Punk chant at SummerSlam on Sunday, even as Punk has reiterated that he’s retired and has no plans to return. And sure, in wrestling, everybody comes back eventually. But every group of wrestling fans I spent time with in Los Angeles last weekend argued over whether Punk was right to depart WWE so abruptly. Either he was a hard worker who felt physically and mentally depleted by the grueling schedule, or he was an ingrate who couldn’t be bothered to fulfill his contractual obligations before leaving. To some, Punk was an icon precisely because he left. To others, he was a crook who should be removed from every video game and DVD. Similarly, Hulk Hogan — who crossed McMahon by ditching the WWF for WCW, and who was vilified for working for TNA in recent years — has recently been welcomed back to WWE with open arms and loud, approving chants. And Lesnar — who left on a misbegotten quest to try out for the Minnesota Vikings, only to end up in a short-burn career atop the UFC — came back to WWE when illness derailed his fighting career.
On Monday night, WWE bigwigs Triple H and Stephanie McMahon formally presented the new WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt to Lesnar. Paul Heyman, the new champ’s “advocate,” would announce that Cena was too hurt to even make it to the arena for Raw. New champions are crowned every few months, but Monday night felt like the christening of a new era in pro wrestling. After Punk’s disappearance and Bryan’s injury, it seemed like Vince’s choice of Cena as champion was a reflexive return to the old wrestling convention: keep the belt close. But Lesnar defies any conventional wisdom. It’s like Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett making Kamala the champion.
At WrestleMania, when Brock beat the Undertaker, fans were apoplectic. He’s a part-timer. He’s undependable. He doesn’t deserve a win that big. But the next day, their voices were drowned out by write-ups from mainstream outlets. While watching Monday’s Raw, when Lesnar was gloating over his annihilation of Cena, I heard a new chant break out: “Thank you, Lesnar! Thank you, Lesnar!” Sure, Taker is an unassailable legend and Cena is a sometimes tiresome champ, but it was as if the crowd had gotten the message: The era of consistency is over. The era of media hype is here. The SummerSlam main event was built to shock us more than to tell us a story, to provoke tweets and get WWE trending and get mainstream media to take notice. If money and pride are the industry’s biggest heels, then shock value just turned babyface. WWE put the belt on Lesnar — a capricious beast and monster heel — in the most heartrending way possible because it was the last thing we thought would happen.
On Sunday night, while I sat in Staples Center and watched SummerSlam, something strange happened. I found myself outwardly cheering for Cena for the first time in his career. I’ve always admired Cena, and openly discussed him in recent years as one of the best wrestlers on the WWE roster. He’s great, but his greatness lies in the way he inspires fans like me to regard him like an old-school heel. He makes us want to cheer for his opponents, and he makes them look better by his inclusion in the story. But at SummerSlam, I was suddenly one with all the kids in the crowd. Prior to that night, I wanted Lesnar to win, but now I was on Team Cena. Or, probably more precisely, Team WWE. Consistency is king in wrestling — that’s what I learned from growing up watching Lawler and the Von Erichs. Vince McMahon loves an underdog story, and WWE has consistently tried to paint John Cena as one despite the ridiculousness of the idea. With Lesnar, they finally found a way to make Cena human, and as such, to make him matter.
By Monday I had swung around to the crowd’s point of view: Thank you, Lesnar. I was happy for the change. Even in WWE history, this was unlike anything I’d seen: Andre the Giant’s championship win was a contrivance to get the belt onto Randy Savage, and Yokozuna was a gargantuan stopgap measure. There have been other heel champs, sure — Triple H springs to mind, and we can all be grateful that Vince doesn’t abide by the ancestral booking rules, or he’d have made himself champion for the past decade. But there’s never been anybody like Lesnar. No wrestler has been so inherently unpredictable, and thus so vital. Lesnar said that if he had never left WWE, there would have never been a John Cena. On Sunday he seemed determined to retcon the nine years he spent away from the WWE ring, to expunge from the record books the guy who took his spot.
Even if Lesnar drops the belt back to Cena next month at Night of Champions, this is a whole new world. SummerSlam was Hogan losing to King Kong Bundy or Earthquake or Zeus. Or Cena losing to Kane or Umaga. Lesnar should have just been the villain of the month. This was never supposed to happen. And that’s why it was so great.