The Reality Era may have started with CM Punk — the wrestler who wasn’t seen as main-event material by WWE bigwigs, but made his way to the top via work shoots — but it was taken to its apex by Daniel Bryan. Bryan was twice the real-life underdog that Punk was and didn’t have the mic skills to bolster his unlikely campaign, but he was a once-in-a-lifetime in-ring talent. WWE took his implausibility and ran with it, stringing it — and us — along as Bryan eventually defied his onscreen and offscreen detractors and won the WWE title at WrestleMania last year. And then he got injured, was on the shelf for six months, and came back to an ear-splitting ovation from the crowd. In that first promo back, he teased that he was still hurt, then announced his official return. He entered the Royal Rumble and lost, and — just as they had the previous year — fans clamored for WWE to insert him into the WrestleMania main event. WWE demurred but came up with a meaningful consolation prize: At Mania, he won the Intercontinental Championship and seemed positioned to return it to its former glory as the championship title for wrestling purists.
And then he got hurt again. He was sent home during the post-WrestleMania European tour and has been largely absent from WWE television since — reduced to a footnote, and one written with some reluctance. Either they were protecting him so he would look strong when he returned or they were prophesying catastrophe.
It turned out to be door no. 2. On Monday night, Bryan announced that there was no timetable on his return, and so he was relinquishing the IC title because the WWE fans deserve a fighting champion. It was a marked change from last year, when they worked Bryan’s injury — and management stripping him of the title — into the story line. Monday may have been the zenith of the Reality Era; there’s a part of me that wonders whether it’s all downhill from here. This is a real guy with a real medical situation. They marched Bryan out and gave us the bad news, like, well, a doctor giving her patient a terminal prognosis. There was no room for story lines. We can worry about those later.
Last week, ESPN’s E:60 aired an episode called “Behind the Curtain” that followed three wrestlers though their time in WWE’s developmental program, NXT. The subjects seem to have been chosen for their tribulations more than their star potential — Xavier Woods (real name Austin Watson) is the total package minus 6 inches of stature; Corey Graves (Matt Polinsky) is the tattooed antihero whose stardom was derailed by concussions; and then there’s Ray Leppan, who began his career as a South African marauder named Leo Kruger and remade himself into a London party boy named Adam Rose. The character switch was due to the fact that Kruger hadn’t been clicking with the fans. But his central narrative revolved around his son, Maverick, who was born with serious medical issues that have required multiple surgeries, and whose health is Leppan’s main motivation to succeed.
The most startling thing was how thoroughly compelling Leppan was in the documentary, when his onscreen work as Adam Rose has been — to put it delicately — less than absorbing. The end of “Behind the Curtain” shows Adam Rose debuting on the main roster, and fans seemed to like him when he first appeared on Raw. But he didn’t stick — his allure was that of an old-school over-the-top gimmick, and the crowds that cheered his promotion from NXT quickly lost interest in his one-dimensional travails.1 Hard-core fans love a wrestler fully owning a crazy role — like movie fans applauding Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler — but that retro passion can’t compare to the allure of reality. When Leppan’s story was being told on the ESPN show, even those most compelled by his story couldn’t help but ask, “Why can’t WWE make him this interesting?”
It didn’t help that his Russell Brand–style irreverent scenester gimmick was dumbed down to a creepy manchild on the rave scene in a matter of seconds.
The sad truth is that there’s reality and then there’s reality. The hard road to the top of the wrestling world makes for riveting pro wrestling storytelling, but abject tragedy is powerful enough on its own, and shoehorning it into fiction turns it into farce. “Adam Rose” may not be the best use of Ray Leppan, but “Ray Leppan, hard-luck family man” is the stuff jobbers are made out of.2 Because when there’s nothing else left, there’s reality. In “BTC,” Corey Graves is trying to make a comeback from a series of concussions, and he fails the tests. WWE COO Triple H is obligated to tell him his in-ring career is over — but they give him a chance at being a commentator, and he excels. And Xavier Woods has gone through an incredible last few weeks that saw his faction, The New Day, become appointment viewing on Raw, but the most surprising thing that happened to him this month was seeing the reverence with which the WWE developmental team held him on E:60.
Now “Ray Leppan, hard worker who got shafted into a dumb gimmick and who’s out for revenge against his superiors”? That’s something we can work with. Maybe once WWE finds the bottom of the Adam Rose gimmick, they’ll give that a try.
We only cared that much about Leppan and Watson and Polinsky because we saw them outside of the wrestling ring. “Behind the Curtain” was an incredible turn for those three guys. But what translates to the spotlight on Raw isn’t their real-life story — it’s their passion for the business and WWE’s desire for them to succeed. E:60 can affect the latter, but the platforms aren’t interchangeable. There are some things the wrestling platform can’t countenance. It can play with reality, but it can’t wallow in it.
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On Sunday, WWE is bringing us Payback, its third PPV event in seven weeks.3 The main event features three guys who are only a couple of years removed from the world we saw in “Behind the Curtain”: Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Dean Ambrose — former teammates in The Shield, now adversarial solo acts. The central figures in the documentary were chosen for their real-life ordeals and their human reliability — traditional E:60 fodder, to be sure — but it’s nonetheless telling that ESPN chose not to spotlight anybody like these three. They wanted personal drama, and performers like Rollins, Reigns, and Ambrose would just seem too … inevitable. After all, The Shield weren’t put together because they made a compelling team — like, say, the Wyatt Family — but because they were all surefire stars. To tell their stories, especially a year or two after the fact, would be totally without drama. In the world of documentary, just like in pro wrestling, if the truth is boring, storytelling takes precedence.
They’ve announced another one, The Elimination Chamber, for two weeks after. Yippee!
But inevitability is a fleeting thing in the wrestling ring. Positioned just a few months ago as the heir apparent to John Cena and The Rock, Reigns collapsed under the pressure of predestination and fan cynicism. The recuperation of Reigns began in earnest in the buildup to his WrestleMania 31 main event, but it’s gone into high gear since, with a do-over of last year’s feud with Big Show. The icing on the cake came a week and a half ago, when the WWE Network debuted a documentary about Reigns’s behind-the scenes life called Roman Reigns: Never Alone. It’s evidence both of WWE learning from its mistakes and of just how far Reigns has slipped. When he was in development, he was largely kept off camera, nominally because they were waiting for the right time to spring him on the public, but really just because keeping him in a cryogenic freeze ensured that they didn’t accidentally mess up his character. It was a terrible idea, and Reigns’s career to date has proven it: The harder you try not to fail, the less likely it is you’ll succeed.
On Sunday, he’s in the main event, a four-way match between Reigns, Ambrose, Randy Orton, and the champion Rollins. But don’t be fooled — he’s playing second fiddle to Rollins, who emerged as the real star from The Shield. And Reigns’s crowd approval lags behind that of Orton, who incidentally is a vastly better villain than a hero, and far, far behind that of Ambrose, who was wallowing in borderline obscurity a month ago but who has been bumped back up to the main event and has the crowd eating out of his hand.
The thing that Ambrose has going for him that Reigns doesn’t? He was wallowing in borderline obscurity a month ago. Despite being a blue-chipper coming out of the developmental system, he wasn’t immediately tapped for a top spot like his Shield compadres. He’s always had an easy charisma and an affinity with the audience that evokes the best of the Attitude Era. But what makes him really stand out is that he wasn’t getting the opportunities. He was brawling against Luke Harper at the last PPV, and worked as a cog in a seven-man match at Mania. A few weeks back I wrote, “His relative insignificance is the most mind-boggling bit of current WWE programming.” But that insignificance might be the best thing that could have happened to Ambrose. When Reigns was seen as preordained, the fans revolted; conversely, slumming it on the midcard gives the crowd a reason to root for Ambrose to succeed. Sometimes all it takes to get the crowd going is a little bit of misfortune.
Fans want their stars worthy and their ascents organic. That’s fair. But they also want a happy ending, and sometimes those things are mutually exclusive. The credits rolled on “Behind the Curtain” over a gauzy scene of Leppan and his wife walking Maverick to school, with postscript text noting that the boy is doing better than expected but that he has more surgeries to come and a long road ahead of him.
This week, I cared about Ray Leppan more than I ever have, and I say that as a guy who owns an Adam Rose T-shirt. But there’s a difference between guys we care about in real life and guys we care about in the ring. Only the best storytelling can harness the former to the latter, and only rare talent — Punk, Bryan — can be both at once. Daniel Bryan’s saga has morphed in real time from an in-ring heroic journey of overcoming odds to a real-life story of man’s mortality. It’s less the stuff of story line and more like fodder for a tear-jerking documentary.
When Bryan came to the ring on Monday, my stomach was in knots, but when he started his heartfelt monologue, I evened out. They wouldn’t just send him out there to disappoint everybody, would they? They’d tease us with some anguish and then flip the script, just like they did when he made his return last fall. That’s the template for the Reality Era promos, after all: CM Punk’s “Pipebomb” was a storytelling tool, not a “shoot”; Mark Henry might be old, but he wasn’t really retiring; and Triple H getting boos for insisting he’s doing what’s “best for business” was actually best for business. But Bryan wasn’t putting one over on us. He was really announcing his departure — if not his retirement, then an injury layoff with no set date for his return. It wasn’t until he laid the Intercontinental title belt down in the center of the ring that fans actually seemed to internalize what was going on. And it wasn’t until he made it all the way back up the ramp, and turned around to lead the crowd in his signature “Yes!” chant, that the crowd really got to full volume.4
Just prior to that, they had chanted a chorus of “Thank you, Daniel” that was rowdy but restrained — probably because the Cincinnati audience knew they’d gotten the chant wrong. Nobody calls him “Daniel” — they call him “Bryan” because that’s his character’s last name and his real first name. Come on, Cincinnati.
But it was worth it. It was an amazing moment, a deserved “thank you” for what Bryan has given us over the last few years. They kept the news hush-hush, and Bryan teased it out a bit in the ring, but it didn’t feel exploitative. It felt, well, real. Maybe WWE learned something from E:60 after all — tell us the truth, and worry about the story lines later. On Sunday, there’s very little “real” at stake — and right now, I’m happy for it. Let’s leave the reality for the news stories.