When Brock Lesnar made his return to WWE the night after WrestleMania 28, the crowd went wild. His first order of business was F5-ing John Cena, which positioned Lesnar as a heel (though it must be said that Cena had recently come off feuds with fellow babyfaces the Rock and CM Punk). Heel or not, the reaction Lesnar got from the audience was off the charts. WWE ranked it the no. 2 greatest crowd reaction behind only “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s run-in to give Mick Foley his first WWF Championship in 1998. Foley’s win was the culmination of a months-long story line, and it is widely acknowledged as the turning point in the Monday Night Wars between WWF and WCW. Lesnar’s return, on the other hand, was the culmination of months of Internet chatter after eight years of Lesnar’s absence from the WWE. I bet eventually we’ll look back on that return with the reverence we have for Foley’s win.
While Lesnar was gone, WWE went through an uneven period of a Cena-led Peter Pan syndrome, trying valiantly to recapture its innocence via a TV-PG rating, and thus (presumably) the hearts and minds of youngsters the world over. That spurred CM Punk’s insurrection, which echoed pro wrestling’s ’90s heyday and charted a new way forward: the Reality Era, a new period of postmodern kayfabe. It was inevitable, because fans were growing increasingly aware of how real-life story lines were affecting what happened in the ring. For example: In the final appearance of his first WWE run, at WrestleMania XX, Lesnar got booed out of Madison Square Garden. Fans knew he was leaving the business,1 and they voiced their discontent, ruining the match and overshadowing the incredible first act of Lesnar’s career. They gave Lesnar the opposite of a hero’s welcome. I’d call it a villain’s send-off, but in wrestling even the villains get tributes. What Lesnar got was a giant, gift-wrapped “screw you” from the fans. In the years since, that sort of crowd interaction has become even more central to the product. Also in that period, fans’ hearts softened to Mr. Lesnar — with good reason.
And his opponent Goldberg’s contract also was up, which added insult to the crowd’s injury.
In retrospect, it was a perfect time for Lesnar to disappear. The following year, a new era was christened when Cena and Batista won WWE’s two main titles at WrestleMania 21. The era that followed might have been workable for Austin or the Rock or Foley, but Lesnar was none of those — he was an otherworldly physical specimen and an embodiment of psychotic id. He was a He-Man figure in the hands of a sandbox bully. There’s no fitting a force of nature into a PG rating.
But in the modern WWE, with grittiness on the upswing and a palpable nostalgia for the glory days of the Attitude Era, Lesnar was a perfect fit. Suddenly, Lesnar’s defection wasn’t a character flaw, but a story line. No longer was he a strongman with middling desire for the wrestler’s lifestyle; now he was a former UFC champion — a conqueror returning to his roots, to an audience starving for anything approaching real violence after years of cartoon buffoonery. John Laurinaitis, the gruff-voiced robot who was then Raw’s GM, announced that he had re-signed Lesnar to bring “legitimacy” back to WWE — and his assessment was right, even if he was a major symptom of its illegitimacy. (He probably shouldn’t have been surprised when he was relieved of his duties a few months later.) Lesnar wasn’t party to CM Punk’s wink-at-the-camera brand of “reality” — he was real. When he and Cena tangled at Extreme Rules in 2012, Lesnar lost, but only after being beaten with a chain and slammed onto the steel ring steps. It was a victory even in defeat: Lesnar had ushered in a new day for the WWE, a day when authenticity trumped puerility. Cena looked like he was about to cry throughout his postmatch victory celebration, and with good reason.
In the months that followed, Lesnar feuded with Triple H, ended the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, and tangled with Punk. When he reengaged Cena at SummerSlam 2014 — this time for the WWE Championship — he absolutely squashed him. One of the litany of complaints leveled against Cena’s reign was his superhuman tendency to overcome purportedly insurmountable odds on the way to inevitable victory. Lesnar’s win was a change of direction for WWE, but it was also a change in ethos. It was as if he had called bullshit on the silliness of Cena’s reign and suplexed WWE into its next phase.
And yet he was a heel. This was partly because of wrestling tradition and moreover thanks to his mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, who is loved by fans but booed out of respect and Heyman’s galling persistence. The wrestling world has seen its share of monster heroes — including Man Mountain Dean and the French Angel, Haystacks Calhoun and Bruiser Brody, Andre the Giant and the Undertaker. But Lesnar was something else — the monster for the post-kayfabe era. People agitated for a Lesnar face turn, but that was presented with the same quandary as Cena’s hypothetical heel turn: Was turning Brock babyface even necessary? The answer was no.
There’s a peculiar duality that defines Lesnar — he’s a heel but he’s a fan favorite. He’s a pure athlete who comes across as one of the best-drawn characters in the business. He’s a part-timer but he’s the company’s era-defining backbone. Maybe it’s ironic that such a one-dimensional performer is able to embody so much, or maybe that’s exactly why it’s so possible: He’s a gorilla-shaped cipher, a badass onto whose slimy grin we can read whatever gruesome sentiment we want. It’s fine if he’s nominally a monster heel — he’s our monster.
Before his most recent return, on the June 15 Raw, Lesnar was last seen at WrestleMania defending the title against Roman Reigns — Cena’s heir apparent — and losing not to Reigns but to Seth Rollins, the golden boy of the onscreen corporate faction, who inserted himself into the match and stole the belt. It was a moment to behold: The onscreen front-office-approved “hero” defeating the real-life front-office-approved hero and also the hero of the pro wrestling world, monstrous though he may be. The next night on Raw, Lesnar snapped and attacked the announce team, F5-ing Michael Cole and getting himself suspended.
When he returned to WWE TV a month ago, it was as a returning hero. You can parse the differences between the heel Lesnar and the babyface version — bad Lesnar attacks announcers; good Lesnar attacks cars — but the only real difference is positioning. Before, he was a predator bent on demolishing any other creature in his path. Now, he’s a monster on a mission, a righteous quest to avenge his tainted WrestleMania loss. People are afraid of Lesnar because he’s legitimate, and there are no allegiances in legitimate competition. The most impressive thing about his face turn is that there was no turn at all — he’s the same character. If he’s on the opposite side of the spectrum, it’s because his arms are long enough to wrap around the spectrum entirely. Just as he redefined the WWE playbook solely by his presence, he didn’t need to change to become a babyface — babyface had to change to become Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar’s influence can’t be overstated — just look at the degree to which physicality has increased since his return. To be a babyface in the Lesnar Era, you have to gleefully brutalize your foe: Randy Orton’s rivalry with Sheamus has consisted almost solely of random attacks, and (after a demoralizing buildup to WrestleMania) Reigns has finally found some momentum by attacking his current foe, Bray Wyatt, with Lesnar-esque abandon.
But legitimacy is about more than just brutality. And in the world of pro wrestling, it’s also about more than just actual strength or power. It’s a measure of in-ring ability as opposed to the silly play-fighting that defined much of WWE’s previous decade. It’s little wonder ratings slumped — when pro wrestling doesn’t take itself seriously, it walks willingly into the punch line of every joke about the sport. To be successful, viewers don’t have to think that wrestling is real, but they do need to believe that the people onscreen are really good at their jobs.
On Monday night, an impromptu triple-threat match took place between Rusev, Cesaro, and Kevin Owens, and it was a thing of beauty. Three guys who are mind-blowingly good at wrestling went into the ring and tore the house down. Rusev is a burly Russian martial artist who speaks through grunts and kicks. Cesaro is a sleek, rugged wrestling phenom who can just barely talk his way into a match. And Owens is positioned as a Lesnar-style prizefighter to hide that he’s just an unlikely-looking WrestleMania main eventer. All three are lacking in WWE-style polish — Owens’s look, Cesaro’s mic skills, Rusev’s one-trickiness can all be improved upon — but under the Lesnar model, they can all be stars. Cena — the U.S. Champion, against whom they all wanted a shot — isn’t the exception that proves the rule; he’s following right along, upping his in-ring repertoire to impress fans who hate him anyway. He’s not going to stop cutting promos, but even he is changing with the times. With Lesnar as the standard-bearer, everybody has to raise their game.
Which brings us to Monday night’s most revelatory scene. Forsaken for too long as a platform for popcorn matches, the Divas division was the most dire subset of the WWE roster. Despite the crossover appeal of the Total Divas reality show — or perhaps because of it — WWE has seemed mostly happy to limit its Divas feuds to petty catfights. Despite a few crowd reactions for AJ Lee in the past few years, the only pop rivaling Lesnar’s 2012 return was the main roster debut of Paige in April 2014. Paige is a second-generation performer (both parents are wrestlers) whose calling card on NXT was her wrestling skill and commitment to the industry, the sort of attributes that were previously found in male performers like Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase Jr. When the Raw crowd exploded at her introduction, it wasn’t just excitement for a favorite of hard-core fans. It was a loud endorsement of a more serious direction for mainstream women’s wrestling.
Earlier this year, Paige and her partner Emma were defeated on Raw by the omnipresent Bella Twins in an insultingly brief 30 seconds. But a funny thing happened. The hashtag #GiveDivasAChance started trending worldwide. Despite WWE’s constant attempts at force-feeding hashtags to the audience, a cursory look at Divas matches over the past year would tell you that this meme wasn’t part of the plan. But shortly thereafter, at WrestleMania media day, WWE executive Stephanie McMahon agreed that it was time for WWE to take women’s wrestling as seriously as men’s. She also said this about Lesnar: “When Brock Lesnar comes out, there is just an emotional and visceral response. He looks like the killer that he is.” The two statements were separate but not unrelated. For the Divas division to survive the Lesnar age, they would have to evolve just like everybody else. And for the Divas division to succeed, WWE was going to have to give them a chance.
Luckily for WWE, women’s wrestling was already undergoing a sort of renaissance right under its nose. On NXT, WWE’s developmental show, Paige and Emma and a small army of women were redefining what it meant to be a female wrestler. Under the guidance of coaches like Sara Del Rey and Brian Kendrick, these upstart future Divas were more physical, more intelligent combatants with more more developed characters. If WWE had once been too quick to paint its female performers as eye candy, this new generation was defiant and committed to being part of the main show. They weren’t reactionary, they were simply legitimate. They were fully formed pro wrestlers.
On Monday, McMahon — despite her history as an onscreen heel — came out to help level the playing field in Paige’s one-woman crusade against the Bellas and their pal Alicia Fox. She brought in NXT standouts Charlotte and Becky Lynch to team with Paige, and then NXT champ Sasha Banks to put alongside two other main-roster heels, Naomi and Tamina. McMahon explained that we’re in a huge moment for women’s sports — USA winning the World Cup, Serena Williams winning Wimbledon, Ronda Rousey tearing up the UFC — so it was time to shake up the roster. The story line purports to be about the end of the Bella regime, but in reality it’s a revolution.
This ended up — as these things tend to — in a giant brawl, which climaxed with the three NXT stars putting their submission holds on members of the main roster. That the crowd was going nuts for submission holds was enough of a surprise, but that a Divas segment managed to steal the show was a shock. It shouldn’t have been — WWE just needed to put legitimate talent in a position to succeed, like it did with Lesnar. Because here’s the secret: Brock Lesnar isn’t WWE’s biggest star just because he’s a real cage fighter or because he’s a mainstream sports figure. He’s a star because being those things makes it impossible for WWE to cast him as anything else. When you strip away the ridiculousness — when you give wrestlers a chance to be wrestlers — good things tend to happen.
There hasn’t even been a Divas match announced yet for Sunday’s Battleground. But whether the eventual match is a one-on-one or a nine-person melee, what will matter is the platform. If WWE gives them the chance to succeed as wrestlers, they almost certainly will. That’s the Age of Lesnar in a nutshell. When Laurinaitis brought Lesnar back, he called him the “new face of the WWE.” He couldn’t have been more right.
Reigns vs. Wyatt, Orton vs. Sheamus, even the Prime Time Players vs. the New Day for the tag belts — I’m suddenly more interested in these matches than I would have been six months ago simply because the tenor of the show has changed. They won’t all be classics, but not for a lack of trying. Owens and Cena will face off for the third time in as many months, and both men will be out to prove something: Owens that he belongs in the mainstream and Cena that he fits this strange new era.
The main event will see Lesnar trying to win the belt back from Rollins. In hyping the match, Heyman clarified Lesnar’s motives: “This isn’t vengeance. It’s a response to everything that happened in his absence.” He meant since WrestleMania, but he might as well have been referring to the eight years Lesnar was gone. At the end of Raw, the contract signing for the main event devolved into a brawl, and Lesnar aimed his wrath at Kane, a corporate stooge and Rollins crony. After Lesnar left, Rollins was incensed at being shown up, and he attacked Kane too. Seems like everybody’s following Lesnar’s lead these days.