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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 8.3 ~ Modern Masterpieces {of Character}
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 6, 2017 - 4:06:18 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 8.3 ~ Modern Masterpieces {of Character}

In this final part of my look at what I believe to be the performance art masterpieces of WWE since Summerslam 2014, I want to take a look at matches that demonstrate an incredible sense of character. That is, matches that envelop themselves in the fiction of WWE’s universe and do not shy away from the fact that those performing in the ring are, ultimately, portraying fictional characters.

This is a key aspect to making WWE’s product the best it can be. They are so vehement in shunning the pretence of a legitimate sport – in contrast to NJPW for example – that they operate most effectively when fully embracing their status as a fictional shared universe inhabited by characters created by the imaginations of the performers and the writing team. It perhaps goes without saying that, sadly, this can be few and far between. Indeed, when approaching WWE as sports entertainment it’s practically impossible to detect, thanks to the emphasis that the philosophy naturally puts on thinking about the unknowable but apparently still criticisable science behind events, rather than the freedom to interpret the artistic merit of the events themselves. Examining WWE’s product as performance art does the exact opposite.

Perhaps the most provocative masterpiece to demonstrate this difference in thought is Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series 2016. Yes, you did read me right; I refer to that 90 second non-match as a masterpiece, and for one reason: character. Specifically, what it meant for the Brock Lesnar character and how it made that character more three dimensional than it had been before.

It is easy to know why most fans felt disappointed, even enraged by the match. Not only did many still have The Streak lingering in the backs of their minds, WWE did little to encourage a creative, characterful reception to the piece. In their uncreative, heavy handed, wince-inducing way, they went down the “fantasy warfare” route so as to shill a video game. What they missed was the mythical nature of the confrontation, especially from the perspective of Brock Lesnar.

By Survivor Series 2016, Brock Lesnar was the subjugator of WWE’s universe. Not a single entity in that universe had been able to match the Beast in combat. Even The Undertaker, when augmented by his vaunted and seemingly supernatural Streak, failed; and failed several times over. There was nothing standing between Lesnar and Heyman and a reign of terror over WWE that wouldn’t end until they deemed fit; until, out of the mist, came wandering a grizzled veteran and the only man not to have only defeated the Beast, but to have vanquished him: Bill Goldberg.

Interpreting events this way lends greater colour to the meaning of a match sports entertainment would have you consider to be isolated and without any meaning. Instead of watching it as “two part time performers who are over-paid and taking up a spot,” watch instead as the last desperate hope of a subjugated universe rests in the hands of the only man to have ever vanquished that universe’s conqueror – only now the Beast is stronger and the slayer is weaker. The sense of character, as far as I was concerned, was quite literally fantastical.

That Goldberg then struck down the Beast a second time, and in short order, I thought was even better. A Beast stronger than ever before had once again been slain by a warrior it could not come to understand. The universe was freed from the Beast’s reign and the victory of the veteran carried a liberating feeling, having humanised WWE’s greatest terror; having proven the god could bleed. That’s what Goldberg vs. Lesnar was about. It wasn’t about fantasy warfare, or MMA pretence, or “transferring heat.” It was about liberating a subjugated populace. It was a 90-second long sword and sandals epic. It was marvellous, and told more story in its short run time than, say, Cena and Orton ever could in months of feuding.

This is what I mean whenever I refer to making something work for you. You can unlock creative potential in any given match by arriving at the understanding that what was intended really doesn’t matter. All that matters is the freedom to interpret WWE as an art form, as a fictional construct, because then you can make almost anything work for you. My interpretation isn’t the only one. There are infinite ways you could interpret any match.

Once you arrive at this conclusion, you uncover just how little WWE seems to understand the very characters it is meant to be promoting. I have seen few matches that demonstrate this more than Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt at Survivor Series 2014. In their crushingly uninspired manner, WWE managed to stretch their closed minds to presenting this as a clash between two people who were both crazy. What they failed to realise was the characters were engaged in a war much deeper than that; a war that spoke to the tragic nature at the heart of Dean Ambrose’s character.

Bray Wyatt is the physical manifestation of any one person’s worst fears, insecurities or demons. He often manifests in someone’s life at a point of severe emotional vulnerability – when Daniel Bryan couldn’t overcome the odds against the Authority; when the first WrestleMania rolled around for The Undertaker after Lesnar ended the Streak; when the so-called Saviour, Chris Jericho, returned to a lukewarm response. For Ambrose, it happened when he was about to deal a final killing blow to a brother he did not want to hate inside Hell in a Cell.

What then evolved was Wyatt preying on Ambrose’s demons of abandonment – abandonment by a father “sending postcards from prison” or a brother who stabbed him in the back; a wound he still feels as sore to this day. So too did Wyatt prey upon Ambrose’s sense of ‘Other,’ attempting to win Ambrose to his cause because, like Wyatt, Ambrose does not understand the world in which he lives. This finally culminated at Survivor Series, in a visceral, nasty, cruelly physical psychological story that ended when Wyatt tempted Ambrose to attack him with a chair; to, essentially, surrender to the worst part of himself and be ruled by his demons.

What spoke to the tragedy of Ambrose was his reaction. In a scene that mirrored the temptation of John Cena at WrestleMania earlier that year, Ambrose, unlike Cena, did embrace the worst side of himself, listening to the demon that was tempting him and, from then on, demonstrated that he would let those demons rule him for the rest of his life. In that one moment, surrendering to Wyatt’s temptation, Ambrose sentenced himself to a lifetime of loneliness in a world he can make no sense of. It’s a stunning character moment that would completely elude any sports entertainment fan focussed, instead, on what the disqualification finish might to do to either man’s position on the roster, for instance.

Matches that seem so bland from a sports entertainment perspective become much more colourful, meaningful and impactful once you begin to focus on the fiction rather than the possible intention; of the characters, rather than the performers; on the art rather than the sport. It happens quite frequently with Bray Wyatt, in fact, and one match in particular stands out to me as a performance art masterpiece, despite being a sports entertainment disappointment to many others.

Bray Wyatt vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania 31 is possibly my favourite Undertaker match at WrestleMania. That might sound mad to many. Most found it disappointing, or frustrating. Some questioned if there was any point now the Streak was over. Others criticised it for having Wyatt promise to become the New Face of Fear, only to lose. Once again, sports entertainment had everyone losing sight of the fiction in play, and the characters that evolved.

Bray Wyatt has had something of a loving obsession with The Undertaker since he first began calling out the Dead Man heading into WrestleMania 31. What’s so beautiful about their inaugural encounter is the way in which a previously self-assured, even cocky Bray Wyatt slowly comes to realise he has bitten off more than he can chew, and that the power of the Phenom stretches beyond what had been Wyatt’s imagination. In contrast, for The Undertaker, the story becomes one of resurrection, as he slowly readjusts to the world and comes to understand once more the breadth of his abilities, and the truth that they never once relied, as perhaps he had come to believe, on the augmentation of the Streak.

The trick in uncovering this interpretation is in examining the body language of both characters. Wyatt’s stride to the ring is one of paranormal feats in itself, and the man oozes calm self-assurance. Once he stands waiting for The Undertaker, that confidence begins to shift. He becomes unsure, pacing back and forth. That changes once again when The Undertaker arrives, and Bray Wyatt begins to scream at the Phenom in a panic. Finally, overcome by the presence of this figure with whom he is infatuated and whose power he had vastly under-estimated, Wyatt charges right into a solid uppercut from the Dead Man.

It is not a one-sided fight, though, thanks largely to the Undertaker still being in a state of recovery. Wyatt gets in his licks, even looks to have the Undertaker in hand on more than one occasion. But every time the Dead Man goes down, he locks eyes with Wyatt and slowly, grindingly, returns to his feet. Throughout, you see him adjusting his limbs, flexing his joints; this is a Dead Man getting used to once again being outside the grave; once again getting to know the limits of his body; once again getting used to being resurrected. Slowly, he becomes increasingly sure of himself, until Wyatt literally withers away before the sheer force of ‘Taker’s power.

It’s all in the subtle nuance; nuance, as always, WWE and their commentary team totally missed. Sure, it didn’t have a thousand false finishes. There were no breathless exchanges. It wasn’t as grandiose or epic as the Tetralogy against Michaels and Triple H. But it was a beautiful story all its own; a warped tale of obsession and lust for power, and I adore it.

Beyond all other performance art masterpieces to have taken place since Summerslam 2014, though, one in particular stands head and shoulders above the others; and, fittingly, as often is the case, goes under-appreciated as the creative powerhouse it is because sports entertainment has us all focussed on the irrelevant minutia.

The match I refer to is Dean Ambrose vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins at Battleground 2016.

Its brilliance starts with its tear jerking pre-match hype package, which strikes a suitably sombre note, plays out to a soundtrack the lyrics of which fit the situation beautifully - with “power poisons the heart” striking a particularly raw chord left in the wake of Rollins’ betrayal - and focuses exclusively on what mattered: not the Second Brand Extension, but the relationship between the three brothers.

Many felt disappointed and frustrated that the Extension seemed to supersede the importance of the relationship between the three participants. Do not allow yourself to get misled by the commentary team though. The Brand Extension is a complete afterthought; the hype package is unconcerned with it, and the way the action unfolds couldn’t care less. The commentary team might as well have been watching something else entirely, were it not for the (ultimately unobtrusive) presence of Shane and Stephanie McMahon, Mick Foley and Daniel Bryan at ringside.

The action is multi-layered. The opening moment of the match immediately begins playing on the three men’s history, as Roman Reigns explodes with a right hand that almost decapitates Seth Rollins; a moment that betrays two years of pent up, unexpressed anger, frustration and upset. What follows is a match that emphasises their skills as performers as well as their traits as characters. Reigns is undoubtedly cast in the role of the big man. Rollins is undoubtedly cast in the role of the athlete. Dean Ambrose is undoubtedly cast in the role of the scrapper. That very aspect alone speaks of what made the three of them great as a group, silently reinforcing the bittersweet symphony that is this magnum opus.

This is further complimented by a series of brilliantly timed, creative three way set pieces of varying complexity – from a dropkick / Samoan drop combination to a near fall / frog splash combination, to a gloriously interwoven exchange of signature spots. Further, there is plenty of shifting momentum throughout, feeding a fairly rapid pace and a naturally evolving psychology – watch as Rollins and Ambrose only get on the same page once Reigns builds momentum and emerges as the preeminent threat to them both. A clean, perfectly worked, feel good finish tops off this magnificent piece of work, as Ambrose emerges the victor. It seems fitting his victory would carry with it a sense of justice, considering he has always been the face of the hurt bred by the Shield’s split.

It is the character moments that really matter here, however, and there are many of them. The homage to their time as a group is carried through from bell to bell. There’s the familiar table bump; there’s the revisiting of Rollins’ betrayal with a timeless spot that replicates that infamous moment almost like for like; there’s even a wink and a nod to The Shield’s final victory over Evolution as Ambrose charges across announce tables as he did so memorably at Extreme Rules 2014. The moments drip down to the individuals too. The interaction between Ambrose and Reigns that harks back to their established friendship in 2015; Rollins’ facial expressions; the electrifying unholy alliance between Ambrose and Rollins, and the stare down that precedes it, hinting there was still a brotherly bond between them, in its own warped way; perhaps most evocatively, the moment Rollins screams at Ambrose – and at us fans – that “the fairytale is over!”

On every layer, it is a powerhouse of a match and an absolute masterpiece of professional wrestling and performance art thanks, primarily, to its characterful nature. Think not of the event it happened at, or who was sat at ringside, or what presentation the commentary team settled on. Think about what matters; on the story of the relationship between the three of them, and of its ruination. Once you do, you might arrive at the same conclusion as I have: it’s a timeless classic.

What’s more, I’d also consider it the last match of the Reality Era, as it solidified something that had been growing throughout most of that Era: The Shield taking their positions at the forefront of their generation’s locker room. That is the issue to which I turn next, as I look to justify my position that, since Summerslam 2014, The Shield have achieved their destiny in proving to be the forerunners, and then becoming the leaders, of their generation; the next iconic trio in WWE lore.

Until then, share with me your thoughts and feelings, as ever, in the comments below or over on social media. Thanks for reading!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

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