This year’s Wrestlemania ended with a pretty amazing bit of spectacle: The Rock, the former generation-defining WWE star, taking on John Cena, the muscle-faced, jarheaded current standard-bearer, a guy who the company has stuffed down audiences’ throats for years and who the audience has, in the past year or so, mostly come to despise (even though he remains very good at wrestling people). Prevailing internet wisdom had decided that Cena, being the one person in the match who would continue to wrestle WWE matches frequently after Sunday night, would win. Instead, after a deeply entertaining back-and-forth match, a remarkably spry Rock pinned Cena, who had tried and failed to use the Rock’s own People’s Elbow against its rightful owner.
This ending worked perfectly, not least because the Rock would’ve been the sentimental fan favorite even if he weren’t wrestling in his adapted hometown of Miami (where he played on Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp’s national champion Miami Hurricanes team). For the past year or so, Cena’s been booed out of most of the buildings where he’s wrestled and his response, a smirky you-guys-are-crazy sort of thing, has not exactly been satisfactory. The build for this match together lasted a year. It mostly consisted of the Rock acting like a coked-up asshole, tossing Cena T-shirts into the Charles River and using every chance he had to pile-drive his catchphrases into the ground. But none of that mattered once the match started and the Rock started throwing armdrags like he hadn’t just spent the better part of the past decade making unwatchable family comedies. The Rock now belongs to another venerable Wrestlemania tradition: the celebrity guest wrestler.
Ever since Lawrence Taylor pinned Bam Bam Bigelow with a flying forearm in the main event of Wrestlemania XI, the WWE has time and again recruited often-dubious celebrity guests to wrestle in its biggest annual circus. The idea, I suppose, is that this gets the WWE new coverage in media outlets that would be perfectly content to ignore its existence the rest of the time. And for whatever reason, these guests always win. Last year, motherfucking Snooki got to pin somebody. This year, Extra host Maria Menounos rolled up Divas Champion (and actual good wrestler) Beth Phoenix to come out on top in a tag-team match. This shit drives me absolutely nuts, every time. But when the celebrity guest in question is a movie star who also happened to spend his formative years as one of the greatest professional wrestlers in history, I can deal.
As much as I liked the Cena/Rock match, the best thing on the show was easily the Hell in a Cell brutality-party between grizzled old warriors Triple H and the Undertaker, both of whom barely wrestle anymore and both of whom seemed utterly determined to prove that they still matter. Before the show, the Atlantic's website devoted an entire article to the question of whether anyone would bleed in the match. (In the past few years, the WWE has made a regrettable attempt to go family-friendly, banning the time-honored tradition of wrestlers mashing razor-blades into their foreheads so that they can theatrically bleed all over each other.) There was blood in this particular match. Triple H suffered a particularly nasty gash above his eye, though it didn’t look intentional. And gut-clench violence was absolutely the selling point here: Triple H repeatedly blasting Undertaker in the back with a steel chair, both guys kicking out of each other’s finishing moves, guest referee Shawn Michael reduced to a quivering mess after presiding over so much savagery. In the grand Wrestlemania scheme of things, brutality always wins out over celebrity.
But going forward after Wrestlemania, the WWE won’t have to choose between these two things. Exactly two people have left the WWE and become more famous than they already were. One of them is the Rock, and he did it by becoming an honest-to-god movie star. The other one returned to the WWE, in spectacular fashion, the night after Wrestlemania. His name is Brock Lesnar, and he made good by pulverizing people’s faces in the UFC.
The Monday Night Raw immediately after Wrestlemania is always a special show, and this week’s was probably the best in years. The crowd seemed to be comprised entirely of loud, amped-up wrestling dweebs who’d made the trip to Miami for Wrestlemania and then stuck around an extra night. Daniel Bryan, the self-aggrandizing bad guy and internet-wrestling hero who I wrote about here, was the night’s unexpected hero. At Wrestlemania, he lost the World Championship in about as humiliating a way as you possibly could, when the flame-stached Irish mammoth Sheamus kicked his face off and pinned him in 16 seconds. The Raw crowd, bless them, would not let it go, chanting Bryan’s name and catchphrase ("Yes! Yes! Yes!," which they amended to "Si! Si! Si!" when Mexican star Alberto Del Rio made an appearance) no matter who was in the ring. They were so loud, and so behind Bryan, that a chastened Cena had to pause to acknowledge it, something that just doesn’t happen. A great, giddy crowd like this can elevate a great wrestling show into something that transcends time. And amazingly enough, the show didn’t even need the crowd’s help.
Almost everything that happened on this particular Raw was great. WWE champion CM Punk had a match against resurgent powerhouse Mark Henry that was almost as fun as the (excellent) one he’d had the previous night against wily veteran Chris Jericho. The Rock gave a silly but ultimately spine-tingly speech about how he wanted one last run at the title. A-Train, a hairy early-‘00s WWE behemoth who’d left the company and gone to Japan to wrestle as Giant Bernard, made a big return, covered in horrendous tattoos, in which he elbow-clubbed big stiff Alex Riley into near-unconsciousness. (A-Train is now known as Lord Tensai, a mysterious Japanese evildoer with a salt-throwing sidekick, despite the demonstrable fact that A-Train is still a gigantic white man. Obviously, this is great.) When they weren’t chanting for Daniel Bryan, and even when they were, the crowd was absolutely devouring all of this.
And then: Lesnar. Some context is required here. During his impossibly great two-year WWE run, Brock Lesnar was one of wrestling’s all-time best merciless unstoppable human-wrecking-ball villains. He bulldozed the Rock and took his championship. He wiped Hulk Hogan’s blood across his chest like warpaint. He chucked Matt Hardy through a wall. He climbed to the top of the gargantuan Hell in a Cell cage to celebrate after beating the Undertaker in an all-out gore-soaked classic. He fucked people up with the sort of small-minded intense-juggernaut panache that we wrestling fans don’t see often enough. He was more of a comic book character than a human being.
Consider, for example, the case of Zach Gowen, a teenage wrestler who, as a child, lost a leg to cancer. Gowen’s brief run in the WWE walked a perilous line between inspiring human-interest story and freaky sideshow. For a minute there, it was fun to watch him careen off the top rope and score fluke victories over bad guys who'd been laughing at him a few minutes before. But once the WWE writing team had run out of ideas for him (and once he’d allegedly burned through his goodwill by acting like a dick backstage), they wrote him out of the company by having Lesnar destroy him in the most brutal, dastardly, over-the-top way imaginable. One night, Lesnar swung Gowen’s one leg into the ringpost, breaking it, at least in storyline terms. When Gowen returned the next week in a wheelchair, Lesnar grabbed that wheelchair and shoved it, cackling, down a flight of stairs. No more Zach Gowen.
Before coming to the WWE, Lesnar was a pretty serious college wrestler, so he could pull off all sorts of intricate counter-holds against guys like real-life gold medalist Kurt Angle. Lesnar was, in effect, simulating UFC-style grappling before he came anywhere near the octagon. But he excelled even more in bloody brawls against guys like the Undertaker and the Big Show, making himself an unstoppable force that even the company’s resident giants couldn’t handle. All this was too good to last, and Lesnar eventually got sick of the grind, splitting to try out for the Minnesota Vikings, where he played a couple of preseason games before getting cut. (His jersey was reportedly a huge seller.) His last match happened to be at Wrestlemania XX, against Bill Goldberg, also on the way out of the WWE. The crowd in Madison Square Garden lustily booed both of them that night, chanting “You sold out!” even though neither of them had any real career prospects outside wrestling.
Lesnar wrestled in Japan for a little while before eventually finding his way to the UFC and, against the odds, becoming a dominant force for a little while, as well as being the highest-paid athlete in the company’s history. His victories, when they came, were memorable and violent, and he seemed to relish playing the bad guy in the same way he’d done in the WWE. He may or may not be a smart guy; I really have no idea. But he’s excellent at conveying dumb musclehead rage in sports both real and fake. Colon problems shortened his MMA career, and Alistair Overeem kidney-kicked him into retirement just before the new year. (Tomas Rios’s article on Lesnar’s MMA career ending is a must.) A WWE return has been rumored ever since that night, and fans in Miami were chanting “We want Lesnar!” before his buzzcut appeared or his music hit. Still, it was a euphoric shock when it actually happened.
Here’s how it actually happened: John Cena was ending the show in the ring, asking the Rock to come out for, I guess, one final conversation. Instead, the guitar-lurch of Lesnar’s old WWE music sounded over the speakers, and the crowd went accordingly ballistic. Lesnar approached the ring and extended his hand to Cena. But instead of shaking it, he hoisted Cena onto his shoulders and hit him with his old F-5 spinning-facebuster finisher. (It’s named after the twister from Twister, which is amazing and stupid in equal measures.) Cena’s stupid green baseball cap flew off his head upon impact, and Lesnar, in an inspired touch, kicked the thing into the stands. I’m still amazed that my howls of glee didn’t wake up my toddler. God knows where this comeback is going to go, and the WWE has a long and shameful history of fucking up can’t-miss storylines like this one. But the company is a much, much more interesting place with that big psycho around.
Painting by Dave Choate, sportspainter.com, used by permission of the artist.