Cast your mind back to the inaugural WWF Summerslam, in 1988. The Honky Tonk Man has been an undeserving Intercontinental Champion for over a year and people are desperate to see him beaten. His opponent on this occasion, Brutus Beefcake, is unable to make the match, and so the arrogant Honky throws out an open challenge to anybody in the building.
Imagine if Bruno Sammartino had answered that challenge and won the title in 30 seconds instead of the Ultimate Warrior. Given that the event was in Bruno’s spiritual home of Madison Square Garden, that Bruno was a bona fide legend of New York wrestling, and that Bruno was one of the biggest stars of his or any other era, there is every chance the ovation may have been even louder than Warrior’s.
Would it really have been a smarter business move, though, given the equity that had been invested in Honky’s fluke reign, and the impact of ending it? However big the pop for Bruno being the hero of that tale, was it not the sensible thing to try to use that equity to make somebody? Fifty-two year old Bruno was already made and had little long-term value as an in-ring performer.
Warrior was extremely limited on the mic and in the ring, and unlike Bruno he had no proven drawing power. And you know something else? He never would prove himself to be a genuine draw. He would only improve his work on the mic and in the ring marginally, if at all. When relied upon to carry the WWF as its top featured star, he did not succeed on any level. Yet was it not still a much better decision to have him be the man to dethrone Honky, rather than Bruno? Was the risk not entirely worth taking even if it did not pay off in the way Vince McMahon would have hoped?
Brock Lesnar has beaten some of WWE’s biggest stars over the last two years, ended The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, and dominated one top name after another. In his previous match he left multi-time World Champion Randy Orton in a pool of his own blood, beaten so badly that the contest had to be stopped for Orton’s safety.
There was a case to be made that Lesnar was built so strong it had actually damaged the regular WWE roster members. Wrestlers such as Kevin Owens, A.J. Styles, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins were expected to carry week-to-week storylines over the promotion’s most valuable championship belts, and main event network specials, despite clearly being out of Lesnar’s league. This was proved most emphatically at WrestleMania 32 when Lesnar recorded a one-sided victory over Ambrose just a couple of months before the latter won his first world title.
The man who ended Lesnar’s winning run needed to be somebody from outside the regular Raw and Smackdown rosters. To not only beat him, but to do so inside two minutes, was the biggest rocket WWE could strap to a wrestler’s back. It was a great story to tell, and would be worth all the equity placed in Brock over the past two years.
I have felt for years that a wrestling promotion could benefit in multiple ways from booking a heavily promoted match to end in the equivalent of a first round knockout. It would encourage fans to invest in future main events from the start, rather than waiting for both wrestlers to kick out of each other’s signature moves before believing the finish was coming. It would be a genuinely newsworthy and surprising finish, telling the kind of sporting story that WWE usually shies away from. It would establish that the most important feature of a wrestling match is the winner, not the star rating.
It would make somebody. To use that equity on Bill Goldberg, somebody who was already made, is simply inefficient.
Goldberg’s victory reinforces the existing situation, to a damaging degree. Now, not only is Brock Lesnar way better than any of the regular top acts, but it has been proven that he wasn’t really very good in the first place. The exact same story could have been told with Shinsuke Nakamura, and WWE would not only have instantly created a new main event star, but one who could elevate the regular roster by working with the likes of Owens, Styles, Rollins, and others for years to come.
There are question marks over Nakamura. I absolutely respect the case that he has not proven himself as a draw on the NXT house show circuit, but NXT is arguably not set up to be a successful touring promotion. It is set up to build to four major arena shows per year, and Nakamura has, in a featured role, certainly not hindered the success of that formula.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that he could be a draw if promoted with good faith. When a wrestler has the talent Nakamura possesses, it takes more effort to screw up than to succeed. Presented as a new face to the majority of WWE’s audience, as the man who destroyed Brock Lesnar in 86 seconds, he would be given the strongest foundation imaginable. In an era when WWE’s presentation of wrestlers is so often at odds with the demands of its most ardent fans, Nakamura would instantly be accepted as a top star by that section of the audience. Presented as a winner, there is simply no reason to think he would not be accepted by the wider fanbase.
If WWE wanted to create an overnight sensation for its casual audience, Nakamura is just about the best available bet; undeniably charismatic, unique, great in the ring, and already beloved by a large proportion of its fans. How much of a risk would he really represent?
There is another important point to make here, too. Even if for some strange reason Nakamura did not catch on with the casual audience, and failed to establish himself as a draw, what would really be lost to WWE? If nothing else they would have a charismatic roster member for years to come, capable of great matches. Why is there such a fear of failure?
It has been suggested that a Nakamura win over Lesnar could and should be booked differently to Goldberg’s victory. I totally disagree with this. As has been pointed out in the past, Kurt Angle should not have done comedy however funny he was. The Undertaker might just be a fantastic breakdancer for all we know, but it does not mean that should not be incorporated into his act. It may not seem quite as obvious, but just because a wrestler can have an exciting 30 minute back-and-forth match does not mean every single match featuring that wrestler should follow such a pattern.
Even if the Ultimate Warrior had been a skilled in-ring worker capable of classic matches, the booking of his victory over Honky Tonk Man at Summerslam ’88 was perfect. Similarly, Nakamura could have been booked identical to Goldberg at Survivor Series, with all the same positives. In fact, not only is there nothing Goldberg did that could not have been achieved with Nakamura, but it could have been even better. If fans were not expecting Goldberg to beat Lesnar so quickly, they would have expected it of Nakamura even less. If a crowd containing such an apparently large percentage of ardent fans was so happy to see Goldberg win, imagine how they would have reacted to a Nakamura victory.
There simply will never again be a more perfect time and a more perfect way to debut Nakamura on the main WWE roster than to have him squash the unbeatable Brock Lesnar. Beating Brock will never mean as much as it meant at Survivor Series. Even if Brock is built up again, only to be squashed by Nakamura, it would be a rerun.
There would also be the intangible gain of proving that it’s not just muscle heads who win squash matches. It would show that a smaller wrestler can beat a monster like Lesnar in two minutes. In an era when the majority of WWE wrestlers are mercifully smaller than those of previous generations, this could send an important message to fans.
If my money was invested in making a rematch at WrestleMania 33 as lucrative as possible, I think there are arguments for Goldberg but also strong ones for Nakamura. Certainly, as an act who has not already had a major main event run in North America, Nakamura is more of an unknown quantity, but that makes the potential reward for pushing him even greater. It is hard to make the case that a charismatic and talented babyface pushed in good faith would turn fans away from the product.
If I was looking to reap the biggest profit in six months, there is no guarantee Goldberg is the better investment. The fact that Nakamura, treated like a major star, would be the better investment over the next two to five years is inarguable. The benefits of Lesnar being beaten by a wrestler who can main event for years to come, rather than a short-term blast from the past, are numerous, and are magnified when the current generation has been treated as secondary to older, part-time acts for so long.
The culmination to the long story arc of Brock Lesnar bulldozing his way through WWE was perfect except for one thing. The hero who slayed the beast should have been Shinsuke Nakamura, not Bill Goldberg.
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