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Art is the creation of something from nothing that elicits a reaction. Pro wrestling embodies that definition. In wrestling, men and women step inside the squared circle and create with their actions, expressions, words, and bodies to garner a specific and distinct reaction from their audience. In turn, the audience responds to, engages with, and affects the work. No other art form in the world carries that uniqueness. In this column, we explore that art form inside real and relevant examples. Enjoy.
If I’m Roman Reigns right now, I’m worried. I’d have a sinking feeling in my stomach that the days of cashing thick checks as WWE’s top babyface were numbered. Why? Because Vince McMahon may have a new “boy” sooner than later. By boy, I mean monster. And by monster, I mean Braun Strowman.
For weeks after his single’s career began in 2016, Strowman dusted local jobbers in an epic fashion that allowed him to showcase his strength and brutality to the audience. This formula got Strowman over as the intense and terrifying heel in the WWE. From there, Strowman destroyed the low and mid card in the same epic fashion and then moved on to higher level opponents like Sami Zayn and Big Show. Then it was time for Roman Reigns to slay the monster. The two proceeded to have a nice program in which Strowman shined in due to significant moments like flipping over an ambulance, walking away from a car accident, and decimating Reigns at virtually every turn.
Though it was entertaining, the Reigns/Strowman program ultimately was a failure for WWE. Braun Strowman was created to be a roadblock and monumental moment of achievement for Roman Reigns as he climbed to the top of the company. WWE believed that if they built up Strowman as a monster heel and fed him to Reigns, the audience would cheer Reigns like they did for Zayn and other babyfaces. WWE’s miscalculation was that Reigns was never over as a babyface like Sami Zayn was and the result was Strowman becoming the babyface that WWE didn’t want. As they drafted and wrote ways to cast sympathy on Reigns by using Strowman’s maniacal strength, the audience became enamored with that strength and cheered for Strowman instead. Braun became the audience’s mouth piece and through cheering for him, they voiced their rejection of Reigns.
Because they were backed into a corner, WWE listened to the cheers and properly flipped Strowman to a babyface character on Raw. Strowman has thrived in that role and has become bigger than anyone could have imagined. He hasn’t peaked yet either. In Monday’s match on Raw, Strowman receiving the hot tag was artistically masterful in accentuating his impending tidal wave over WWE as its true top babyface.
The match was Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs. Bobby Lashley and Braun Strowman. With Strowman as the most over guy in the match, building the match with his hot tag as the climax was a lesson in brilliant psychology. The art in its execution was fascinating and took place in three stages. Lashley started the match in stage one and was effective in delivering his offense in a way that popped the crowd. This worked well in laying a foundation to make the audience care about the match’s outcome. The four men had no historical baggage in terms of a storyline, so all they had to work with was the audience and what they did in the ring. Lashley’s offense hooked the crowd and the success of this stage fed the next stage perfectly.
In stage two, Owens and Zayn intricately walked a fine line between arrogance while beating up Lashley and fear for Braun Strowman being tagged into the match. Conveying those opposite emotions in the same match was not an easy feat, but Zayn and Owens did so perfectly and it greatly helped the flow of the bout. In their corner and within their beat down, Zayn’s facial expressions beautifully displayed how great of a wrestler he thought he was and how cocky he was because of it. Those expressions meshed with the crowd and made them want to see him get mashed to pieces. Same thing with Owens. The way he looked while assaulting Lashley and the things he said under his breath as he did so ingrained a sense of annoyance within the audience that made them want to see him get beat up. Strowman was the avenue in which the audience was going to get their comeuppance against Owens and Zayn and this stage began the audience’s roller coaster ride to that moment coming to fruition. As the beat down happened, Zayn and Owens got more and more arrogant and annoying and Lashley got closer and closer to making the tag to Strowman. The audience got louder and louder as he got closer and closer to entering the match.
Lashley, Owens, and Zayn were on point with their expressions and timing during this run. Lashley conveyed determination and pain to illicit sympathy for his team and the arrogance of Zayn and Owens drastically switched to shear devastation and desperation as they worked to avoid Strowman’s involvement like the plague. The way Zayn and Owens sold for Strowman ahead of him entering the match hyped that eventual moment and teased what his tag into the match would be like. Much like how Lashley’s offense in stage one of the match fed Zayn and Owens, Zayn and Owens returned the favor and fed Strowman into stage three.
When Strowman tagged into the match in stage three, the crowd popped like a fourth of July fireworks show. Braun cashed in on all the artistic momentum and equity that the other members of the match built up to that point. Because of how heelish Owens and Zayn were in the early part of the match, the audience was conditioned to want a painful physical response for them and they got it with Strowman. He fiercely and confidently attacked his opponents and did so with flashy power moves that inevitably kept the audience popping. His shoulder tackle on Owens into the barricade was impressive and the ensuing clothesline on Zayn was equally so. Strowman then followed that with his grand finale and received an even bigger pop for his running dropkick on Owens. Braun was able to execute and finesse those moves as a babyface while maintaining the monster character that the audience loves. His actions made sense and lined up with the moment that the psychology of the match was designed for.
The build to Strowman’s hot tag and the psychology behind it can’t work without all the elements in the match working successfully and together at the same time. First off, the character positioned to cash-in on the babyface shine needs to be fully over with the audience. If that element is missing, the hot tag to that person is irrelevant. Based on the pop, Strowman clearly was, so the concept of that psychology was sound. From there, Owens, Zayn, and Lashley needed to feed that moment with everything they did in the match. They each accomplished that goal, which made the tag exciting. Strowman needed to deliver when it came time to cash in the chips that everyone else put on the table. If Strowman lackadaisically entered the match and just went through the motions of his offense, the audience would have felt disappointed in not seeing Zayn and Owens put in their place in a way that corresponded to the level of arrogance they displayed in the match. Like everyone else, Strowman delivered when he needed to and did so in a way that mirrored the story they told. Lastly, Owens and Zayn needed to sell their fear. They laid the foundation for it throughout the early part of the match and with Strowman finally getting the tag, they needed to react and sell that fear through. The result was them flipping and flying around the ring for Strowman as if they were rag dolls. If any piece of that puzzle is missing, the psychology and match fizzle out. With so many balls in the air, the four stars created a great moment which caused a reaction that proved that Braun Strowman shouldn’t be lurking in the shadow of Roman Reigns any longer.
Braun Strowman is WWE’s true lead babyface. They have sold their soul for Roman Reigns to get the exact reaction Strowman does and the bottom line is, he doesn’t get it. Eventually, WWE has to go with the reaction they want regardless of who is bringing it to them. Strowman is that guy now. He knows who he is as a character and is comfortable in that skin. He’s able to read the crowd’s reaction to him and then react back in a logical way. Those reactions come across naturally and contrast the over production, protection, and trickery of Roman Reigns. In turn, the connection between Strowman and his audience has grown by leaps and bounds.
WWE history is loaded with irony. Triple H getting bumped from winning King Of The Ring in 1997 due to a punishment and Steve Austin getting the nod instead leading to his rocket ride of success and Daniel Bryan being actively de-pushed by the WWE leading to him becoming the face of WrestleMania 30 are prime examples. Now, the example is Braun Strowman. The man designed as a stepping stone for Roman Reigns to the top of WWE as its premier babyface is now burning bright in that very role. Never say never in the world of wrestling and this is why.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: ARTISTRY OF WRESTLING: Monday’s match on Raw highlights the failure of the current main roster version of Bayley vs. Sasha Banks