Much to the surprise of, well no one, Triple H retained the WWE Championship last Saturday night at WWE RoadBlock; his WrestleMania 32 32 date with Roman Reigns left intact. The show received positive reviews in most circles, but the underwhelming finality of Reigns’ impending coronation hung over the proceedings like a dark storm cloud as the WWE Network exclusive from Toronto faded to black. Though the outcome was hardly a surprise, the manner in which the story unfolded was anything but the pedestrian warm-up to the WrestleMania 32 main event many predicted it to be.
At the conclusion of WWE RoadBlock an exhausted Triple H raised the WWE Championship over his head, triumphant over a game Dean Ambrose, who failed to win the title but succeeded in pushing the 14-time champion to his absolute limit. For one night, these two characters were booked outside the archetype that has defined them in terms of the ongoing WrestleMania 32 narrative. Triple H was not a suffocating authority figure but rather a battle-hardened veteran; an oft disliked but always respected ring general, proving he has one more war left in him to fight. Conversely, Ambrose ceased to be the ultimate underdog; a lunatic whose success occurs in spite of his own insanity. Instead, he was a determined hero, motivated by pride and the desire to become a champion.
The portrayal of those characters was equally refreshing as it was compelling. Rather than obstinately cheering Triple H in a display of pure rebellion, the audience booed him with a perfect mixture of contempt and reverence as a representative of the old guard; a figure who would be admired, even beloved, if he would just step aside and let someone else soak in the spotlight. Likewise, the audience cheered for Ambrose with an unadulterated vigor and passion that can only be extracted by the purest of heroes. There was no sense of irony; no distracting disconnect between the story being presented and the reaction of those watching it live. Just a simple story played with the perfect amount of nuance; likely everything the WrestleMania 32 main event will not be.
It’s been almost two years since it became apparent Reigns was selected as the next supreme hero of WWE. It’s been 14 months since an indignant Philadelphia crowd booed him (and The Rock) out of the Wells Fargo Center in what was supposed to have been a glorious Royal Rumble victory.
It’s been three months since Reigns and Sheamus traded championship victories in a lackluster feud that proved to be more about advancing The Authority’s storyline than Reigns’.
Throughout Reigns’ tumultuous journey, McMahon has unapologetically held his ground in the way only he can, refusing to succumb to the truth as seen by our eyes and heard by our own ears week after painful week. Getting Reigns over is no longer just the creative direction of his universe, it’s a battle to be right; a war conducted against his very own audience to persuade them to do that which they have thus far refused — accept Reigns as their hero.
It does not matter that the story between Triple H and Ambrose almost immediately injected new life into the title picture. It does not matter that the Ambrose character has been on a slow but steady path to becoming the most organic supreme hero since Steve Austin (sans the unfortunate hologram of doom situation). It does not matter that the presumptive next face of WWE was off our television screen for weeks and hardly anyone cared. Ironically, what’s best for business no longer matters; winning this war of conviction is all that matters.
McMahon is a classic example of a Type A personality; a fighter that embraces confrontation and thrives on pressure as a defense mechanism against an otherwise crippling insecurity. He is at his best when presented with a challenge, whether that challenge comes from the Federal government, Ted Turner or his own audience. This plain but true fact does not make him a heel or a stubborn old billionaire, it makes him human. And like all human beings who live long enough, there comes a point when our own evolution succumbs to the evolution of the world around us; a time when our internal clock is no longer capable of keeping pace.
Time is one of the rare constants in a universe predicated on interminable change. Time is pure; it is not prejudicial or partisan. Time is the most powerful phenomenon in existence, yet our society continues to exhibit a collective inability to comprehend nor appreciate its immensity. We perpetually conduct our lives within a vacuum completely devoid of time; a world within the greater world that each one of us creates within our own consciousness. This vacuum has the power to significantly alter our worldview as the reality of the universe and the reality created inside our minds struggle to coexist.
Throughout history the best storytellers have proven the ability to extract themselves from their own reality long enough to tap into the pulse of their subject matter. Among that select group is a rare subset, a fraternity of progressive thinkers capable of recognizing seismic shifts in society before they actually occur. William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Stan Lee, George Lucas and George A. Romero just to name a few. Vincent J. McMahon was the first of this breed to exist within the pro wrestling industry. The second generation promoter was the first of his kind to recognize the untapped potential of broadcast television, a medium still in its infancy in 1955 when he jumped at the opportunity to provide DuMont Network with weekly content.
In an era when pro wrestling was primarily presented as legitimate sport, Capitol Wrestling, which would become the World Wide Wrestling Federation, became the first promotion to develop babyface and heel character types with any sort of regularity. The primary emphasis of the product drastically shifted from pure athletic competition to a narrative-driven product with an emphasis placed on compelling characters. The institution of The McMahon Doctrine, as explained two weeks ago, changed the way pro wrestling was consumed forever.
For all his business acumen and innovative creative choices McMahon Sr. was not infallible. As he reached the twilight of his professional life (which coincidentally was also the twilight of his existence) he was presented with one final opportunity to redefine his industry. Ironically enough, it was his son, Vince Jr. spearheading this change as he became poised to take control of what would become known as the WWF.
Perhaps no other moniker in the history of pro wrestling was more appropriate than the Superstar nickname associated with Billy Graham. He was everything Bruno Sammartino was not and the audience hated him for it. His over the top wardrobe and egotistical promos doubled down on the ground previously explored by Gorgeous George and took the gimmick to the next level. His bodybuilding background and willingness to experiment with the chemical breakthroughs of his time created a menacing look that only added to his persona.
In 1977, Graham defeated Sammartino for the title and embarked on a highly successful campaign as a heel champion that lasted nearly an entire year. As the character continued to build momentum McMahon Jr. recognized Graham’s drawing power and began to cultivate a face turn designed to launch his birthright into the next stratosphere as the beginning of a new decade approached. There was only one problem, his father, the boss, didn’t see it. The elder McMahon had much different plans. To him Graham was nothing more than a placeholder; a serviceable heel who could maintain the credibility of the championship until the next supreme hero, Bob Backlund, was ready to be crowned.
Backlund was a strong choice as a replacement for the aging Sammartino. He was a young, white meat babyface with the athletic ability of an All-American wrestler and the unwavering loyalty and dependability that was vital for a champion of a promotion to possess. He was a safe choice; by most measures of that time he was, in fact, the correct choice. But Graham represented something larger; the opportunity to present a new kind of character as a hero, one with an unmistakable flash and pizazz that could open the door for all sorts of different creative directions. Today we know that certain something as, the it factor.
Alas, it was not to be.
Five years later, McMahon Jr. found himself sitting behind his father’s desk, his great vision still brewing in his mind. In 1982 Graham was approaching 40 years old; a decade of physical punishment and steroid abuse having taken its toll of his body. He was no longer the right man at the right time — that distinction would be reserved for a 29 -year old bleach blonde with 23-inch pythons and a Fu Manchu wrestling out of the AWA. The rest, as they say, was history.
Throughout his 30 plus years at the helm of pro wrestling’s most influential company, McMahon has repeatedly illustrated the ability to understand the ever evolving industry, sometimes sooner and sometime later. In the early 90s he was correct in shifting to a younger breed of wrestler, even with the allure of Ric Flair at his disposal. When faced with a choice between Lex Luger (his original successor to Hogan) and Bret Hart, he was sensible enough to choose the later despite the substantial money and resources originally invested in the former. By the end of the decade he acknowledged edgier content and a new kind of supreme hero was necessary to withstand the onslaught from WCW. In the new millennium he once again shifted his creative direction to create a supreme hero with the principles of G.I Joe with a modern twist and a wide range of appeal.
But as time steadily chugged along, McMahon’s reality, like his father’s before him, gradually fell behind. Creative choices became increasingly predictable as an over reliance on familiar character types and story tropes of the past became commonplace. Current stars struggled to get over and stay over, forcing the push of new talent to take a backseat. Before long the company that had once been associated with so many fresh ideas and well-placed risks had become perpetually stagnant creatively speaking, culminating with the failure to maximize returns on both CM Punk and Daniel Bryan respectively.
WWE’s next supreme hero is likely the last McMahon will personally coronate; the laws of time apply to all, even to those named McMahon. In his reality Reigns represents everything a top star is supposed to look, sound and act like; a home-grown creation direct from the laboratories of developmental for the express purpose of replacing Cena. Reigns is, in effect, Backlund – the logical choice by everything McMahon knows to be true and, like his father, nothing will ever change his mind.
Backlund’s reign as champion was hardly a failure, nor was it a resounding success. More than anything else it was the preservation of the status quo; the failure to take a bold step in an auspicious but unfamiliar direction. Perhaps Ambrose is the next would-be Superstar Billy Graham, perhaps he isn’t; maybe it’s Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Cesaro or someone else entirely. Whomever it is time, as always, is ticking and before long it will run out on all of them, and like Graham in 1982 and Reigns in 2016, they will no longer be the right man at the right time.