Bray Wyatt’s sudden release from WWE on July 31 marked the end of one of the most polarizing careers in recent WWE history, a career that will be evaluated vastly differently depending on who you ask.
Wyatt’s ultimate legacy within the company will be that of a man who had a knack for introducing different characters into WWE, but lacked the ability to have those characters make sense within the world of professional wrestling. The longer his characters hung around on television, the more exposed they became for what they were: rough caricatures of pop-culture archetypes that had little depth and were out of place on a professional wrestling program.
Wyatt’s popularity with most fans stems from his vision and presentation of his characters. He was able to develop excellent original vignettes and entrances for both his original Bray Wyatt personality and The Fiend. In an increasingly stale environment in WWE, where every personality feels generic and replaceable, Wyatt was clearly something different and that resonated strongly with hardcore fans, who craved a change of pace and a different type of personality that seemed untouched by McMahon-isms.
While the presentation of those characters were unique, the issue with both of Wyatt’s main characters was that their motivations for being in the universe of professional wrestling were never clear. This was particularly obvious with The Fiend, whose goals and motivations remain a complete mystery. Why was The Fiend in pro wrestling? Did he just want to win titles and be the best? Did he want to have sex with Alexa Bliss? Did he want to torture Braun Strowman?
Pro wrestling is a unique format of entertainment, where different personalities and characters interact with one another, all centered around the idea that they are trying to be the best in this mock-competition. At the end of the day, professional wrestling really only works if the characters involved are focused on beating one another in a test of grappling skill. The mechanisms on how to do that can vary, even something as abstract as The Undertaker vs. Kane feud was still ultimately centered on two brothers fighting each other and trying to prove that they are the superior wrestler.
Wyatt’s characters rarely seemed to operate within that framework. Even though he won titles, the Wyatt characters never were particularly interested in them. He really just wanted to spook John Cena with a singing child, or drive Randy Orton insane, try to drown Braun Strowman in a lake or any other instance of supernatural nonsense that he managed to get on WWE television.
This would be fine if Wyatt was just a villain on a TV show, but he was a character in professional wrestling, and he never really fit in. The Fiend was responsible for some of the worst segments and matches in company history and that all stemmed from the idea that he was trying to be a horror movie villain in a show that was presented as being a real sport. That meant whenever he tried to use dark magic, commentators were there to react as if the magic tricks were real, and the serious athlete personalities that made up most of the rest of the roster had to interact with The Fiend and pretend to be possessed or that they saw visions created by The Fiend. All of that just further exposed the absurdity of the character in the first place.
In addition, the nature of WWE’s programming, which heavily emphasizes repetitive segments and video recaps, would expose both of Wyatt’s personalities as lacking any true depth or long-term vision. The original Wyatt character was pretty straightforward and easy to understand; a televangelist crossed with Max Cady. His personality could have easily been spun into professional wrestling by creating the dynamic that he wanted to win titles to enhance his image within the company and to cultivate followers.
However, the longer that personality remained on television, the more it became clear that there wasn’t any long-term vision behind it. While his original promo style was engaging, over time it became obvious that he just kind of said the same things over and over again and while his words would sound poetic, the ramblings never went anywhere or meant anything. When he was out there every week cutting those promos, the act began to grow stale.
A similar phenomenon would take place with the Firefly Funhouse segments when Wyatt created The Fiend character. The original segments were well-received thanks to their ingenuity and creativity. However, as time went on fans were treated to the segments week after week, and eventually, they became redundant and boring as nothing of consequence ever seemed to happen.
While Wyatt’s characters were derided by fans who could critically understand the inanity of them, there is no denying that they resonated with a certain segment of fans. For hardcore WWE fans, Wyatt’s personality was a breath of fresh air for a stale product, where babyfaces and heels all felt the same. While Wyatt never really was able to draw significant television viewership, live attendance or WWE Network subscriptions, he was a popular figure with a lot of the current WWE fans due to his unique personality.
The illogical nature of Wyatt’s presence within WWE was not a factor to some fans, he was just so different from everything else in WWE, a product that sucks up an enormous amount of time each week, that he was welcomed with open arms by a bored fanbase. When his character failed to show significant depth and progression on WWE television, the fanbase simply made up their own rationales and explanations for what Wyatt was doing, thus birthing the notion of Fiend Lore. Fans obsessively poured over every aspect of Wyatt’s segments each week, believing they were all breadcrumbs leading to an enormous reveal, as if any product airing under the command of Vince McMahon would be even remotely capable of delivering in such nuanced fashion.
While Wyatt’s status as a creative genius has been overblown, he did possess one clear skill; which was an innate ability to get Vince McMahon to believe in his ideas. While numerous ex-WWE performers have gone on the record talking about their fruitless pitches to get their characters on WWE TV, Wyatt was able to consistently get his ideas approved by Vince. While Vince certainly tinkered with Wyatt’s ideas, by all accounts backstage most of the creative credit that went into Wyatt’s characters goes to the man himself.
Eventually, though, it all came apart for Wyatt.
WWE invested heavily in his character, but he never showed any real strength as an attraction beyond his ability to sell merchandise to his subset of loyal fans, who were likely all hardcore WWE fans anyway. Vince likely grew tired of his act, and had already passed most of it on to Alexa Bliss, a performer Vince has clearly always had high expectations for. In a cost-saving era, Wyatt was deemed expendable and let go.
What is next for Bray Wyatt? Almost anything seems possible. His loyal fans are deeply interested in him going somewhere where his creativity would be unrestricted, but does that place really exist? AEW is a much more serious promotion that will not promote gimmicks or acts that go beyond typical human capability, with Tony Khan expressing past regret for doing the Broken Matt Hardy gimmick on AEW television.
Part of the challenge for Wyatt is that outside of WWE he will have to likely prove himself to be a more dynamic in-ring performer. If he can’t be doing spooky magic all of the time, he will have to appear to be at least passable as a worker. Wyatt’s persona has never had to focus on in-ring work, and the result is that he hasn’t really gotten the reps or development to really shine in the ring, despite the fact that he has a tremendous athletic background (state champion in wrestling in high school, Junior College All-American in football, two years playing Division I football at Troy University).
Speculation about him going to NJPW seems really off-the-mark, he doesn’t nearly have the ring skills at this point to cut it and NJPW will not do the supernatural stuff at all. Perhaps he could find his way to Impact, which may allow him to do more magic and showmanship than more serious promotions.
I think it’s reasonable to wonder if his future will be in wrestling at all. Wyatt has always seemed to be more interested in storytelling than actual wrestling, as evidenced by his characters not really fitting into the rest of the wrestling world. In recent years, he has rarely had traditional wrestling matches, instead of coming up with wackier ways for him to avoid taking bumps and doing cinematic matches. It would not surprise me at all if he ended up acting or writing in entertainment; at this point it seems more up his alley than pro wrestling.
Wyatt is one of the most memorable wrestling personalities of the last decade, and in some ways, his personality represents a lot of the issues with the modern product. The inability to create long-term storylines that lead to significant character growth, and the trouble of coming up with the concept for a new character without having a plan on how to follow through with that persona. All of the problems exhibited throughout Wyatt’s run in the company highlight WWE’s lack of understanding of what pro wrestling is supposed to be and what fans want out of the unique artform.
In the most recent edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) go over the Wrestling Observers Newsletter Awards for 2021, give out their mid-year awards for Wrestler of the Year, Match of the Year, Promotion of the Year, Best on Interviews and more. They also go over the reason AEW has dominated these awards lately, what STARDOM has done right, where NJPW has gone wrong and more.