At WrestleMania 28, Daniel Bryan was the world heavyweight champion — the second-tier title in those heady WWE days. He was also a bad guy. But he was beloved by the vocal set of clued-in fans that make up the bulk of the WrestleMania live crowd. His opponent, Sheamus, represented a traditionalist figure within WWE — a front-office favorite in an era when the smart fans wanted to root for wrestlers with indie credibility and longer odds — as well as a hurdle for Bryan’s ascent up the ladder. When Bryan galloped to the ring, chanting, "Yes! Yes! Yes!", most of the 78,000 fans chanted along with him, despite his efforts to rile them. When he climbed into the ring and kissed his valet, AJ Lee, the audience settled down into their seats to relish Bryan’s moment on wrestling’s biggest stage.
And then Sheamus kicked him in the face and pinned him. It was a squash, in loose wrestling parlance. What is a squash? It’s a match that’s one-sided and short, one that exists traditionally to make one person look good at the expense of the other. In the old days, squash matches would be used to showcase stars against tomato-can opponents. The stench of all those fallen jobbers made Bryan’s loss even worse. His big WrestleMania moment was 18 seconds of embarrassment.
Fans were apoplectic. The boos washed over the Sun Life Stadium slowly — it happened so quickly, it beggared belief. To have him open the show was one thing, but to lose? Surely there was another move coming — they’d restart the match, right? It couldn’t end like that. But it did.
Two years later, at WrestleMania 30, Bryan beat the company’s COO, Triple H, in an early-card match to win his way into the main event and then, in the night’s finale, he won the WWE championship. Now, it’s easy to look back at WrestleMania 28 and see it as a categorical error, a blip on the inevitable arc of Bryan’s career to the top of the industry. In the same way, it was too reductive to look at Bryan’s bumpy road in the intervening two years as WWE fighting against the fans’ wishes and trying to keep Bryan out of the top spot at all costs. Setting aside for the moment the plausible notion that it was in part a long con by WWE — this is its job, after all — those complaints ignore the fact that Bryan’s harrowing ascent up the ladder was precisely what fueled his ascent.
Which is to say: Bryan won the world championship at WrestleMania 30 because he lost in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28. If the WrestleMania 30 win was the Thanksgiving turkey, the squash was, er, the appetizer.
On Sunday night at WWE’s Survivor Series, the main event was a throwback super fight between Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg. The two famously fought at WrestleMania 20 (Goldberg won), after which Lesnar spent five years following the scent of blood through Vikings training camp and (most notably) the UFC’s heavyweight ranks, and Goldberg took a 12-year hiatus from the ring — and, stray reality show appearances aside, from the public eye as well. Lesnar has reclaimed his pro wrestling legend since returning to WWE two years ago, but all the hype Goldberg brought into the ring on Sunday was from the annals of wrestling lore. Despite Goldberg’s inevitable ring rust and Lesnar’s middling interest in pro wrestling (and their combined age of 88), fans’ expectations were high. Fans argued on both sides about who would win, and what shape the match would take. But one thing that nobody predicted was exactly what happened: Goldberg won cleanly in 86 seconds. Lesnar might be WWE’s biggest star, but this was a glorified squash match.
When it went down, fans were stunned. The live crowd in Toronto seemed shaken. Wrestling message boards blew up. My Twitter feed was a 30-minute parade of "WTF"s. The Masked Man Show post-match roundtable crew was perplexed.
And somewhere, Vince McMahon was probably chuckling.
The big-card squash match is a tested tool in the wrestling promoter’s tool belt. In the inverse of Bryan’s trajectory, King Kong Bundy beat SD Jones in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 1 and headlined WM 2 against Hulk Hogan. Hogan himself beat Yokozuna at WrestleMania 9 in 22 seconds to take the world title. The Ultimate Warrior beat Honky Tonk Man in 30 seconds at SummerSlam 1988 en route to the WWF Intercontinental title. Diesel beat Bob Backlund in eight seconds to win his first world championship. These are distinct circumstances, sure, but one thing they all have in common is that fans remember them fondly. Nobody complains about the lack of workrate in the Bundy-Jones match. Nobody today argues that Backlund deserved better against Diesel. The big-time squash match is a memorable and digestible moment of violence and surprise. It’s pro wrestling distilled.
All of this, however, omits the most obvious reference from Sunday night: Goldberg’s own career. After being signed by WCW following a stint in the NFL, Goldberg was thrust into the spotlight to save WCW’s flagging ratings, dropping unwitting opponent after unwitting opponent in mere seconds until his undefeated streak landed him in the ring with Hulk Hogan, where he won the WCW title in a match that was about 90 seconds of action treading water in an eight-minute-long pool. The crowd ate it up, though. This was Goldberg’s appeal: the dominance, the invulnerability, and the feeling that you were a party to a big moment.
The Survivor Series main event was a big moment. Both Goldberg and Lesnar have made their careers on big moments. (Lesnar has squashed his share of wrestlers, from Zach Gowen to John Cena.) And there’s one way in which the better comparison for Sunday’s big match wasn’t Sheamus vs. Bryan, but Lesnar vs. the Undertaker at WrestleMania 30. Nobody expected Lesnar to win that match, but he did. And just like on Sunday, the crowd left confused and angry, and it was the biggest wrestling moment in recent memory. If there’s one thing that match taught us, it’s that sometimes sending the crowd home happy isn’t the best move. Sometimes sending them home confused is. Wrestling works when you hate the heels as much as when you love the babyfaces, and sometimes "confused and angry" means "memorable." Judging by the mainstream media’s reaction — the gauge by which WWE frequently measures success — the shock ending to Lesnar-Goldberg was a moment for the ages.
On Monday night, Goldberg announced that his career would continue and entered himself in the Royal Rumble. There are rumors that Lesnar will be in the match, too — of course he will. The point of Sunday’s match wasn’t the squash itself — it was the promise that the feud would continue. They’ll probably have a rematch at WrestleMania 33 in April, and if Daniel Bryan is any indication, fans will be even more excited for it than they were for the Survivor Series fight.
Today, the squash is a self-conscious decision by a wrestling promotion. The drive for TV ratings in the ’90s rendered the traditional squash match passé, and these days you see WWE return to that formula only for nostalgia’s sake — for old-fashioned debuts of old-fashioned monster heels. If big-time squashes are rarer these days, it’s because WWE knows how powerful they are in the modern age.
The rematch almost certainly won’t be a squash. Not that WrestleMania hasn’t seen its share of squash matches: Sheamus-Bryan, Bundy-Jones, the Road Warriors vs. Power and Glory at WrestleMania VII, the Red Rooster vs. Bobby "The Brain" Heenan at WrestleMania V, and Earthquake vs. Adam Bomb at WrestleMania X, which is perhaps the most literal squash ever performed. Sometimes a squash isn’t a lack of payoff — sometimes it’s precisely the right payoff.
And sometimes it’s exactly the right move to get you talking, to whet your appetite for the next match. Pro wrestling isn’t a boxing supercard, it’s a never-ending soap opera. Almost nobody rides off into the sunset in WWE, and rarely do feuds end definitively. We’ll look back on Sunday as the moment when WWE surprised us — when Goldberg surprised us. The disappointment will fade into the fabric of the larger story line. And at WrestleMania we’ll have a match twice as big as Sunday’s, and it’ll be a real match this time.
Or it’ll be a squash, and WWE will have us confused and angry again, and we’ll remember it forever.
This post has been updated to reflect that King Kong Bundy beat SD Jones at Wrestlemania 1, not 2, and faced Hulk Hogan at WM 2.