Here’s the thing about pro wrestling: It’s staged. Sometimes they play it fast and loose, the victor is determined by the man in charge just moments before the bell rings, and the wrestlers script the in-ring drama on the fly. Sometimes a match is diagrammed within an inch of its life. But scriptedness isn’t inherently a bad thing — the results may be predetermined, but the ending can still be a surprise.
The Money in the Bank match is the pinnacle of the built-in surprise. Sure, the Royal Rumble match is literally structured around surprise — 30, to be exact, one for every person who enters the Rumble. But in MITB, six or seven men compete to climb a ladder and grab a ceremonial briefcase that ensures the winner a chance at the WWE title at a time of his choosing. This works on two levels: (1) the winner brings an aura of uncertainty to every subsequent moment of WWE programming until he cashes in, and (2) the winner himself is hard to predict. The odds of the latter are one-in-six if you pick a number out of a hat, and there’s no amount of smart-fan prognostication that can divine a clear-cut winner from the field. Hell, last year Sheamus emerged from a seven-man field that had five guys with more compelling angles for victory.
One of those men was Roman Reigns, who was at one point the betting favorite at -420 versus the entire field (+300). Now, if you haven’t been keeping up with pro wrestling as much as some of us, you’re probably asking two questions: Why were Roman Reigns’s odds so high, and, more importantly, THERE’S BETTING ON PRO WRESTLING? The answer to the second question is yes, though there are usually $50 wager limits and the outcomes, even in the most obvious-seeming cases, are subject to the whimsy of last-second changes.
The answer to the first question is a bit more complicated. Roman Reigns came into WWE as a member of a trio called The Shield, along with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose — considered at the time the three top-rated prospects in WWE’s developmental system. Eventually, Rollins backstabbed Reigns and Ambrose and aligned himself with The Authority, the bad-guy faction run by COO Triple H. Reigns was then pegged as the next face of the company, but after decades of Vince McMahon pushing good-looking, muscular guys who didn’t have talent to warrant their position, fans turned on Reigns almost immediately. Things settled into a pattern: WWE would push Reigns, the fans would reject him, and WWE would pause the Reigns train for a few months, only to begin the process anew. Reigns actually had a (muted) majority of fans — people at untelevised shows went nuts for him — but the vocal, internet-savvy fans booed so loudly at broadcast events that pushing him seemed a fool’s errand. Even when he lost — like in last year’s MITB match — it felt like a foregone conclusion that he’d win the next time.
(For a case in point of WWE’s inevitability, see the Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon match at WrestleMania this year. Shane was wrestling for control of Raw. He lost, and as a result he … still got control of Raw.)
While Reigns was competing in ladder matches to earn his place atop the company in the eyes of an unconvinced fanbase, Rollins held down the fort as the champion, a title he won at WrestleMania 2015 and held for much of last year. But then Rollins blew out his knee and had to vacate the strap, yanking Reigns into the main-event picture. WWE did a dance to try to convince us that Triple H might stop Roman from getting the title, but finally — and thankfully — it put us out of our misery and gave Reigns the big win at WrestleMania in April. It was misery, really, because no matter what you think about Roman Reigns the wrestler — and I happen to think he’s pretty darn good — it all felt so predetermined. In a world built on predetermination, that sounds like a silly complaint, but it’s not: after a few years of scripted-but-occasionally-surprising booking, we had gone from the Reality Era to the Inevitability Era overnight. At least now, Reigns had won and WWE can start fresh.
WWE knew we were tired of Reigns’s title run before it started. After 18 months of projecting it — and after a solid year of vocal fans booing him out of the building at every major event — there was no amount of work he, or WWE, could do to salvage the Reigns project.
So, the night after this year’s WrestleMania, he came out and basically cut a heel promo. His new catchphrase — always said with a practiced, knowing sneer — is "I’m not a bad guy, I’m not a good guy,I’m the guy." WWE put him in a post-Mania feud with A.J. Styles, the one person on the roster who was indisputably more popular and beloved than Reigns. (Don’t get me wrong, Reigns had his proponents, but like John Cena, they were younger and less inclined to boo disruptively at major events.) Reigns won both of their meetings, as should have been expected, but a glimmer of doubt was built into the matchup. If WWE was crazy enough to put Styles in there, maybe, just maybe, it’d let him win.
It’s that governing philosophy that we see in the buildup to MITB. On Monday’s Raw, WWE primed fans for the title match by having Ambrose — the one-time partner of Reigns and Rollins — interview them. After the segment devolved into a brawl, Ambrose was the last man standing. Ambrose is in the MITB match on Sunday, and he made his intentions clear: he plans to win the briefcase, then cash it in and win the title from Reigns or Rollins — whoever won the main event — on the same night. It’s not so much introducing an element of true uncertainty as it is misdirection; whether or not it actually happens is secondary to WWE allowing us to think it may.
WWE must balance the desires of the people that cheer for Reigns with the people who boo him, while still producing an ending that will fulfill our desire for surprise. It’s a nearly impossible needle to thread (and one it only managed to achieve sporadically). There are four different interests to consider: (a) what the regular fans (known in the vernacular as "marks") want, (b) what the internet fans ("smarks") want, (c) what is likely to happen (defined by the betting odds and bettors, a.k.a "the sharps"), and (d) what actually happens. If WWE plays its cards right, (a) and (b) align with (d), but not (c)— meaning what happens has to be a surprise, or, as they call it in industry parlance, a "swerve." At MITB, threading that needle is more possible than at any other time of the year. So, let’s play a few rounds of my new party game — Mark, Smark, Sharp, and Swerve — and try to parse out this card.
Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins, WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match
Mark: Roman Reigns should win because he is the best.
Smark: Seth Rollins should win because he did such a great job playing a heel last year. Plus, he’s such a transcendent physical performer that he deserves the belt as a sign of WWE’s acknowledgement of these facts.
Sharp: Roman Reigns (-370) will beat Rollins (+235), presumably because Reigns is loved by the powers that be.
Swerve: Dean Ambrose will win the MITB match earlier in the night, cash in either after or during the main event, and walk out the champion.
John Cena vs. A.J. Styles
Mark: John Cena should win because he is the best. (Note: Last month, A.J. Styles was the best, but then he and his buddies beat up Cena on Raw a couple of weeks back.)
Smark: A.J. Styles should win because he spent years toiling on the indie and international scenes before finally making it to WWE four months ago and immediately proving he belonged there all along.
Sharp: A.J. Styles (-200) will beat John Cena (+150), presumably to drag out this feud.
Swerve: In storyline terms, the swerve would be finding a way for A.J.’s running buddies, Anderson and Gallows, to get involved both with his approval and without costing Styles the match. If you want to fantasy book a little further, Finn Balor, who has a shared history with Styles and Co., just wrestled what might have been his last match in NXT. Maybe he shows up, gets Anderson and Gallows to turn on Styles, and sets up a three-way beef.
Kevin Owens vs. Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn vs. Chris Jericho vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Alberto Del Rio, Money in the Bank Ladder Match for a Shot at the WWE Title
Mark: Dean Ambrose should win because he is the best. Or else Sami Zayn, because he is also the best.
Smark: Owens should win because he spent years toiling on the indie and international scenes before finally making it to WWE four months ago and immediately proving that he belonged there all along. Or else Sami Zayn, because ibid. Or maybe Cesaro.
Sharp: Owens (-140) will beat Ambrose (+245), Jericho (+600), Cesaro (+900), Zayn (+1800), and Del Rio (+2500)
Swerve: Look at the odds and the favorites, and draw your concentric circles — Zayn is the clear-cut way to make everybody happy and surprised at the same time. Rarely does such a straightforward and obvious answer present itself, which, in WWE think, probably means it’s too obvious to do.
Charlotte and Dana Brooke vs. Natalya and Becky Lynch
Mark: Natty and Becky should win because they are the best.
Sharp: [Odds not listed]
Swerve: Paige — who is supremely talented and has been mostly absent from WWE programming for the past several months, dealing with either a concussion, a new relationship, or something else — pinned Charlotte on Monday, while Natty and Becky watched happily from ringside. It seems odd just to throw that in as a prematch tease unless Paige is going to make her presence felt here. If WWE wanted to mix things up, it could drop her into the storyline, but don’t count on it for Sunday. This feels like more of a long-term setup.
The New Day (Big E, Kofi Kingston and/or Xavier Woods) (champions) vs. The Club (Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows) vs. Enzo Amore and Big Cass vs. The Vaudevillains (Aiden English and Simon Gotch), Fatal 4-Way Tag Team Match for the WWE Tag Team Championship
Mark: Normally, I would say The New Day should win because they are the best, but Enzo and Cass are also the best, and they are newer, and I like how they spell "soft" S-A-W-F-T.
Smark: Anderson and Gallows should win because they spent years toiling on the indie and international scenes before finally making it to WWE four months ago and immediately proving that — wait, hold on, Enzo and Cass should win because they are the bes — wait, fuck it, I’m okay with The New Day.
Sharp: The New Day (-160) will beat The Club (+200), Enzo and Cass (+550), and the Vaudevillains (+1800), presumably because Enzo and Cass aren’t quite there, The Club is probably more important to the Styles storyline than to the tag division, and a four-way match is an odd spot to crown a new champion.
Swerve: Simon Gotch throws Enzo out of the ring in an echo of the concussion he gave him at Payback, only for Enzo to make a comeback and pull off a shocking win alongside Cass. Marks are happy, smarks are happy, Bill Simmons’s son is happy, and The New Day can go back to being slightly tweener characters, which suits them much better.
Rusev (champion) (with Lana) vs. Titus O’Neil, Singles Match for the WWE United States Championship
Mark: Titus should win because Rusev is the worst.
Smark: On the one hand, Rusev should win because he is the best. On the other, Titus was suspended for some bullshit and deserves an apology in the form of a brief, uneventful title run.
Sharp: Rusev (-650) will beat O’Neil (+375), presumably because this feud is too insignificant to measure.
Swerve: Titus wins, then Rusev beats him up and takes the title back on Raw on Monday.
That’s both the best and worst thing about these swerves — and pro wrestling in general. They’re exciting, but they’re not binding. No matter who wins, everything resets on Monday night. Unless the MITB winner cashes in on Sunday, somebody will have the briefcase. Until they challenge the titleholder, fans will constantly hope against hope that this is the moment the unexpected will finally happen. Which is precisely the point: giving us hope that something bizarre may happen raises our expectations to untenable levels and sets us up for inevitable disappointment, sure — but at least we’ll be watching.