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What Can Braun Do for You?

WWE’s new giant has captured the imagination of its most demanding fans. How on earth did that happen?

(WWE/Ringer illustration)
(WWE/Ringer illustration)

Monday night, WWE Raw will feature a dumpster match between diminutive high-flyer Kalisto and Braun Strowman, the 6-foot-8, 385-pound backwoods behemoth. To anyone who’s watched wrestling at any point over the past two decades, Strowman cuts a familiar profile: he’s enormous, chiseled, gravel-voiced, and more suitable for flexing than gymnastics. Despite such affinity, he seems like a poor fit for the modern wrestling landscape, where dexterity, sass talk, and, frankly, unlikeliness are the primary indicators of success. And yet, here comes this dumpster match, which I know about because I got texts from multiple friends, and because Wrestling Twitter rejoiced with a glee normally reserved for five-star New Japan matches.

This match, for what it’s worth, is happening because last week, while on a backstage rampage, Strowman threw Kalisto into a dumpster, a strictly comical pratfall which evoked the dark-comedic run of Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie in 1998 as well as Kevin Nash harpooning Rey Mysterio into the side of a production van during the nWo takeover of WCW in 1996. It was funny, but this is more than a laugh line — it’s the latest installment of Raw’s unofficial "Strowman Goes Viral" meta-show. Three weeks ago he beat Roman Reigns into oblivion, culminating in Braun tipping over the ambulance that Reigns was recuperating in; last week he superplexed the Big Show off the top rope, demolishing the ring in the process.

In theory, Strowman’s run in WWE hasn’t been exceptional. But in execution, WWE suddenly has on its hands a superstar of unmeasurable wattage. And the craziest part of all is that the company — and we — saw it coming a mile away.

It must be said that a large part of Strowman’s appeal comes from the fact that he’s working opposite Roman Reigns. Reigns is a compelling if unspectacular wrestler with a static sort of soap opera charisma who has been almost inexorably sandbagged by the perception that he’s inevitable. Wrestling may be fake, but it’s organic, and anything that seems too predetermined in the modern era is roundly despised — at least by the noisier diehard fans. From the moment he split from the Shield, Reigns was tabbed by management as WWE’s next big star, and that rankled the fan base.

Strowman’s debut wasn’t any less obvious — he turned up as the heavy for the Wyatt Family, a position that allowed him to showcase his assets and hide his deficits, just like Reigns in the Shield. He was largely hidden from sight in WWE’s developmental system to amplify the excitement of his main roster arrival (again, like Reigns), running counter to the now-usual tactic of allowing wrestlers to build up goodwill amongst the hard-core fans by showcasing them in NXT. There was a sort of collective groan when he debuted: another Wyatt cult member was a sort of deus ex machina, the sort of surprise that nobody was surprised by.

And yet, there was something to Strowman. Maybe it was the office-nerd face badly Photoshopped onto the frame of a Gold’s Gym gorilla, maybe it was his sheer stature in an era when nearly all of our stars are three-quarter-sized technicians — those things helped. But most importantly, from the moment he debuted he was beating up Roman Reigns. And even though he shared an origin with his target, the fans were preoccupied with seeing Roman get his meta-comeuppance.

Strowman is a throwback to a bygone era of wild beasts let loose in the wrestling ring. (His pre-WWE look was straight out of Mid-South wrestling.) And the simplicity of his retro nature is part of his charm. According to Bray Wyatt, the real-life Strowman was like an overgrown kid, always chasing whatever occurred to him at the moment. There’s an undeniable synchronicity between the simplicity of character and of actor. If the old saying is true that the best characters are the performers’ real selves turned up to 11, then Strowman is Adam Scherr grinning sheepishly because he accidentally ate the volume knob.

But the simplicity of his character takes on another level in the modern era of meta-storytelling. In the territorial days, a monster like Strowman would materialize from the haze and terrorize the show’s top babyface until, against all odds, the hero inevitably prevailed. We are now in an era with no heroes and villains, where Roman Reigns can simultaneously be the company’s hero and biggest heel at the same time, and where someone like Jinder Mahal is the biggest baddy on Smackdown precisely because he has no business in that role. Strowman serves the same role that he would have in the old days — we’re just rooting for the bad guys now. Or rather, we’re rooting against the front office. Instead of fearing that our idol might be dismembered, we’re cheering in hopes that the future might be altered. When Braun pummelled Roman into the dirt, it was a momentary glimpse into a timeline where we smart fans Voltroned into a bearded megalith and took out our resentment on the WWE writing team.

This is how a monster from the powerlifting ranks with a negligible work rate and the obvious blessing from the powers that be earns the respect of millions of egghead fans: He’s one of us.

The problem with monsters in modern pro wrestling, if we can winnow it down to one, is their lack of depth. In today’s WWE, between outsize (and seldom met) expectations for long-term storytelling and the sheer glut of programming, monsters need to be more than simple forces of nature. They need personality and depth. And while Strowman hasn’t performed a soul-searching monologue, there is nonetheless a powerful hint that there is something bubbling beneath his saddle-leather surface. His constant demands of the Raw GM (first Mick Foley and now his replacement, Kurt Angle) that he get a suitable challenge feels like more than a monster’s rampage. It’s the pursuit of relevance, a cognizant decision shaped by the quizzical paths of Big Show and Mark Henry and Umaga and all the leviathans that came before him. He’s a student of the game, if an unwitting one. Look at the battles he’s pursued — Reigns, Big Show, even Sami Zayn — and the one he notably walked away from: The Undertaker. Strowman’s bete noire isn’t a wrestler or even an archetype — what he’s fighting against is bad booking. He passed on Taker because — just like us — he respects the story line.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Certainly I am. But the power that Braun Strowman has over the WWE fan base can’t be denied. So much is made of grabbing the brass ring in pro wrestling — of seizing opportunities and forcing your way into stardom. In this period of post-WrestleMania rebuilding, in the absence of Brock Lesnar and Triple H and the Undertaker and John Cena, the understudies are getting stage time. And with the two anchors of the past six months of Raw — Charlotte Flair and Kevin Owens — transferred to Smackdown and with the Reigns story line shelved until his return against Strowman at Payback next week, Strowman has been given an unusual platform to excel.

And it’s working. Unlike with past pushes, WWE is giving him exactly the right kind of showcase. The Big Show super-duperplex was a powerful response to the success of Braun’s dismemberment of Reigns, and the dumpster match on Raw is an intriguing end to the improbable trilogy. The Big Show stunt had been pulled twice before, which should have left the crowd groaning. And yet they cheered. Strowman is impervious to disdain because it’s all just so joyously silly. Where better to go next than a dumpster? Even if Roman Reigns jumps out of the trash to tease the match on Sunday, and even if Reigns wins that match, the Strowman project will have been a success. Hell, it might even be for the better — the more he wins, the more inevitable he’ll seem.

For now, though, Strowman is our overgrown underdog. Look back at his debut, at the hamfisted obviousness of it all. Part of fans’ dissatisfaction with Reigns is that we were on board with his push right up until the point that we weren’t. (Just listen to the crowd here.) With Strowman, he appeared so destined to be a laughingstock that, even with the imprimatur of the WWE front office, it felt safe to root for him. If he wasn’t Daniel Bryan, he wasn’t that far off from Zack Ryder.

I’ll say here that Strowman is improving week to week, but even still it’s almost impossible to rate him on any coherent scale. He’s lackluster at wrestling, at talking, at just about everything except being enormous. He’s a rejection of our own criteria for in-ring success. That’s why, in this era of underdogs, his success is possible — and so poignant. The impossibility of it all, judging by our own metrics. He’s the Territorial Era monster tearing through town to beat up the local star. But in this case, the star isn’t Reigns — it’s us, the "smart" fans, and he’s ripping us to shreds. And the crowd is going wild.