The biggest question entering Sunday’s SummerSlam show at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn was whether the end of the Brock Lesnar era in WWE was upon us. His exit has been rumored for some time, and in earnest since WrestleMania, when his existing contract was set to expire, and he was assumed to be heading back to the UFC. But Lesnar reupped with WWE in April, and the company shocked the crowd by postponing his seemingly inevitable downfall. Lesnar’s reign has been tenuous since it first began in 2014 and restarted in 2017. It was always a marriage of convenience; Lesnar was a megastar in an era when WWE was looking for one, and the theory was that he could help legitimize the younger generation of wrestlers who would take the mantle from him. But Lesnar proved to be less a transitional champion and more a transactional one. It was a crass move by both sides: Lesnar worked minimal dates and WWE paid him lots of money for it. Meanwhile, the rest of the roster wrestled in his faint shadow, unable to challenge him in his absence or benefit from his credibility. But hey, Lesnar was fun when he showed up.
The deeper question entering Sunday wasn’t whether Lesnar’s time was up—it was—but who would take over for him atop the company, and whether WWE would be ready for the transition. This year marks a point of immense star power in WWE, but it’s a fragmented sort of upper card that probably speaks to the amassed talent. Braun Strowman is the burgeoning, postmodern Hulk—a cross between Hogan and the “Incredible” one. Daniel Bryan is the undersized megastar, just back from a years-long injury retirement. Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens are the reliable Swiss army knives—the former a gymnastic workhorse and the latter a portly, shit-talking supernova—who are both former world champions and reliable standard bearers. AJ Styles and Samoa Joe are two of the absolute best pro wrestlers in the world, operating at their peaks, brawling over the WWE’s second-tier title. The New Day are getting too many cheers (and selling too many T-shirts) to risk a move further into the spotlight. The list of folks who could be the next John Cena—the Miz, Shinsuke Nakamura, Becky Lynch, Finn Bálor, Andrade “Cien” Almas, Charlotte Flair, Keith Lee—is seemingly endless. Ronda Rousey could be the next Brock Lesnar, or may already be.
And then there’s Roman Reigns, the cardboard-cutout action hero who was cast as Lesnar’s foil. Reigns is an elite talent, perpetually hamstrung by the perceived favoritism he’s received from the WWE office. He was supposed to depose Lesnar at WrestleMania 31, but WWE audibled to Rollins for fear of a fan revolt. More recently, he was set to win this year at WrestleMania 34, but then Lesnar re-signed and—again in the the face of a fan revolt—WWE punted. He got a rematch at the Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia, but lost in controversial fashion—a move that kept him relevant and kept Lesnar on top, if absent. By the time Reigns finally toppled Brock on Sunday in Brooklyn, it felt less like a story of hard work and eventual triumph and more like a long-delayed sigh, a meta-story about a company’s reluctance to promote its favorite son to the corner office.
The crowd hardly booed; they were ready to be done with it. Or maybe they were just confused. Strowman—who held the Money in the Bank briefcase, guaranteeing him a title shot any time he wanted—came out before the match and announced that he’d challenge the winner. In the heat of things, Strowman was decimated by Lesnar, annulling his stated intentions. And the tease of Lesnar’s advocate Paul Heyman switching sides to align with Roman didn’t materialize. But the audience still expected something—anything—to shake things up in the aftermath of Reigns’s win. The biggest boo of the night at Barclays was reserved for the show-closing chyron that popped up on the Jumbotron, signaling any potential postmatch high jinks moot.
The real question entering SummerSlam was: What is the surprise going to be? In the end, the answer was none.
Roman Reigns has been groomed for the role of big dog in a post–Brock Lesnar WWE, but can he exist outside of Lesnar’s shadow? (Even on Monday night, Lesnar was advertised for Raw, and his absence was conspicuous.) The show opened with the announcement of a title match between Reigns and Bálor for the main event, and Strowman reiterated his promise to challenge the winner, an implicit request of the Brooklyn crowd to go along with the new era for the night. If nothing else, the new era wouldn’t just be about Reigns; it would be about Strowman and Bálor and the new generation, broadly defined.
Of course, in moments of need, WWE always defaults to its past. As much as Lesnar was a crossover MMA star, he was a callback to an earlier, more vital era of pro wrestling. Triple H, onetime WWE headliner and current paterfamilias of its developmental program, NXT, came out Monday to formalize his upcoming fight in Australia against the Undertaker, another old-timer who was assumed to have been retired; it’s a symbol of WWE’s cultural cachet that fans want to see this match, but it’s also endemic of the question mark hanging over the current roster. Raw GM Kurt Angle is another relic of that era, and he wrestled recently at WrestleMania. In the Barclays Center on Monday, the Jumbotrons pushed the WWE 24 special about the Hardy Boyz, the early-2000s tag team who overcame various “demons” to find themselves newly relevant in 2018—in their 40s.
Shortly after the Hardys commercial, WWE played another promotional video, this one from its more recent past. It was about the Shield, a trio of up-and-comers who stormed into WWE in 2012. If it was a standard-issue commercial, it was a great coincidence. If it was deliberate—and it surely was—it was brilliant. The Shield consisted of Reigns, Rollins, and Dean Ambrose, who in real time just returned from the DL to an overwhelming chorus of cheers. Those cheers aren’t unusual for Rollins and Ambrose, though Ambrose’s return amped them up. From their first appearance at Survivor Series 2012—in ghastly black turtlenecks and cargo pants, quickly (thankfully) remodeled into full-on tactical gear, where they powerbombed Ryback through the announce table and helped CM Punk win the title—they were the embodiment of the seductive jolt that a true shock can bring. The crowd ate it up.
“What is this?” asked announcer Michael Cole incredulously. “These three guys just came rushing through the crowd!” He went on to “realize” who they were, three NXT standouts appearing suddenly on the main roster. Their abstract aura made them irresistible. And this was a different era of NXT, which now airs weekly on the WWE Network and is as much a philosophical rival to WWE proper as it is a farm system. Most fans had no idea who these three were. NXT today is an incredible product and an invaluable asset to WWE, and the excitement at every call-up to Raw or SmackDown is made all the better because fans already know them. But in the new era, there are no surprises like the Shield. The only question when an NXT wrestler debuts is whether WWE will fail to translate their NXT popularity to the next level. There are still a few wrestlers who make shocking returns and the rare AJ Styles, who popped up unannounced without going through NXT. But for the most part, the era of real surprise is over.
Or that’s how it seemed until Monday night. The main event on Raw got going relatively early, with Reigns and Bálor putting in a very good back-and-forth match that ended abruptly when Strowman made his way to the ring and allowed Reigns the killshot. Then Strowman cashed in the briefcase, looming over a depleted Reigns. But before the bell could ring, the Shield’s theme music hit. Rollins and Ambrose marched out to the ring, and, along with Reigns, proceeded to beat the monstrous Strowman to a pulp. The steady crescendo from the normally antsy post-SummerSlam crowd signaled the triumph: They were invested in Reigns-Bálor, they popped for Strowman’s entrance, exploded when he cashed in, and lost their minds when the Shield came out. If the hardest thing about revisiting the past is recapturing whatever magic it held, credit WWE for Monday night. That was what surprise feels like.
If Reigns’s win at SummerSlam was a sigh, the Shield reunion was a sigh of relief—even if it came out in an 18,000-person squeal. It was a moment of vital nostalgia, a throwback with relevance and urgency. Moreover, it was a sign that for all the WWE’s insistence that Reigns is the “big dog,” the heir to John Cena and the Rock, it realizes that Reigns alone isn’t enough.
Is WWE ready for a post-Lesnar reality? If Monday night was any indication, it might be. (For what it’s worth, Lesnar may not have been at Raw, but Heyman was, trying to book Lesnar into a rematch. Angle declined, which theoretically writes off Lesnar so that he can pursue his UFC fancy, but it still leaves him looming as brutal subtext.)
WWE seemed like it failed to learn from its mistakes with Reigns, but it apparently learned enough not to subject Strowman to the same ignominy. Rather than thrust him unprepared and unvetted into the champion role, the company’s been taking it slowly, letting him build up his credentials by flipping trucks and tag-teaming with kids. Since he won the MITB match, he’s been looming in the background like an inverse Reigns, the briefcase signaling his inevitable title win without the repetitive story line thudding. The Shield reunion was more evidence that the machine can learn: It knows that Reigns alone isn’t enough. And maybe, just maybe, that’s enough to quell the dissatisfaction of hardcore fans.
The problem with Reigns wasn’t that he was bad, or even that he’s a champion. And it’s not even entirely that Vince McMahon appointed him heir to the throne. It was that after the John Cena era, fans didn’t want another leading man. They didn’t want the week-in, week-out inevitability that Cena represented. Whether Reigns can ever be a Cena-style crossover star remains to be seen. But for now, he won’t have to carry the company on his own in the way that Cena did. At least not until the Shield breaks up again, and we go wild for that, and then we reset the clock for the next reunion.
During the Shield promo package earlier in the night, Rollins said that he learned presence from Reigns and character from Ambrose and that he hoped they learned something from him, too. But the real lesson of the Shield—in story line and out—is that there’s strength in numbers. After they put Strowman through the announce table on Monday, Reigns, sweaty and tired, looked at his stablemates and said, “Thanks, guys,” and that about said it all.
The Reigns era—or the Roman Empire, as WWE calls it—has just begun, but in a sense it’s already over, because the defining characteristic of the past three-plus years was that creeping feeling of inevitability. Even when Lesnar was on top, the objective was obvious. The waiting is finally over, and the Reigns era was the waiting. It was the obviousness of everything. On Monday night, WWE pulled out a surprise the likes of which I half-thought we’d never see again.
It might be the Last Big Surprise; post–Monday Night Wars, after WWE acquired most of the wrestling talent in the world and put it on display in NXT, it’s hard to recapture that old feeling of total, unglued excitement. Sure, there could be shocks here and there—Kenny Omega or a returning star like Batista or Cody Rhodes—but Monday night captured something sublime. WWE lured us in for three years with the Reigns push and then paid it off by tossing it away, in the best way possible.
It feels weird to say, but Roman’s the champ, and I’m excited. What were we worried about, anyway?