Inside the Money in the Bank briefcase is an escape hatch. The briefcase is won every year in the aftermath of WrestleMania, and the winner gets a title shot at any time they want, even if it’s in the middle or aftermath of another match. In storytelling terms, it’s an evocative tease that can structure the main-event picture for a year. In practical terms, though, it’s an easy solution in any moment of fan apathy or general uncertainty. When Brock Lesnar—collegiate wrestling champ, UFC headliner, and WWE icon—snuck into the MITB match and won the briefcase in May, the message was clear: In case of emergency, Brock glass.
That’s what happened Sunday night at WWE’s Extreme Rules PPV. Seth Rollins defended the Universal title, only to be waylaid by Lesnar and defeated to close the show. Maybe it was the uncertainty presented by the Rollins era after he won the title (from Lesnar) at WrestleMania. Maybe it was the unpredictability of the looming TV realignment with SmackDown moving to Friday nights on Fox. Maybe it was the impending rivalry with upstart fed AEW (which, not coincidentally, had a show of its own on Saturday night). WWE knew it would need Lesnar at some point—it just didn’t know when.
Turns out, it was Sunday night. After a months-long (or years-long, depending on how you look at it) story line culminating in Rollins’s triumph over the unbeatable Lesnar in April, it took only three months for WWE to seemingly lose confidence in its golden boy. Ratings have wilted over the spring and early summer, and WWE is flailing for answers; the return of Vince McMahon, the wild-card rule, the reemergence of Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff, and this week’s Raw Reunion are a few of the stunts they’ve rolled out. As many half-hearted solutions there are to the problem, there are twice as many reasons for the swoon. But it’s clear that whatever anxiety lies at the heart of WWE HQ, the lesson is clear: If it ain’t Brock, don’t fix it.
So why the quick reversal? Pressure from new TV partner Fox must have factored in—it can’t be eager to launch a new show (and the lynchpin of its four-day weekly sports calendar) with a recent history of record-low ratings. The Universal title (the one Brock now holds) is a Raw belt, but (1) that doesn’t mean that he can’t arbitrarily be moved to SmackDown for the Fox debut, be it via the wild-card rule or some sort of expansion draft, and (2) any good ratings will help—a rising tide and all that.
There’s also Heyman. The longtime ECW impresario and backstage talent whisperer—and, most importantly, on-screen “advocate” of Lesnar—has been newly inserted as executive director of Raw, and the effects, both in on-screen content and in ratings, have already been felt. Heyman has long been as much an advocate off-screen for Brock as he is on it, and while being the mouthpiece for the conqueror over the past several years, you have to imagine Heyman’s own mouthpiece was watering at the opportunity to write some of the Brock legend with his own quill. Now he has that chance.
Then there’s the competition angle: With AEW three shows in and on the eve of the debut of its weekly TNT show, WWE has to be on war footing, and Brock as champ—no matter how tired that may seem—is its surest means of defense. Brock is the established mainstream name, and what’s more, there’s the meta case for WWE putting its babyface back in the underdog position as it inevitably gets painted as the opposite for the new looming wrestling wars versus AEW.
Which is to say that this doesn’t necessarily imply a no-confidence vote in Rollins; there’s always the chance that WWE decided that it should have Rollins retake the title at SummerSlam next month and run the whole thing back. As the endless starting and stopping with the Roman Reigns story line proved, nobody loves a mulligan more than WWE, and I don’t just mean the Blackjack variety. Maybe WWE saw the error of its ways in making Rollins’s victory lap a three-month beef with the humdrum Baron Corbin.
On Sunday night, prior to Lesnar’s cash-in, Rollins was teaming with his real-life (and on-screen) girlfriend, Becky Lynch—who, for her part, claimed the Raw women’s championship in the main event at WrestleMania—in a winners-take-all match against Corbin and his partner, Lacey Evans. No, Corbin and Evans aren’t an item, but they do share a passion for treading water. Ok, maybe that’s a tad rough. They’re both intriguing performers. Though Evans is a bit undercooked and overbooked, Corbin is an incredibly competent performer with the look of a main eventer (minus the button-down shirt that screams, “Would you like to try the Lobsterita?”).
A few points here: One, there is no reality in which two good-looking wrestlers are a real on-screen couple and your two main champions and don’t end up getting booed by the fans. There’s just no track record for in-ring items being anything but boo fodder. Pro wrestling occupies a weird space when it comes to real-life intervention. Just because fans know Rollins and Lynch are an item—and even after WWE formally acknowledged it—it doesn’t mean that it has to become a part of the on-screen story line. Fans are trained to know that at any given moment there are backstage relationships that aren’t presented as canon. They’re also trained to hate any expression of sincere on-screen romance.
But if that was a miscalculation, it’s also a doubling-down on the initial one—the institution of Corbin as the top baddie on Raw. Corbin is good at just about everything but not entirely great—and that’s fine, but Rollins didn’t need to be saddled with a construction project this early in his reign. Meanwhile, Lynch has gone from the top of the mountain to a squabble with newcomer Evans, who is a different kind of mediocre than Corbin but objectionable all the same. To make them the foils to your two new megastars risks bringing down all four. Surely WWE was on some level aware of this, and the wild thing is its plan started to pay off Sunday night, moments before Lesnar’s appearance. In a matter of moments, both Evans and Corbin won me over, the former with a perfect springboard moonsault followed by a bloody-mouthed grin—
—and the latter with a despicable end of days on Lynch (even in a mixed tag match, intergender violence is usually verboten) after which he pointed at a felled Rollins and screamed, “What are you going to do about it, you piece of shit?”
BARON CORBIN U MONSTER LMAOOOO pic.twitter.com/ynDNTcjAvW— WrestlinGifs (@WrestlinGifs) July 15, 2019
(One wonders whether Corbin wasn’t the vessel for the voice of McMahon in this instance.)
Just because they hit their acmes in a losing effort isn’t necessarily a problem; both Corbin and Evans will get other chances to shine. Same goes for Rollins—he’ll get his return match with Lesnar either Monday night on Raw or at SummerSlam, and he’ll have a whole new cycle in which to rally fan support and reclaim the mantle. For the time being, he is indisputably Raw’s anchor and standard-bearer, but whether that makes him its champion is another question.
Wrestling has an interesting relationship with reality. The folks in charge choose their champions, but championships are largely earned in a very real way in the court of public opinion. But that is in part relative to the PR campaign that the performer and WWE wage together. Maybe Rollins wasn’t a real-life ratings boost. (Maybe Lynch wasn’t either.) But that’s the point of wrestling, even in the modern era—you can make things into reality. In this case WWE has decided to abdicate the creator role. It decided to go Brock to basics.
Or maybe this was the plan all along. Maybe the dry-erase board in Stamford always had “Brock cashes in” scrawled on the Extreme Rules rundown. Maybe the point was always to have Lesnar as champ going into SummerSlam in Toronto next month. Maybe Rollins will get his rematch on another big stage and come out on top yet again, and maybe we’ll look back on this as a tiny hiccup on his otherwise sterling résumé. There’s precedent—think about Hulk Hogan coming back to upend Bret Hart’s first run in the main event.
But it sure seems like a deliberate reset. It seems like a commentary on the current product. It seems deliberate. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, well, them’s the Brocks.