Pro wrestling is fantasy. It’s not sword-and-sorcery, but it’s fantasy nonetheless. And while no one (present company excepted) would accuse WWE of wielding metaphor as a weapon in the manner that epic fantasy sometimes does, it reflects our culture in a much more insidious manner, putting on a sideshow mirror version of our ids and superegos, our visceral angst, in the form of campy brawling. If at times I have read too much into the meaning of pro wrestling, it’s because (1) the art inherently asks as much of the audience as the performers, and (2) because I want it to be more than it is.
That, in a nutshell, is the plight of the wrestling fan, and the reason the source of our great disappointment is our own expectations. Wrestling doesn’t have the prestige of scripted television or the plausible deniability of real sports, and so our confidence as fans in the product is inherently skewed. We want it to be better, and it’s always easy enough to imagine a better way forward—or what seems like one, anyway.
On my podcast last week, I fantasy-booked an ending to SummerSlam. It wasn’t brilliant, but it made a perfect sort of sense. Frankly, I wish I hadn’t said it, because now I’m the tout who predicted the long-shot win, and anything else will be a disappointment. That’s not quite the right metaphor, though, because fantasy booking isn’t predicting the outcome of pro wrestling—it’s hoping for it. It’s a second-level meta-contest between the WWE creative team and fans who think they can do it better. [Ahem.] We’ll get to my proposal in a second, but first a bit of background.
Four years ago, the Shield—Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose—were the most popular faction in WWE. They split up when Seth Rollins joined the Authority, the evil establishment group. Seth went the way of evil; Ambrose put on jeans and began a Steve Austin–lite comedic run; and Reigns kept the trappings (and, theoretically, the mystique) of the Shield and was shoved into the main event spotlight. Since then, Rollins got hurt and turned babyface; Ambrose won the WWE championship, lost it, and fizzled, or vice versa; and Reigns became the most contemptible “star” of the company since John Cena at his “Cena Sucks” peak. All of this bears mention because two of the most popular fantasy-booking ideas are (1) a three-way battle between the former Shieldsters for the title, and, more importantly, (2) the reunion of the Shield. In the present, Ambrose and Rollins (who battled extensively after their breakup) have formed an uneasy alliance to go after the Raw tag titles, currently held by Sheamus and Cesaro. Meanwhile, Reigns is one of four—along with Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman, and Samoa Joe—wrestlers contending for the WWE Universal title.
So here’s my pitch: Rollins and Ambrose win, and the crowd goes wild. Then, in the main event, they interfere to help Reigns win the title, and the Brooklyn crowd turns on them, reforming the Shield as the biggest heel faction this side of the nWo. As good as he quietly has become, Reigns is symbolic of WWE’s inorganic booking decisions, and the crowd has fully turned on him. (And to his credit, he’s embraced the hate in a way Cena never fully did.) If he were to win on Sunday, the audience would boo the show into oblivion. If Rollins and Ambrose—who have themselves both failed to find their footing as headline babyfaces—helped him, the fans would still flip out. But instead of booing WWE, as they’d be doing if Reigns won clean, they’d be booing Rollins and Ambrose for abetting the win fans were dreading. They’d be booing WWE’s newest heel faction. The SummerSlam crowd would be throwing trash like it was Bash at the Beach ’96. Instead of going home disenchanted, we’d be going home angry.
That’s good booking. Or at least, I think so. And of course I do, because it’s my idea.
This is the real problem with fantasy booking. Reality can never meet the expectations of imagination. If 100 Reddit commenters have better ideas for how Jon Snow should get to Eastwatch, they could never agree on a replacement, and yet they’ll all be disappointed in what happens on Game of Thrones this week. It’s not a knock on fandom—it’s one of the perils of consciousness. If you care enough about something, it’s easy to talk yourself into hating it. This has become the core of wrestling fandom. It’s like that saying—the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s going out to a bar on Monday night without caring that your DVR is broken.
But sometimes, reality has a way of fantasy booking on its own. Take Sunday’s Raw women’s championship match between Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks. A month ago, Bayley won the right to challenge Bliss for the belt. Bayley’s run on Raw has been a dud since she debuted last July. She rose to renown in NXT as the underdog who finally made it to the top, but she was introduced on Raw as a conquering hero. With her hugs, side ponytail, neon colorways, and nuclear earnestness, she’s a magnet for the young girl demo, and she should have a firm place in WWE. But the company should have run back the underdog story line and made her earn her fandom on the main roster, because as Daniel Bryan she’s fantastic, but as the Ultimate Warrior she’s been a dull thud.
When Bayley won the no. 1 contendership, it felt like there had to be another shoe to drop—not only was Bayley’s mediocrity apparent, but we were a mere month removed from a very good battle between Bliss and Banks at Great Balls of Fire that begged for a rematch. Apparently WWE wasn’t planning for a sequel, but when Bayley hurt her shoulder during a collision with the ring apron, it was forced to scramble, putting the title shot up for grabs in a tournament of all the women on Raw, and Banks came out on top. It’s like the universe heard the message boards groan and corrected course.
It’s not always the universe making changes, though—sometimes it’s WWE. WWE bigwigs like to say that they can test-market their product five nights a week—every time they put on a show in front of an audience. And even though it can seem like they’re hearing what they want to hear, sometimes they respond to crowd boredom. (It should be said that the difference between what WWE hears and what it seems like fans want has a lot to do with the difference between the more forgiving fans at house shows and the snarky ones at Monday Night Raw, though that doesn’t change the perception for the at-home viewer that WWE’s pet projects are poorly received.) On Monday, WWE added a broken hand to the broken Big Show–Big Cass feud; swapped the cruiserweight title from Neville to challenger Akira Tozawa, giving some much-needed heat to what was already a rematch from a month ago; and raised the stakes (or the gore, anyway) of Finn Bálor vs. Bray Wyatt when the latter dumped a “viscous acidic liquid of some sort”—fake blood by literally any other name—over the former’s head.
Over on SmackDown, the main event picture—previously occupied by a Randy Orton–Jinder Mahal feud that felt like a months-long Aristocrats routine, but with the Great Khali instead of scatology—has been reinvigorated by the return of John Cena and the absolutely unthinkable ouster of Cena by newcomer Shinsuke Nakamura. When Nakamura takes on Mahal on Sunday for the WWE championship, and Cena deigns to give a platform to Baron Corbin, match quality will take a backseat to the sheer implausibility of the matchmaking. Two weeks ago, when Nakamura (legitimately) suplexed Cena onto his head, it might as well have been a metaphor for a creative team-wide concussion, because something had to be rattling around upstairs to defy expectations to such an extent. (That something is probably WWE’s ongoing march into the Asian market, but it’s nice to think the Reddit market is suddenly getting a fair hearing too.)
Of course, for everybody who’s excited that Nakamura or Banks is getting such an opportunity, there’s probably someone who fantasy-booked someone else into that spot. The grating chorus of online wrestling fandom is that [insert favorite wrestler’s name here] is being buried—a.k.a. being held back irrationally by the WWE decision-makers. And even though sometimes this is true, more often than not it’s a hollow argument, a way to validate general angst. And regardless, if you define “burial” as absence from the main event, then it’s the very nature of the sport that 90 percent of the roster is getting buried at any moment. The inevitable endpoint of these arguments is that every PPV would end up with a battle royale wherein all the wrestlers that somebody somewhere likes would duke it out for the top prize. And one Royal Rumble a year is enough.
All of which is to say that the main event on Sunday’s show is at its core a glorious schmozz, a test-marketed meat locker with a cow marinated for every palate. The defending champ is Brock Lesnar, the former UFC heavyweight who conveys an air of legitimacy (despite a middling attendance record) to the fake sport. His three challengers represent the separate blocs of WWE fandom: Reigns represents the kids-and-women demo, the John Cena voters; Samoa Joe represents the indie snobs and highbrow purists; and Braun Strowman is the delegate from the reptilian brain, the endlessly powerful part of wrestling fandom that never tires of muscular spectacle, growling voices, and full-on commitment to farce. (The fact that all four guys are nominally heels is beside the point. They don’t need to tell us who to root for because we know who represents our tastes without them putting their sunglasses on the kid in the front row.) Vince McMahon famously detests multi-party main events, so the very fact of the four contestants makes the bout feel slightly crowd-sourced. But that’s the wonder of it: it’s a fantasy-booking Frankenstein’s monster.
The most straightforward feud on the card is probably AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens, and the very existence of both of them in the WWE is proof that fantasy can come true. A couple of years ago, they existed in WWE only in messageboard fantasy booking—the kind that was so implausible that you just groaned. Now they’re such a part of the fabric of WWE that Shane McMahon is the special guest referee—a cog in the Owens-Styles machine—and it feels perfectly normal.
That’s where we are in WWE in 2017, and specifically at SummerSlam. As much as we fans love to counterprogram in our minds, this event is a pretty good representation of the hopes and dreams of the fan base. Maybe it’s because we fantasy-booking types are finally the majority. If the volume of jeers that Reigns gets is any indication, “we’re all smarks now” isn’t overstatement. Maybe our fantasy is becoming reality.
But WWE still has to put on the show. And it still has to decide who wins in the end. Because it’s easy enough to fantasy-book a main event match and make everyone happy—the hard part is booking the finish. In a four-person match like this, you’re going to disappoint three-quarters of the audience with whatever ending you choose. If Strowman loses, the unyielding ascent of the WWE’s lovable monster hits its end in a weirdly insignificant way. If Joe loses, the strains of “he’s getting buried” might break the internet. If Lesnar loses, he’s (in story line) quitting WWE, but it’s not exactly the dream match ending WWE surely had in mind when it put the belt back on him. If Reigns loses, well, that sort of makes sense.
That’s why my vote is for Reigns, because a Reigns win is the only ending guaranteed to disappoint the most people. On Sunday, we’ll either be cheering separately or booing together. Sometimes, the unhappy ending is the best fantasy of all.