Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Plans have changed backstage in the WWE.
According to the sheets of the dirty variety, WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar will no longer be defending his championship at SummerSlam. Conventional wisdom suggested that WWE Network special would be the time and place for Brock Lesnar v. Roman Reigns III, especially after the once-booked now-cancelled No. 1 contenders match scheduled for July’s Extreme Rules event. Per the report, the plan is still for the Big Dog to be the wrestler to finally dethrone Lesnar from the top spot on Raw, but it doesn’t seem to be in coming to fruition sooner rather than later.
This is not a new development for the Raw, as the Monday night program has dealt with the absence of their main champion for months and months and months and I don’t even remember the last time the Universal champion was on the show. In 2017, The Miz and his entourage served as the de facto champion of Raw, which in turn elevated the status of the Intercontinental title. The show’s main champion not being there has become the norm -- Lesnar has never even wrestled a match on Raw since his return in 2012 -- but it’s hard to see how that’s been a positive for the company. Sure, Vince McMahon and his empire have had a good year -- the XFL, the NXT UK Division, and the new television deals for Raw and Smackdown Live -- but the fans who have sat through those three-hour slogs every Monday night wouldn’t say the product itself has had a good year. Sure, Lesnar absence isn’t entirely to blame for the show’s struggles, but a more active champion that fans are interested in seeing on their television each week is never a bad thing -- who is complaining about Smackdown Live WWE champion A.J. Styles being around more often than not? (Before you say it, I know Styles has been suspiciously absent from the blue brand in recent weeks and hasn’t wrestled on the show for weeks now, but that seems to be more of an injury situation and less of a voluntary situation. If the choice is between more Brock Lesnar segments or more Bayley and Sasha Banks interactions or Deleters Of Worlds promos or Titus Worldwide appearing on my television screen, you go for the former every single time. Obviously, Lesnar’s contract doesn’t require that sort of consistency, so creative has had to try and book a compelling television program while simultaneously never knowing the long-term plan for the show’s most-important wrestler and titleholder.
While the red brand has tread water without their top champion, the blue brand has thrived. While Styles has been temporarily sidelined, the shows haven’t missed a beat. Just this week, after Rusev defeated Xavier Woods in a fun, albeit short, match the Bulgarian Brute cut a promo that resulted in dueling “AJ Styles” and “Rusev Day” chants ahead of their WWE title match at Extreme Rules. Jeff Hardy has seen his role elevated; The Miz has tried everything in his bag of tricks to get fans to muster any sort of emotional response to the existence of the Bludgeon Brothers; Daniel Bryan has now reunited with Kane to temporarily -- the latter must have mayoral stuff to do, right? -- reform the fan-favorite Team Hell No. (Although, with Bryan now being a “Yes” man, is the duo now Team Hell Yes? Hell yes it is.) So the show hasn’t needed their biggest draw and top dog around to put on a compelling show on Tuesday nights -- but this is a two-hour show. The one advantage Smackdown Live will always have over Raw is the absence of that one hour. For Raw, it’s a death sentence, for Smackdown Live it’s a gift.
Styles not being around consistently is a new development, and after Extreme Rules, it’s hard to see that continue to be the case. Lesnar not being around is the norm, and it’s easy to forget just how long that has been the case. A few weeks ago, Lesnar’s reign surpassed CM Punk’s to further wipe Chicago’s favorite son from the WWE record books. Punk held the WWE title for 434 days, and, like Lesnar, it felt like the company was comfortable with him holding the belt for a long stretch of time because of the comfortability factor and the time it bought them to figure out who was next. Now, we know who is next, and it’s not Braun Strowman as much as the company wants you to really believe. No, it’s still Roman Reigns; it has always been Roman Reigns; It will be Roman Reigns until Vince McMahon relinquishes control of Raw.
But there is value in having a champion like Lesnar, who, in theory, should be able to put over another wrestler in a major way once he does finally drop the Universal title. Similar to Kazuchika Okada, he dropped the top title in New Japan Pro Wrestling at the perfect time to the perfect person. Had the WWE handled Lesnar’s reign in similar fashion to Okada, the payoff would have been enormous. Instead, nobody is invested in the Lesnar Universal title reign and, the Kenny Omega in this analogy is Roman Reigns, which, really, tells you everything you need to know about how things are going creatively in the WWE. The company fails over and over again long-term storytelling, from Bayley and Banks, to Nia Jax and Alexa Bliss, to Daniel Bryan and The Miz, the list is never-ending. The WWE could have spent the last two years telling a story similar to Okada and Omega, but they did not do that. They could have done it with Finn Balor; they could have done it with Seth Rollins; they could have done it with Strowman; they could have done it with Kevin Owens. They could have done it with anyone the fans have shown to get behind in unanimous fashion -- they chose Roman Reigns.
Taking the title of Lesnar and placing it on Reigns is not going to be pleasant. Fans won’t be excited Reigns finally beat Lesnar, no, fans will be excited this feud is finally finished. It’s done. The story has reached its conclusion. It will be a sigh of relief, with the company now being able to move forward. We can finally get the Universal champion on WWE Network specials consistently; we can finally get a Universal champion who, at the very least, will put on good title matches consistently; we can finally say the elephant in the room -- Lesnar v. Reigns III -- is behind us. Like ripping off a Band-aid, it’s better pull the thing off fast rather than slow. It’s going to hurt -- as much as McMahon may not want it to -- but the longer you pull and tug the worse it’s going to be. For everyone.
But you can’t blame Lesnar for dragging this out, it’s in best interest to squeeze as much money out of the WWE as possible before his next gigantic payday in the UFC. Lesnar is 40-years-old now, and Father Time still arrives even for the athletic freaks like the Beast. If he knows he only has one more wrestling match left, why not keep pushing it back? Lesnar is the company’s biggest draw and only superstar -- everyone knows who Brock freaking Lesnar is. Some people know who A.J. Styles is. (John Cena is in the same camp as Lesnar, but it doesn’t feel like he should qualify at this point, free agent and all.) Vince McMahon is paying Lesnar a lot of money and will continue to do so as long as Lesnar keeps his appetite for another UFC run at bay. Why walk away now if you’re Lesnar? It’s the best gig in professional wrestling. He should drag this out for another five years. I would.
In a way, it reminds me of LeBron James’ second run in Cleveland. When James returned home, had all the leverage in the world. He was and still is the best player in the world, and part of his return included a power grab. Rather than commit long-term, James opted for shorter contracts, which put Cleveland in a perpetual bind, but that’s the price you pay for greatness. Having Lesnar is a lot better than not; having James is a lot better than not. (Get excited, Cleveland fans! The Collin Sexton era is here!) LeBron has all the leverage wherever he goes, and he has earned that. He will also continue to exercise that for as long as he can because he is a smart guy and businessman. Lesnar will also continue to exercise his power over Vince McMahon as long as he can because he is a smart guy and businessman. Not many athletes reach the heights that James and Lesnar have in their day, but they made it and they’re going to make the most of it.
Ultimately, this situation won’t doom Roman Reigns as he was doomed regardless of what happened with Lesnar going forward. Really, this dooms Balor, Owens, Rollins, and, especially Strowman, who certainly won’t find himself in a position to cash-in his Money in the Bank contract anytime soon. It would be nice to see Lesnar vs. Rollins or Lesnar vs. Balor or even Lesnar vs. Elias for the Universal title at a WWE Network special. That’s not going to happen, though. Lesnar isn’t signing on for that, and he’s ready to move on it will end with the referee holding Reigns’ arm high. One day, Lesnar will be gone, Reigns will be champion, and people will still be fantasy booking Strowman as The Guy in the WWE. That day will just be here later than previously anticipated, and it is all up Brock freaking Lesnar.