Braun Strowman was never going to be The Guy for World Wrestling Entertainment. At least, not in Vince McMahon’s WWE. To Vince’s credit, the company continues to make strides in evolving as a wrestling promotion, putting more of an emphasis on the in-ring work rather than the overly-scripted promos, creating multiple female stars in recent years, bringing back the cruiserweight division, and even gobbling up all the top independent talent that you would never have seen in a WWE ring as recent as the “Ruthless Aggression” era in the WWE. (Adam Cole, Aleister Black and Ricochet are the biggest stars on a WWE brand at the moment.) For all the Cole and CM Punk and Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles-types the company has brought in and pushed, they were still never Vince McMahon’s Guy. It was John Cena, and with Cena focused on Hollywood and staging break-ups for reality television drama, McMahon has someone else -- Roman Reigns.
Roman Reigns will be The Guy in 2019, and barring injury or suspension, will be The Guy in the WWE for a very long time. It’s easy to gloss over just how much the McMahon Machine has invested in making the former Georgia Tech football star the professional wrestler who will guide them into the next era of WWE television. Reigns is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight champion, Reigns pinned the aforementioned Braun Strowman clean, which, if you didn’t know, was a big deal at the time, set a Royal Rumble record after he eliminated 12 other wrestlers in 2014, Triple H is quoted saying, “Roman is one of the most skilled performers bar none in the WWE right now and that is on every level,” and, of course, he is one of two wrestlers to defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania. (Wait, did I mention that he has also main-evented the last four WrestleManias? F-O-U-R. Only Hulk Hogan, yes, that Hulk Hogan, has main-evented more WWE PPVs in a row.
So Vince McMahon likes Roman Reigns in what might be the understatement of the year. (Unless, of course, the company’s half-baked storyline that pitted Vince vs. Roman a few months back had you hook, line and sinker.) McMahon likes Braun Strowman, but for the mastermind of the XFL, he’s still no Roman Reigns. If things were different, Strowman would have gone over Reigns in their red-hot feud in 2017. Strowman could have gone over Lesnar for the Universal title at No Mercy. Strowman could have had a prominent match WrestleMania 34, but he won the Raw tag-team titles with a young fan instead. If you have the backing of Vince McMahon, it’s clear that you have the backing of Vince McMahon. (The latest example being My Favorite Pro Wrestling Bully Baron Corbin’s new title on Monday Night Raw thanks to the boss’s daughter.) Reigns has wrestled Brock Lesnar for the Universal title at the Greatest Royal Rumble ever, and before that in the main event of WrestleMania, and, before that, was the last wrestler eliminated in the Royal Rumble won by Shinsuke Nakamura. One of these things is not like the other.
That is why The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reporting that Roman Reigns, and not the wrestler obsessed with giving other wrestlers his hands, will likely be getting another WWE Universal title match against the Universal champion Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam. To some, this may come as a surprise, but to anyone who had their volume turned up to seventy-five Monday night and caught fill-in Raw commentator David Otunga whisper that he thinks Roman Reigns hasn’t gotten enough credit for how much he pushed Lesnar in their previous matches. What Otunga or Corey Graves or Michael Cole didn’t say was, “Outside of Lesnar and Reigns, who can stop Braun Strowman?” Like it or not, pro wrestling fans will get Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar for a third time in 2018 at SummerSlam. Roman Reigns was always going to be the one to take the title off Brock Lesnar, the story has just taken more sideroads to get there than anyone could have expected. (For the record, I picked Reigns to win the Universal title from Lesnar in Saudi Arabia during normal workday hours because it was the best shot the WWE had at having Reigns’ big moment not be met with a mixture of crickets and boos. Instead, instant replay and incompetent referees ruined another big moment in sports.)
The plan has never changed for Vince McMahon on Roman Reigns, not in the grand scheme of things, at least, as the Big Dog is still on track to win the biggest title in the promotion at the second-largest PPV of the year. With Lesnar away, with rumors swirling about whether or not he’ll fight in the UFC again, with Roman Reigns being relegated to an uninspiring feud with Jinder Mahal, fans and analysts have started to once again talk themselves into other guys on the roster swiping the brass ring away from Roman Reigns in 2019. The problem is that Vince McMahon is the only one who controls that brass ring. McMahon puts professional wrestlers in a position to grab the brass ring, professional wrestlings are not in a position to grab the brass ring from Vince McMahon. It is always the CEO’s call.
The CEO is still calling Roman Reigns’ number. Sometimes, McMahon extends an olive branch to guys like Strowman, Styles, Seth Rollins, and even Kevin Owens, but it never feels like it will last. McMahon has been working on the Roman Reigns dilemma for close to half a decade, why would he admit failure now? If he were to move on from Reigns, who does he pinpoint as his next long-term project? Kona Reeves or Tino Sabbatelli in NXT? Baron Corbin? Drew McIntyre? If Vince McMahon sells his place on Roman Reigns Island, it won’t result in an increased investment in the almost 35-year-old Strowman whom he already booked to lose to both Reigns and Lesnar in 2017.
But that’s what makes WWE legendary commentator Jim Ross’s Braun Strowman prediction so interesting and so wrong at the same time.
On a recent episode of his podcast, The Jim Ross Report, he said the following about Strowman and his future in the company: “I like the continued advancement of Braun Strowman. He’s not being force fed to me. I think he’s going to be the next big thing in 2019. I wouldn’t do it before then. I don’t think he’s quite ready for it. But man you can see him getting better and better every week. Braun Strowman in my opinion the future lead mule in the WWE.”
Ross is right about Strowman not being force-fed to the audience right now, but that goes against everything we know about Vince McMahon and his creative quirks. His lead “mules” are often force-fed on those watching at home, whether it be John Cena, Randy Orton, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Batista, Triple H, and the list goes on and on. In reality, the biggest indicator as to whether or not a character has a future in the WWE is how much the product pushes them onto their consumers. It’s been five years, and they’re still pushing Roman Reigns.
None of this is Strowman’s fault, as Ross is right, he’s getting better, he’s able to pull off compelling main-event matches with the likes of Finn Balor now, and watching anything from his Wyatt Family days feels like you’re seeing a different wrestler entirely. He earned his overness, organically, but so did Rusev, so did Daniel Bryan, so did Seth Rollins, but none of them have any real shot at being the top guy in the company in 2019. If there is any other realistic Top Guy on the Raw brand in 2019 outside of Roman Reigns -- there isn’t -- it’s McIntyre. You see the size, you see the intensity, you see the looks, you see the way he’s booked, and you see that he just turned 33-years-old. Drew McIntyre checks every box for a Vince McMahon project, Braun Strowman does not. That doesn’t mean it’d be a mistake to build 2019 around Strowman, it’s just that Jim Ross isn’t overseeing creative, it’s the guy who just had Strowman compete on a PPV tagging with Bobby Lashley to continue what’s been series of missteps for Strowman after breaking out in 2017 in his feuds with Reigns and Lesnar.
Like Roman Reigns on-screen, off-screen this is still Vince McMahon’s yard. He’s probably gotten more out of Strowman in the past year than even he would have expected when he first signed him. Strowman is a tremendous talent who continues to improve, but it’s easy to forget he doesn’t control his destiny. He can’t have a LeBron James-like playoff run on Monday Night Raw, he’s limited to what he’s given. He’ll continue to be on the shows, he’ll continue to get positive reactions, he’ll continue to have good matches, and he’ll even find his way into a few Universal title shots, but he won’t win them, like before, and that’ll be that. He won’t be The Guy, but he’ll be A Guy and that’s all he can really do.