Brock Lesnar is defending the Universal Championship against Braun Strowman at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view (PPV) on Sun., Jan. 27, 2019, from Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. This match should feel like a really big deal, just like it was heading into No Mercy 2017. At that time, many fans were wondering why WWE was booking an obvious WrestleMania main event on a second-tier PPV. But now? This fight feels like it’s more suitable for the Royal Rumble pre-show.
There is a lot of blame thrown in Brock Lesnar’s direction for the stagnant main event scene on Raw over the last two years. It’s a very understandable argument. Brock is a part-timer champion who only shows up for a few matches each year, the top title isn’t around at all during those weeks when Brock is missing, and Brock is booked stronger than anybody else on the roster. It’s amazing that Vince McMahon has signed up for almost two straight years of this empty monotony at the top of the Raw card that makes nearly all of the full-time stars look second rate.
I won’t deny Lesnar’s role in Raw’s underwhelming and lackluster main event scene, but a whole lot of blame should also be placed at the hands of Braun Strowman.
Strowman was given a massive push right from the outset of the July 2016 brand split. He was fed a steady diet of jobbers in squash matches for pretty much the remainder of that year, and it was extremely effective at establishing Braun as an intimidating and menacing superstar. Braun’s feud with Roman Reigns through much of 2017 then kept him hot with the audience and turned him into an upper card mainstay. Fans ate up all the destruction that Braun caused backstage, from flipping over trucks to tearing down sets with a grappling hook. Braun also resurrected after being a victim of garbage truck homicide. This guy was basically unstoppable.
The underlying risk behind all this time Vince McMahon spent pushing The Monster Among Men is that Braun Strowman was never above average at most of the actual skills that a pro wrestler has direct control over. Braun got over because he was booked to win almost all the time, he was booked to look really cool causing massive destruction backstage, and he was booked as the one guy who could consistently bring it to Roman Reigns and toss around Brock Lesnar with ease. That’s a great foundation for getting any wrestler over, before even getting into the strengths and weaknesses that Braun brings to the table as a performer.
To his credit, Braun did develop a popular catchphrase with “Get these hands”, and that’s an important component for connecting with an audience. But the point remains that Braun received stronger booking than any full time star on the roster during that time, and it’s not even all that close.
The downside risk involved in pushing someone with Strowman’s limitations played out on our television screens on Raw this past week (Jan. 7) when Braun looked way out of his league with a mic in his hand, being laughed at by Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar when he couldn’t muster up anything interesting to say.
We actually saw the downside risk with Strowman’s push much further back at No Mercy 2017, during his first match with Brock. For some reason WWE decided to play to Braun’s weaknesses by keeping the match mostly in the ring and not relying on any gimmicks or ringside carnage. The match was a major disappointment as a result of that decision. On the one hand it’s easy to blame WWE for that booking strategy, but on the other hand, a main event performer shouldn’t have those weaknesses to begin with. Strowman’s skills were tested on that night, and he came up short.
Perhaps my harsh assessment of Strowman’s skills sounds like hyperbole, but even I have to admit that Strowman’s push from July 2016 into September 2017 was a major success for WWE, prior to his match with Lesnar at No Mercy. Strowman was ridiculously over and the audience was always loud for him; that’s one of the main goals every wrestler seeks to achieve, and Strowman got there. He was certainly over enough to justify the strong push that he was given for that entire year.
But since then Strowman’s massive push has continued, and it’s really crippled Raw’s main event scene. Strowman eliminated three stars at Survivor Series 2017 with sudden power slams, and he also beat the hell out of Triple H after the match was over. Braun eliminated 5 different stars at Elimination Chamber 2018 with his power slam. The Monster then buried Raw’s tag team division at WrestleMania 34 by winning the titles with some kid as his partner, essentially showing that the tag champs weren’t good enough to beat one man.
Strowman obliterated Elias in a Symphony of Destruction match around that same time, and he spent much of summer 2018 making Kevin Owens look like a complete joke, rendering KO as a guy who could not be taken seriously as a main event star. Braun won the Money in the Bank briefcase in a match where the story was that all the other guys put together still weren’t good enough to stop him. Braun then eliminated four superstars at Survivor Series 2018. All of these multi-man matches were completely dominated by Braun, and the main story being told was some variation of “Braun Strowman is the most unstoppable force in WWE”. WWE has smothered the audience with this narrative for over two years. No other superstar on Raw was allowed to shine in these major PPV matches because WWE decided to double-down on Braun Strowman’s push for another year.
This is the kind of push that should go to the face of the company. If this was prime John Cena or Hulk Hogan doing all of this, it would be understandable because of how important those guys were to the company’s bottom line. Yet for all this time Vince McMahon spent continuing to push Strowman as an unstoppable behemoth even after his failure at No Mercy 2017, it culminated with a short-lived and ill-advised heel turn in September 2018, a botched Money in the Bank contract cash-in that made Strowman look like a dummy, and a Universal Championship match at Crown Jewel in November 2018 where Brock Lesnar squashed Strowman in less than four minutes.
Strowman’s multiple failures to win the Universal Championship are not consistent with the extremely strong push he has otherwise received since July 2016. Given Strowman’s relentless push for over two years, he should be the top babyface in the company. He should be the biggest star on Raw. Instead, he is going up against Lesnar for a third time in a singles match at Royal Rumble 2019, but the story is just not clicking at all and most fans don’t seem to care about it. I think most of this time since No Mercy 2017 has exposed that Braun Strowman simply isn’t all that interesting of a character or wrestler when he isn’t battling it out with Roman Reigns.
The consequences of Strowman’s sustained dominant push since July 2016 are that nobody else on the Raw roster is a viable opponent in a main event match with Lesnar right now, with perhaps Seth Rollins as the one possible exception. So even though Lesnar versus Strowman is a cold concept right now, and Braun might not even be cleared yet for physical activity following elbow surgery, it’s still the option that Vince McMahon chose to pursue for the Royal Rumble.
There really aren’t any other options. Braun has only been pinned four times since July 2016, twice by Roman Reigns and twice by Brock Lesnar. It’s well established that nobody else on Raw besides those two stars can hang with the Monster Among Men. Braun’s push has largely emptied out the list of believable threats to Lesnar. Keep in mind that Drew McIntyre just lost a PPV match to regular Finn Balor last month at TLC 2018, and Seth Rollins has been struggling to get the better of Dean Ambrose for months now. An injured Strowman who can’t even wrestle still poses the maximum threat to Brock Lesnar based on how Braun has been pushed for the last 2.5 years.
So while Brock Lesnar’s status is certainly to blame for a lot of issues at the top of Raw’s card, Strowman’s never-ending push has equal culpability. It’s well beyond the point where WWE needs to decide how far they are really going with Strowman. If they aren’t going all the way with him (and it might even be too late for that, considering the optimal time for doing so was well over a year ago at No Mercy 2017), then this massive push needs to come to an end, and other superstars need to finally get pushed at the top of the card.
WWE desperately needs some new and fresh Universal Championship matches in 2019, and both Brock Lesnar’s status and Braun Strowman’s push are to blame for the staleness in the main event scene on Raw.