Brock Lesnar retains the Universal title

When Brock Lesnar returned to the WWE after an nearly an eight year absence, he brought with him a renewed hype from his time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. After he was pushed to the top of the card as fast as possible in 2002, the former NCAA champion opted to leave the WWE just two years after he debuted on television, citing the travel demands as the reason he stepped away from sports entertainment. After he burned bridges in Japan and a failed attempt to join the Minnesota Vikings, Lesnar pursued mixed martial arts, a genre that surged in popularity at the time.

He made his successful MMA debut in 2007, and his name value from professional wrestling made him an instant commodity, prompting an offer from the UFC. Lesnar fought a total of nine times in his combat sports career, garnering a record of 5-3-1 and the UFC Heavyweight title. A combination of diverticulitis and not wanting to get punched in the face led to his initial retirement from the sport.

His return to WWE in 2012 gave the business a major boost in star power, but how Brock is booked continues to be the subject of debate. Lesnar was promoted as the “real fighter” in sports entertainment, wearing MMA gloves and shorts into the ring. He ended the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania streak because he was the “real” athlete that could do what sport entertainers couldn’t in the past. He won the WWE World Heavyweight championship in 2014, a topic of much criticism. Brock’s appearances are very limited, which are intended to keep a “special event” atmosphere around him, but during his run as champion, it was 3-4 months between title defenses. It’s certainly difficult to book a weekly television show when the champion, the holder of the theoretical top prize in the company, doesn’t appear for a few months at a time. Plus, if viewers aren’t going to see the Universal champion in a main event role on TV, isn’t there less of an incentive to watch each week?

After a well-booked program with Goldberg that maximized the nostalgia and minimized the limitations of the former WCW champion, Lesnar won the Universal title at Wrestlemania 33 in April. Brock didn’t defend the belt for over three months, but a series of sporadic appearances along with Paul Heyman’s tremendous promos built the Samoa Joe match very well. There was a natural intrigue for the match-up, because of Joe’s style, but the match should be booked carefully because of his monster character.

In roughly nine minutes, Joe was pinned clean after an F5. The match just didn’t have the intensity expected, and it was difficult to determine who was supposed to be the heel. Samoa Joe debuted on the main roster as a heel, but his tremendous in-ring ability won over the audience and he received a babyface reaction recently. He attacked Lesnar before the bell and hit a low blow mid-match. However, considering Brock’s brutal style, is there really going to be any crowd sympathy for him?

Brock Lesnar is still the champion and will disappear back to his farm until management wants to peak interest for another pay-per-view event, which most speculate will be Summer Slam. The problem with that equation is, what happens to Samoa Joe? The former NXT champion is on Raw every week and usually has an important role on the show. What did a rather simplistic match and taking a clean pin do for Samoa Joe? It certainly didn’t do anything to add to the monster persona that was established on television.

Is Brock Lesnar really that much of a draw that it’s worth sacrificing the rest of the roster? At what point does the hefty investment in the Lesnar push reach the point of diminishing returns?

It was well publicized that WWE ratings have declined, mostly within the third hour. The perils of a three hour show is another discussion for another time, but the fact remains that less people watch on a weekly basis than just a few years ago. It seems logical to assume that more credible stars will add to the overall star power on the show and thus fans will have more of a reason to watch each week. Despite one of the most talented rosters in terms of in-ring ability arguably in history, talents like Finn Balor, Bray Wyatt, Ambrose, and others seem to reach a glass ceiling of sorts because management has other plans for the top of the card. For example, Finn Balor worked a main event match with Cesaro last week on Raw, but didn’t have a spot on the pay-per-view.

In my opinion, the reason this happens is because WWE management had two main priorities the past several months, the angle to get Lesnar the championship, and the continuous push of Roman Reigns. Because those two maintain such prominent spots far in advance, it limits how far others will get pushed as legitimate stars. Essentially, the opportunity cost of Lesnar’s “rare appearances” is that talented athletes like Balor and Joe won’t necessarily get the chance to live up to their potential if an eventual Lesnar vs. Reigns rematch is the top priority for management. In a way, it’s basically Lesnar is the champion and Reigns is the successor regardless of how over others might be with the WWE audience. That lack of flexibility from WWE management might be one of the reasons for the ratings decline.

In years prior, Lesnar always delivered for the major matches, but the suplex city gimmick, as popular as it is, led to a rather stale presentation against Joe. Granted, the Goldberg formula was meant to be simplistic and to only feature the trademark moves, but against an opponent like Joe, there’s not much to build around the repetitive German suplex. Plus, none of the submission attempts from Joe seemed like it could lead to the conclusion of the bout so the match was somewhat flat. The entire point of a match with the title on the line is to create moments when it appears that the belt might actually change hands, but the Lesnar/Joe contest didn’t have that effect. In fact, this is one of the few times since Brock’s return in 2012 that one could argue that his match didn’t live up to the hype around it.

Don’t get me wrong, Lesnar had an impressive run since he returned to sports entertainment, but I don’t think his title reign should limit pushing those that appear on Raw every week. At 40, how long will Lesnar continue to wrestle? Besides Roman Reigns, at what point will management shift the focus to develop more legitimate stars that will draw money on a major stage? Haven’t WWE brass relied on part-timers to boost major event too often? I’m not trying to be too negative here, but at with Lesnar rarely on television as champion and Roman Reigns the focus of a constant push, it seems like there’s a waste of the potential of other talented competitors on the roster.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta
@jimlamotta

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