The Brock Lesnar Effect: How Wrestling Got Here
Wrestling is cyclical.
When you look back through the last 30 years of professional wrestling, there is a definitive pattern of interest amongst fans, both diehard and fair-weather.
The years have been anything but kind to fans who have stuck through every drought and onslaught of awkwardness that major promoters have dished out.
Currently, all fans across the globe are in the midst of what is undoubtedly the longest such drought in wrestling history.
This cycle, that began somewhere in the 70’s with an upswing in territories and interest of major territorial players such as the WWWF, NWA, and AWA, has always had a yang to complete the yin.
Despite this initial period of highly hyped action, which featured flamboyant stars like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and Nick Bockwinkel, we still had the old staples to keep us interested, like Bruno Sammartino and Harley Race to lean back on.
Then, at the start of the 1980's, a wave of newer, smaller stars in larger roles appeared. Fans may not have embraced the likes of Bob Backlund and highly underrated Pedro Morales, but they were athletes who were there to stay.
The interim period here was the first drought the business would experience, and it would be quite short lived thanks to the vision and business savvy of Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
McMahon’s creation of a national product all but swept the rug out from under his rival promotions and set in motion the biggest boom in wrestling history.
Think the Attitude Era was the most watched time for wrestling?
Tell that to 93,000 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome at WrestleMania III, or better yet, tell it to the fans who tuned in on February 5, 1988 to see the rematch between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. That nationally televised program on NBC, known as “The Main Event,” is still the most watched wrestling program in television history.
At the forefront of the boom was Hulkamania himself, and after a short period of time passed, others came along as a sort of supporting cast for the Hulkster.
Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase, Jake Roberts, and the Ultimate Warrior peaked the interest of everyday folks when muscle-bound meat-heads were a dime a dozen.
Determined not to be outdone, the NWA and AWA managed to thrive thanks to their own niche markets, and gave fans fresh new faces as well.
Then, at the turn of the 1990’s, another drought came upon us thanks to the destruction of the AWA, secession of WCW from the NWA, and of course, steroids.
Fans felt the first dark ages for their national product; a wrestling recession that lasted nearly four years before Hogan again became a patriarch (this time as a heel); Steve Austin, The Rock, and all the "Monday Night Mayhem" that came with them.
The "Attitude Era" and "Monday Night Wars" are widely regarded as the business’ highest features, yet all things must pass and the drought came again.
Sadly, this one was again a combination of multiple variables that proved anticlimactic to the viewing audience. Departures of full-time employees like Austin, Hogan, and The Rock, as well as the demise of both ECW and WCW in a single season, left little room for error in the years to come.
As time passed, the WWE became a monopoly like no other, yet it stood alone without the same style of success it managed to garner as the first national product.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of the longest downward spiral the industry has ever seen. Fledgling programming from WWE and weaker than expected competition from TNA has led us to nearly eight years of idle functions.
Why is this drought so much more powerful than any other before it?
There are two main factors that have led us to the inevitable stalemate wrestling has become in the year 2010. I’ll be examining the first reason right now.
Perhaps it is that we simply don’t have that figurehead, that Adonis to break us out of the funk and lead us into a new era of excellence.
Don’t get me wrong, the quality of matches inside the ring are far superior to anything they’ve been before. Complain about 300 lbs lugs stomping about in the squared circle, because you’ll get Steamboat/Savage for free after the commercial break.
In each of the aforementioned booms, there were names that carried the brand as the amazing force gaining global attention.
In the 1980’s, Hogan was easily the man. Flair, Savage, and Andre all helped shoulder their fair share of the burden until the scandals broke out.
The 90’s would see Hogan in a familiar position at the front of the race, but more provocative characters like Austin, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Bill Goldberg, and The Undertaker soon became just as important in the grand scheme.
Where is our patron saint for the new millennium?
Fans far and wide criticize the stars at the top, claiming they’ve been there for too long or are undeserving of their crowns.
Purists idolize mid-card hell in hopes that one day “their guy” will hit pay dirt. Did we even ever have that one catalyst to bring back the interest and glory days?
Actually, we did, and not surprisingly, he was billed literally as “The Next Big Thing.”
When Brock Lesnar made his mainstream debut for the WWE in 2002, he was thrust into the spotlight just like anyone else in a hurry to get over. Lesnar dropped opponents like a bad habit, and at over six feet of raw muscle, he was chiseled to destroy the crop.
Lesnar was a beast, and he wrestled like one too.
Say what you will about insta-pushes for Sheamus and Jack Swagger, but Lesnar had to wait only four months before he became WWE Champion.
The crowds loved it.
So did the WWE.
Brock sold merchandise, filled seats, and got a reasonable amount of ratings despite wrestling being almost entirely on the second-tier cable programs.
Lesnar’s colossal run was only two years, however, as at the peak of his popularity he chose to jump ship and pursue a professional football career.
Lesnar’s WrestleMania XX match against Bill Goldberg was a dream contest that should have been a benchmark for the new age of professional wrestling. Instead, with Lesnar’s departure imminent (as well as Goldberg’s) fans booed the contest, and Brock, out of the WWE ring forever.
While Lesnar’s football career was a total bust, his next venture would turn out to be the one that makes wrestling businessmen cringe uncontrollably.
Lesnar decided not to go back to the WWE, despite leaving with his stock at an all time high. Why? Brock had already been embroiled in various lawsuits with his former employer, and he also never realized that part of his disinterest with the company’s direction could have been remedied had he personally made appearances.
On February 2nd, 2008, Lesnar made his debut for Ultimate Fighting Championship, a move that forever changed the landscape of MMA.
Though he lost to Frank Mir, the interest and hype in Lesnar, a reckless, loose cannon who walked off camera for ESPN at the mere mention of those dastardly “steroids,” was back.
Brock sold merchandise, filled seats, and gave UFC more exposure and ratings than it ever had before.
Lesnar knocked out Randy Couture en route to the UFC Heavyweight Championship and earned a rematch with Mir.
After pummeling Mir into submission, Lesnar’s celebration antics proved to be wildly controversial, as his verbal rants and taunts earned him unsportsmanlike marks despite not competing in an actual “sport.”
Though Lesnar would have to leave the spotlight due to a bout with mononucleosis, one cannot deny the awesome impact he has had on the MMA business.
UFC popularity is at an all time high and there is even some speculation that it could eventually overtake professional wrestling for the top spot in pseudo-sports.
Lesnar is expected to return to the ring for UFC 116, while the WWE and TNA will still be grasping straws for the next “Next Big Thing.”
The Brock Lesnar Effect may have positively impacted the world of mixed martial arts more than anything else, but the negative impact on the world of pro wrestling is just as massive.
Since his departure, the WWE has forcefully and hurriedly pushed another crop of bulls to the top in hopes of rekindling that magic.
Names like Randy Orton, Batista, and John Cena all emerged as major players once Lesnar disappeared. Others would go on to become Brock-wannabes, a list that grows larger by the day (Bobby Lashley, Nathan Jones, Matt Morgan).
But in the same way that Lesnar’s disappearance created new opportunities, it also pushed the WWE (and eventually TNA) into a corner in which they weren’t ready to make those new stars.
Once the stars were made, they were supposed to accompany Lesnar into the next boom, not lead it themselves.
Five years ago, Dave Batista and John Cena won their first World Titles, respectively.
At WrestleMania XXVI, they were still atop the wrestling world battling one another.
Neither can match the allure of Lesnar, despite who is cheering or booing them, and that is because Cena and Batista would literally need to be combined into one to create a “Next Big Thing.”
Until that happens, it could still be a long road back to prominence for the sports entertainment phenomena.
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