Braun Strowman's Rise to the Top of WWE SmackDown and Venture Down to the Swamp

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2020

Braun Strowman's Rise to the Top of WWE SmackDown and Venture Down to the Swamp

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    Braun Strowman's reign as Universal champion is only just getting started.
    Braun Strowman's reign as Universal champion is only just getting started.Credit: WWE

    To say Braun Strowman's WWE main roster run has been a whirlwind so far would be an understatement, but after experiencing several start-and-stop pushes in the first few years of his career, he's finally been firmly established as a top-tier talent with the Universal Championship reign he's had over the past 100-plus days.

    A Swamp Fight featuring him and Bray Wyatt at Extreme Rules this Sunday is only fitting with next month marking five years since he first burst on to the scene as a member of The Wyatt Family.

    Their storied history has been well documented in recent months on SmackDown ahead of their upcoming battle at the Wyatt Compound. Although Strowman's title won't be on the line, it's safe to assume that another title shot could be in Wyatt's future if he can conquer The Monster Among Men at The Horror Show.

    For now, Strowman is focused on becoming the best Universal champion he can possibly be, even under the unfortunate circumstances. There's no telling when fans will be welcomed safely back into the buildings, but he's doing what he can to make his time with the title memorable regardless of who he's up against.

    In this exclusive interview conducted over the phone on Thursday afternoon, Strowman talks facing his mentor in a Wyatt Swamp Fight at Extreme Rules, his early beginnings with The Wyatt Family, his hopes and goals as Universal champion, and more.

Revisiting His Roots in the Wyatt Family

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    Almost exactly five years ago, Braun Strowman arrived on Raw in shocking fashion and made an immediate impact. One night removed from SummerSlam 2015, he was introduced as the newest member of The Wyatt Family by Bray Wyatt himself.

    Prior to that point, Strowman had a minimal amount of matches under his belt—and that included his near-two-year stint down in developmental. He was never a fixture on NXT TV as WWE was clearly waiting for the right time to bring him up to the grand stage, and with the Wyatts in need of new blood, it couldn't have worked out better than it did.

    Had he failed to impress his first night in, he likely would have been gone as quickly as he had shown up. Thankfully, he took full advantage of the opportunity on the post-SummerSlam edition of Raw by leaving the audience in sheer awe of his presence.

    Strowman couldn't be more thankful toward Vince McMahon for putting him with a great group of guys in The Wyatt Family, who helped him find his footing and grow exponentially as a performer for the year he was with them.

    "That time was very special to me," he said. "All three of the guys were very influential in the development of Braun, and without them, there is no Braun. There is no Monster Among Men. They were willing to help me when so many people were like, 'Yeah, this guy's going to come in and take one of our spots and take all of our money. Screw that, I'm not helping him.' Instead of that, they entrusted in me and became close, riding around the country and talking about the matches."

    Some of Strowman's early matches on the main roster were far from smooth, but the trio of Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan gradually helped him build confidence as a competitor.

    "There were many talks early in the beginning about stuff I did in the ring that sucked, and that's how you learn. We learned as we went," he said. "It got to where I wasn't getting yelled at as much in the car and I started having good talks. It's cool to feel that, to know and learn as you go. If you're not learning something every time you go out and do this in this industry, you're going to fail."

Returning to Old Stomping Grounds at the Wyatt Compound

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    Having started in WWE with The Wyatt Family, Braun Strowman is obviously no stranger to the Wyatt Compound. Any time content has been filmed from the mysterious location over the years, it has always promised to be must-see.

    The Wyatt Swamp Fight at Extreme Rules, from what little we know about it as of now, should be no exception.

    It's worth noting that a cinematic match has taken place on the property before, as The Wyatt Family battled The New Day there in a chaotic brawl almost exactly four years ago. Sunday's Swamp Fight may be something similar, but either way, Strowman will be walking into familiar territory.

    The Monster Among Men mentioned that the war with New Day on the Wyatt Compound was a small taste of what fans can expect come Extreme Rules, in addition to how his upcoming encounter with Wyatt will do more to test his mental toughness than anything else.

    "Thinking back on my time with The Wyatt Family, I'm grateful for it because I learned so much as far as being a wrestler, a performer, an entertainer, traveling the world, the ins and outs of this business, what it takes to stay ahead of the curb and continue to evolve in this sport that is so crazily changing around the world," Strowman said. "I have to take a step back and think. The stuff I used to do when I was with Bray, I wasn't a good person. I did a lot of bad things to a lot of good people. I was brainwashed by Bray. Bray is very manipulative. He doesn't even know his own self."

    Wyatt will be bringing back his classic Eater of Worlds persona for the fight, which is somehow even more terrifying than the Firefly Fun House incarnation of his character. Just in case The Fiend makes his presence felt in some form or fashion, Strowman has a plan to ensure he emerges victorious.

    "On any given day, you never know what personality you're going to deal with, and that's hard because at the end of the day, nobody's trying to come face-to-face with The Fiend," he said. "The Fiend is the culmination of everything you can think of in your head that you're afraid of, everything bad that's ever happened to you, every evil thought that lives inside of your body. That's The Fiend brought to life in a real life human being.

    "It's something I don't want to have to face," Strowman continued. "I know the only way to get around this is go to hell. I have to walk through the gates of hell and go in there and slap the devil in the face. That's the only way this goes."

Following in the Footsteps of Andre the Giant

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    Before Braun Strowman, there was Andre the Giant, who set the tone for all wrestling giants who proceeded him.

    Andre's in-ring skills were never his strong suit, but his aura and how he felt like a big deal—both figuratively and literally—any time he entered an arena made him remarkable. Big Show, Kane and Mark Henry were WWE's resident "big men" for many years, but that "big man magic" (as Henry once called it) had been missing in the company until guys like Strowman and Keith Lee came along.

    During his initial rise to superstardom on Raw, Strowman squashed enhancement talent left and right and pulled off moves that should have been impossible for a man his size, including a kip-up. He credits The Eighth Wonder of the World for being the first competitor of his kind to break those boundaries.

    "Without Andre the Giant, this business isn't what it is today," he said. "Andre made the industry something special because he was something special. Knowing I'm the last of a dying breed of big men in this industry, there is no one else like me. I'm walking in the footsteps of big men, not only Andre the Giant but Kane, Undertaker, Mark Henry, and Big Show. Guys like that paved the road for this industry."

    Bray Wyatt was always someone he wanted to work with because of their history and now he's finally getting that chance, but as far as dream opponents are concerned, Andre fits the bill better than anyone for Strowman.

    "I would've loved to have met Andre and just talk to him one-on-one and just to step in the ring with him and share the squared circle with such an iconic entity would have been special," he said. "Andre in his prime versus me right now, my god that would have been fireworks."

    Strowman vs. Andre can, of course, never happen, but his past wars with Big Show, Kane, Henry and Brock Lesnar weren't bad consolation prizes.

Taking Advantage of a Golden Opportunity at WrestleMania 36

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    By all accounts, Braun Strowman was never supposed to be a part of WrestleMania 36 before last-minute changes were made to the card.

    After losing the Intercontinental Championship to Sami Zayn at Elimination Chamber, The Monster Among Men disappeared from SmackDown. It wasn't until two days before The Show of Shows on SmackDown that he was announced as Roman Reigns' replacement to face Goldberg for the Universal Championship.

    His whole career in WWE up to this point has been filled with unexpected moments, but his title win that evening easily leads the list. He beat the WWE Hall of Famer for the title in a matter of minutes, giving him his most dominant and impressive victory to date.

    When asked about his instantaneous WrestleMania experience this year and how it all came to be on a whim, Strowman said he's still processing it.

    "I was thinking about in all this craziness going on in the world and us not traveling as much and not doing as many shows, it's actually given me the time to sit and reflect on how much I have done in the last five years because we're so busy with the normal schedule and being in front of our fans that you don't even have time to digest this stuff and think about it."

    Strowman had challenged for the Universal Championship countless times before finally capturing it at WrestleMania. Even at the peak of his popularity, he wasn't winning whenever it mattered most, and fans were starting to believe he was never going to get his due as a world champion.

    All of those losses merely reaffirmed his belief that everything happens for a reason.

    "As much as I hate it for everyone out there having to deal with all this stuff going on, I'm a firm believer in always finding the silver lining in stuff. The whole silver lining right now is that it's giving me time to think and appreciate what I've gone through to get to where I am now."

    It's tough to say where Strowman would be now on SmackDown had things not unfolded the way they did, but he has proved that he was the best possible person for that spot with how he's performed up to this point. He was constantly being overlooked for a run with the Universal Championship, and although it wasn't under ideal circumstances, his title win meant more because of how long it had been in the making.

Restoring Prestige to the Universal Championship

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    Fans have long speculated that the Universal Championship is cursed because of how few of its reigns have lived up to the hype and how infrequently it was being defended—let alone shown—on television.

    Brock Lesnar and Goldberg come to mind as two former Universal champions who did nothing to elevate the title because of their part-time status. His booking has been questionable at times, but by and large, Strowman has missed little ring time and has been a regular on Raw and SmackDown for years.

    He's ecstatic about being the first fighting Universal champion in some time and awaits his chance to take the title all over the world where it belongs.

    "It's a travesty that this title has never been taken around the world on a tour," Strowman said. "It's been held by people who didn't want to work. I'm here to work. Everything I have in life, I've worked my [expletive] off for. I've never had anything handed to me. Maybe this was handed to me by circumstances, but I feel like the work that I've put in in the five years that I've been here have led to the reason why I'm Universal champion right now. I want to make this title prestigious. I want to make it mean something. I want to show what a Universal champion is."

    Strowman winning the Universal Championship at WrestleMania may have come out of nowhere, but it was also long overdue. He was ready for the main event spotlight years ago and has yet to feel out of place in the position he finds himself in at the moment.

    Slowly but surely, The Monster Among Men is doing his part to make the title less of a prop and more of a sought-after commodity.

Surpassing 100 Days as Champ and Looking Forward to the Future

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    Despite previously holding the Intercontinental Championship and Raw Tag Team Championship, none of his reigns with those titles lasted longer than a month or two. Even his stint as Mr. Money in the Bank in 2018 was short-lived.

    However, he's enjoyed over 100 days as Universal champion thus far, a milestone he reached this past week. Since the title won't be up for grabs at Extreme Rules, it's entirely possible that he'll be in possession of the prestigious prize for many more months to come.

    He hasn't taken this opportunity to serve as the face of Friday Night SmackDown during a dark time in the world for granted. He has a few successful title defenses to his credit, but more importantly, he's been able to continue doing what he loves and have one of the more unique Universal title reigns in recent memory.

    "I've noticed so much through social media how much the WWE Universe leans on all of us," he said. "They lean on us for outlets. They need us to continue doing this to help them take their mind away from whatever they have to deal with. They get to sit down for a couple of hours with their family every week and watch their favorites on TV."

    Based on how prominently he's been featured on WWE TV over the years, it's apparent the company has always viewed him as a priority. That said, it wasn't until he transitioned into the role of Universal champion that he was given the ball to run with and be the dominant monster fans for a long time have been begging for.

    "Being Universal champion in such a crazy time right now and being able to represent WWE the way I am, that's all special to me. It's really hard to focus it down to one thing. Being Universal champion is a big thing, it's a lot of responsibility. All eyes are on you, and I'm thankful the company believes in me and has faith in me to give me this opportunity to represent them and what we do."

    Whether the threat of The Fiend will emerge eventually remains to be seen, but if the last few months have been any indication, his Universal Championship reign isn't in jeopardy of ending any time soon.

    Don't miss the Wyatt Swamp Fight between Braun Strowman and Bray Wyatt at The Horror Show at Extreme Rules this Sunday at 7/6c, only on WWE Network.


    Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.