Thursday, June 29, 2017

Saving Bray Wyatt

By Jerry Chandler

Windham Lawrence Rotunda, now known to the world as Bray Wyatt, was born with everything anyone would need to know to be successful in the professional wrestling business ingrained into his DNA. He is the son of one of the great (but often underrated) in-ring performers of his time, Mike Rotunda. His mother, Stephanie Rotunda, also brought something into the mix. She is the sister of Barry and Kendall Windham, Bray’s uncles, as well as being the daughter of the legendary Blackjack Mulligan. There are relatively few wrestlers in the industry today with a pedigree anywhere near as prestigious as the one he carries, and fewer still that so seemingly effortlessly prove that they are more than capable of living up to and exceeding the expectations of such a pedigree. This makes it all the more crushing to see the WWE apparently having no idea how to truly use Bray Wyatt.

Bray Wyatt was originally brought into the WWE as rookie competitor Husky Harris during the original incarnation of NXT and then as a part of The Nexus. There was something about the Husky Harris character that was not quite yet ready for prime time, but there was absolutely something there that caused people to see something in him. He was ranked almost dead last among the NXT hopefuls in the first fan poll, but started climbing higher in the rankings in each successive poll. Still, the character as a member of The Nexus was something of a dead end, and he was written off of WWE TV with a punt to the head by Randy Orton. From there he worked on his character in Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE’s then developmental territory. He tried a series of characters that never made it to FCW TV, including one that seemed to play on the Friday the 13th horror franchise, but was largely kept in the Husky Harris mold for the majority of the year following his departure from WWE TV.

Then, just as FCW was folding up its tent and Triple H was beginning to create the new NXT as the WWE developmental territory, Rotunda debuted the character of the maniacal cult leader Bray Wyatt. The character was a man who saw himself in some ways as more monster than man, but not in the purely physical way. This was a character that lived in the darkest recesses of the human mind, a character that could literally chill you to the bone with nothing more than a smile and the look in his eyes.

A torn pectoral muscle could have derailed the character’s early NXT momentum, but it simple gave Bray Wyatt the opportunity to prove that he could do something better than almost anyone else in the business- talk. Rather than sitting out the time he couldn’t be a physical participant in the NXT ring, he continued to appear and preach the gospel of Bray Wyatt. To back that gospel up in a physical way, he acquired a following that would become known as The Wyatt Family.

In very short order, the deranged Wyatt Family became an NXT favorite. It was therefore no surprise at all to see the vignettes promoting the Family’s main roster arrival after such relatively little time as a stable in NXT. They were unique in the modern WWE landscape. They had the right type of members to be physically dominating, they could be disturbing as hell, and, more importantly, the character of Bray Wyatt now had everything needed to be one of the biggest superstars in the WWE.

The reaction by the WWE audiences to their debut was nothing short of phenomenal. NXT wasn’t as well known at that time as essentially a new WWE brand in and of itself, so many fans hadn’t seen them before and had no idea what to expect. However, their deranged appearance along with Bray’s electrifying promo skills quickly started building them a huge following. In no time at all, the Wyatt Family entrance became an A-ticket attraction by itself. Not only did it translate well to the television audiences, but the live crowds started becoming a part of act. Bray Wyatt’s army of “fireflies” started filling every arena they appeared in as fan after fan held up whatever small light source they had, waving them rhythmically with the entrance music.

The show wasn’t over when they hit the ring, though. The members of the Wyatt Family could all wrestle. Bray especially showed a natural ability in the ring for not only the basics, but the tiniest details of ring psychology. If there was one thing you knew you were going to get out of a Bray Wyatt match, it was a great in-ring performance on his part. Of course, if he wasn’t actually wrestling that night, you could still count on Bray to deliver the best promo of the evening. It might even reach the level of being a highlight moment of the night, because, if you take everything else away from Bray Wyatt, he still has the ability to be the most magnetic, charismatic, and disturbing presence in the building on any given evening.

Eventually, Wyatt proved himself to the powers that be behind the scenes and he was moved into feuds with the top talent in the WWE. He certainly held his own and then some. As a heel, he played mind games, many of which Bray himself helped creative come up with, with the face wrestlers that were genuinely weird and creepy. One such example, with maybe a nod to the spirit of the original The Wicker Man, was played out on Monday Night Raw during his feud with John Cena.

The feud with Cena handed Bray his first pinfall loss on the WWE main roster, but he also scored wins over Cena. In the wake of the Cena feud, the WWE began to build Bray as a singles star. The other members of the Wyatt Family were “set free” by Bray, and Bray, after a few smaller feuds, set his sights on taking the top spot on a particular WWE pedestal from one of the company’s biggest names. He decided that his time was now, and he would dethrone the Undertaker to become the WWE’s New Face of Fear.

The New Face of Fear

The buildup to the match was a thing of beauty, and the lion’s share of the work in building it was placed on Bray’s shoulders. If there was a moment in the history of the Bray Wyatt character that proved that he could be one of the all-time greats in the WWE, that proof was delivered in this feud as a wrestler who was still in many eyes a relative newcomer more than held his own in building anticipation for a WrestleMania showdown with one of the greatest still active legends of the modern WWF/WWE era. It was also, sadly, one of the first true signs that the WWE didn’t know how to pull the trigger on making Bray what he should be.

On March 29, 2015, Bray Wyatt performed in front of the largest audience of his career at WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, California. The wrestling world had watched in stunned silence when one year earlier the Undertaker’s fabled “Streak” had been ended by Brock Lesnar; a wrestler who many felt was already so over that he didn’t need the rub of ending Undertaker’s streak of 21 WrestleMania wins. Now the wrestling world was ready to see the Undertaker pass on something of his mantle to Bray Wyatt, to make the character of Bray Wyatt something of a successor to WWE’s darker side that Undertaker and, at times, Kane had ruled in for so long. What fans saw was Bray Wyatt getting pinned by the Undertaker in just over fifteen minutes. It was unfortunately a sign of things to come in the WWE booking of Bray Wyatt.

This led Wyatt to a lesser feud with Ryback before his entering into a feud with Roman Reigns that would see the reformation of the Wyatt Family. While the Family had success as a unit in tag matches during this feud, the feud was ended with Reigns defeating Bray at the Hell in a Cell PPV. At the same show, the Family attacked Undertaker and then attacked Kane the following night. This started the feud with the dead man anew, as well as dragging his brother into the mix.

Some thought this was going to be the feud where the WWE corrected the mistake they had made earlier in the year at WrestleMania. Certainly the buildup and the apparent booking in the early going seemed to indicate that the (obviously) soon departing the WWE Brothers of Destruction would pass the torch to the Wyatt’s as a group and to Bray as a wrestler. The Brothers of Destruction would defeat Bray and Family member Luke harper at Survivor Series to end their feud.

What followed was a series of ups and downs for the Wyatt’s and for Bray himself. But, interestingly, no matter how poorly or inconsistently Bray Wyatt was being booked, his popularity with WWE fans continued to remain strong, even showing signs of growing in strength. Perhaps more so than with any other performer on the current WWE roster, the WWE had on its hands a character, a wrestler, that fans wanted to embrace almost no matter what the WWE did with him. Bray Wyatt was a superstar in the making, but, in large part due to the WWE seemingly cutting off his every push at the knees, it seemed like everyone knew that except the people ultimately calling the shots behind the scenes at the WWE.

Finally, the moment fans had been waiting for came in the early months of 2017. At February’s Elimination Chamber PPV, Bray Wyatt defeated John Cena, AJ Styles, The Miz, Dean Ambrose, and Baron Corbin in an Elimination Chamber match to win the WWE Championship. Bray would defend the title against some of the top stars of the WWE in the following months, and the fans seemingly could not be happier to see him as the company’s top star.

Less than two full months later, Bray lost the title at WrestleMania, his third consecutive ‘Mania loss, to Randy Orton. As we discussed in The Pro Wrestling Roundtable recap of that WrestleMania, it was a moment at the PPV that was so utterly wrong on every level that it seemingly sucked the life out of the building in the moments after the match. The buildup in the weeks before WrestleMania felt like it was leading to Bray having to win the match for the storyline to be properly resolved. The psychology of the match that night felt like Bray had to win that match. Certainly the events in the match felt like they had been put into play to have Bray come out victorious. Fans tuning in that night saw special effects integrated into the match in a way never before seen in a WWE ring, and they were all for the benefit of Bray Wyatt’s character. To have him suddenly catch an RKO out of nowhere and get pinned made many fans feel like the wind had been taken out of their sails at the end of the match.   

Bray Wyatt would find himself traded off to Raw shortly after WrestleMania. Some fans chose to see this as the rationale for the ‘Mania loss. Raw has rightly or wrongly long been seen as the A-ticket attraction show in the WWE Universe. Dropping the Smackdown title, winning a nontitle rematch with Orton, and then moving on to bigger and better things on Raw seemed like a logical plan by the WWE. As it was, it seemed like the WWE had even less of an idea how to handle Bray Wyatt as a character. Since moving to the Raw brand in April, Wyatt has largely been spinning his wheels and losing important matches.

The WWE has seemingly become very set in a troubling pattern when it comes to booking Bray Wyatt. Bray comes out and delivers promos that absolutely tear the house down in ways that few people can do with just words. He plays up the need to win, the importance of coming out of the next challenge victorious, and plays up the nature of his character as the true face of fear in the WWE, as the devourer of worlds. This is then followed with Bray getting laid out in the match and finding himself on the wrong end of the three count when the bell rings.

The WWE is handling Bray Wyatt in an extremely damaging way. So far, the fans’ desire to embrace Bray and support him has carried his popularity along through a lot of bad booking decisions. So far, his being booked to lose so many important matches and major feuds hasn’t hurt him in the way it may have hurt some other wrestlers at this point. But we may be getting to a point where that’s not going to keep being the case. A lot of people like to say that wins and losses don’t actually mean anything in the scripted entertainment world of professional wrestling, but that’s not exactly true.

Some wrestlers have the type of character where a long series of losses don’t really hurt them in the way it may hurt some others. Comedy acts like Santino Marella are almost expected to lose important feuds against major stars. But they’re comedy acts. They’re not there to be taken completely seriously, and they’re not there to be promoted as serious threats to the champions. Some character types, such as the smarmy, arrogant prick types like Miz, can afford to lose because they never acknowledge it. The Miz can as his type of heel character lose a major PPV match against a wrestler like John Cena and come out the next night talking like he really won. Within seconds he’ll have every bit of heat back on him with the fans that others may have lost, and fans are chomping at the bit to see him get his backside handed to him by someone else.

But Bray Wyatt isn’t a comedy act, and he isn’t a smarmy, arrogant prick heel. He talks a certain kind of talk that MUST be backed by a certain type of walk.

One possible walk he must be allowed to walk is that of the dominant monster. He has to be booked with the type of dominance that a character like Undertaker was perceived as having. He has to be made into a character that can back up his talk, and if he doesn’t, no matter how much fans want to stand behind him, he becomes something of a joke.

The sad part of this in the modern landscape of the WWE is that this approach may not be something they’re willing to give him. As The Pro Wrestling Roundtable’s John Neal pointed out after ‘Mania, the WWE way of booking in this era seems more often than not to be the way of 50/50 booking. The problem, as he so rightly pointed out, is that Bray Wyatt as the character he is now can’t be booked in a 50/50 booking way. The character as presented now has to be a dominant character; maybe even a special event character.

The problem is that the WWE can’t seem to grasp this fact. They don’t seem to understand that they need to book Bray a little differently with regards to wins and losses than they do the average wrestler. However, there may be another way to handle the problem of Bray’s booking. If you can’t change the booking, maybe you change the character just enough to once again ensure that the booking doesn’t matter.

Bray Wyatt already comes across as a demented sadist. He already comes across as the type of character who wants to destroy the souls and the minds of the wrestlers he faces. His promos and his demented nature play into that every time he appears on WWE television. So why not simply make that his primary goal in life rather than wins and losses or the “mundane” pursuit of WWE gold?

Bray Wyatt already feels like a special event attraction. Make him such an attraction. Allow him to come and go from time to time rather than being a regular, week to week TV character, and put him in no more than three to four feuds a year. But don’t make his quest in the feuds about titles. If he wins a WWE title along the way, good for him, but make his character’s personal goal in each feud the destruction of his opponent in ways that only he can pull off.

Make Bray the ‘New Face of Fear’ in the WWE. Make him an event attraction that, when he shows up, wrestlers show the fear and bewilderment in their faces that Cena showed when facing the child chorus from the above video. How? Easy.

Bray Wyatt becomes the character who wants to see if he can break you. He wants to destroy you and see if you’re worthy in his eyes. He wants to tear you down, shatter your mind and destroy your will. He wants to crush your soul and leave you a hollow, broken shell. He doesn’t care if he actually wins the matches along the way. He might even go so far in the matches that he gets disqualified more often than not. Just so long as he can do what only he feels he can do- leave you forever damaged and changed in his wake.

In the case of feuds where they won’t allow him the standard win, he can “win” simply by taking others to their limits and declaring them worthy for not breaking. In other cases, he gets to both win in the standard manner as well as breaking a wrestler. This actually has additional benefits beyond simply helping Bray.

By doing this, Bray Wyatt also becomes a means to change other wrestlers who have gimmicks that are no longer advancing their careers or who need to have the type of feud that changes the way people see them. I point you to the 2000 Royal Rumble and the Street Fight match between Triple H and Mick Foley.

Triple H was already a star on the rise, but he was still seen as something less than he could be by fans. His biggest gimmicks to that point in his WWF career had been that of an effete blueblood, being HBK’s sidekick, and being the leader of what was in some people’s eyes little more than a frat boy group of wrestlers. Despite having finally won the WWF Championship the prior year, there was still something missing in the view of many of the fans when it came to Triple HHH’s overall credibility. It was the physically and mentally devastating feud with Mick Foley and his demented personalities that changed the perception of Triple H for many.

Bray Wyatt, if handled properly, can do that for wrestlers now. Bray can be the catalyst for changing the gimmick or perception of other wrestlers. He can be used to break wrestlers, tear them completely down, and thus give them the ability to build back up in a new (likely darker and harder edged) gimmick or simply change the way some wrestlers are perceived.

And it would protect Bray. If his goal is to break wrestlers, to take them to his own private hell and leave them forever changed, he wins no matter what. If he can torment and torture wrestlers, tailoring his attack to each new opponent, so that they don’t come out of a feud with him as the same person they were when the entered into it, he wins. Or he puts guys out who are leaving for a while for whatever reason. At that point, the traditional concept of a win is simply a bonus.

And then he leaves for a while.

Bray disappears for a month or so before returning to face a challenge or because he has chosen a new target for his games. Fans would be excited to see him again; especially if they knew they could look forward to a couple of months of intense matches, promos, and mind games.

Realistically, the best way to treat Bray Wyatt is, as John Neal stated, to make him a dominant monster in the WWE and then to make him a special event attraction in the way Undertaker was and Brock is. The best way to utilize a performer like Bray Wyatt is by making him a character who walks the talk he can delivery like no one else in the WWE right now can.

But the sad fact is that they don’t seem very inclined to do that right now. So barring that, the best way to utilize him is by tweaking his character so that his primary goal is no longer the typical goal of every other wrestler. Build him up that way until the WWE powers that be finally become the people who understand and get what Bray Wyatt truly is and what Bray Wyatt can truly be.

Bray Wyatt is an example of one of those once in a generation, lightening in a bottle type of marriages between a character, a gimmick, and a wrestler. As a performer, Windham Lawrence Rotunda has an amazing mind for the business and the physical skills and abilities to hold his own with anyone. As a character and a gimmick, Bray Wyatt is a spellbinding, unique, and amazingly powerful presence. The fact that the WWE is stumbling so badly with Bray Wyatt, is dropping the ball with this performer and this character in so many ways, is practically a crime.

It is legitimately infuriating to see them squander what they have here. They have on their hands one of the biggest stars of his era, a potential future legend of the industry, and they seem to be unable to figure out how to utilize him properly. Somehow, some way, someone in that company needs to push the issue and change this.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene, making indie films with his friends, or writing for sites such as this one or Gruesome Magazine. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

1 comment:

  1. You are dead on here. Bray Wyatt is probably my favorite current WWE superstar but he never gets the chance to really shine. He absolutely needs to dominate, but in a completely different way that someone like Lesnar or any other "wrestler." He allows for some unique storytelling opportunities that don't have to involve a belt even. Considering that between Raw and Smackdown WWE has 5 hours a week of showtime, they surely should embrace having some alternate storylines that can lead to some alternate resolutions than just standard matches and title shots.