During the first episode of Cageside Chat, I sat down with K. Sawyer Paul to discuss pro wrestling and how we, as fans, digest it. His great enjoyment comes from seeking out the deeper narratives within a story and how World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) goes about crafting them.
To that end, a recent article by Chris Sims at Grantland.com caught my attention. In it, Sims breaks down how exactly WWE systematically went about making John Cena, the literal face of the company, into an underdog over the past year and how that helped play into a larger narrative of WWE's fight against the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a competitor it has refused to acknowledge until recent times.
And the exclamation point on it was the image of John Cena, his mouth bloody after Lesnar punched him in the opening of Raw. It was such a beautiful shot that I'm torn between thinking it was an amazingly favorable accident or that it was staged with a blood capsule, but it honestly doesn't matter. The man who represented wrestling had been taken down hard by the man who represented MMA, and the countless replays that slowed down Lesnar's shot to Cena's jaw all underlined the idea that it was "real." The message that WWE was sending through the story was that this time - not any other time, but this time - it wasn't fake. WWE was taking on MMA on its own terms, and by its own admission, it didn't have a chance.
And from there, it continued: Lesnar, by all accounts, was fighting like the UFC. But in the end, Cena endured. No matter how bloody he was, he kept on taking the beating, until he finally overcame what genuinely felt like impossible odds, because of the way they'd sold the conflict to us. And Cena, a wrestler, did it with a wrestling move, in front of a crowd of wrestling fans. Whether you're a fan of Cena's or not, the message of that storytelling was incredible. It was a triumph of narrative, not for Cena the wrestler, but for Cena the character. WWE had created a story that made him an underdog, and by extension, made the entire company an underdog too. They'd brought the conflicts of the industry into the ring, presenting them in a way that made the WWE's own victories and losses matter less than the fact that they've endured.
I strongly recommend heading over to Grantland to read the full article.
With the benefit of hindsight, should we really be surprised that Vince McMahon would once again use his most established star to vanquish a man representing a company that has, whether he wants to admit to it or not, taken a large chunk of his audience? And what's worse is they've taken the demographic that is most profitable.
Lesnar was -- and still is, really -- the legitimate fighter who fans can recognize as a man not to be f*cked with, for lack of a better term. For Cena to rise above, despite his having done so in nearly every story during his time on top of WWE, meant more than just Superman doing his thing on the latest episode of Raw. It was one of the few ways McMahon can get over, or at least feel like he's doing so, on UFC President Dana White, who has taken over the pay-per-view (PPV) landscape McMahon used to dominate.
Though many would tell you otherwise, there is most certainly a struggle, a tug-of-war, if you will, between WWE and UFC for the very same fanbase. Those who crave legitimate competition now have an alternative with just enough theatrical flavor to replace WWE altogether with UFC. Those who lean farther towards the pomp and circumstance of it all remain loyal to the cartoon world of pro wrestling and, in turn, WWE.
To take that struggle and harness it into a storyline carried out by the biggest star in pro wrestling of the past five years and the biggest box office draw in the entire history of mixed martial arts (MMA) is definitely worthy of a collective round of applause.
Or at least a golf clap.