Forgive me for back-to-back football analogies, but it is the fall…
Nick Saban turned LSU from middling team in the 1990’s to a national champion. Under former coach Gary DiNardo, LSU was a sub-.500 SEC team. When Nick Saban was hired from Michigan St. he changed the culture almost immediately, bringing a blistering defense to the Tigers’ program. In his five seasons he never won fewer than eight games, always had a better than .500 conference record and, as mentioned, guided the Tigers to the BCS Championship. After five years in Baton Rouge, Saban was considered one of the best coaches in college football.
He then left for the NFL where his record was less spectacular.
His two years with the Dolphins were no great successes but to be fair, he was dealing with an aging team with no quarterback. It’s crazy to think what might have happened had Drew Brees gone to Miami instead of New Orleans; Saban might have stayed in the NFL and never returned to the college game. Instead, after a 6-10 year and a 15-17 overall record, Saban left to be the head coach of the University of Alabama. After a mediocre 6-6 debut, the Crimson Tide went 12-2 the following season and never looked back. Bama has not won fewer than ten games any year since Saban’s first and have added four national titles to their collection. Today Saban is considered the best coach in college football and more than worth the initial drama that surrounded his hiring.
Meanwhile, while Saban was struggling in Miami, Bobby Petrino was tearing up the gridiron as the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals, with an offensive mind that could design plays no defense could stop. In his four years at UL, the Cardinals went 41-9, with his worst year being his first (where he went 9-4). After taking the Big East school to the Orange Bowl and winning, Petrino was considered one of the brightest young coaches in the college game.
He then left for the NFL where his record was less spectacular…in fact it was terrible.
His lone season with the Atlanta Falcons was mired in controversy, as the star quarterback he expected to be working with (Michael Vick) was arrested for dog fighting soon after he was hired. Petrino’s offense is built around the QB and without a proper signal caller who can check and read and run his very complex gameplan, the whole house of cards falls apart. With bleak NFL prospects ahead of him, Petrino bolted, and now (after a few years at Arkansas and one at Western Kentucky) he’s back at Louisville, where the Cardinals are…okay. In three years (not counting their 3-1 start this season) they’ve gone 26-13. That’s a little over .600 but far below the .800 he averaged in his first stint with the Cardinals. And that’s with Heisman winner Lamar Jackson at the helm, a QB that’s strikingly similar to the Michael Vick he thought he’d be getting in the NFL.
Now with all that said…a question: Which of those is more like Brock Lesnar?
Back in 2012, when Lesnar re-signed with the WWE and left the UFC behind, I think Vince McMahon thought he was signing Nick Saban. Lesnar had been successful in his first stint with the company, had gone to another field of competition but it hadn’t worked out (though he was obviously more successful in UFC than Saban had been at Miami) and it was time to go back and “dance with who brung him.” His return was met with great fanfare, just as Saban’s college football return had been, but after five years has the uber-success that Vince McMahon expected materialized? Not really. It’s more like Vince hired Bobby Petrino, a guy who had great success his first time-around, but has been mostly “meh” in his second stint.
And the fault lies in both the booking around Lesnar and in the man himself.
In 2012 and early 2013—Lensar’s first year back—bad booking essentially cut the legs off what had the potential to be a Saban-like comeback. Lesnar returned to WWE on the night after WrestleMania 28. The Rock and Cena had just clashed in a “once in a lifetime match” and interest in the product was on an upswing after some hard years between 2007-2011. Lesnar made an immediate impression; anytime you hoist the golden boy up and F5 him into the mat you’re going to turn some heads. Cena vs Lesnar was thought to be a WrestleMania dream match, but instead it was bumped to the front of the line and booked for the first post-Mania show, Extreme Rules. Nothing wrong with striking while the iron is hot, however, and the PPV buyrate showed how hot the iron was. 263,000 people bought the event, up from the 200,000 the year before (and the 230,000 the following year). Putting Lesnar front and center was not just smart business, it was logical business.
So naturally they had him lose his first match back.
And then he took four months off only to return to a DOA feud with Triple H that ended up being more about Hunter’s long goodbye from wrestling (which is still ongoing I suppose) than it did the new tornado of destruction that had invaded the WWE. After SummerSlam Lesnar disappeared for the remainder of the year and didn’t return until January where he…returned to feud with Triple H. The feud climaxed at WrestleMania—Lesnar’s first Mania since his return—where Triple H defeated him in a match so boring fans can be seen (for only $9.99!) nodding off mid-way through it. After losing in the most high-profile match possible, Lesnar was given the win in the rerematch at Extreme Rules the following month (the one that did 30,000 fewer buys than the year before) and Lesnar’s first year with the company was mercifully finished.
After that things turned around.
A SummerSlam 2013 match with Punk still stands as one of the best match either man has had. Unfortunately, the buyrate for the show (which also featured Cena vs Bryan for the title as the main event) disappointed, and the blame went to Punk and Bryan and not to the year’s worth of terrible booking that had surrounded the guy who was brought in precisely to be a PPV draw, having been the king of UFC PPVs during his time there.
Perhaps sensing that their very expensive commodity needed a soft-reboot Vince went all-in on Lesnar, feeding him the Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania record to the shock of everyone. Brock followed that up with the most lopsided WWE Title victory over a babyface champion in the history of McMahon wrestling. Fans still turn on that SummerSlam 2014 squash over Cena when they’re feeling blue. His follow-up at Night of Champions was less amazing, but only because it was booked as a Cena face-saving move; the sour taste of it was washed away soon after at the 2015 Rumble, when he, Cena and Seth Rollins blew the roof off the Wells Fargo Center.
Everything came to a head at WrestleMania 31, where Leaner faced the next anointed one, Roman Reigns. It was a Mania main-event for the ages, especially in terms of the mythical “big fight” atmosphere in the crowd which Michael Cole is always talking about but which the WWE rarely truly offers.
After that things turned sour.
A one-on-one match with Seth Rollins at Battleground in June was the first of the post-“Suplex City” era, and it’s here where Lesnar himself starts to take the lion’s share of the blame for his own failed potential. It’s no secret that Brock has no genuine love for “this business” (finger pointed downward). It’s a job, and though he seems to get a thrill and a rush out of doing it in the moment, the business side of it is not his bag. That’s fine, but somewhere around this time, Lesnar realized he could sleepwalk through a match by merely german suplexing his opponent a dozen times and hitting a couple F5s. He started coasting and his match-quality dropped as a result.
Keep in mind this is the guy who, back in his first run in WWE, had phenomenal pure-wrestling matches with Kurt Angle, and other great contests with Undertaker, Guerrero, Benoit and more. He’s not some meathead who can’t work, he just needs motivation. It’s clear, however, that he is no longer motivated.
And that’s where we are today, in an era where every Lesnar match follows the same template. We approach the fight with a feeling that “this one will be different because _______ is different.” And then the match happens and we say the same thing every time: “That’s it?”
Whether it’s Goldberg or Braun Strowman or Dean Ambrose, it doesn’t matter. You can change the opponent, and tease whatever kind of match you want, the common denominator in all of them is a bored Lesnar who is content to collect his paycheck, hit his germans, land his F5 and go back to hunting wild boar with his bare hands or whatever he does in that frozen tundra he lives in.
“That’s it?” were my exact words last Sunday when Lesnar hit his single F5 to put Braun Strowman away. Strowman, the guy who’d been built up better than any monster Vince has had since Kane in 1997-1998, who had received enthusiastic and organic reactions the likes of which a big man (or any man) hasn’t seen in years, and who was more than credible to be the monster to slay the beast, instead went down to a single F5 (Roman Reigns took THREE of them and kicked out every time). After a flurry of fun to open the fight, the match turned methodical as Lesnar worked the arm. It seemed like they were settling in for a 15 or 20 minute fight. There I went again thinking this time it would be different. Instead, they went right to the finish and Strowman went down. It was over in nine minutes. That was it.
When Lesnar first returned to WWE it was news that received mainstream attention. Sports Illustrated reported it. CBS Sports reported it. ESPN reported it, and not the Jonathan Coachman version either. His return match spiked a huge buyrate. Everything was coming up Saban…and then bad booking killed his return year, which ruined the mystique they wanted him to have, making the great years that followed far from needle-moving like they could have been. Now he’s coasting and his appearances aren’t special anymore. He doesn’t care so fans don’t care.
Next year Nick Saban is set to make (with bonuses) 11 million dollars as the head coach at Alabama. He coaches a little over a dozen games a year, but he works almost every other day of the year in preparation for those games. Alabama has clearly received a proper return on their investment. Bobby Petrino is making “only” 4 million a year at Louisville, but he’s yet to win double-digit games in his second stint with the Cardinals. Some fans are grumbling that the return on their investment just isn’t what they were hoping for.
Brock Lesnar made 12 million dollars last year. He worked six matches, none of which seemed to move the mainstream needle or draw eyeballs to the WWE Network. Raw’s ratings continue to slide downward and while Lesnar’s “stand and listen to Heyman be amazing, while occasionally F5ing a guy” TV appearances are always good for a minor ratings bump, overall he’s just not drawing eyeballs to the product. Maybe it’s because the novelty has worn off. Maybe it’s because too much booking around him has been poorly handled. Maybe it’s because he’s not that enthusiastic about the work.
Whatever the reason, 2017 is (currently) the last year on Lesnar’s WWE contract, and for the first year since he returned I wouldn’t miss him if he never re-signed.