For the last few years, Brock Lesnar has undoubtedly been the WWE performer who feels most like a “star” every time he appears. His character is protected more than any other, rarely put in compromising positions. He’s only on TV in the weeks leading up to his big matches, preventing him from being overexposed. So as a once-in-a-lifetime athlete (even a 40-year-old one) who’s always shown an impressive aptitude for pro wrestling and is believable as a real-life badass by virtue of becoming UFC Heavyweight Champion in his fourth pro fight, there’s no reason Lesnar shouldn’t be tearing shit up right now.
But he isn’t.
Instead, on Sunday, Lesnar, who was headlining the No Mercy pay-per-view by defending the WWE Universal Championship against Braun Strowman, squandered what was arguably the most anticipated WWE match of the year. The match completely fell apart, seemingly thanks to Lesnar, and it became clear that due to apathy, a physical decline, or some combination of the two, the dynamic, engaged Brock who became the hottest attraction in pro wrestling is gone. The noticeable deterioration of his in-ring performances is not necessarily a byproduct of matches designed to make him look unstoppable, so much as it is about hiding his limitations with smoke and mirrors. In recent efforts, Lesnar is working much shorter matches on average, and generally is not the one bringing the movement to each bout.
Instead of the explosive, constantly moving, up and down Lesnar, what paying fans saw on Sunday was a match where he very obviously forgot at least one planned sequence and seemingly gave up on the match. Just look at what happens after Strowman gives Lesnar a spinebuster for a near fall, which comes at 2:54:29 of the WWE Network stream. Time stands still as Braun stays between Brock’s legs and sticks out his arm in an obvious effort to feed him a Kimura/double wrist lock from full guard, Lesnar’s signature submission hold in WWE. After 10 seconds, Brock meekly shoves Strowman away, and then they just kind of stare at each other on the mat for 20-plus seconds before getting back to the match. They then went another three minutes, ending with Lesnar hitting the F-5 out of nowhere after countering Strowman’s powerslam attempt. There was no build-up to the finish whatsoever, no drama. The match just kind of ended, concluding as anti-climatically as possible, and the show quickly went off the air with Lesnar leaving the ring looking, as always, like he was about to have a heart attack. It was similar to Lesnar’s match with Samoa Joe a few months ago, only even more disappointing.
Shit happens, but WWE main event matches falling apart is a rare occurance, much less to the point where everything grinds to a halt for 30 seconds. And in this case, it does not look like it was Strowman, the more inexperienced performer of the two, who caused the problems. Even if he’s still just a couple years removed from being arguably the worst wrestler on the roster. Strowman was clearly trying to take control of the match and Lesnar just... stopped. That he looked gassed and turned beet red after a nine-minute match with relatively little up and down movement is probably not unrelated. The end result was a disappointing, anticlimactic match, something that has become a pattern for the highest-paid per-match performer in modern wrestling.
There are a few ways to look at this, but all told, any current issues with Lesnar becoming a less engaging performer can probably be traced back about three years ago. At 2014’s SummerSlam pay-per-view event, the show was headlined by Lesnar absolutely massacring John Cena to win the WWE Championship. For WWE to headline its second-biggest show of the year with a protracted squash match was brave booking, and it worked, with Brock looking absolutely unstoppable as he repeatedly hit Cena with German suplexes en route to using his F-5 finisher to get the pin. It was the kind of outside-the-box thinking rarely seen from the WWE creative team, and it fully recharged Lesnar, who had not had the best start to his second WWE run in 2012. Having ended The Undertaker’s decades-long WrestleMania undefeated streak a few months before the Cena match, Lesnar was suddenly positioned as a very different type of monster heel from what WWE usually offered up.
There was a problem, though, that cropped up as a result of this match, but it took time to manifest. In the meantime, the following month, Lesnar had a more competitive match with Cena ending in a screwy finish, and in 2015, he was in two of the year’s best matches, defending against Cena and Seth Rollins at the Royal Rumble and later Roman Reigns at WrestleMania. In those bouts, Lesnar was an active participant, taking as much punishment as he dished out, and the matches felt as heated as anything WWE had offered up in a long time. But during the early parts of the Reigns match, Lesnar did the repeated suplexes as a callback to the lopsided Cena bout, with the idea that his virtuous opponent was down for the count, only to rally late for an improbable comeback. He then yelled out the new catchphrase that altered the trajectory of his WWE career:
“SUPLEX CITY, BITCH!”
It sounds dumb, and it is, but it launched a new line of T-shirts for Lesnar, with different, market-specific variations offered in every town. “Suplex city” caught on to such a degree that it became what defined Lesnar. His matches, with a few exceptions, became about him dominating his opponent with repeated suplexes that the fans would count along with. While it worked as a one-off against Cena and as a story element in the Reigns match, as a regular event, it made Lesnar’s opponents look ineffectual instead of making him look dominant. Most infamously, Lesnar killed off fan interest in Dean Ambrose at last year’s WrestleMania (Ambrose is only recovering now after a year and a half) en route to giving Randy Orton a concussion with legitimate elbows to the head later that year at SummerSlam. There were exceptions, but they were matches that, in hindsight, make it all the more obvious that “Suplex City” was likely covering up a physical decline: A pair of matches with The Undertaker that were carried by the story and various shortcuts, like copious blood, and two bouts with Bill Goldberg, which kept a fast pace by virtue of going a combined six minutes and 10 seconds. His most recent great match, his title defense at this year’s SummerSlam, saw him sit out most of the bout with a storyline injury after being dispatched by Strowman early on.
And every time, without exception, Lesnar looks like he’s on the brink of death within a few minutes, turning bright red and sometimes purple. It’s a far cry from his return match five years ago, where, just a few months removed from his UFC stint, he went a fast-paced 18 minutes with Cena, looking indestructible and never turning any distracting colors. However, the first two years of Lesnar’s second WWE run were heavily squandered with mistimed losses and storylines that undermined his uniqueness in general. So by the time WWE made him into a dominant attraction with the Undertaker and Cena wins, he was close enough to losing his physical edge that finding a gameplan to hide the changes would have been particularly fortuitous.
In the grand scheme of things, this robs WWE—and the paying audience—of Brock Lesnar: Special Attraction. His appeal is that he is a gigantic, hulkish human being with superhuman strength, a high vertical leap, and everything else, like his NFL combine numbers, that makes him the epitome of explosive athleticism. That is what he is supposed to embody in the ring. If, at 40 years of age, he can’t do that anymore, and is so compromised (or, a cynic might say, cutting corners to fleece WWE) that he’s unable to get through all of the planned spots in a match, then he’s not Brock Lesnar anymore. He may look like Brock Lesnar and he may have Paul Heyman doing his trademark bloviating interviews beside him, but “The Next Big Thing” is dead. Long live the new thing.