It’s an exciting time to be a WWE fan. WWE relaunched SmackDown as a live production, which will air every Tuesday night on the USA Network. They hosted a draft to split the roster into a Raw brand and a SmackDown brand. They’re currently promoting their latest pay-per-view, Battleground, which airs this Sunday on the WWE Network.
But the highlight of the week, for me, was Tuesday’s singles match between Xavier Woods, the mouthpiece of the New Day, and Bray Wyatt, the leader of the Wyatt family. If you haven’t watched the match yet, the WWE posted it online. The two teams will collide in a tag team match this Sunday.
What’s so wonderful about these two and a half minutes is Xavier Woods, who is visibly intimidated and terrified by Wyatt. He jumps back and yells when Wyatt does his trademark spider walk. He’s projecting fear with a straight face—no fourth wall breaking and no winking at the camera—and in the year 2016, that is highly unusual. Back in the 80’s, when professional wrestling was at its commercial peak, things were different; everything that wrestlers said and did mattered more than it does now. It used to be that if someone got “injured”—say the heel “smashed” his opponent’s ankle with a steel chair—the promotion could run an angle on that injury for a whole month.
Fans were willing to believe, or at least play along, with what they were told. When Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and Andre the Giant feuded, they did an angle where Andre was terrified of snakes. People cheered and applauded whenever the snake choked the life out of Andre—in reality, the snake merely crawled on top of him.
Those good old days of fans accepting and never questioning are pretty much dead. It takes more these days to terrify one’s opponent, and it takes a hell of a lot more to terrify the fans Why? Because everyone is desensitized these days, and no stunt or schtick is ever crazy enough. If someone gets wrapped in barbed wire and can still wrestle the following week, it makes a sprained ankle seem comparatively mild. If murder and miscarriages are incorporated into storylines, the “scared of snakes” schtick looks really mild. Modernity challenges believability, and the days of straight up gimmicks—of creepy, wrestling clowns and traumatized, wrestling mental patients—are petering out. For a long time, the only notable exceptions to this trend were the Undertaker and Kane. But then, the Wyatt Family joined the main roster. And for the first time in a long time, fans suspended their disbelief, and accepted them as the frightening heels they were meant to be.
The Wyatt Family teased their debut on the main roster before they actually debuted in 2013. They did so through a series of subversive vignettes that established, in broad strokes, who they were: a backwoods cult, complete with sheep masks, overgrown beards, and childish laughter. Throughout these promos, Bray Wyatt would ramble weird, nihilistic mumbo-jumbo that made passing sense. But that was the beauty of it; these promos didn’t have to be completely logical. Their disjointedness added to the discomfort; Bray was not a stable person to deal with.
Despite all of this well-built hype, there were still fans who didn’t buy it when the Wyatt Family debuted on Raw. If you listen to the chants in the background at 4:25, the fans are yelling, “Husky Harris,” the name of Bray Wyatt’s original NXT character. This is the uphill battle that any wrestler with an outrageous gimmick must face—to translate as “real” in an era where everything is unfairly derided as “fake.” Even your so-called fans will mock your attempts to get over.
For their first year, the Wyatt Family were booked as strongly as one might expect. They had a well-received feud against The Shield. They annihilated everyone in the midcard. But booking-wise, their problems started when they feuded with John Cena. In 2014, Wyatt took his first pinfall loss at Wrestlemania 30 against Cena, and many observers criticized the decision. It stifled Wyatt’s momentum, and the veteran Cena could certainly afford to lose without having it cripple his reputation.
But this setback was still salvageable, especially if Wyatt could have exacted revenge or won decisively on a future PPV. As the months wore on, though, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to happen. Cena ultimately won the entire feud, culminating in a Last Man Standing Match at Payback.
More concerning than wins and losses, however, were the ways that WWE Creative tweaked and ruined Wyatt’s character during this time. It started in subtle ways. The original Wyatt family entrance showed Wyatt lighting a lantern backstage and calling out the name of the host city—it became a ritual that fans looked forward to.
But pretty soon, Wyatt stopped calling out the name of the host city, and eventually, the introduction was cut altogether. One might speculate that because the villainous Wyatt was being cheered, WWE Creative got rid of the things that made him likable. What awful, counterproductive thinking. Why not follow the fan response, instead of trying to repress it?
WWE Creative further hamstrung Wyatt by separating him from his family members. Rowan and Harper both became singles competitors, and Wyatt was left on his own, with no massive muscle to help him. Still, it seemed like things would turn around. Wyatt started referring to himself as the New Face of Fear, and it was implied that he would be filling the Undertaker’s role as the top supernatural badass in the company. Instead, Wyatt lost to the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 31. The young Superstar was now 0-2 on the grandest stage of them all. And because the Undertaker wrestles so infrequently, Wyatt didn’t even have a chance to avenge his loss.
Bray Wyatt was eventually reunited with his family, undoing Creative’s original mistake. The stable is currently stuck in the midcard, and although Wyatt wins matches, he loses every major feud that he’s a part of. At Hell In A Cell, Wyatt lost to Roman Reigns. At Survivor Series, the Wyatt Family lost to the Undertaker (again!) and Kane. It got embarrassing; Wyatt did a whole lot of trash talking, for weeks, but could never back it up.
At Wrestlemania 32, the Wyatt Family endured its greatest humiliation. The Rock beat Erick Rowan in a six second match, setting a Wrestlemania record for shortest match of all time. At the end of segment, John Cena charged down to ringside and helped The Rock dismantle the Wyatt Family, outnumbered 3 to 2. Two veterans soundly demeaned the future of their company on a massive public stage, and for what? A cheap pop? It wasn’t close to worth it. It’s so difficult to get a scary act over to begin with, and moments like these do irreparable damage.
Even worse was the way that Rock treated the Wyatts in this promo. He reacted not with fear, but with contempt and one-line putdowns. Rock played the entire segment for laughs by imitating Bray and making fun of his weight, with references to Cracker Barrel and Hot Pockets. Bray is supposed to be frightening. Is this any way to treat the New Face of Fear?
And for a while, it seemed like the New Day feud was going to turn out the same way. The New Day put out skits that mocked the Wyatt Family rather than giving them a wide berth. But while this was happening, something more interesting was happening in the background; Xavier Woods was projecting genuine fear. And it culminated in this incredible meltdown, when Xavier told his teammates that the fun and games were over and stormed out of the ring.
The New Day visited the Wyatt Family compound the following week, and the segment was similarly straight faced. The New Day is a comedy act, but they were smart enough to not makes jokes; all three members acted genuinely confused and afraid by the horrific things they saw.
During this week’s WWE Draft, Wyatt was split from his family again. WWE Creative still doesn’t give Wyatt the credit he deserves. But at least with this feud, they’re not actively sabotaging his push. Any return to kayfabe—maintaining character and treating storylines as real on a consistent basis—is a step in the right direction. Bray Wyatt is one of the best talents the WWE has. He has a great look, great mic skills, and a great moveset, and he’s young enough to carry the company into its future. WWE Creative just needs to get out of the way, and stop cutting him off at the knees whenever he’s about to be something great.