Anyone who follows WWE closely knows that, as Vince McMahon has even talked about in one of his recent television appearances, the most important device is not the pencil, but the eraser.
In wrestling terminology, “the pencil” is a code word for the booker, the person who has the final say in creative decisions, who wins and how, who wrestles who on what shows and the angles to build up these matches. That of course is McMahon, 76-year-old chairman of the board and the person who has presided over creative for nearly four decades.
“The eraser,” or the other side of the pencil, means decisions are changed, which they are in WWE—seemingly multiple times every week, because McMahon regularly shakes things up, whether based on his gut feelings or in reactions to competition or declining television ratings.
Saturday night at the Day 1 pay-per-view, the eraser was definitely more important than the pencil. This was not so much McMahon's whims but due to Roman Reigns, the company's biggest full-time star, testing positive for COVID-19.
Ticket sales were very strong in the closing stretch; a good 3,000 to 4,000 tickets were sold for the show at State Farm Arena in Atlanta in the last three weeks. Sales picked up big after the announcement of Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar, a part-timer who is the company's other biggest star. The match, with the story line regarding Paul Heyman, the long-time “advocate” for Lesnar, but more recently, the “counsel” to Reigns until being fired on the Dec. 17 episode of SmackDown. Ticket sales started moving a week before the intrigue of the Heyman firing, but the question of which side Heyman would be on had been part of the company's top story line from the start of the match build after Thanksgiving.
It was supposed to be answered on the show, but with Reigns not there, it was delayed until Raw two nights later with Heyman in the ring once again with Lesnar. At least for now, that’s where he’ll stay when the eventual match or matches with Reigns take place.
Reigns-Lesnar was clearly the match with the most interest of any the company had presented in months, and perhaps all year.
Sources within the company say that, with a number of talents testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, causing them to miss arena matches on the post-Christmas tour, Reigns was not on the shows as advertised because the company wanted to make sure they delivered the main event for Day 1. The Day 1 idea was a new concept president Nick Khan came up with that WWE hopes to make a regular first major event of the year.
A few hours before the show started, WWE announced Reigns’s positive test and that he wouldn’t be on the show defending his universal championship. The company also announced that Lesnar would be moved to the WWE title match, originally a four-way with champion Big E and challengers Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Bobby Lashley. This would make it a five-way, and also would be the first time Lesnar and Lashley, two powerhouses who were national collegiate wrestling champions as well as MMA fighters, would be in the same match.
The original plan to build for WrestleMania, whatever it was, changed greatly when Lesnar pinned Big E to win the WWE title to end Saturday’s show. The original scripted plan for the show was for Big E to lose the championship, but to Seth Rollins, who had tested positive for COVID-19 last week, and the champion instead lost his title to Lesnar as the result of another positive test.
This makes Lesnar the champion, and in theory, the top star of the Raw brand. Reigns is the universal champion, the top belt on the SmackDown brand. WWE wrestlers are supposed to only work for one brand and against the wrestlers within their brand, but there is plenty of creative license regarding that. In addition, because Lesnar is such a major star, he was the one person who it was said was a free agent, meaning he could work on both shows. In a sense WWE months ago did a story line hook that allowed it to put the Raw belt on Lesnar even though he had been performing on Smackdown. It would have done it anyway, but lucked into a story line that made it more explainable.
With Raw ratings hovering at their lowest level in history over the past month, and AEW's Dynamite often coming close in the 18–49 demo, Raw has relied weekly on Big E as champion in either title matches or main event matches that would build to title matches. Lesnar virtually never wrestles on television, and at least in the past was unwilling to be a weekly character on television.
McMahon's eraser changed not just the ending to the main event, giving fans a previously unplanned title change, but it appears to have changed the entire battle plan for the road to WrestleMania, which takes place on two days, April 2 and 3, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
While nothing was announced, it was believed that the program with Lesnar, Reigns and Heyman was going to be built to climax on one of those two shows. That could still happen, most likely even will happen, even if the original direction of how to get there has changed. This would also impact the next major show, Jan. 29’s Royal Rumble, which no doubt was to be the follow-up from whatever the ending would have been for the Reigns vs. Lesnar match.
Reigns, Big E, Rollins and Lashley were all off the road shows this past week along with intercontinental champion Shinsuke Nakamura, Becky Lynch and “King” Xavier Woods. Rollins publicly stated he had tested positive. WWE officials said that some of the talent off the week’s shows had tested positive and others were pulled to lessen the risk they would miss Day 1, in particular some of the headliners. Of the wrestlers in the two key matches, Lesnar was never scheduled for the shows, but all the others didn’t appear except for Owens, who did the full Raw tour.
However, the new WWE guidelines follow the updated CDC guidelines—meaning five days of isolation and two negative tests taken a day apart—allowed everyone but Reigns to perform on Day 1. Nakamura was not advertised on the show. He did have a match with Sami Zayn that was being built, but was not advertised, never official and was not a late addition.
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The show went on with one less match than scheduled and the main event five-way only lasting eight minutes and 19 seconds. That is unusual for a WWE major show main event, unless Lesnar is involved, because Lesnar matches tend to be nothing but big moves and usually short. Saturday was no different.
It will be interesting to see what is next.
Lesnar pinning Big E clean in theory would make no sense if they are building a rematch, as he’d pin somebody else and Big E would have the excuse he lost the championship without being pinned. The show ended with a tease of Lesnar vs. Lashley. That match was made official as the WWE title match on the Royal Rumble show that will take place on Jan. 29 in St. Louis.
The two had three notable spots in the match. The first, right at the onset saw Lashley spear Lesnar through the barricade outside the ring. The second saw Lashley spear Lesnar in the ring, generally a finishing move, but Lesnar kicked out. The third saw Lashley trap Lesnar in his “unbreakable” finisher, the old-school full nelson rebranded as the Hurt Lock. But Big E saved Lesnar and broke it up. Also notable is that during the match, Lesnar delivered two different F-5s, his finisher, to Big E, as well as one to Rollins and Owens, but none to Lashley.
But long-term, if Lesnar vs. Reigns is still the ultimate destination, would McMahon want to weaken it by having one of the two lose their championships prior to WrestleMania? It’s not impossible for one or the other to lose and there are many ways around it, including one costing the other the championship to build a grudge. If they both go in as champion, that would cause another issue. Most likely on the two days of WrestleMania, one night would be headlined by the universal champion and the other by the WWE champion. If they are to face each other, that means one of the shows wouldn’t have a men’s championship match. So those are the questions to consider when deciding on whether to not have Reigns or Lesnar lose, because they have 80,000 seats to attempt to fill for two straight nights this year, and one would think you’d need a major men’s championship match both nights.
But a combination of COVID-19 and Vince’s eraser means that all of the plans in play to get to the original destination, even if not the actual destination itself, have been erased.
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