Bray Wyatt’s Strength Is His Faith In Himself

This article was originally published by FanFyte on August 3rd, 2021, three days after WWE released Bray Wyatt.

The first images were of decay. The abandoned degradation of small-town America – loose tires and wire fences, unpainted shacks and unpopulated storefronts, a church. The outermost borders of civilization just before the point where it vanished into the swamps beyond. The first words we heard him speak were, “Good things come to those who believe in Bray Wyatt.”

It was an assertion that would be tested constantly over the course of his WWE career. After all, no one believed in Bray Wyatt more than the man who played him, third-generation wrestler Windham Rotunda. Watching those early NXT video packages that officially introduced him in 2012, one gets the sense that Rotunda is talking not about his fictional followers, but about the Bray Wyatt character. “They don’t love you like I do,” he says. “They don’t know you, man. They can’t protect you like I can. And how am I gonna do that? With love.” Windham Rotunda loved Bray Wyatt, and that love fueled a blood-red streak of creativity in a world where creativity isn’t necessarily rewarded. Good things did come to him, but two barriers popped up for every breakthrough, demanding that he overcome them next. For nearly ten years, his dark and innovative mind sheparded Bray Wyatt through a repeating cycle of destruction and re-birth. The character would change, and change, and change again, yet somehow remain the same, continually playing with themes and ideas that were present from the very beginning, shining a light on Rotunda’s relationship with wrestling, and with himself.

Bray Wyatt was born alongside the show we know now as NXT, but by that time, Rotunda had already debuted on Raw, challenged for a championship, and been in the ring with Randy Orton and John Cena. As a “contestant” on the original game show version of NXT (in a piece of potential irony, his “pro” was Cody Rhodes) he had been given the demeaning ring name Husky Harris and was briefly part of both Wade Barrett’s all-NXT heel stable the Nexus and CM Punk’s New Nexus before being punted in the head by Orton and sent back to FCW. His main roster stint had lasted three months, and while his in-ring talent was undeniable, WWE had made it painfully obvious that he didn’t look like Vince McMahon’s idea of a wrestling star.

Bray’s early NXT packages seem to reference this history. “I been through hell, man. I know how cruel it can be. I know what it’s like. I know what it does to a man. It changes him. It makes you stronger…. It took away my ability to feel fear, to feel pain! I’m not afraid anymore!” Looking back, the creation of Bray Wyatt can be seen as a direct response to the frustration of being Husky Harris, humiliated and tossed aside. “What will they do when they discover they cannot hurt me?” he asks, briefly invoking Hulk Hogan in one of his line readings. “Whatcha gonna do to something like me?”

Wyatt never said who “they” were, but he didn’t need to. He feuded with other wrestlers, but his enemy, as he constantly made clear, was the machine, the systemic apparatus of the WWE that had judged him and found him unworthy. In the beginning, he was half fallen angel and half Antichrist (one early NXT promo involves him speaking in tongues) both of which had been done before in wrestling. His look was based on Robert DeNiro’s character from the 1991 thriller “Cape Fear,” which had previously been used as a gimmick by Dan Spivey, and he was far from wrestling’s first evil preacher. What made Wyatt unique was his vendetta against WWE itself, and crucially, the fact that he saw the fans as his allies. The imagery of derelict houses and empty streets was no accident – Wyatt spoke in the language of the impoverished and abandoned, those whose dreams had been crushed, as his had, by forces too big to fight back against and too all-encompassing to escape. He was tapping into the class resentment of post-Occupy America, but he was also tapping into the resentment of WWE fans who had spent years enduring one of the promotion’s most creatively barren periods, resentment that would lead to total revolt at the 2014 Royal Rumble. In this era, it was no trivial thing to promise revolution, and as he refined his character’s ideology, Wyatt struck on a fundamental truth: “When we are alone, we are weak and frail. But when we come together, when we unite, we are strong! We are dangerous! We are family.”

The creation of the Wyatt Family was, counterintuitively, another reaction to setback. Wyatt wrestled his debut match on NXT’s fourth episode, but shortly thereafter was sidelined with an injury. He kept appearing to cut promos, though, and more importantly, he gathered his family, incorporating Luke Harper (the late, great, and much-lamented Brodie Lee) and Erick Rowan into his act. Bray Wyatt turned out to be very much a creature of community – his rare solo runs didn’t last long, and Rotunda’s storytelling style was ill-suited to solitude. He worked best as part of a group, playing on the relationships between the people around him and keeping his character consistent by referencing his own history with them. And of course, he had his fireflies, the fans who illuminated his dark entrances with lighters and cell phones as they swayed, entranced, to the rhythm of his sinister song.

Unfortunately, no amount of crowd support could get Bray Wyatt what he really wanted. It was a fatal flaw in the meta-narrative of the character: The system the fictional Wyatt raged against was a real thing that controlled his story, and as a result, he could never be allowed to win. For WWE to make him their champion, or even let him score a big symbolic victory by, say, beating John Cena at Wrestlemania, would be to acknowledge even the smallest bit of his critique, and that isn’t a tale Vince McMahon has ever been interested in telling. Bray Wyatt was a heel who hated WWE, and heels who hate WWE lose to John Cena. The immutable truth of his dominance by actual, existing power structures had a profound impact on the Wyatt character. He could, it turned out, still be hurt. He could still feel fear. Sometimes anger isn’t enough. Sometimes community isn’t enough. Sometimes (almost every time, actually) you go up against the machine with your brothers and sisters by your side, and you lose, because the machine really is that insurmountable and the odds against you really are stacked that high.

Wyatt expressed all this explicitly in a backstage Smackdown promo following his loss to Cena at Payback 2014, ending with the words, “Brothers and sisters, I am reborn.” Rebirth was his counter to being slapped back down by reality – his appearance didn’t change much at first, but his stories gradually became less about revolution and more about his personal relationships. Wyatt never won the WWE Championship back when he was prophesying WWE’s demise, but he did win it, almost incidentally, during his 2016-2017 storyline with Randy Orton, which was about Bray placing his trust in the wrong person and losing everything because of it. This narrative would repeat itself in Wyatt’s final WWE match at Wrestlemania 37 (appropriately against Orton) when he was betrayed by Alexa Bliss – one of the most oddly endearing things about Bray was always the fact that, despite his monstrousness, he was a vulnerable character who deeply loved those who followed him, and often suffered for it.

Wyatt also came to represent creative innovation in the increasingly stale world of WWE. The ideas for the character weren’t always good, and when they were good, they were often poorly executed – that same Randy Orton story included the laughable bug projections at Wrestlemania 33 and the infamous House of Horrors match – but the attempts always centered itself around Bray Wyatt. Prior to the House of Horrors, there had been the New Day’s invasion of the Wyatt Compound, a visually offensive mess of a vignette that coincidentally came immediately on the heels of Matt Hardy’s ridiculous masterpiece, “The Final Deletion.” Later, when Hardy’s “Broken” character proved so popular that he brought it back with him to WWE, Wyatt was his opponent in “The Ultimate Deletion,” WWE’s sole attempt at re-creating Hardy’s bizarre world, and later his tag team partner. It was a collaboration that could have yielded much more, but that couldn’t get off the ground within the company’s creative rigidity – according to Hardy, he and Wyatt were taken off TV because “they were tired of us suggesting ideas.”

Rotunda was in desperate need of another rebirth. This time, though, he transformed more completely than ever before, reimagining Wyatt as the host of a creepy kids’ show, Firefly Fun House, who also happened to be the Fiend, a nightmare wrestler with a mask made by Tom Savini and a lantern made out of the old Bray Wyatt’s head. The new twist on the gimmick rocketed Wyatt back to relevance and led him to the longest period of sustained success he’d ever had, but the most interesting thing was Firefly Fun House, which again provided Rotunda with a platform to grapple with his frustrations. It’s some of the most fascinating creative output of his career, and it’s a puppet show – Wyatt finally interacts directly with the long-invoked Sister Abigail, uses “Huskus the Pig-Boy” to acknowledge the existence of Husky Harris and comment on WWE’s obsession with certain body types, and audaciously trots out a devil-horned puppet of Vince McMahon himself. It all culminated at Wrestlemania 36, in the midst of a pandemic, with the Firefly Fun House match.

It involved John Cena, of course. Bray Wyatt was, in many ways, Cena’s opposite, and always had been. Their differences were more than physical, though Cena’s bodybuilder physique represented everything Wyatt wasn’t. Cena earnestly believed in WWE as an institution; Wyatt earnestly believed it was all a lie. Cena was the superhero, inspiring children everywhere; Wyatt sang chilling versions of children’s songs and had once defeated Cena with a demonic children’s choir. And of course, Cena had beaten Wyatt all those years ago, throwing him into the cycle of death and rebirth that would eventually lead to the Fiend. Their final “match” was entirely cinematic, a dark mirror deconstruction of Cena’s career that left him broken and destroyed. Previous attempts at cinematic segments involving Wyatt had fallen short in part because they inevitably devolved into standard wrestling physicality – this one thrived on abstraction, with metaphors and historical references standing in for forearms and clotheslines, and in that environment, Bray Wyatt could finally stand triumphant. It was his first and last win at Wrestlemania, and John Cena wasn’t seen again for over a year.

There’s a bittersweet poetry to the fact that Rotunda was released from WWE immediately after Cena returned. Bray Wyatt could no longer exist in a world that he couldn’t permanently change, no matter how many times he changed himself. According to Fightful, one factor in Rotunda’s release was that he had been “getting protective of his character,” an idea that certainly tracks. Wyatt died and came back to life as many times as he needed to, but in the end, the only way to change the game was to stop playing. We don’t know if there will be yet another evolution of the strange, sad, evil character that means so much to the man behind it, but his fans can take inspiration from the final edition of Firefly Fun House, which aired the night after Wrestlemania 37. “I think this could be a brand new start for all of us here,” Wyatt said. “A new season, new friends, and a brand new me! I feel reborn!”

His WWE career, for now, is over. His future is unknown. But nobody in wrestling is better at being reborn. And good things come to those who believe in Windham Rotunda.

Bray Wyatt returned to WWE on October 8th, 2022.

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And The Winner Of The 2019 Royal Rumble Is…Women’s Wrestling

2019 Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch, aka “The Man.” Photo credit: http://www.cagesideseats.com

Disclaimer: This post discusses the progress of gender equality within WWE, a subject that is not not problematic and may require some anti-capitalist context to see the big picture. To get that context for yourself, please read my lengthy “capitalism is bad” preamble.

Introduction

For fans of women getting opportunities in the wrestling industry, and women’s wrestling in general, the last few years in WWE have kind of ruled. 2015 saw the rise of the Four Horsewomen of NXT, including one of the best matches in company history from Sasha Banks and Bayley, and their follow-up rematch in a historic Iron Woman contest. In 2016, the Divas Championship was replaced by the reborn Women’s Championship, which would have to become the Raw Women’s Championship after the latest brand split necessitated the creation of the Smackdown Women’s Championship (for those who don’t recall, the first time there was a brand split, the Women’s title was shared between the two brands). That Raw Women’s Championship was also the focus of an epic series of matches between Banks and Charlotte Flair, including Raw and PPV main events and culminating in the first women’s Hell in a Cell match. 2017 gave us the first women’s Money In The Bank, which was so problematic they did the match again and pretended the first one hadn’t happened, but it also gave us the first Mae Young Classic, which has now concluded its second iteration. Not only has the MYC provided numerous women on the independent scene a chance to shine on a larger stage and a potential pathway to an NXT contract, it has also featured a number of fantastic matches, most notably a contest between indy wrestling legends Meiko Satomura and Mercedes Martinez that was so good it briefly turned Michael Cole into a relatable human being who likes watching wrestling. And kicking off 2018 was the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble, a match so historic it got the main event spot for the show, and the evening ended not with some random dude pointing at the Wrestlemania sign, but with the on-screen debut of Ronda Rousey. Pointing at the Wrestlemania sign. So, you know, mostly great.

The second women’s Rumble happened about a week ago, and I was lucky enough to be there in person. The year between the 2018 and 2019 Royal Rumble events has been packed with progress for women (despite it being painfully clear that main roster creative doesn’t know what to do with most of them and doesn’t particularly care) and while the inaugural women’s Rumble was ridiculously fun to watch, I think the 2019 Rumble as a whole is singularly indicative of how far WWE has come, and secretly one of the most important nights for gender equality in wrestling history.

With that in mind, by the power vested in me as a Person What Was In The Audience, I hereby present the following four awards to the 2019 Royal Rumble, each named for one of the people who did really good wrestling things back in 2015 and started this whole thing.

Continue reading “And The Winner Of The 2019 Royal Rumble Is…Women’s Wrestling”

Twin Tragic

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Brie and Nikki Bella, the Bella Twins. Photo credit: Wrestling JAT Wiki

Last weekend, there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle involving Paige (former WWE NXT and Divas champion, retired, and current general manager of WWE Smackdown Live), Carmella (former WWE Smackdown Women’s champion), and Steven Luke (contributing writer for wrestling website NoDQ.com). It’s the kind of thing I enjoy commenting on, because (a) it involves women’s wrestling, of which I am a fan, (b) it involves the history of women’s wrestling in WWE, of which I am knowledgeable, and (c), it involves a specific question that isn’t necessarily easy to answer: As WWE builds toward the crowning achievement of its revamped attitude toward women’s wrestling in the form of the all-woman Evolution show, is the company wrongly ignoring the female wrestlers who actually created the change, and focusing instead on the ones who, in the past, were part of the problem?

Here’s how the whole thing went down. On Saturday, September 22nd, NoDQ posted an article written by Steven Luke called “How the Divas are damaging the Evolution.” In the piece, Luke stated his opinion that the Evolution show was in danger of being ruined by an emphasis on female stars of the past. Specifically, he called for a renewed focus on the wrestlers who have defined the women’s division for the last two years, name-dropping Asuka, each of the Four Horsewomen, the IIconics, the Riott Squad, and Absolution. He decried the recent return of Brie and Nikki Bella – the faces of the division in the days before the so-called “Divas Revolution” who also happen to be crossover stars with their reality television shows Total Divas and Total Bellas – criticizing their recent in-ring work and saying they weren’t as “crisp” as wrestlers like Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. Luke also went so far as the criticize the involvement of wrestling legends Mickie James, Lita, and Trish Status on the Evolution card.

“The Bellas should be nowhere near this show,” Luke wrote. “Lita’s hundredth match with Mickie James should stay at the bottom of the card and no other members of the current division should be wasted against legends like Alexa Bliss is against Trish Stratus.”

Later that day, both Paige and Carmella responded to Luke’s commentary piece on Twitter. “You do realize both these ladies were the OG ladies to help kickstart the #givedivasachange trend?” Paige wrote, referring to the social media backlash against WWE’s poor presentation of women’s wrestling, brought on by a 2015 match that lasted a mere 30 seconds. “I know because I was part of it. They deserve to be a part of everything and more, they are the one of the leaders of the movement. Sometimes matches all won’t be ‘crisp.’”

She also wrote that “it happens with everyone. Crappy article. Not just for them but for the ‘divas’ you described that shouldn’t be a part of it, is an unfair statement. Without the divas, there wouldn’t be superstars. Thanks to all the ladies that paved the way before us.”

Carmella, who held the Smackdown women’s title earlier this year, also weighed in.

“This is an embarrassing article. Every single woman from the past and current roster have made women’s wrestling what it is. EVERYONE is deserving. Enough of the negativity around the ‘diva’ moniker.”

There is so much going on here. Does Luke really think that the Bella twins can be equated in any reasonable way with Trish Stratus and Lita? Does Paige really think the Bellas are “leaders of the movement,” or ever were? Should Evolution, a celebration of women’s wrestling, really be limited to current members of the roster instead of legends of the past? Is it fair to negatively compare the wrestling ability of Nikki and Brie to that of Flair and Lynch? Is there too much negativity surrounding the word “diva?” What are the actual contributions of the Bella twins and their generation of WWE divas to women’s wrestling, and would women’s wrestling have progressed to where it is today without them?

Continue reading “Twin Tragic”

NXT: 4 Evolutions – The End Is The Beginning Is The End (2017-2018)

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The Velveteen Dream faces off with Richochet prior to their Takeover match. Photo credit: GiveMeSport.com

Tomorrow, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the fourth in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. Part 4 is, just so you know, really fucking long compared to the other three, and that’s because a whole lot of stuff has happened in the past year that needs to be properly parsed in order to come to a true understanding of the history of NXT. In this final installment, I discuss how the NXT roster shook out during a year of transition, and the eight wrestlers who returned the male singles division to the top – only this time, with a couple of twists that speak to the full evolution of this spectacular wrestling promotion.

Continue reading “NXT: 4 Evolutions – The End Is The Beginning Is The End (2017-2018)”

NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Tag Team Takeover (2016-17)

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The Revival vs. DIY in Toroto. Photo credit: Cagesideseats.com

In two weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the third in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. Part 3 focuses on the NXT tag team division, and how a tossed-together group of jobbers and misfits turned a perennial afterthought into the best and most important part of the show, kept their era going longer than either the main event kings of 2014 or the revolutionary women of 2015, and even took a massive hand in shaping the future that was to come.

Continue reading “NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Tag Team Takeover (2016-17)”

NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Return of Women’s Wrestling (2015)

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The Four Horsewomen of NXT, from left to right: Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch. Photo sourced from http://www.diva-dirt.com

In three weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the second in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. In Part 2, we focus on 2015, the year that women’s wrestling returned to the United States. By that, of course, I don’t mean that there were no female wrestlers in the U.S. prior to 2015; quite the opposite is true. But it had been almost a decade since women had been treated with anything resembling respect on the WWE stage. Some promotions, such as Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling (now known as Impact Wrestling) had thriving women’s divisions during this period, but WWE is the biggest game in town, and despite the efforts of some members of the talent roster — most notably AJ Lee — it was hard to ignore the fact that the largest wrestling promotion in the world was hiring supermodels and training them just enough to not kill one another while they did battle in Playboy Pillow Fights over a championship that looked like a butterfly or a vagina, depending on who you asked. In 2015, the women of NXT almost single-handedly changed all that, and if the Orlando promotion had done nothing else whatsoever, it would still be worth celebrating for breathing life back into American women’s wrestling.

 

Continue reading “NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Return of Women’s Wrestling (2015)”

NXT: 4 Evolutions – Introduction (2014)

Sami Zayn with the NXT Title
Sami Zayn, NXT Champion. Photo credit: Smarkoutmoment.com

In four weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the first of a four-part series that will be released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. In it, I provide an introduction to NXT (and my personal fandom), a brief history of the company (that’s the part with the title “A Brief History of NXT,” in case you were wondering) and an in-depth look at the promotion’s main event picture in 2014. As always, I’ve tried to make my wrestling content as accessible as possible to the newcomer, but I’m sorry, at a certain point you just need to accept that you don’t know who Camacho is and you can trust me when I say you don’t need to.

Continue reading “NXT: 4 Evolutions – Introduction (2014)”

Victory Glow: A Brief History of Black Women and Championships in Wrestling

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Source: WrestlingNews.co

I caught the live broadcast of WWE Elimination Chamber tonight. I mention this for three reasons. First, They’d Rather Be Right is kind of boring so far. Second, I did promise at one point (both to myself and to an unspecified and completely theoretical audience) that I would spend time between books doing some actual real person blogging about things that are not award-winning sci-fi. Third, as a UOTM reader (or maybe just “Mind reader”), you deserve to be reminded from time to time that the person behind this blog is a somehow simultaneously a political leftist and a professional wrestling fan who watches one person get a predetermined victory over another person and thinks to himself, “I wonder how this fits into the long and sordid history of race and gender in the wrestling industry?”

So, on that note…

Continue reading “Victory Glow: A Brief History of Black Women and Championships in Wrestling”