While The Rock and John Cena main event WrestleManias, the WWE has turned SummerSlam into an annual homecoming for Brock Lesnar.
In the summer of 2002, World Wrestling Entertainment found itself at a strange and unfamiliar crossroads. It had been just over a year since WWE had basically bought out their competition by purchasing WCW and ECW, thus officially ending the fabled Monday Night War. But after attempting to revive the two companies as fictional purchases of Shane and Stephanie McMahon to make a super group called The Alliance that rivaled Vince’s WWF, audiences steadily began to tune out and the creative team eventually abandoned the storyline by the end of 2001. Vince then tried to revive another old favorite from WCW, the New World Order, but that angle quickly unraveled by the end of WrestleMania X-8. The next big idea from Vince was to split the Raw and Smackdown rosters into separate, talent-exclusive programs, with Steve Austin headlining Raw and The Rock and Vince himself headlining Smackdown, in hopes of bringing the ratings back up. But the viewers from the heyday of the Attitude Era never returned, and Raw got thrown into a tailspin when Austin suddenly walked out on the company after a creative dispute, leaving WWE’s flagship show without its biggest star, who had been on top since 1998.
Earlier in the year, during the build-up to the nWo angle, Vince McMahon, who was feuding with fictional co-owner Ric Flair at the time, declared that in order to bring the company back to his sole possession, he had to inject a poison to kill off the WWF. Vince’s scripted words turned out to be half-true in reality as he ditched the WWF name and renamed the company WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Not only was the roster forced to evolve in the wake of its departing superstar, it went through the weird transition of getting the ‘F’ out of their name to fans. Vince made a late save by bringing The Rock over as the newly crowned Undisputed WWE Champion on Raw to substitute the star power left behind when Austin took his ball and went home. But it also gave WWE a short window of time to craft a new long-term plan for the two brands leading up to its biggest post-WrestleMania show of the year, SummerSlam. With The Rock soon to take time off for another movie shoot, Vince decided to use SummerSlam as the showcase for a budding superstar waiting in the wings, the freakishly talented Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar was actually the new kid on the block that WWE wanted Austin to lose to in a match on Raw when the Rattlesnake flipped out and left the company, but the push to the main event for the Next Big Thing was not to be deterred. A former NCAA champion in amateur wrestling from the University of Minnesota, Lesnar was a physical monster who had cruiserweight-like agility and Rock-like selling skills. So it was fitting that Lesnar’s main obstacle to winning the WWE Championship and become the new face of the company at SummerSlam was Rocky himself. SummerSlam 2002 was an absolutely stacked card, which included Shawn Michaels, returning to wrestle in the WWF for the first time in over four years, taking on Triple H, but make no bones about it: Rock vs. Brock was the show’s key selling point. It was wrestling’s brightest star against wrestling’s brightest future, the Brahma Bull vs. the Next Big Thing, and after a wonderfully rapid-fire match, it was Lesnar who pinned The Rock to become the new champion of the freshly minted WWE heading into the fall television season. I have always felt that despite the pageantry of Rock vs Hogan at Wrestlemania X-8, the brand split in April, and Austin’s abrupt exit in June, SummerSlam was the company’s true turning point in the year 2002, the show that kept me coming back and thinking that the future was in good hands.
Unfortunately, that epic encounter turned out (so far) to be a one-shot deal for Brock Lesnar and The Rock. Lesnar became the WWE Champion on Smackdown while Triple H was crowned the World Heavyweight Champion and top dog on Monday Night Raw, making the brand split even more official by creating two separate masters of their own domains. Rock and Lesnar occasionally headlined the same cards from time to time, particularly WrestleMania XIX where Rock beat a returning Steve Austin and Lesnar pinned Kurt Angle in the last match to win the WWE Title for a second time. Lesnar would be back at SummerSlam a year later, only to tap out to Angle, while Rock filmed another movie. Then at WrestleMania XX in March of 2004, the bottom fell out for WWE in relation to both superstars. Rock lost in a tag match with Mick Foley against Ric Flair, Batista, and Randy Orton, and he would not wrestle again for more than seven years. At the same time, Lesnar lost to Bill Goldberg in a sluggish borefest and walked out on WWE and his recently signed contract in even more shocking fashion than Austin had done two years earlier.
Lesnar claimed that he was leaving the company to pursue a football career, but he scrapped those plans after missing the cut that summer for the Minnesota Vikings. He changed courses and would eventually became a big MMA star for the UFC. WWE and fans alike were disappointed in a 27-year-old (at the time) on top of the wrestling world walking out the back door the way that he did. After being handpicked by McMahon as the next company stud, main eventing a WrestleMania, and being the face of the Smackdown brand, he was gone in a puff of smoke. For many fans, Brock felt like the one who got away, like a gold mine that caved in way too soon. After Brock’s departure, it was on to Plan B as the company built its long-term future around Randy Orton, Batista, and John Cena. As for The Rock, many knew that the bright lights of Hollywood would eventually yank him from the ring for good, which is exactly what happened after random cameos on Raw in the summer of 2004. As the project list got bigger and bigger, Dwayne Johnson seemed more than ready to shed any mention of The Rock character and build his own name in showbiz without the WWE’s help, which irked many wrestlers at the time, particularly an outspoken Cena.
By the time we reached 2011, fans of WWE had grown accustomed to not expecting the likes of Rock or Lesnar on their television screens on a regular basis, if at all, but they were still missed in the back of people’s minds. When Rocky came home on a February episode of Raw to reclaim his spot as the WWE’s biggest star to host WrestleMania XXVII, fans were ecstatic. Although the card was lackluster, the buy rate was a major improvement over the previous year’s, so Vince was more than glad to book the dream match of Rock vs. Cena a full year in advance for Wrestlemania XXVIII in Miami. After The Rock pinned Cena in that main event and thanked the hometown fans the next night on Raw, the WWE dropped another ace on the table. Who better to follow up on the anti-Cena crusade than big, bad Brock Lesnar, who returned after his UFC stint had run its course. A year after The Rock made a triumphant comeback in the WWE, Lesnar followed suit to a thunderous response before giving Cena an F5.
Nearly ten years after they had faced off at SummerSlam, the Rock ‘N Brock Connection re-formed in the WWE, with both guys performing on a comfortably light schedule and unprecedented one-year deals rumored at $5 million annually. The WWE certainly dished out big bucks to bring both former megastars back into the wrestling fold, but based on the financial numbers, it has definitely paid off. Of the seven pay-per-views in which either The Rock or Brock Lesnar have participated since 2011, the least successful one was this year’s Elimination Chamber, which still garnered an above average 213,000 buys. Wrestlemania XXIX, the only show since Wrestlemania XX in which both Rock and Lesnar competed, landed over one million buys and was the highest grossing live event in WWE history. In terms of booking the characters, the WWE has also been quite clever in their handling of both stars without stepping on each others toes.
The Rock received a hero’s welcome upon his return and has played the part of the hero ever since, beating the polarizing Cena to the joy of many at WrestleMania XXVIII, ending the historically evil title reign of CM Punk, and replacing that dastardly spinner belt with a newly designed WWE Championship. Brock Lesnar, on the other hand, wears the black hat. When he attacks the likes of Cena and Triple H, he does not do it at the behest of thwarting the bad guys and sending the fans home with a smile. Lesnar is an ass kicker, as he confessed in this candid interview, and no wrestler, current or past, is safe from a Brock-sized beat down. With the brilliantly conniving Paul Heyman by his side most of the way, he has engaged in a furious war with Cena at Extreme Rules, broken the arms of Triple H (twice) and Shawn Michaels, and issued a clinic of visceral ass kickings to the likes of CM Punk, The Miz, and even the 3-Man Band.
Although plenty of wrestlers are envious of Rock and Lesnar’s guaranteed prominence without the burden of enduring the daily grind of the WWE schedule, the company has at its disposal a rare feat: Two popular novelty acts who can still deliver high-caliber matches. While The Rock’s matches have followed the textbook formula of fiery comebacks and trademark finishers down the stretch, Lesnar’s matches have a discombobulated uniqueness to them, as Brock unleashes furies of amazing rampage in a matter of seconds early in the match to take his opponents out early. WWE’s matches have the PG-rated motif of “Let the good times be had,” but Lesnar’s matches have a more sinister tone: Let the blood be shed.
If there is one immense compliment about Lesnar’s match with Cena last year, it is the fact that we have never really seen anything like it in the WWE: A match between generational superstars with the brutal legitimacy of a real fight and the rhythms and cues of a typical main event being completely abandoned for the sake of suspenseful reality. I was not the biggest fan of Lesnar’s trilogy of matches against Triple H, but it was interesting to watch this strangely upside down format of post-MMA Brock matches with a ring general like Triple H trying to adapt to it. Lesnar won two out of the three matches, and the first one had top billing at the same event that turned Lesnar into a household name a decade ago: SummerSlam. The show itself had the tagline “The Perfect Storm,” advertising Lesnar as an unstoppable force of nature ready to rain on Triple H’s parade, which he did in a convincing submission victory.
WrestleMania is the time for heroes like The Rock, John Cena, The Undertaker and Triple H to reach their destinies and dispatch their rivals (Unsurprisingly, Triple H’s only win against Lesnar came at WrestleMania XXIX). When they are at the halfway point of the road to WrestleMania, WWE has more freedom to experiment with their dark side a little bit, and Lesnar plays that villainous role perfectly. While The Rock, John Cena, The Undertaker, and Triple H populate the main events for WrestleMania, Lesnar has been the WWE’s dominant force that cures the fans’ summertime blues before going away for the remainder of the year. After the financial success of last year’s SummerSlam (over 350,000 buys), WWE is going back to well this summer as Lesnar faces off with Punk in the battle of Paul Heyman clients as the main event of this year’s edition. Replacing the moniker of “The Perfect Storm” is “The Best versus the Beast.” After triumphantly coming onto the scene in a title win over The Rock in 2002 and a clean victory of the future head of the company last year, the odds seem to be in Lesnar’s favor to overtake the Best in the World and be the last man with his hands raised in victory at SummerSlam for the third time in his career.
Where WWE goes with Brock Lesnar after SummerSlam will be like the Beast Incarnate’s recent appearances: Impactful and unpredictable. Given his limited number of required dates, the WWE might shut him down for the rest of the year after already having had appeared on Raw numerous times and wrestling in three different PPV matches. That would leave Lesnar’s eventual return for the new year on the road to WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans, where many insiders sense a rematch between Lesnar and his star-crossed counterpart, The Rock. Both guys have appeared on the same show, but have still yet to cross paths since that match at SummerSlam 11 years ago. If this clip from Lesnar invading WWE headquarters (skip to the 2:20 mark) is a sneak peek into the WWE’s plans, then we might get just that next April.
If The Rock has been playing the part of Luke Skywalker as the fans’ only hope for the last few years, then Lesnar is Darth Vader, the man the fans love to hate, and we all know how that ended. So maybe Rock/Brock II is inevitable. Or we might get Lesnar against the historic WrestleMania winning streak of The Undertaker, or Brock against Cena in a rematch. Obviously, we have not reached a point close enough to guess what is dancing in Vince’s head yet, but we know what Vince has in mind so far: Here comes the pain, and the dollars are soon to follow. When it comes to SummerSlam, Brock Lesnar is no longer the Next Big Thing: He is the Big Thing.