WWE's Internal War Between Behemoths and Smaller, More Talented Wrestlers

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WWE's Internal War Between Behemoths and Smaller, More Talented Wrestlers

As we found out following last night’s SmackDown, AJ Styles will defend the WWE title against John Cena at the Royal Rumble. Even after handing Cena loses at Money In The Bank and Summerslam (as well as No Mercy’s triple threat featuring Dean Ambrose), Styles isn’t merely defending his championship bling. He’s fighting for WWE’s very soul.

Cena, alongside the likes of Randy Orton, Batista and Roman Reigns, represents the Golden Gods—unstoppable juggernauts forged of killer physiques and a bounty of merchandising rights. They’re the latest manifestation of Vince McMahon’s Big Man Obsession, one that dates back to Hulk Hogan’s 24-inch pythons and Lex Luger’s endless posing. You might say this meme’s a crude joke, but McMahon’s romance with behemoth types has shaped the very DNA of modern wrestling.

Styles, meanwhile, is very much of the New Era. He’s an unassuming dynamo decked out in a sweet emo flop. Meanwhile, over on Raw, Kevin Owens reigns as Universal Champion despite a physique lacking even by indie standards. They’re not alone: between NXT and the burgeoning cruiserweight division, WWE TV is filled with an increasing array of grapplers well under 250 pounds. Oh, and two words: James Ellsworth.

This shift away from the superhero archetype is an admission by McMahon and Co. that talent trumps six-pack abs—that all the muscles in the world can’t make up for a complete lack of charisma (see Erick Rowan). The guys who’ve spent years developing a character and perfecting their mat game—your Owens and Styles—are the ones to usher in the current era of WWE. Based on fan reactions to Reigns and Braun Strowman, bulging biceps are evidently a small price to pay for ring savvy and pure chemistry. Still, it’s not entirely about progressive attitudes, and the Wellness Policy certainly colored the front office’s decisions. You can’t very well crack down on steroids and HGH and then push a guy like Mason Ryan, can you?

Like that Welsh giant’s here-and-gone career, there are signs that McMahon’s insatiable desire for Big Men may win in the end. Even with solid gold heritage, it was Reigns’s Rock-ian physique that pushed him to the top amid fans’ toxic wails. Same for Strowman: His lackluster skills would’ve been future endeavored without all that mass. While Triple H has clearly populated NXT with a diverse talent pool, the presence of the Authors of Pain, and the slow unveiling of body guys like Riddick Moss and Tino Sabbatelli, demonstrate that old habits die hardest. Perhaps rightfully so: WWE’s success has come on the ripped backs of hulking bruisers. Their size and god-like status are crucial to the narrative of wrestlers as world-smashing gladiators. To ignore the size element may just undo the Herculean shine job applied to main eventers since day one.

If he can tear himself away from the latest Flex magazine, McMahon has big choices regarding Styles/Cena IV. To go for the smaller guy is to invest in wrestling as an art, to establish these grapplers as approachable everymen. Considering the success MMA has seen with similar fighters, that’d be fiscally sound, and entirely believable for today’s audience. Or, he can maintain the status quo and keep building up big dudes in the hopes another Batista or Cena can be unearthed from every dozen or so man-mountains. Whoever wins, here’s hoping McMahon uses the one muscle that matters: his brain.

Chris Coplan is a former writer and editor for Consequence of Sound. He’s on Twitter @CCoplan.

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