I write this with a few days to go before WWE’s Money in the Bank premium live event (a term that makes me think of “pay per view” the way I still call Toronto’s Rogers Centre the SkyDome along with everyone else who lives here).
After reality’s unwelcome intrusion into my last column, and more than a little burnout with Vince McMahon’s insistence on parading himself all over Raw and SmackDown as a means of convincing himself, fandom and possibly investors that it’s business as usual (the optics of his introducing John Cena on this week’s Raw were downright cringeworthy), I thought I’d switch things up by indulging in the most ridiculous fantasy booking ever… so ridiculous that I think it could actually happen.
You see, writing this on Wednesday night before Money in the Bank, there’s still a slot available for the Money in the Bank ladder match, the winner of which receives a WWE World Heavyweight championship shot any time over the next calendar year. And while pro wrestling logic suggests that this slot either goes to an underrated acrobat to help make for memorable high spots in a field that’s otherwise a bit older and slower than usual — or a returning megastar like Cena or Brock Lesnar, I thought I’d throw a new name into the mix.
What if Logan Paul, whose pro wrestling training videos made the rounds and attracted mention on this week’s RAW — and who signed a WWE contract moments before I submitted this piece for publication — were the last Money in the Bank participant? And what if he won? And what if he of all people turned out to be the man to end Roman Reigns’ years long… er… reign as heel champ?
Reigns’ title run is something of an anomaly in WWE terms. WWE was historically known for its long-term babyface champions. Bruno Sammartino’s two reigns exceeded a decade. Pedro Morales, Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan all had runs measured in years — in some cases well after the luster had worn off their acts and crowds started turning against them. Heel champions were rare and used transitionally, to broker the belt from one ethnic hero to the next. Even the exceptions to this rule weren’t terribly long-serving as champs. Superstar Billy Graham held the belt for under a year. Randy Savage, who spent most of his first run as a good guy before dropping the title to Hogan as a villain, lasted just over a year. Ric Flair’s longest run was less than three months and Yokozuna tapped out at 280 days.
WWE’s booking philosophy centered around the hero champion who defeated all comers until the Attitude Era, when title changes became much more common and wrestlers’ good vs. evil status became murkier. With this shift came greater emphasis on the number of titles won rather than time spent as champ. You’d have to skip the boom period of the late 1990s and go all the way to JBL’s 280-day reign to find another longstanding champion, whether heel or face (John Cena would match that total in his first reign, where he defeated Bradshaw).
Cena would go on to have his own year-plus reign in 2006-07, but by that time the World’s championship had already been split between Raw and Smackdown, which meant that fans with less interest in long-term storytelling could find more action on the other brand… or at least Batista, who had a similar reign.
It would take CM Punk’s 434-day reign in 2011 for WWE to return to longer-term champions. Punk started this reign as an anti-hero. By its end at the hands of a returning Rock he was a full-fledged heel like Savage before him, having brought Paul Heyman back to WWE as his manager (never mind the fact that older fans like myself cheered him even louder). Heyman’s return presaged Brock Lesnar’s, who would start racking up lengthy reigns between the WWE Heavyweight and Universal titles. Lesnar’s 503-day run has now been eclipsed by Reigns’, who’s streak stands at 669 days as I write this.
What makes Reigns’ position different is how he has been booked as champion. Heel titlists are supposed to be vulnerable. As fans we are supposed to believe that they need to cheat to win. Reigns cheats and occasionally uses his Bloodline cousins, but in this run he rarely looks vulnerable and has always beaten his opponents commanding fashion. There’s little drama at this point, where Reigns openly acknowledges in promos how he has “smashed” each challenger to come his way, serially and (as Edge and Bryan Danielson can attest) in combination. Reigns has literally run opponents out of WWE and put on such dominant performances that his opponents lose credibility; it makes repeat matches, even against stars like Seth Rollins, Drew McIntyre or Brock Lesnar (again) much less attractive to fans.
So, with nobody on the roster positioned to effectively challenge Reigns, who can take the belt off him, even transitionally, and reset the
WWE universe to something competitive?
Enter Logan Paul.
I know what you’re thinking. Mention the prospect of a celebrity winning a wrestling belt and minds turn immediately to David Arquette’s disastrous WCW championship victory — which at the time was seen as so damaging to that company’s credibility that it hastened its demise. Arquette himself tried to refuse the belt as a wrestling fan, and in recent years has made a point of learning how to wrestle in his 50s and embarking on a deathmatch tour/documentary as penance for his role. But late 1990s David Arquette was no athlete; he was a scrawny character actor, and his physical unsuitability was part of the joke even within the world of WCW’s Ready to Rumble.
From what little we’ve seen, Logan Paul seems like he can go.
Logan Paul occupies a curious nexus in the world of celebrity which might just make him a logical choice to beat Roman Reigns and inject some unpredictability back into WWE broadcasts. As a YouTube celebrity, Paul boasts a built-in fan base of almost 34 million subscribers, which currently trends young. Give it time and assuming a portion of his fanbase ages with him, the winds up bringing millions into wrestling’s coveted 18-35 demographic. His biggest liabilities come outside the ring. In an era where the effects of concussions have attracted public attention, Paul has claimed that he has brain damage resulting in a lack of empathy. He has also made homophobic remarks on his podcast and showed shocking insensitivity in filming a suicide victim in Japan during what was meant as a series of “Tokyo Adventures” videos. He appears to have weathered these controversies and, right or wrong, they’re probably mild compared to what many wrestling fans will ignore.
Wrestling’s infatuation with celebrities in-ring has come a long way from Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper, and while 51-year-old Jackass star Johnny Knoxville’s WrestleMania match might have brought new meaning to the term “garbage wrestling,” Paul showed that especially when protected by veterans like Rey Mysterio and The Miz, he could put on a compelling match. In a WWE where appearance matters, Paul also looks the part of a WWE superstar in a way most celebrities don’t. He’s 6-foot-2, blond, and cut after years of boxing training. Current champ Roman Reigns stands only an inch taller, which (if Paul is booked as a babyface) admits at least a whisper of David vs. Goliath.
Pro wrestling has a conflicted relationship with more legitimate athletes. Paul “Big Show” Wight alone fought Sumo champion Akebono and boxer Floyd Mayweather at two WrestleManias, losing to both men. A match against Shaquille O’Neal was teased and might have been great fun, but it never came to pass.
In MMA circles, the same fans who would cite Arquette as an argument against Logan’s run might also pull out the deep cut that was Tank Abbott; at one point WCW booker Vince Russo is rumored to have lobbied for early MMA star Abbott to win the title. This never happened for a host of reasons, but I’d argue that the move could have been ahead of its time. Putting a strap on a beer-bellied wrecking machine with legitimate kayfabe knockout power would have made things interesting and marginally more credible than the cattle-prods and finger-pokes and guitar-shots and Bischoff reigns that marred latter day WCW.
Twenty years on, Lesnar and Ronda Rousey have had great runs. Kurt Angle is a Hall of Famer by any measure (albeit one who caught on to the difference between amateur and pro wrestling very quickly). Ken Shamrock had a solid run in WWE and was used to bring credibility to the NWA belt in TNA’s earliest days. Bobby Lashley is fresh off two WWE title victories and a too-brief feud with Lesnar which bears revisiting (he also has a better MMA record at 15-2, although he never fought in UFC). Dan Severn washed out of WWE but held the NWA belt for years during its organizational doldrums. WWE has high hopes for recent NCAA and Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson, but then it had similar hopes for the recently re-retired Ron Gronkowski too. We’ll see what happens there but Steveson seems to be a work in progress for now.
Paul’s forays into boxing, including an exhibition against Mayweather, may not be the stuff of legend but his combat sports record outside WWE is no worse than current AEW champion CM Punk’s. The fact that Punk could so readily retake his place at the top of a promotion suggests that promoters are more interested in capitalizing on performers’ notoriety than translating shoot fighting to the scripted world of pro wrestling. Fans of the current WWE product will also note that Brock Lesnar’s MMA record sits at 5-3, plus a no contest once Lesnar was caught on a doping violation. Current Smackdown Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey has a much better MMA record at 12-2 (plus a strong Olympic judo pedigree), but she retired after losing her last two fights badly. In the MMA world it seems like you’re unbeatable until you aren’t. Given how fast and loose pro wrestling plays with facts, it’s always possible for competitors to hit reset on their careers. With the demise of kayfabe, promoters are quick to note how wins and losses no longer really matter.
Truth be told, Paul doesn’t even need to win the “empty” spot in the ladder match. A few years ago Brock Lesnar established a precedent whereby he could gain entry into the match by taking out Sami Zayn backstage. A callback with Paul (or really anyone) making a habit of removing Zayn from this match would thrill fans who miss the days of Pete Rose vs. Kane at WrestleMania, and produce a natural rivalry against an opponent with a reputation for making celebrities (like Johnny Knoxville and Wee Man) look better than they have any right to be. It would set Paul up for a march through the Bloodline on his way to a fight against Reigns, possibly at this year’s WrestleMania — and depending on how The Miz is dispensed with — allows the possibility for a tag team feud vs. the similarly dominant Usos. I may not love The Miz, but at least it’s different, and the Street Profits, Viking Raiders, Los Lotharios and New Day have all been on a treadmill of late.
And let’s be clear, I’m not advocating for a ‘Hulk Logan’ reign measured in years. This is a palate cleanser; a transitional break to put the belt on someone else (it may be a step backwards from a storytelling perspective, but I think Drew McIntyre deserves a victory lap with the belt in front of live crowds, given his yeoman’s work during the Thunderdome era) and give us a chance to miss Roman in the meantime. Reigns has done excellent work as heel champion, but returns are diminishing. If Roman is going to preserve or build his momentum at some point he will have to turn face and give fans the popular run that WWE was once so determined to give him. Watch the audience when the Bloodline shows up and you can see signs that the crowd is already starting to turn in his favor. There are cheers mixed in with the boos, and fans have joined in when Reigns lifts his finger in the air to show he’s “the one.” Let Paul take the belt off Reigns as a surprise, then drop it quickly.
Given the breadth of Paul’s other business interests, chances are WWE would only sign him for a few dates here and there (at least until that sweet sweet internet money runs out), culminating with a supercard win and loss in short order. But there’s precedent there too. WWE hasn’t been shy about using part-time talent in main events (Edge) or signing superstars to limited numbers of dates (Randy Orton), and has in recent years handed the championship to stars like Lesnar and Goldberg whose reigns are padded by long stretches of inactivity (this is different from Hulk Hogan’s day, where the title was rarely defended on TV, but Hogan worked a ridiculous schedule of house shows).
For what WWE would need, is a Logan Paul reign really that different from Goldberg’s last run with the title?
TOP PHOTO: Logan Paul after signing his WWE contract. WWE Twitter photo