Last night, John Cena squared off against Bray Wyatt in the semi-main event of WrestleMania. This wasn’t a normal WrestleMania match, though, and not because of the circumstances the world is facing — not only was this match not performed in front of 80,000 fans, it wasn’t performed in a ring. Hell, it wasn’t even performed in our reality. Last night, John Cena faced his own darkest fears and regrets in what can best be described as a nightmare.
If that sounds insane, that’s because it was — like the Boneyard Match that preceded it, the COVID-19 pandemic forced WWE to take chances they otherwise likely would not in order to somehow make a series of staged fights seem interesting despite a complete lack of audience. And there’s no better character to try that with than Bray Wyatt, a demented psychopath who in kayfabe has the power to warp reality itself. John Cena, in his first match in over a year, was teleported to the realm of the Firefly Funhouse, and forced to relive his biggest failures and deepest fears in what what felt like a superhero cartoon come to life.
Even though this match had very little in common with a typical pro wrestling match, it managed to epitomize what we as wrestling fans love most about wrestling: the stories. While WWE as a company prides themselves on being storytellers and entertainers, all too often, they ignore the decades of continuity they’ve built up to tell hollow, empty stories that lack the kind of resonance that can only come with emotional investment. The Funhouse match, on the other hand, was a tour de force through the career trajectory of John Cena, from that fateful utterance of “ruthless aggression” all those years ago all the way up to now, even touching upon hypotheticals such as the holy grail of professional wrestling: the mythical John Cena heel turn.
But it was also a look back at the career of Bray Wyatt. We knew going into Sunday that Cena’s victory over Wyatt back at WrestleMania XXX in 2014 was a major factor in Wyatt even wanting the match in the first place, but the match itself went far deeper into why Bray felt so slighted losing that match all those years ago. WrestleMania XXX was supposed to be the crowning moment, the fulfillment of a prophecy, and instead it kicked off, as Ramblin’ Rabbit put it in a recent episode of Firefly Funhouse, a downward spiral of failure and negativity in both Bray’s professional and personal lives. Over the course of about five minutes, Wyatt was able to retroactively repair the perception of his former cult leader persona in ways we would have never thought possible until this weekend.
Okay, so the Firefly Funhouse match wasn’t exactly a shining example of the traditional strengths of the format of pro wrestling. Hell, there was barely any fighting at all until the very end, when The Fiend locked in the mandible claw and Wyatt counted the 1-2-3 (yes, both The Fiend and Bray Wyatt were in the ring at once). But at the same time, it was a segment that could have only happened in the confines of a pro wrestling show, and did more for Bray Wyatt’s character than any number of five-star classics ever could.
(It is a little incongruous that Bray Wyatt has the ability to warp the very reality around him, and appear simultaneously in two places at once, but Goldberg was still able to beat him with a poorly executed Jackhammer, but hey, I still choose to see this as a win for the character of The Fiend. I guess in canon, Goldberg is just that explosive.)
Of course, Matt Hardy deserves a great deal of credit here. He may not even be an employee of World Wrestling Entertainment anymore, but his fingerprints were clearly all over the most talked-about matches from both nights of WrestleMania 36. No, Matt didn’t invent the backstage vignette, and there have been pre-taped matches that have taken place outside the ring before. But neither the Boneyard Match nor the Firefly Funhouse Match would have seemed out of place on an episode of Impact Wrestling circa 2016. The Broken Universe straddles that line between completely preposterous and undeniably enthralling, and in a world where audiences are barred from attending wrestling events, it may be exactly what the industry needs right now. While Matt’s Broken Brilliance is leaving its mark over on the other channel in AEW, his former Deleters of Worlds cohort is expanding the concept in WWE.
My twitter feed exploded.
Thanks for all the love, folks.. I’m truly honored. Cinematic matches 100% work with the right characters, scenario & fanbase – I envisioned them as a new branch of pro wrestling years ago.
Much like TLC did, The #BROKEN Universe will leave its mark.
— #BROKEN Matt Hardy (@MATTHARDYBRAND) April 5, 2020
We may look back at the past few years as a pivotal time in the industry — as Matt said in the above tweet, this could become a whole new branch of pro wrestling. After all, WWE likes to say they make movies, and over the course of this weekend, they made two. It’s also not hard to envision Vince McMahon falling in love with the concept, as it allows established legends even more mileage and could extend the careers of the people the company is pushing anyway. The Boneyard Match was far and away the best Undertaker match in nearly a decade, and it’s probably the first time in about as long he didn’t feel like death the next morning. This type of match can’t be used too often — once people are allowed to go to wrestling events again, it’s a hard sell to tell them the main event will take place on the tron and fans at home have a better viewing experience — but once in a while, this format should absolutely be used going forward as an alternate match type.
The Firefly Funhouse match is evidence that at the end of the day, what wrestling fans want most out of matches isn’t death-defying stunts, stiff shots or even incredible back-and-forth sequences. None of that matters without the underlying story. We want logical continuity. We want to feel like our years spent watching and absorbing the product will be rewarded instead of feeling like a waste of time. Ideally, WWE would apply this level of storytelling to regular in-ring matches when the world goes back to normal, but for now, I’m absolutely fine setting up camp inside the Firefly Funhouse and waiting it out.
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