In Defense of the Brooklyn Screwjob (Summer Slam 2015)

Look, hear me out here: I too was initially bitching and moaning about the perplexing botch/screwjob ending of the Brock Lesnar/Undertaker match at Summer Slam. But after sitting with it for a few hours, I was still captivated, unsettled, left wondering what the fuck. “WTF #Summerslam” I tweeted, and then soon realized that was exactly the sentiment I was supposed to carry away from the match. Here’s the thing we tend to forget about wrestling — sometimes we’re supposed to be discontented, annoyed, downright ticked off.  Sometimes we’re supposed to be left feeling like a deplorable injustice has been done, because how else are we to appreciate retribution later without having known its opposite?

Just because we’re smarkishly savvy about narrative and story doesn’t mean we are entitled to the plot twist we desire. A ref with a blind spot botching the count is a classic trope of professional wrestling, a very old school turn of events meant to withhold our cathartic pop for justice so that the release is that much sweeter at a later date. Just because we know it’s scripted doesn’t mean these things should never happen. Just because we’re in the thick of a transitional era in which the old keeps reemerging to undermine the new doesn’t mean that everything old is without value. Perhaps we need more of this sort of chicanery because we are a jaded bunch in the IWC, overly analytical and almost never happy, mostly no longer capable of experiencing the pure emotions wrestling seeks to evoke in us.

Months ago I wrote about the NXT Kayfabe Renaissance, which is how I described the brilliant work of Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, and Kevin Owens that in fact explored several trick endings just like this one. Those three did a number of matches that were constantly leaving us confused, heartbroken, and unsettled about what was real and what was a work. Recall the moment that shocked us all when, after the NXT roster hoisted Sami to their shoulders in several minutes of tear-jerking celebration for his long awaited title win, his best friend Kevin suddenly power-bombed him into the ring apron even after the copyright had appeared on the screen. We ultimately knew it was all scripted, but so abrupt and shocking it was that we couldn’t help but worry about Sami Zayn’s welfare. We also wondered despite ourselves about the motivation in this the sudden betrayal by a wrestling legend as he debuted on the NXT roster. I contend that what happened at the end of Taker vs. Lesnar was WWE’s attempt to create a moment of NXT-caliber kayfabe confusion for the main roster. It certainly wasn’t as miraculous as the NXT stories, but you can see it as pretty well done if you can get over your past disappointments with messy endings, like the time that TV blew up in Dean Ambrose’s face. A hidden tap seen only by the timekeeper, a reversal into a pin for a one-count, a ringing bell, a confused ref, and a moment seized by an opportunistic heel to steal a one-two-three. I’m not saying it’s never been done before, but I don’t remember seeing anything quite like it.

The ending of Lesnar vs. Taker was so authentically sloppy I wasn’t entirely sure it was a work, but now that it’s the next day I’m comfortable with the idea that this was a kayfabe screwjob, and that it shed light Lesnar’s hidden weakness, which is a good, good thing for the WWE universe. And didn’t master showman Paul Heyman sell it for what it was! Banging the hell out of the ring bell and roaringly articulating the exact nature of the injustice intended to make us all feel so screwed! This is all good for two brilliant wrestlers who have reached narrative dead ends as they battle for who is the most unstoppable character in WWE history. An unstoppable Brock Lesnar is as problematic as unstoppable John Cena, and an immortal Undertaker who just won’t die risks becoming a Hulk Hogan, trotted out a couple times a year for an obligatory, respectful pop even though nobody really cares to see him anymore. At Summer Slam, we felt the formidable power of the Undertaker once again. Those diabolical eyes, and that evil laugh! Despite the odds, he has evolved into a dark new heel space, which is exactly where he should be.

When his career is finally over, the legacy of the Undertaker shouldn’t be that of a Halloween-costumed grim reaper who we cheer like dopes when he comes to call. Mark Calaway doesn’t want to finish out his legendary wrestling career as a cartoon character, he wants to leave us creeped out and mildly afraid of our own mortality. He wants to be a heel we don’t love, whose motives stem not from some hip, fun goth place but from the shadowy corners of our own flawed egos. Consider this clip from 2002, in which Motorcycle Taker beat the bloody snot out of Rick Flair’s son David:

I remember watching this scene when it aired and feeling horrified and mildly nauseous, knowing even as I did that it was a work. It may pale now in comparison to Sons of Anarchy, which has taken the televised depiction of motorcycle gang violence to gory new heights (or lows, depending on your perspective) but in 2002 I found Taker’s beating of David Flair deeply troubling in all of its cruelty. This is the sort of image Undertaker wants us to remember him by — he’s a bringer of pain and a harbinger of doom. He wants to be remembered as death and cruelty personified, a character who made us confront our inevitable mortality. (For more of my thoughts on the Undertaker and the mortality of Mankind, check out my essay here.) It’s a daunting task for a wrestler in the twilight of his career to solidify a legacy as a truly loathsome heel in this post-kayfabe era, when we can get his autograph and maybe a hug and selfie if we see him later in the airport, but I do give Undertaker props for making this final attempt to put serious meaning back into the role of heel. Maybe he can build on those mind-boggling evil eyes as he laughed back at Brock Lesnar, and use the Brooklyn Screwjob as a pivotal moment to reestablish his heel-cred in this final chapter of his career.

And even as he cements his creepy legacy, Taker is doing what all late-career wrestlers should. Instead of riding around on the coattails of his own former glory, he is helping Brock Lesnar solve his narrative dilemma. Lesnar is so confident in his vastly superior physical abilities that he’s got a blind spot for those who would employ trickery to win at any cost. Lesnar is so accustomed to wrestlers shrinking before his prowess that he wasn’t prepared for the lengths a grizzled old death metaphor was willing to go to on his quest to topple his invincibility.

Now that Taker is resorting to sinister heel tactics to win, Lesnar is revealed as weak for wanting a fair but brutal beatdown of an MMA-style match in which he can dominate with his far superior brawn.  Taker’s screwjob on Lesnar creates one of those ironic wrestling paradoxes — in revealing Lesnar’s weakness, he has actually helped him arrive as a stronger character. I will forever be haunted by Lesnar, icon of monstrous strength and size, flipping Taker a defiant bird as he went down in that moment of proverbial flames, his strength finally revealed to us as its own kind of weakness. The Hercules story is there if you care to look for it. That mythic strong man met his downfall at the hands of simple trickery as well.

It’s worth a look at the timekeeper metaphor to see what might be foreshadowed for these two wrestlers. While the ref, ultimately a representative of The Man and ever a flawed judge of right and wrong, missed Taker’s tap-out and ultimately let him steal the match, the keeper of the time proved a more partial judge. While the Undertaker’s career has been based on the notion of immortality, we can see that time will not favor Taker in the end. Tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse; even the Undertaker cannot beat death, the ultimate timekeeper and bell ringer. Never send for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

As I always like to say, wrestling is literary.

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  1. alexszollo
    September 1, 2015

    Very lucid observations about a very polarizing match. The Undertaker is my all-time favorite wrestler, and a character I see as a sort of extreme version of Batman: using fear and mindgames to get into the heads of his opponents. When Lesnar broke the streak, I was one of those fans who were really close to tears(yes, that’s how compelling of a character I see the Undertaker as), so I don’t really see Taker as the heel in the story, although he did use heel tactics to win. I see the whole story between the two as a cautionary tale of the overconfidence of someone who relies on brute physical strength and arrogance, with the moral that there might be a chance to defeat the Reaper once, but in the long-run, however strong and cocky one might be, they are just a name upon his list. 😀 Once again, this blog kicks serious butt!
    Alex Szollo, avid wrestling buff!

    • September 3, 2015

      This sort of match is strange to watch, isn’t it? Both Lesnar and Taker have kind of moved beyond the strict construct of heel or baby face. They’re strange sorts of tweens, or perhaps they both rise above the heel/face dichotomy and are simply fighters representing certain themes that are larger than good vs. evil, often morally ambiguous instead. So we get to this great place where we support who we want and recognize that wrestling characters are capable of being much quite complex. Which is a very good thing. Thanks for your comment, Alex!

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