Wrestling isn’t baseball. If it was, and Brock Lesnar was an organization’s top-paid athlete, he’d be expected to show up at the stadium day in and day out, regardless of whether he was in that day’s lineup. Conversely, he’d also ride the pine if he were slumping, making room for a teammate with the hotter bat or more electric arm, even if that player were earning league minimum wage. But WWE is rarely a meritocracy. It’s a publicly traded, cross-collateralized entertainment juggernaut. When scheduling out a year of touring performances, WWE functions like major concert promoters Live Nation or AEG, ensuring every stop along the away features a carefully staggered bill boasting familiar name brands that fill seats and sell merchandise. And right now, Lesnar – who according to Forbes earned $12 million with the company last year alone, nearly $10 million more than the highest-paid full-timer, Roman Reigns – is their marquee act, and PPV events like WrestleMania and, yes, even Great Balls of Fire are their Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Not to suggest Lesnar is Radiohead or Beyoncé to the remaining roster’s future main-event stalwarts. Although as WWE continues wisely investing in its farm system, improvising around injuries and providing a real-time testing ground to talent at all levels, there are only so many established names who can anchor the year’s biggest placeholder cards. And moreover, who command the kind of salary Lesnar’s earned. Since signing his most recent contract in 2015, Brock has been on something of a carousel accompanied by John Cena, The Undertaker and Triple H himself, collectively ensuring sellouts when it counts and, in theory, serving as the rising tide lifting all boats.
Whether that trickle-down pretense holds water or not, there’s no denying what we witnessed at Great Balls of Fire. Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman’s glorified street fight would have sent attendees in Dallas home happy enough, and WWE Network subscribers would have logged off content to hash out its merits on Reddit. But Lesnar’s appearance capping off an otherwise fledgling stopgap on the way to SummerSlam left no margin for error, and far from feeling superfluous, Brock’s entrance delivered a tidal wave of mystique.
In an era when Jinder Mahal is having his Cinderella run SmackDown, tag titles are constantly teetering on changing hands and A.J. Styles can stealthily snag the U.S. belt at an MSG house show, it’s only appropriate that the flagship show’s Universal Champion be more discreet, defending his gold when it counts. Sure, there could have been more meat on the bones of that tussle with Samoa Joe, and maybe he deserved a better rub. And we’ve definitely grown spoiled from increasingly inclusive access to those carrying belts over the past couple decades. But at the risk of excusing corporate calculation with mark-ish sentiment (not to mention skating over Lesnar’s own transgressions), there’s something to be said for old-school anticipation, particularly when what’s waiting in gorilla is a once-in-his generation beast.