Bray Wyatt followed the buzzards all the way to his first-ever WWE World Championship at Elimination Chamber, and not a second too soon. Despite false starts and high profile close calls throughout the years, the New Face of Fear is heading into WrestleMania 33 as champ, and with clean pins over John Cena and AJ Styles to boot. And so, despite what was a generally lackluster show with few exciting moments (aside from Naomi winning her first women’s championship, which felt similarly late for a deserving performer), the main event of Elimination Chamber delivered from beginning (which saw Styles and Cena reprise their Match of the Year from the Royal Rumble) to the end, which saw Bray take down the two most overpowered wrestlers on the blue brand. Even though this was generally expected by those who are up with internet rumors, to see the Wyatt Family’s patriarch actually do the damn thing, after so many years of never quite reaching the top, felt sensational.
Before Sunday night, it felt like WWE wasn’t fully behind Bray Wyatt as a main eventer. Sure, he’s had marquee spots before (his first WrestleMania feud was against John Cena, he faced off with The Undertaker, and he’s had title matches in the past), but they all ended the same way: with Bray on the losing end of the stick. In this era of generic characters and matches with little stakes, Bray had something unique going for him, despite the company’s best attempts to quash it: mystique.
Every Bray match on the biggest stages felt like it should be an epic deal, even when they weren’t; from his entrance (still the best, sorry Finn Balor), to the way he embodies his character in both promos and in-ring work. The booking had just never caught up to his prodigious talents, at least not until Sunday; remember, this is a guy who just 10 months ago was punked by The Rock and John Cena at WrestleMania in a fluff segment. The amount of clean pins he took during various losing streaks didn’t help matters either, but he never lost a step on his character work, and the crowds never lost interest in him (not even when he was feuding with Roman Reigns, the anti-heat). That WWE rewarded him, finally, is surprising but fitting, and that he gets to saunter into the biggest show of the year with a belt on his waist is the best booking decision SmackDown Live made since putting the belt on AJ Styles.
Of course, not only is this a great decision based on Bray’s generally excellent work since debuting in 2013, it also shines because of who is standing on the other side of the WrestleMania title match: Randy Orton. To say that the “Orton joins the Wyatt Family” storyline has been well crafted is an understatement; it has a claim for being one of the best long-term storylines in the company since Daniel Bryan’s title chase on the road to WrestleMania 30. Attentive fans have been expecting Orton to turn on Bray for months now, ever since they united in late October, but WWE has thankfully been patient. From a SmackDown Live Tag Team Titles run, through Luke Harper’s dissension and eventual departure from the group, every month has brought a new and interesting wrinkle to Orton and Bray’s dynamic. The fact that it’s still unclear who will turn on whom is a great wrinkle; Orton turning on Bray seems obvious, but don’t count out a nuclear babyface run for Bray where he realizes his true family was with him all along.
Speaking of family, there’s also a nice historical footnote on top of the current storyline that makes this a fascinating matchup: both Orton and Bray are from legit wrestling dynasties. Orton is a third generation legend in his own right (following in the footsteps of his grandfather Bob Orton Sr., and his father, “Cowboy” Bob Orton), while Bray’s family is loaded with unique characters (Blackjack Mulligan was his grandfather, Mike Rotunda/I.R.S. his father, and his uncle is Four Horseman Barry Windham; also can’t forget that the immortal Bo Dallas is his brother). The theme of family, by blood and by choice, should run deep throughout this build-up, and that this is Bray’s first “main event” program at WrestleMania feels like both the ending of the underwhelming first phase of his career and the birthing of his second act –where, hopefully, those long-standing “the new Undertaker” takes will come to fruition.
That can all wait until April 2nd; for now, Bray Wyatt will hold court as the king of SmackDown Live. Surely, Cena will get his rematch in the coming weeks, but don’t forget that Styles also has a singles rematch promised to him. Based on Sunday’s barn-burning finish, Wyatt and Styles could give SmackDown Live a fantastic main event in the near future (the Phenomenal Forearm counter into a Sister Abigail will be replayed ad nauseum between now and April, and for good reason). The eventual turn from either Orton or Bray himself should also ramp up the intensity heading into this “main event,” even if the odds of it going on last over Goldberg and Lesnar are miniscule. Regardless of who wins and who loses (and which of the two is picked to be the face and who is picked to be the heel), Orton vs. Wyatt is an honest-to-goodness slow burn of a storyline, and with the two of them reigning victorious at the first two pay-per-views of 2017, that fire should blossom into a beautiful flame in Orlando.