Strowman's run with WWE started off slowly and predictably. Then he moved to Raw and began his feud with Roman Reigns.
Miguel Discart, Wikimedia Commons
When Braun Strowman debuted, he was easy to overlook. We'd been here before: a giant of a man with limited talent catches the eye of Vince McMahon, is pushed as a monstrous force of nature for a few months, and then dissipates into a comedy act, usually dancing (badly) with a smaller wrestler. Strowman and Fandango, destined for tag team hilarity, before the big man heads for Japan or Mexico where he can carve out an ok but not particularly great living throwing around luchadores and other assorted flippy types.
His start was inauspicious and completely in keeping with the trajectory of most WWE giants. He was a member of the Wyatt Family—and it's well past time to admit that the Wyatts, as a unit, did no favors for anyone involved, given how much better everyone except Bray Wyatt looks solo—with the gimmick that he couldn't be knocked down. That sounds cool in a vacuum, but in practice that sort of thing always sucks. It means the big immovable oaf can't do many moves, can't move too quickly (lest he trip), and nobody can really lay into him.
So it was that we were treated to the sight of Strowman, a 6'8" former strongman champion, staggering around each week, arms akimbo to keep his balance when hit, until Roman Reigns ended it all with a Superman punch. Once he went down, he kept going down; magically, as if under the sway of a sudden curse, he was knocked down all the time. There was still the faux-drama of flailing arms and the stagger after a big hit, but we all knew he would eventually hit the mat or floor, a sign of his diminished power.
But worse, he just kind of sucked, and it wasn't just the twin kiss of death of "big guy who isn't allowed to do anything" and "marginal Wyatt Family member". He mostly did rest holds and punches, with some throwing opponents around mixed in. His movements were stiff and unsure. Because of all of this, we all knew how it was going to end.
But a strange thing happened: Braun Strowman has, against all expectations, been completely awesome since late 2016. In fact, he's arguably the reason to watch Raw right now, with the hottest feud and the best gimmick going. This week, the news broke that Strowman will be facing a six-month absence after elbow surgery. Inconceivably, this feels like a big loss.
Strowman split with the Wyatt Family when he was drafted to Raw and it's all been gravy since. His theme music announces his character with a roar. An actual roar, that is, with old school metal picking up after his guttural yell. He's gotten much, much better in the ring, simultaneously more mobile and more able to use his prodigious natural strength.
Most importantly of all, WWE has booked him as a monster in the right way. Initially feeding him jobbers to make him look strong, he's slowly moved his way up the card largely as a man apart from the title scene. He mostly wants to hurt people, which is exactly what a monster heel should want to do. The big, mean, strong guy exists in a world apart from the motivations of "normal" pro wrestlers. He responds to rudimentary stimuli which only rarely intersect with the more cerebral concerns of championships and pro wrestler rankings. Andre had the WWF world title only once and for only a few minutes, Big Show had fewer titles than his sheer physical proportions might indicate (though he's had several), the Great Khali only one, and Giant Gonzalez no titles at all.
Strowman has made more noise about the world title than most of those wrestlers, but he still mostly sticks to the simple pleasures of beating people up and throwing people around. WWE's idea to get him over has been to come up with wild scenarios for Strowman to show off both his real life and character strength.
Understand that there's a nearly invisible line between awesome and stupid in pro wrestling. Someone at WWE decided it was a good idea to let Braun Strowman—green, plodding, not good Braun Strowman—find out where that line is, inch up to it, and hope for the best. And it's worked.
The so stupid it's awesome bit of Strowman's short career came to a head several weeks ago when he decided to beat hell out of Roman Reigns. At the segment's climax, Strowman disappears off-screen after Reigns is strapped on a gurney, only to come roaring back so he can fling the helpless Reigns off of a small ledge. Strowman then disappears and reappears again so he can flip the ambulance, with Reigns inside, on its side. A bit of deft camerawork hid any hydraulic aid Strowman might have had and the result was one of the best backstage segments WWE has done in years—a perfectly constructed bit of wrestling cinematography which found that line between awesome and stupid and landed just on the right side of it.
Since then, Strowman has enjoyed a scintillating feud with Reigns which has lifted both men to new heights. At Payback on April 30th, Strowman won a match cleanly over a weakened Reigns. Strowman looked like a vicious madman using his size to indulge in his most violent whims. Reigns was able to add a needed vulnerability to his character; he's had better matches, but rarely looked so human, something desperately needed since WWE is hell-bent on making him the face of the next decade.
The feud has also provided something WWE has been lacking for past several years: a compelling storyline outside the top championship. With WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar still working a part-time schedule and largely avoiding Reigns until their rumored meeting at the next Wrestlemania, it's vital to give Reigns something to do that isn't boring. WWE finally has that, and Reigns has done his normal above average but rarely great bit. It's Strowman, the stiff, boring, seen-it-before monster, who has lifted the feud to must-watch television.
Strowman's injury is unfortunate. But even here, WWE is playing the feud just right; it's been worked into the storyline as the result of a retaliatory attack by the wounded Reigns. Somehow, they have a story in which both wrestlers look tough as nails. Maybe more than that, Strowman will be truly missed in his absence, guaranteeing a mammoth return.
It all feels so unexpected, in the best way—wrestling fans were wincing when Strowman showed up this time last year. But more than anything else, Strowman may just be really, really good. If that's the case and WWE doesn't screw it up, we may be witnessing the making of a star.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.