Does the Roman Reigns Vs. Buddy Murphy Match Signal a New Direction for WWE?

WWE posted its best 'SummerSlam' match online, gaining millions of views instantly. What happens now?

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Roman Reigns in 2018 / Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

WWE is in the midst of an identity crisis. Amid plummeting ratings, new competition, a loss of shareholder trust, endless creative frustrations, morally questionable political decisions and a CEO whose idiosyncrasies are becoming increasingly scrutinized, the potential for the company to reassert itself as the dominant force in the industry is perhaps greater than ever. If only the bureaucratic machinations of the billion-dollar company wouldn’t get in the way.

Following a middlingly enjoyable if not totally remarkable SummerSlam, ratings on SmackDown LIVE bounced back slightly, but one match on the card stood out: An unexpected fight between Roman Reigns and Buddy Murphy far surpassed the quality of wrestling normally seen on WWE’s TV programs and managed to garner over one million views on YouTube in less than one day. Could this bout represent a potential new direction for WWE—and what made it so compelling to begin with?

Some backstory on these characters: Reigns had been positioned as the star of the company for years, so much so that before a truly frightening leukemia flare-up caused him to take a break from performing, fans had entirely turned on him. With a complete lack of subtlety, Reigns had been booked to win against impossible odds to the point that the audience’s suspension of belief had snapped. Reigns remained both a competent and positive person despite the downturn in his popularity, and since his return, has been booked with slightly more even-handedness. Fans are again on his side, seeing him now righteously repackaged as a brave cancer survivor.

Murphy, on the other hand, has never been the chosen child of Vince McMahon in the same way as Reigns has: Despite capturing the NXT tag belts alongside Wesley Blake several years ago and more recently having a brief reign as the company’s cruiserweight champion, it seemed that because of his slightly more diminutive size he would never ascend to the roster’s highest tier. Despite that, Murphy put on some of the best matches ever held in the cruiserweight division, showing off a diverse move set and an enduring grit that garnered him somewhat of a cult following among hardcore fans. 

The pair’s match this week had been set up by an absurdly stupid whodunnit plot about someone repeatedly attempting to murder Reigns behind the scenes, complete with incomprehensible camerawork and melodramatic scripting typical of pro-wrestling soap operas. It wasn’t the backstory that made people care about this matchup, that’s for sure.

Either way, Reigns and Murphy’s match, which lasted for only approximately 15 minutes, blew audiences away because there was actual wrestling. Additionally, because the two seemed to come from different parts of WWE's expansive universe, the fight had a considerable freshness severely lacking on the program's main roster. With no special stipulation, no foreign interference and no belt on the line, the fight was almost entirely clean—meaning there was no distraction from the immense athletic prowess and charisma of both performers.

Murphy was by far the standout, delivering an onslaught of power slams, backbreakers and devastating knee attacks to Reigns, who managed to endure considerable pain to eke out a victory. Reigns’ move-set remains deeply simplistic, limited to mostly power bombs, superman punches, spears and basic clotheslines and kicks. But he cleverly employed several permutations of his signature offensive maneuvers before conquering Murphy decisively.

In structure, the bout was closer to a Japanese Strong Style match than the usual plodding and deliberately slow “sports entertainment” version of wrestling popularized by WWE. That is to say, the pacing started with a slow and methodical build, which toward the second half of the match increasingly turned into an explosive exchange of quick-paced moves and near falls building suspense for a maximum climax of violence. Here, Reigns mimicked current IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada, whose matches are mostly organized around the timely execution of his finisher, with him usually absorbing considerable punishment before being able to pull the trigger. Meanwhile, in Murphy’s moves, audiences detected hints of NJPW’s Kota Ibushi and AEW's Kenny Omega, with one fan on Twitter jokingly decrying Murphy as a “Golden Lovers truther,” referring to Omega and Ibushi's former homoerotic tag team.

The immense task of writing more than five hours of content for TV each week is hard to imagine for people outside the business, as explained by former WWE writer Jimmy Jacobs in the Marty & Sarah Love Wrestling podcast. It’s not always easy to see why certain creative decisions are made or why certain things are scripted the way they are. But what the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Reigns vs. Murphy shows is that fans are clamoring for what the performers do best—actually fighting each other!—not executing complicated and tortuous melodramatic twists for the sake of killing time.

If WWE focused more on serious one-on-one bouts without the bells and whistles of the recently adopted variety show aesthetic, perhaps fans wouldn’t be so distracted by the abysmal politics and inept narratives the company so obviously favors. In fact, just a few days before the bout, NXT had an incredibly rare non-stipulation, non-title, one-on-one women’s match between Io Shirai and Candice LeRae that was similarly beloved, even more so than the show’s over-the-top main event.

The labyrinthine and Shakespearean plots of pro-wrestling are an inherent part of the art form's charm, but because actual, fresh fighting is so rare on these shows, it's hard to stay invested. The question of how “sports-like” WWE should be has remained an ongoing talking point—but fans are making it clear with their clicks what they actually want to see.

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