AJ Styles And Brock Lesnar's Survivor Series Match Showed Why it Doesn't Matter Whether Wrestling Is "Real"

Jimmy 3x3 | 4 Views | 2017-11-20T23:00:32+00:00

Last night at Survivor Series, Brock Lesnar defeated AJ Styles in a "Champion vs. Champion" match.

This was actually a last-minute booking. The original plan was to have Brock Lesnar fight Jinder Mahal, but a number of factors colluded to kill that. The fans, by and large, hated the idea. They widely perceive Mahal as a transitional WWE champion, who only attained his spot because WWE has a growing Indian audience; Mahal possesses an Indo-Canadian background. Prior to his championship run, Mahal was losing to the likes of Mojo Rawley, Darren Young, Curtis Axel, and R-Truth; even in the scripted world of professional wrestling, there's a limit to what fans will swallow. The storylines don't have to be realistic, necessarily, but they need to adhere to their own internal logic.

Paul Heyman, Lesnar's manager, alluded to this dissonance in his October 23 promo, when he buried Jinder Mahal under six feet of rhetoric. "You're not even a worthy pretender to the throne!" Heyman bellowed at the Raw audience.

Soon after that, Mahal dropped the WWE championship, and AJ Styles, the man who won it from him, was slotted in Mahal's place at Survivor Series. Lesnar and Mahal only had a week to plan out their confrontation. Complicating matters, Lesnar has a reputation for "laziness," depending on his opponent; Dean Ambrose had to twist Lesnar's arm to get him to perform at WrestleMania 32. And prior to last night, Lesnar hadn't delivered a match worthy of his notoriety since WrestleMania 31, almost three years ago. So as good as the match looked on paper, it could have easily devolved into a "Suplex City" match--nothing but German suplexes for 10 tedious minutes--if Lesnar had decided to phone it in.

But that didn't happen--at all! What happened is that Styles and Lesnar had the best match of the evening, and possibly the best WWE match of the year. When he's mentally present, Lesnar can still deliver. And AJ Styles brought out the best in him.

The match started as all Lesnar matches do—with complete and utter physical domination. Lesnar grabbed Styles, shoved him into the turnbuckles, and began shoulder ramming him in the gut. This was followed by several suplexes, after which Lesnar took his time, stood around, and smirked. The narrative goal was to characterize Lesnar as so dominant, so many steps ahead of his opponent, that he could afford to loiter about and cackle while his opponent struggled to stand.

Typically, Lesnar matches never progress beyond this first act. Most wrestlers eat suplex after suplex before taking an F-5 and getting pinned. But AJ Styles is not most wrestlers. After that initial wave of Lesnar dominance, Styles wove a classic David and Goliath tale for the rest of the match.

Kayfabe wise, most opponents try (and fail) to outpunch and outwrestle Lesnar. And that's a fool's errand, because as elite as these wrestlers are at their craft, no one can beat former MMA champion Lesnar at his own game. That's why Styles went after Lesnar's legs instead, kicking them out from under him and ramming them into the steel steps. With Lesnar hobbling and dropping to his knees, Styles got some offense in. By the time he locked in the Calf Crusher, it seemed plausible that Lesnar could tap out to Styles, a man he outweighed by 50 pounds. He didn't, but it would have been believable, which is a testament to both men's storytelling ability.

Limb targeting is part of professional wrestling's art--the ability to convey a narrative through actions instead of words. The idea behind limb targeting is self-evident: If you're the underdog or otherwise at a disadvantage, work on one of your opponent's limbs for the entire course of the match. You may not be able to overpower your opponent, but you can prevent him from having the balance and strength to overpower you.

And though this sounds simple enough to act out (grab the knee, limp about), it's difficult to sustain narrative consistency over the course of a match. Few wrestlers can do it. The aggressor needs to remember to continue targeting the limb, and the victim needs to sell that limb at all times--to limp on it, to scream when he or she puts weight on it. Should they forget to limp or break into a full stride when they hit the ropes, the illusion is broken. It's like watching a magic trick. Just because audiences know it's an illusion doesn't mean they want to see the sleight of hand.

Ultimately, Lesnar's brute strength won the day. To escape the Calf Crusher, he pounded Styles' head into the mat multiple times. He actually did a really nice job of protecting Styles' head with the back of his hand; I had to rewatch the match to see the move. Then he caught Styles (mid-air!) to finish the match with an F-5. And throughout all this, Lesnar never forgot to sell his injured leg.

But the performance didn't end after the bell rang. Brock did not jump up and celebrate. He looked nauseous as he staggered out of the ring on his "injured" leg, clutching his championship belt. He even paused theatrically before heading up the ramp, almost as if he wanted to get back in the ring and shake Styles' hand. This was kayfabe respect, but there was real respect mixed in there too.

And later that evening, Heyman continued putting Styles over, in a backstage video that compared him to the industry's legends.

It would have been nice if Styles won. But if that wasn't going to happen, the two men in the ring did the next best thing: They made AJ Styles look extremely strong in defeat. According to their storytelling, it was Lesnar's luck, not his skill, that allowed him to walk away with the victory. Both men left the ring looking stronger than when they entered it.

This is what fans love about professional wrestling. We know it's not "real," in the truest sense of the word. But everyone loves a good story. And wrestlers, in their best moments, are some incredible storytellers, in a manner that is unique to their profession.

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