Bray Wyatt (real name Windham Rotunda) was recently released from his WWE contract. This sort of thing happens all the time in the pro wrestling business, but not typically to a performer who holds the spot on the roster that Rotunda holds. Whether cheering or booing, the fan at-large never stopped responding to Rotunda. And, by all accounts, he sells a lot of merchandise, and makes WWE a lot of money.
This would lead one to believe that his release was due to less typical circumstances. One such circumstance is that Rotunda has always brought creative ideas to the table that are both complex, yet still clearly-executed. Vince McMahon has never been one to push a complex idea, and the only clear ones he cares about are his own. For the time-being, I’m going to theorize that Rotunda and WWE parted due to the ever-popular reason of creative differences.
But, the bigger question, is how did we get here? Rotunda has been over with the fans since his main roster debut back in 2013. For the most part, the audiences engagement with him never really faltered. Along with his creative storytelling, he is a very good in-ring performer with a strong, signature move set, and even stronger in-ring psychology. With that package, Rotunda should have have a decades-long run at, or near, the top of the card. The problem is that, no matter how great a package you present, McMahon needs to push that package the right way.
Frankly, Rotunda’s success seemed to come more in-spite of Vince McMahon than anything else. If you take a look back at the points in Rotunda’s WWE career when he was on the cusp of becoming a true main event superstar, you can can see a very clear pattern of Vince McMahon’s booking undercutting Rotunda’s momentum. The list I’m presenting below will certainly not tell the whole story, but I believe that it offers the highlights (lowlights?) of the problem. The list has been sorted in chronological order.
Bray Wyatt vs John Cena – WrestleMania 30 – April 2014 – The Wyatt Family, a cult-ish, backwoods crew who gained notoriety in the burgeoning NXT made their main roster debut in 2013 after that year’s WrestleMania. The fans were immediately interested in the Wyatt Family, and that was almost entirely due to Wyatt’s ability to spin a great promo, and perform like a badass in the ring. This was Bray Wyatt’s WrestleMania debut match. And it was against the man who had been at the top of the company for nearly a decade, but had one foot out the door and pointed toward Hollywood. A win here would have given Wyatt a massive rub, and set a new star rocketing toward a main event spot. Instead, Cena was booked to overcome Wyatt, and his Wyatt Family, as Cena had been booked to do to virtually every other previous challenge. The result here presented Wyatt himself as just another one of those challenges, thus sullying his credibility right out of the gate.
Bray Wyatt vs The Undertaker – WrestleMania 31 – March 2015 – Prior to what is popularly referred to as “WrestleMania Season” Wyatt has started calling himself “The New Face Of Fear” as a direct shot at the old face of fear. It seemed like a good angle, since that face was only showing itself on WWE programming two or three times per year by this point. The Undertaker’s legendary streak ended the year before in a loss of Brock Lesnar, and he was several years into the phase of his career where he really only had matches at WrestleMania to defend said streak. With the streak over, WWE was presented with a great opportunity to pass the baton, and give Wyatt the sort of win that could define his young career. With the streak over, the only real thing Undertaker had left to offer was his own career. A match between Taker and Wyatt at WrestleMania, where Wyatt could both retire the legend, and officially claim his New Face Of Fear mantle would have set Wyatt off on the path to great things. Instead, Taker wins, even though he was an aging part-timer who was no longer even defending a historic win streak.
The Wyatt Family Getting Clowned By The Rock & John Cena – WrestleMania 32 – April 2016 – You may notice a pattern forming here, but I promise there will be a few non-WrestleMania examples coming up soon. Though, the fact that there are so many examples of his at Mania makes the problem very clear. This was not even a match, other than The Rock beating Erik Rowan in an impromptu match that lasted all of seven seconds. The Rock was retired and, frankly, could have laid the smackdown on any undercard talent here while getting the same pop fro the crowd. Instead, they brought out the semi-retired John Cena, and the pair bounced Bray Wyatt, and his cohorts, around the ring for a few minutes. Hardly the best use of Bray Wyatt, and certainly not helpful to his credibility after losing matches in the two previous Manias.
Bray Wyatt vs Randy Orton – WWE Championship Match – WrestleMania 33 – April 2017 – The match itself ended up being overbooked, and undercooked at the same time with silly moments provided by the WWE AV Club. Wyatt lost the match, and the title, after a single RKO in an era where no one stays down after one finishing move in big title matches. The bigger travesty in this case, was that they were so close to finally doing right by Wyatt.
Just two months prior, Wyatt outlasted John Cena, AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, The Miz, and Baron Corbin in an Elimination Chamber match that concluded with Wyatt, himself, pinning both Styles and Cena. Wyatt was still nominally a heel, but the crowd showered him with a “You Deserve It!” chant that clearly had its origins in the many previous mishandlings of Wyatt’s booking.
On top of this, Wyatt had been involved in a months-long program where Randy Orton joined the Wyatt Family, despite Luke Harper’s (portrayed by the late Jon Huber) suspicions about Orton’s true motives. Wyatt sided with Harper over Orton, only to be betrayed by Orton just as Harper had expected. The stage was set for an epic Triple Threat Match between Wyatt, Orton, and Harper for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania.
Instead, McMahon had Harper booked out of the angle a few weeks before Mania, and then booked a terrible gimmick match that was won by Orton, who was already a multi-time world champion, and did not need this win nearly as much as Wyatt did. A few months later, Orton dropped the title to Jinder Mahal, who went on to have an extremely forgettable title reign himself, and Wyatt had to get back to the drawing board to build himself up again.
“The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs Seth Rollins – WWE Universal Title Match – Hell In The Cell – October 2019 – See? I told you we’d have some non-Mania examples coming up. Wyatt floated around the mid-card, and tag team division for a little while, before re-inventing himself with one of the most staggered character transformations in the history of pro wrestling. Leaving the cult leader persona behind, Wyatt became a creepy children’s show host who sometimes transformed into a horror movie-style monster called The Fiend. Again, he was working heel, but the fan were super into this new presentation. Only a few months after The Fiend’s in-ring debut at SummerSlam, he was given a Universal Title shot at the Hell In The Cell event.
One couldn’t imagine a more perfect scenario for the monstrous Fiend to claim his spot at the top. October. Halloween season. Hell In The Cell match. The Fiend took all of Rollins’ best shots, and kept coming after him. Until the end, when Rolling piled a bunch of steel chairs atop The Fiend, and then beat those chairs with a sledgehammer. No pinfall, no submission, a HitC match has no rules. But the referee stopped the match. Rollins retained, The Fiend attacked him after the match, and the crowd hated it all. This ending hurt Rollins as much as it did Wyatt to the extent that Rollins – who was running at an all-time high popularity – had to turn heel shortly afterward.
A few weeks later, at one of WWE’s ill-advised cash grab Crown Jewel Saudi Arabia shows, The Fiend did take the title off Rollins. But having the title change happen at such a controversial show, rather than in the perfectly-themed Hell In The Cell was another in the long line of booking mistakes for Wyatt.
“The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs Goldberg – WWE Universal Title Match – Crown Jewel – February 2020 – Speaking of the morally-problematic Saudi Arabia shows, The Fiend dropped the Universal Title at the very next one to 50-something year-old Goldberg, who happened to show up a few weeks earlier and demand a title match.
If there’s one thing Vince McMahon loves doing, it’s feeding his current stars to relics of past eras (see the first three entries on this list). Goldberg speared and jackhammered The Fiend a few times, and then pinned him to take the title in less than five minutes. The Fiend stood up afterward, and dusted himself off like it was no big thing. But he’d already lost the match, and the title, so the damage was done.
Goldberg dropped the belt to former Wyatt Family heavy Braun Strowman two months later at WrestleMania 36, while Wyatt actually had his WrestleMania highlight in a Firefly Fun House match against John Cena. This Wyatt-Cena match was a lot more fun than their previous Mania encounters as both Wyatt and Cena were committed to making something really self-referential and interesting.
Wyatt himself won his second Universal Title from Strowman at that year’s SummerSlam, but then lost it in a Triple Threat Match to Roman Reigns only one week later at the Payback event. Honestly, that could warrant its own entry on this list, but I’m trying to keep it to seven.
“The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs Randy Orton – WrestleMania 37 – April 2021 – And, just like that, we’re back at WrestleMania, and we’re back with Randy Orton. It makes sense that this would be the final nail in the coffin of Wyatt’s WWE career, as McMahon had used Orton and Mania to kill Wyatt’s credibility at his previous career peak four-years prior. This time around, Wyatt and Orton had a much less interesting story. Orton set The Fiend on fire in the ring some months earlier, so Wyatt’s new acolyte Alexa Bliss became a thorn in Orton’s side, until The Fiend returned to lay out Orton, and make their WrestleMania match official.
With fans in the arena for the first time in over year, due to the Covid pandemic, and chanting for The Fiend, McMahon again books Wyatt to be pinned by Orton after a single RKO. Sure, The Fiend was confused by Alexa Bliss’ make-up or some such thing, but this was still terrible booking, and the crowd let them know it.
Wyatt would make one more brief appearance on the following night’s episode of RAW, before disappearing for several months until his release was announced.
So, what’s next? No on can tell for sure, but Rotunda is a highly imaginative person, and I would certainly be willing to check out whatever he does next – be it wrestling, writing, or filmmaking. My personal preference, though, would be to see him show up in AEW. The rival promotion has been putting on a better wrestling product than WWE in every way pretty much since its premiere, and it certainly seems to be a place where where more creative minds can thrive as well.
AEW has a growing list of performers that Vince McMahon couldn’t (or wouldn’t) figure out how to use properly, that they have presented like the superstars they always seemed like they could be. Cody Rhodes, Jon Moxley, Miro The Redeemer, Andrade, and Malakai Black, just to name a few. With word that former WWE super-duper-main-even-stars CM Punk and Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson) are set to debut in AEW over the next few weeks, acquiring Rotunda on top of that would elevate AEW to a whole other level of relevancy amongst even the most jaded pro wrestling fans.
It’s exciting to look forward to whatever Windham Rotunda does next. But, looking back, it’s also pretty easy to see where things went wrong with WWE. Vince McMahon likely won’t learn any lessons from this, and one of the lessons Rotunda probably learned was that Vince never learns his lessons. Hopefully, whatever else Rotunda learned, will serve him well in what he decided to do next.