The spirit of the New Era invokes images of athletes going for large quantities of time in the ring, flying from pillar to post while continuing the lineage that competitors like Rey Mysterio and Daniel Bryan made legitimate whilst becoming unlikely heavyweight champions. With former independent wrestling darlings such as AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Finn Bálor, and Seth Rollins receiving top billing on practically every card they are on, one may be led to believe that the WWE, once considered to be the “Land of the Giants,” may look to abandon the size differential that once defined the company.
However, there is a current crop of muscle-bound competitors that are looking to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
These are not your father’s big men, who were either too muscular to be mobile, or looked like guy who works at the deli who just cuts the meat because the manager doesn’t want him to be seen by the public. These guys have build of a Scott Hall, but have speed of a Shawn Michaels. They are putting on matches that find them making Randy Savage look like Elias Samson, receiving the same “this is awesome” chants have typically be reserved for Bryan, Rollins, and Styles. These competitors, guys like Rusev, Sheamus, Cesaro, Roman Reigns, Apollo Crews, Kevin Owens, among others still fill Vince’s big man void, but have also allowed the title to evolve into one that is no longer associated with non-mobility, but one that can be held at the same standard as their smaller New Era counterparts.
The current Sheamus-Cesaro rivalry is the current prime example of the evolution of the big man. Their match at Clash of Champions, one that was meant to be the concluding match of the series, was arguably the match of the night. Their storytelling in the ring in premier, as Cesaro’s character is still struggling to grab the brass ring we all know he deserves, and Sheamus wishes to re-grab the brass ring nobody ever thought he deserved. Both men came off as being desperate and hungry to remain considered main event talents as the New Era continue to roll on. What resulted was a brutal bout that combined aerial assault, technicality, and boiler room brawling that made the fans temporarily forget that they were getting a Seth Rollins-Kevin Owens main event at the end of the night.
Although Owens and Rollins seem to be dominating the Monday Night Raw Universal Championship scene, Sheamus and Cesaro proved themselves to be up to the task to progress the title scene when their numbers are called.
Another feud worthy of the heavyweight title scene is the one taking place between Roman Reigns and Rusev.
Although universally hated by all fans over the age of 10, Reigns has proved himself to be excellent in the ring, combining big-man strength with speed and agility that made him a more-than-formidable opponent in the past for more New Era-appropriate wrestlers like Bryan, Rollins and Styles.
Rusev has the same qualities, as he has been a worthy main event fringe player when not shackled to the lazy League of Nations faction (this conversation is dearly missing Wade Barrett, by the way). With a build of a man who should be carrying 500-pound cement balls at 3 a.m. on ESPN 2, his quickness and athleticism can be compared with anyone in the WWE not named Seth Rollins or AJ Styles. His feud with Reigns has been fantastic, and both men can work with anyone on the roster creative finds worthy.
This discussion would not be complete without mentioning John Cena. For years, professional wrestling armchair quarterbacks have thrown verbal tomatoes at him, claiming that he was dreadful in the ring. Although he made his share of in-ring mistakes early in his career, John Cena’s pay-per-view matches have routinely been Match of the Year candidates. Not only did he have a plethora of great matches with the likes of Shawn Michaels, Edge, and CM Punk over the years, he is currently as good as he’s ever been, evidenced by recent series of matches with Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles, matches that found Cena matching his opponent step-for-step. The overwhelming negativity he receives is based solely on him being (arguably) over-advertised; it has absolutely nothing to do with his in-ring ability.
The big man still exists within the WWE.
However, it no longer involves oxygen-deprived gargoyles like Earthquake, Typhoon, Mabel, Sid and others that had the mobility of a drunken Mo Vaughn.
Rather, big men of the WWE have answered the call that the transition into more athletics-based professional wrestling demands. In essence, they have been at the forefront of allowing the New Era to not only survive, but to thrive, adding an eclectic and refreshing touch to an era of WWE programming that has been as consistently enjoyable as any they have ever produced.