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Remembering Bray Wyatt

By Mick Robson

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This was a tough one to write. The first non-review article since we've re-launched The Arena Media. I wanted it to be on something happy, like the meteoric rise of Grayson Waller (coming soon), or the Re-Imagined fantasy booking articles that the great Alcoholic Adam has been pitching me, but sadly we need to address an issue of greater depth and importance here.

Windham Rotunda, better known to wrestling fans as Bray Wyatt, suddenly passed away on the 24th of August 2023, aged just 36. Wyatt had returned to the WWE fold fairly recently last October at the Extreme Rules PPV, but disappeared from television in February, dropping a WrestleMania feud that had kicked off with Bobby Lashley.

Like the character itself, Wyatt's absence was largely surrounded in mystery. As some small, niche part of the pro wrestling media, I don't like to report on the rumours and gossip that often circulates from certain "journalists", because they're wrong more often than they're right, especially in recent times. But even accounting for those rumours and gossip, there wasn't a whole lot to speak of when it came to the exact "why" he was off television. There were some whispers about creative issues. Then a few more whispers about health issues. But even then- what kind of health issues? Could it be mental health? There's certainly been a lot of upheaval in Wyatt's life from a personal and professional standpoint- the loss of his good friend Brodie Lee a couple of years ago, the hot and cold presentation of Bray Wyatt as a bonafide superstar.

Just days before his untimely death, news broke from Fightful (one of the more reliable sources around) that Wyatt had been suffering from a "life-threatening illness", but was nearing a WWE return. Following his passing, we were given more details- Bray had been dealing with some heart issues throughout the year, exacerbated by COVID, and he died from a heart attack in his sleep.

As we mourn the death of a young man, we must also celebrate the life of an immensely gifted, talented and creative performer. I never knew the man personally, so I'll leave it to his friends, family and co-workers to sing the praises of the human being he was (and so many have in the couple of weeks since his passing). I can only speak to the performer he was on-screen, so let's get into that.

Worldwide audiences first saw Wyatt on the second season of NXT (in its game show format) under the persona of Husky Harris. Dubbed "the Sherman tank with a Ferrari engine", Husky was a big man who wrestled with some intensity. He would join the New Nexus on the main roster alongside CM Punk, but Husky Harris never really caught on, and Windham Rotunda was sent back to developmental.

Under the watchful eye of the legendary Dusty Rhodes in the revamped NXT brand, Windham developed the Bray Wyatt character. Speaking in a charismatic preacher style, seen as something of a cult leader, Wyatt soon found some monstrous back-up in Luke Harper & Erick Rowan, forming the Wyatt Family. The Wyatt Family terrorised NXT, capturing tag team gold, but they weren't long for the black and gold brand, as the act was catching on, and WWE higher-ups took notice.

Bray Wyatt had his WWE in-ring debut at Summerslam 2013 against Kane in a Ring of Fire (aka Inferno) match. Joined by the Wyatt Family, Bray tore through the opposition, considered a more serious threat and viable Superstar than Husky Harris ever was. He played an integral part in the story of Daniel Bryan leading into WrestleMania 30, having a wildly underrated match against the American Dragon at the Royal Rumble, before his Wyatt Family collided with fellow super-group The Shield at Elimination Chamber, leading into a Mania 30 match with The Face of WWE, John Cena. Super Cena prevailed on the Grandest Stage, in what many fans and critics consider a major misstep, but Wyatt was able to soldier on with his unique gift of the gab and character work that set him apart from anyone else in the company.

I was fortunate enough to see Bray Wyatt live twice. The first was at the very apex of his career, at WrestleMania 33. He walked into Mania as WWE Champion, following a shocking win of the gold inside the Elimination Chamber a month earlier. The sight of all his "Fireflies"- fans with their phone lights on inside a darkened Camping World Stadium was truly awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, the match that followed with Randy Orton was not- the character of Wyatt had a tendency to lean towards the supernatural, with horror movie elements, often handled incorrectly by WWE creative. We had these weird spots during the match where Wyatt tried to psyche out Orton by projecting images of bugs onto the mat, but Randy was able to get past that and win the title following a RKO. The second time I saw Bray was later that same year at a Raw house show in Sydney, and it was a bit of a palate cleanser as he had a great, hard-hitting match with Finn Balor.

Bray had a creative mind like no other, and the results were certainly hit and miss, but when they hit- oh boy. It was often the best thing on the show. Case in point- WrestleMania 36. A couple of weeks before that Mania, the COVID pandemic hit, forcing the show to be held inside an empty WWE Performance Center. The regular matches that took place across the two night event are not remembered fondly, through no real fault of the wrestlers- it just so happens that so much of the magic of pro wrestling comes from crowd reactions and interactions, and COVID robbed us of that. Thankfully, Bray Wyatt did not have a regular match at Mania 36.

No, instead Bray- with his revamped "Fiend" character at play- was renewing his feud with his old rival and franchise player, John Cena. They had a Firefly Fun House match, a pre-taped cinematic affair. One of two such matches across WrestleMania 36, this differed greatly from the Undertaker/AJ Styles Boneyard Match from Night 1- that was more like a fight scene from an action movie, whereas the Funhouse was more like a series of skits, many humorous, with some wink-nudge insider references for the "smart fan", but still broad and entertaining enough for the more casual fan to follow along, as it depicted Cena being forced to deal with his own demons, replaying some of the biggest failures and "what if" moments from his own career, ultimately falling to The Fiend in the end as he's driven to madness.

And there lies the genius of Bray Wyatt. I won't go back and watch Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins from WrestleMania 36, even though it was probably the best bell-to-bell match under the circumstances. You know what I will go back and watch, and have many times? The Firefly Funhouse match between Bray/The Fiend and John Cena. In the eyes of many- including mine- it was a "make-good" on Super Cena running through Wyatt at WrestleMania 30. Seeing a "coked-out" Cena rambling like peak Hogan or Warrior in the 80s, or a McMahon puppet growling "it's such good shit"? Or a bemused Bray mocking "the Dr. of Thuganomics"? Absolute gold!

The darker edge of the Fiend character that Bray adopted in 2019 was a fascinating evolution that- like the original Wyatt character- was hit and miss. The initial presentation made The Fiend look like the biggest star in the company, unlike anything WWE had presented in years- and the merchandise sold like crazy. Some of the PPV matches stretched the suspension of disbelief, where seemingly nothing in the world could stop The Fiend in a match- but a Strap Match with Daniel Bryan, again at the Rumble, righted some of the wrongs of the presentation. Another great battle. Thanks Bryan. The Fiend was also a valuable asset during the pandemic, as they could do more outside the box segments with his supernatural gimmick. Randy Orton set him on fire in the middle of the Thunderdome, for f**k's sake! Did it all work? Hell no. But damn, I'll take some crazy, spooky Fiend/Alexa WrestleCrap segment over a lifeless, heatless 30 minute technical match in front of a giant Zoom call with piped-in noise!

We never got to really see what the next chapter of Bray Wyatt would have been in WWE. It seemed like everything was going through a very slow burn (no pun intended). But the reaction he got when he came back, that first heartfelt promo, some of the segments with LA Knight... and his final on-screen appearance, where he shared a moment with a legend that many have drawn comparisons with- The Undertaker, at Raw XXX- Bray Wyatt was a superstar. Not in the corporate, buzzword, "all our performers are Superstars" kinda way, but legitimately, he was a star. He was special, and he left an indelible mark on the pro wrestling business. There will never be another Bray Wyatt.

Thank you Bray. RIP Windham Rotunda.


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Who's Behind The Blog
Image of Mick Robson, founder of The Arena Media

Mick Robson is a freelance writer from Australia. A lifelong fan of pro wrestling and MMA, he endeavours to bring that passion through his coverage in news, reviews and opinion pieces.

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