‘Protect the gimmick’ was the word of law for decades in the life of the pro wrestling industry. Pro wrestlers were held to their persona by their public, who, until the curtain was pulled back by 90s incidents like Vince McMahon, Jr.’s steroid allegations and the Montreal Screwjob, largely believed the characters and shenanigans of the squared circle were powered by reality. Loathed heels like Roddy Piper faced violent attempts on their lives, while wrestling dynasties like the Harts and the Von Erichs hammered their offspring into telegenic babyfaces made for mass appeal. After the excesses and scandals of the latter 20th century, such strict adherence to kayfabe ended, but a wrestler’s gimmick is still their brand, and marketing their appearances and merchandise is often how they make a living after they unlace their boots for the final time.
Windham Rotunda, formerly known as Bray Wyatt, seemed to be the Millenial answer to The Undertaker, who even after the fall of kayfabe delighted his loyal following by seldom wavering from his inspired gimmick, that of a magically animated undead mortician whose essence resides in an urn, and is nearly invincible and immortal. As Bray Wyatt, Rotunda upped the ante, spinning a backstory for his voodoo-dabbling swamp cult leader character that would not be out of place in a heavy metal concept album or Rob Zombie horror film. It seemed that Rotunda knew his audience, the demographic that had listened to spooky rock acts like Marilyn Manson and the Insane Clown Posse in their early 2000s youth, and gave them the edgy chills they were accustomed to with his haunting entrance and theme, and spinning his character into the Fiend, a terrifying alter ego whose face resembled modern DC comic iterations of the Joker, and like The Undertaker was ominous and undead. As cult leader Wyatt, whimsically sinister keeper of the Firefly Funhouse, and the grotesque Fiend, Rotunda’s characters were always unpredictable and formidable, turning Daniel Bryan into his follower, psychologically terrorizing John Cena, making zombies true to the original Caribbean folkloric mold, that of a person enslaved to another via dark magic, out of Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt.
In 2020, however, the bottom mysteriously seemed to fall out around this performer. A retread of his storyline with Braun Strowman petered out, and Strowman was shifted towards a comic rivalry with Shane McMahon. A similar revisit of the Wyatt Family with Randy Orton also failed to launch. At the center of both of these aborted stories was Alexa Bliss, who began the angle as yet another victim of Wyatt, who slowly began to take on a funeral parlor and use Wyatt’s signature ring moves, the Sister Abigail and Mandible Claw, as if possessed by the Fiend.
In the Wyatt character’s absence, Bliss’s Fiend-like character dominated the women’s roster, spoiling matches with supernatural machinations, and scoring unlikely victories with her ‘magical powers’, and renamed Bray Wyatt’s Funhouse ‘Alexa’s Playground.’ Reviews and fan reactions have been mixed to the character, but few could have imagined that the Bliss version of Windham Rotunda’s vision would be all that remained of it in the WWE. His release on July 31 was a shock to his peers, fans, and the pro wrestling industry press.
I think what you meant to say was: “Thank you so much for coming up with such an incredible gimmick(time & time again)one so cool & over, we really didn’t know how to book it right. So we just gave it to someone else so we can still make ALL the money off of it & let you go”🤷🏻♀️ 🤯 https://t.co/rWVtbxOioA
— Mickie James~Aldis (@MickieJames) July 31, 2021
Mickie James, who was herself released by World Wrestling Entertainment this year after a lengthy career, made waves with her reaction to Rotunda’s release, asserting that WWE didn’t know how to book his gimmick during his time with the company, but gave it to someone else so they could continue to profit from it. She later clarified that the criticism wasn’t a shot at Bliss.
On August 9, WWE returned to Amway Center, in Orlando, Florida, the sight of their Pandemic Era complex, the Thunderdome, where Rotunda made some of his last appearances for the company, where Bliss’ demonic persona was born. This time, a live crowd looked on as Bliss faced Eva Marie’s formidable protégé Doudrop. Initially, at the start of the match, they chanted, “We Want Wyatt.” Their collective, spontaneous demand was a group ‘j’accuse!’ echoing James’s statement: no matter how much fun she professes to be having, no matter how heavily pushed her gimmick is, Alexa Bliss was given this role. Windham Rotunda, however, created it. The crowd wanted the man behind the Fiend. Almost simultaneously as this cri de coeur, Rotunda posted what looked to be a traditional Japanese mask on social media, captioned, ‘You can’t kill it.’
You can’t kill it pic.twitter.com/Bi13czn5Zs
— Bray Wyatt (@WWEBrayWyatt) August 9, 2021
This hints at a speedy comeback for perhaps the most in-demand free agent in the industry at the moment-or perhaps just an artist severed from any imperative to toe a corporate party line, uttering a fortifying paean to the amorphous power of creativity, to regroup and take another form. WWE crafted a new form for the Firefly Funhouse and Fiend during his absence, and then made that absence permanent. Gimmicks used to be sacred in pro wrestling, reputations to be lived up to or lived down. Now, in the hands of the wrestler that created them, they can be highly marketable assets. However, in WWE’s hands, Rotunda’s gimmick was distorted to the point that he was no longer necessary for the act to continue. This robustly creative performer seems to be on the brink of reinvention and resurrection, in a new form, somewhere new. The crowds, however, still recognize him in what remains of the Fiend, and chant his name.