Bray Wyatt Was Wrestling’s Most Irrepressible Star
12:15 PM EDT on August 25, 2023
Windham Rotunda, the wrestler best known as Bray Wyatt in WWE, died from a heart attack arising from complications from COVID-19 on Thursday. He was 36 years old.
Wyatt had been sidelined from WWE and active wrestling since February, with reports circulating that he was dealing with an undisclosed but life-threatening illness. However, over the past fortnight, different reports came out that Wyatt was cleared and ready to return imminently. The shocking news of his passing elicited emotional reactions from around the wrestling world, with the message that this was a man beloved by his coworkers, his admirers, his fans, and his family, the Rotunda wrestling dynasty. He is survived by his partner, former WWE ring announcer JoJo Offerman, and his four children.
You may notice that I am using Windham Rotunda's most famous character's name interchangeably with his own, and that's on purpose. As WWE trended towards homogenized versions of the same characters during the Ruthless Aggression and PG eras, Bray Wyatt and his Family—Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, who passed away in late 2021—were a necessary counterpoint. From the moment he debuted the character with a vignette in NXT—WWE's developmental territory that served as a breeding ground for creativity in the early 2010s—Rotunda was Bray Wyatt, so much so that this initial presentation didn't go through growing pains on its way to the main roster. He simply took what worked from day one and brought it to the WWE masses.
Unfortunately, Wyatt's potential and performance were never quite matched by the material he gave and was given. Inside the ring, he could be a wrecking ball, but he was mostly booked to be a plodder, a brawler who took his time around the ring. That's a fine enough place for someone to be, but Bray Wyatt wasn't just someone. It was clear in his promos and his mannerisms that he had a unique ability for conveying Wrestling Emotions—different in important ways from real emotions—and it was that ability that set him apart. This cult leader, later turned Mr. Rogers parody with a Slipknot-esque alter ego, was something special in a company, an industry really, that values interchangeability except at the very top. Windham Rotunda could probably do Top Wrestler Cosplay as well as anyone, but no one else could have been Bray Wyatt.
The initial Wyatt run on the main roster—before it became clear that Rotunda would be a star-maker for other, more important wrestlers, rather than climbing the mountaintop on his own—was magical to live through at the time. From his debut through his feud with Daniel Bryan and his incredible work with The Shield, which culminated in one of the best matches WWE has ever seen, Wyatt immediately connected with the so-called WWE Universe. Despite his almost constant status as a villainous character, he still had thousands of people lighting up their phones during his entrance, his Fireflies urging on his every character beat.
Even through the ups and downs of a career that never quite matched the electricity of that first year, Wyatt was always a sure hand for WWE, someone who could elevate all feuds to mythical levels. The magic of Windham Rotunda was that he could fit into any shape that was thrown his way, whether that meant bringing heroic characters into the muck to test their mettle or elevating himself through the sheer power of aura.
He could even play a hero himself, when allowed: Though it was short-lived, his babyface pairing with Roman Reigns was electrifying because it hinted at how much this man could truly become a superstar in the eyes of the crowd. It's a small moment, sure, but Wyatt pointing at Sheamus while pinning Alberto Del Rio during that 2016 match, just so Reigns would spear the Irishman and win the match, has been seared into my brain. It was just so cool, in a way that felt effortless, because Windham Rotunda was just that good at every part of pro wrestling:
Really, though, the thing I will remember about Windham Rotunda, the performer, came during the weirdest time in wrestling that I can remember. After the pandemic took hold, WWE went ahead with WrestleMania 36, a bizarre relic of early 2020 that gets stranger as we get further away from that specific moment in time. Every "normal" match during the two-night show was held at WWE Performance Center in Florida, in front of no fans. It was weird! Weirder still were the company's two cinematic matches during the show, one on each night. On the first, A.J. Styles and the Undertaker did a fun horror movie of sorts in the Boneyard Match, which was silly and ridiculous and still in the realm of wrestling.
The second night, though, was Bray Wyatt's crowning achievement. The Firefly Funhouse match was Wyatt's baby through and through, putting John Cena, the stereotypical WWE "superstar" of the last two decades, through what can best be described as Twin Peaks meets Mr. Rogers meets Taylor Swift's Eras Tour. Through the 16-plus minutes of the segment, Rotunda helped to deconstruct the John Cena mythology, played off of their shared history from a 2014 feud, and showed off his acting chops switching back and forth between Bray Wyatt and The Fiend.
In the moment, it was enthralling, and it's only gotten better with age, serving as both an incredible segment on its own and also a validation of Bray Wyatt, the character. To quote the Vince McMahon puppet from the segment, it really was such good shit. It was certainly better than the previous attempts to make that character the new Undertaker.
It didn't last; nothing did with Bray Wyatt. He would go on to win the world championship for a third time at SummerSlam in 2020, but then lost it to Roman Reigns a month later, in what began that wrestler's still-unending title reign. For his part, Wyatt eventually disappeared off television, with reports stating that he had been released by WWE and was headed towards AEW. That didn't happen, and after a year-plus hiatus, Rotunda returned as a different kind of Bray Wyatt, one that seemed to be letting his real personality shine through. His return promo in October 2022 was one of his best ever, earnest and grateful and real in a way that wrestling never is. "This right here is just me. This is a version of me that I never got to introduce to you guys before. This is just me being me, genuine me, for the first time."
It didn't really lead anywhere exciting, but maybe that was the point of Bray Wyatt. He was never the most consistent of wrestlers, and he was never given material and booking that matched up to his quality on the mic and inside the ring, save for a few moments of glory. And yet, he was still one of the most beloved performers of his generation, someone who could be put into any feud to ramp up the mystique. There was no one like him in the company, or really anywhere in wrestling.
His absence was felt throughout 2023, but there were always murmurs that, once he was healthy, he would come back a new man, a new performer. Being a fan of Bray Wyatt was to always believe that the next feud, the next change in character, would be the one to take him to the mountaintop. There was always hope in that belief, because Windham Rotunda was such an incredible, must-see, captivating person to watch, even on his worst days. And when he ascended to that mythical tier of WWE performers, when he had the whole world in his hands, there was no one better at professional wrestling.