The Whole World in His Hands: The Life of Windham Rotunda “Bray Wyatt”

Photo Courtesy: WWE

“Words are just words unless you can feel them and I feel these. I lost myself a couple years ago, I never wanted to hurt but I quit on myself. I felt like I wanted to cease completely. Until I realized that mental illness isn’t a weakness it’s a superpower. I am clear now, focused, and ready to be something great.”

– Windham Rotunda, May 2019

Tragedy befell the professional wrestling industry on Thursday with the untimely passing of Windham Rotunda, who garnered fame under his most famous moniker, Bray Wyatt.

Absent from WWE programming since February, the cause of his disappearance was kept quiet beyond the belief he was battling some unknown ailment. His prognosis had reportedly improved of late, thus, shocking many when the news of his death struck the wrestling industry like a hard hit to the gut.

He died suddenly on Thursday as a result of a heart attack after being away from action due to heart issues that were affected due to a bout with COVID-19.

Rotunda, 36, overcame many setbacks and tribulations in his quest for stardom and left the stage, arguably at his most popular after an incredibly successful viral campaign to re-introduce the character last fall.

Much like Terry Funk, who passed one day earlier, Rotunda was born into the professional wrestling industry. Arriving on May 23, 1987, he was the son of Mike Rotunda, grandson of Bob “Blackjack” Mulligan, and nephews to Barry & Kendall Windham — Windham and brother Taylor and sister Mika lived their lives on the doorstep of the family industry — an industry that awaited the two to knock and walk through over threshold.

When Windham entered the world, his father Mike was on the road with Jim Crockett Promotions as a member of The Varsity Club alongside Kevin Sullivan, continuing with his role as I.R.S. in the WWF throughout the ‘90s, a return to WCW as V.K. Wallstreet and spending the final years of his career in Japan for All Japan Pro Wrestling and IWA before accepting a job as an agent with the WWE.

Windham wrestled at Hernando High School as a heavyweight where he became a state champion in 2005 while also playing football as a defensive tackle and guard. Rotunda racked up 147 tackles and 12 sacks during his high school career which led to Rotunda becoming second-team All-State.

Rotunda went on to play two seasons at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California before earning a scholarship to Troy University and committing to the school in June of 2007, majoring in broadcast journalism.

At Troy, he gained a reputation for his explosiveness and power. In his first season, he red-shirted on a team that won the Sun Belt Championship but in the spring of 2008, he opted out of the program early to pursue his passion for professional wrestling.

In 2009, WWE existed in a world post-OVW and pre-NXT with its developmental system consisting of Florida Championship Wrestling — a far cry from the set-up aspiring talents are accustomed to in the present day.

Rotunda bypassed the independent circuit to FCW where he was thrust onto its local television, wrestling under the names Alex Rotundo and later, Duke Rotundo, while quickly forming a team with brother Taylor, a.k.a. Bo Dallas.

Together, the brother tandem secured the FCW Tag Team Championships in July 2009 and would hold them for four months before falling to The Dude Busters.

Windham’s first big break occurred in June 2010 when he was assigned to the second season of the reality-based NXT as an aspiring talent paired with a WWE “Pro”. Rotunda — then known as ‘Husky Harris’ — would be paired with Cody Rhodes. Rotunda was among a class that included Titus O’Neil, Michael McGillicutty (Joe Hennig), Alex Riley, Percy Watson, Lucky Cannon, Eli Cottonwood, and eventual winner Kaval, a.k.a. Low Ki.

Rotunda lasted until the eleventh week and was ousted the same week as Watson, leaving the field with three candidates alive.

As Husky Harris, he continued working in FCW but it wasn’t long before WWE wanted to capitalize on the air time dedicated to several of the season two talents and Harris received his first main roster call-up in the fall of 2010, getting tied to a major angle involving top star John Cena.

Harris and fellow castmate Michael McGillicutty assisted Wade Barrett in beating Cena at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, forcing Cena to join the Nexus group against his will.

The run as Husky Harris was short-lived and ended up being a blip on his resume. With CM Punk taking over the leadership position of Nexus and feuding with its fractured group, The Corre, Harris was among the casualties of the angle; written off in early 2011 by way of a Randy Orton punt kick that sent Harris off Raw and back to FCW.

Take two.

Rotunda was staring at a failed main roster run and was risking the potential of becoming a third-generation failed experiment. He would need to alter and adjust to keep his head above water in the WWE shark tank.

He continued as Husky Harris for another year in FCW, which included a reunion with brother Bo Dallas as they regained the NXT Tag Team Championships in February 2012 for a quick run before losing the titles to Corey Graves & Jake Carter the next month.

His true metamorphosis occurred in April of that year when Husky Harris was shelved and Bray Wyatt was born.

As FCW transferred over to NXT and the ‘Full Sail’ era of the company began, Bray Wyatt became one of the shining examples of its new creative direction. Tapping into his unique and creative mind and creating something far removed from Husky Harris, Wyatt generated endless buzz and placed a spotlight on the cool things going on in NXT under the creative direction of Dusty Rhodes & company.

With comparisons to the film ‘Cape Fear’ and Danny Spivey’s portrayal of Waylon Mercy, the Bray Wyatt character quickly gained steam through simple yet different and effective vignettes and the introduction of stablemates Luke Harper and Erick Rowan to form The Wyatt Family.

The act was gaining momentum quickly in NXT. The main roster took notice and vignettes began to air in the spring of 2013 teasing their imminent arrival that summer.

The group’s first program with Kane had mixed results and saw Bray Wyatt beat the monster in a ‘Ring of Fire’ match at that year’s SummerSlam with enough protection on Kane that it failed to catapult the group into main event status.

Toward the end of the year, they got involved in a program with Daniel Bryan that led to Bryan joining The Wyatt Family. This coincided with an uprising among the audience that was clamoring for Bryan to be elevated to a top position, overtaking shows with “Yes” chants. The idea of Bryan joining the group was not meant to be a short-term diversion, which Bryan noted by the furry boots he wore at WrestleMania 30, an item he ordered with the idea he would be part of The Wyatt Family for the foreseeable future.

Bryan and The Wyatts didn’t click because the audience saw Bryan as a top babyface. With CM Punk’s exit from the company altering the WrestleMania card, Bryan was thrust into the main event scene and the story was dropped.

The Wyatts were hit-and-miss with most appreciating the parts but not the whole that the group came together as. But, if there was a peak moment for the group in 2014, it was at Elimination Chamber for their lone match against The Shield. The Wyatts would prevail as The Shield would dissolve months later and go their separate directions.

Wyatt moved on to work with John Cena at that year’s WrestleMania as the audience was ready for him to ascend into a role similar to The Undertaker for a new generation of fans. On the same night The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak ended, Wyatt was defeated by Cena. Under the assertion that Cena derailed Wyatt’s career, this loss was later used as fuel for a “Firefly Fun House” match six years later.

Wyatt continued to feud with John Cena and moved on to programs with Chris Jericho and Dean Ambrose throughout the year. While he was praised for his creativity and the uniqueness of the character, his creative directions were often mired in confusion and left the audience puzzled rather than satisfied. There were many times the character felt like a square peg in a round hole, leaning on a supernatural side that didn’t connect with the audience.

In 2015, Bray Wyatt received the big Undertaker program at WrestleMania 31. However, it was the first year where Undertaker’s streak was removed after losing to Brock Lesnar the year prior, eliminating a lot of the drama of an Undertaker match at the big event. Coupled with an ankle injury sustained by Wyatt, the match unfortunately didn’t leave a lasting mark among The Undertaker’s WrestleMania catalogue after several show-stealing efforts from 2008-2013.

Throughout this era, Wyatt was protected enough that he could be used in upper mid-card positions but fell short of achieving the status of a top heel, drawing divisive responses from audiences that either loved or hated a presentation that further incorporated supernatural elements.

In 2015, Braun Strowman was added to the group, debuting on Raw the night after SummerSlam and making The Wyatts a four-man unit.

Coming out of WrestleMania 32, they tested the waters with a Wyatt Family babyface turn the night after ‘Mania. Wyatt worked well in the role that night, but the run was cut short when he sustained an injury a week later that took him away for two months. WWE shifted the group back as heels upon Wyatt’s recovery.

The group then feuded with the New Day. Coming off the viral success of “The Final Deletion” in TNA, WWE tried their own version using the two groups and it fell embarrassingly short during an episode of Raw where they fought on the Wyatt Compound.

They split up the group in the summer of 2016 with Strowman going to Raw for a major push while the other three were exclusive on SmackDown.

This led to the program with Randy Orton that lasted months and included Orton and Wyatt forming a team and doing a long tease of Orton’s eventual departure from the group. After Orton won the Royal Rumble in 2017, Bray Wyatt won the WWE Championship the next month in an Elimination Chamber Match which led to Wyatt vs. Orton at WrestleMania 33.

Orton won the match at WrestleMania but it was offset by graphics shown on the ring canvas throughout, which killed the vibe inside the stadium that night and came off exceptionally flat.

The two had a rematch later that month at Payback with a “House of Horrors Match”, which was even worse.

In 2018, Wyatt would form an alliance with Matt Hardy — the man behind the successful TNA “Deletion” specials — who returned to WWE the previous year. They were a fine mid-card tag team after Matt & Jeff Hardy went their separate ways, later becoming the Raw Tag team Champions as Wyatt enjoyed a short run as a babyface.

Take three.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Bray Wyatt character required another overhaul, giving way to “The Fiend”.

After weeks of vignettes and ominous signs with the usage of puppets and voices, “The Fiend” emerged at SummerSlam in August 2019 in Toronto by destroying Finn Balor. It was a home run return for Wyatt featuring a slick entrance, a new theme, and enough connection to his prior character that it didn’t come across as a wholesale change but a much-needed refresh.

The Fiend adopted the Mandible Claw and was quickly thrust into the Universal Championship picture with Seth Rollins. The two met in a Hell in a Cell match in October, which was another maligned match that the audience completely turned on, creating one of the most critical reactions to a WWE main event in years.

The match unsatisfyingly ended without a winner and introduced the gimmick of Wyatt’s matches being lit entirely in red, adding to audience pushback.

The company doubled down and booked a rematch in Saudi Arabia three weeks later, putting the Universal title on Wyatt.

The program set Rollins into a tailspin and forced many changes to his character. It was the beginning of a trend of babyfaces that came out severely damaged from their programs with the supernatural Fiend.

After brief feuds with The Miz and Daniel Bryan, Wyatt’s title run was cut short the following February as the company opted to go with the perceived larger match of Bill Goldberg vs. Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 36. Thus, Goldberg pinned Wyatt at Super ShowDown in Saudi Arabia and Wyatt’s latest main event experiment was over, yet again.

The pandemic forced changes across the board at WrestleMania 36 and Wyatt entered a “Firefly Fun House” match with John Cena — one of the most unique presentations in recent memory. It was a cinematic match that relied heavily on meta-references to the John Cena character; playing out scenarios of Cena’s would-be heel turn that fans have always clamored for but never received. No one broke down and analyzed this video better than Wai Ting, who wrote an essay on the presentation in 2020.

The Fiend continued through the pandemic era with programs involving Braun Strowman, putting Alexa Bliss under his spell, and then revisiting a past feud with Randy Orton that would last all the way until the next year’s WrestleMania.

The feud was not received any better the second time around as it relied on more supernatural elements from Wyatt being torched on fire and Orton speaking to a duplicate image of himself, resulting in a short match at WrestleMania 37 that Orton won clean. It ended up being Wyatt’s final match of this run as he disappeared from television and was shockingly released by the WWE in July of 2020.

While the number of talent releases during the pandemic was staggering, Bray Wyatt was considered a shocking move despite competing opinions on the character. The fact was, he was a giant merchandise seller and a product of the NXT system that the company had further developed into a mainstay, going so far as to push him all the way to the championship on two occasions.

Rotunda essentially went dark during this period, furthering speculation on where he would land and who would go after him; whether AEW would adapt the character and take a chance, or if he would leave the industry altogether.

In December 2020, the world was stunned by the passing of Rotunda’s former stablemate, Jon Huber, who was wrestling for AEW as Brodie Lee but had disappeared from television for several months battling an illness that was kept extremely quiet. Rotunda paid tribute to his fallen friend as the wrestling world mourned.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Windham Rotunda (@thewindhamrotunda)

Sadly, it is Rotunda that the industry is mourning now.

After Vince McMahon’s brief “retirement” in July 2022 after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, Paul Levesque assumed his role as head of creative and made aggressive moves by hiring many of the talents that had been released over the past two years, including Wyatt.

Take four.

In what can only be described as the best viral campaign in the company’s history, the teases leading to Bray Wyatt’s return to WWE programming were sophisticated yet fun. Through its usage of QR codes, cryptic webpages and fan-captured videos of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” playing to crowds off-air, savvy fans were sent on wild goose chases to hunt down clues and make sense of them to uncover incredible findings at a level of specificity and thought rarely seen in WWE.

The unique campaign also translated to television interest including a false start on the September 23, 2022, episode of SmackDown where fans expected Wyatt’s return on “9:23” and were left empty, leading to a 15% spike in viewership that week.

On October 8, Wyatt made his anticipated return at Extreme Rules entering with a Code Orange-remixed version of his theme. The return was memorable for Wyatt, who felt he had received his latest lease on the character and was ready for a new direction under new creative leadership.

It’s unknown where this version of Wyatt was ultimately going as it was cut short by Wyatt’s disappearance from television.

They had introduced the “Uncle Howdy” character (portrayed but not yet revealed as Bo Dallas) and after a Pitch Black Match with LA Knight at the Royal Rumble, the same criticisms of the character were starting to appear.

He was set to be programmed with Bobby Lashley at this year’s WrestleMania but the program was dropped cold when Wyatt was removed from television and Lashley was left without a dance partner for the cards at SoFi Stadium.

There was optimism of a return as recently as two weeks ago when veteran reporter Bill Apter spoke with Mike Rotunda on the status of his son:

Well, you know, you read a lot of stuff on the internet, which I wouldn’t believe a lot of it, or, in my case, any of it. Bray Wyatt, I’m sure, will return to WWE hopefully shortly, and we’ll go from there.

Sadly, there are no more takes left.

Windham Rotunda died on Thursday at the all-too-young age of 36, leaving behind four children including two with his fiancée, former ring announcer JoJo Offerman.

He was a performer who was praised for creativity outside of the box while still striving to be that complete package. His return last year was solid evidence that the performer’s popularity legitimately moved numbers and that he was always a high merchandise seller.

But all of that is immaterial today.

Four children are without a father, a woman is without her partner, a mother and father are without one of their sons, and siblings are without a brother.

This is a tragedy, of which the pain will be widespread.

If there was a question of how much Windham Rotunda received from wrestling for the amount he put into it, today is evidence of just how much he meant.

About John Pollock 5574 Articles
Born on a Friday, John Pollock is a reporter, editor & podcaster at POST Wrestling. He runs and owns POST Wrestling alongside Wai Ting.