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WWE Survivor Series preview: When 'fake' sports get real

Here's an incomplete list of professional athletes who've been knocked out of action with ACL or MCL tears in the past month: Le'Veon Bell, Dion Lewis, Reggie Bush and Seth Rollins.

Now, before you go scrambling to google that last guy to make sure you trade him off your fantasy team, he's not an NFL player. Or an NBA or NHL player, or some UFC fighter for that matter. He's the (now-former) WWE world heavyweight champion. Rollins won the belt at WrestleMania in March and he has held it straight through the past seven months, despite notable challenges from Randy Orton, John Cena, Dean Ambrose, Kane and Brock Lesnar.

For the record: Yes, the endings of all those matches were predetermined. But no, that knee injury was not part of the script.

Rollins was facing off in a no-disqualification match on Nov. 4 against Kane, the behemoth "brother" of the Undertaker, who has split time over the past months oscillating between a demonic avenger and a front-office functionary. Rollins leaped off the top rope to somersault over Kane and then powerbomb him, but when he hit the mat, his right knee gave way. The footage -- as is the case in these sorts of thing -- is quietly gruesome.

But Rollins didn't roll over. He took a second to gather himself, got back underneath all 300-plus pounds of Kane, lifted him up, and dropped him through a folding table. That could have been a big enough ending for that night -- this wasn't WrestleMania, or even an off-month PPV like Battleground. It wasn't even "Monday Night Raw." This was a house show -- the industry term for an untelevised card -- in Dublin, Ireland. But Rollins kept the fight going, eventually smacking Kane with a chair and finishing him off with a Pedigree, which drives one's opponent's head onto the mat, along with the aggressor's knees. Rollins recoiled in pain before he gingerly pinned Kane for the win.

Pyrrhic victories are about as common in the pro wrestling world as spandex tights are, but even still, this wasn't anything to mark down in the win column.

Wrestling is fake, right? Well sure, the endings are predetermined by the executives and writers backstage. But as an athletic performance, it's every bit as legitimate as any "real" sport. Blowing out your knee isn't an intrinsic part of pro football, it's a sad (and all-too-common) byproduct. It's the same in wrestling. Concussions, too. In the past few years, two champions -- Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler -- have reportedly seen their reigns cut short by concussion issues (among other injuries). Of course, this being wrestling, they teased a concussion-related storyline too, before pretending it never happened.

Even in a "fake" sport, the physical stakes are every bit as real as in the NFL or NBA. And the other stakes? The wins and losses and championships? Actually, those are real too. Just not how you think they are.

In pro wrestling, the person in charge decides who the champion is. In WWE, the person in charge is Vince McMahon. He decided Hulk Hogan would be the face of the company in the 1980s, and that gamble paid off to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He made similar bets on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock and John Cena and, most recently, Rollins. But even if the titles aren't rewarded to the victor of a legitimate fight, they're still largely merit-based accolades. That's because the world title is as much a signifier as it is a prop -- it's evidence that the wrestler holding it can draw crowds, wrestle compellingly and gab on the mic with charisma. Just like football and basketball payers gripe about not getting playing time, pro wrestlers complain about not being given the chance to succeed. But it's not about stats -- it's about the "pop" of the crowd, the opportunity to get the fans behind them.

When Rollins went out, they stripped him of the title and announced a tournament to crown a new champion. Sixteen competitors have been whittled down to four, and those four will compete on Sunday's "Survivor Series" pay-per-view show. It's easy for an outsider to look at the bracket and see actors playing out a script, and that's to a large extent true. But the four men in the semifinals on Sunday have earned their spots with a combination of physical skill and artistic magnetism. Whomever emerges as champion will be every bit as deserving as Steph Curry was when the Warriors won the NBA title last season. Well, OK, maybe not -- but at least as deserving as David Lee was, anyway.

So let's take a look at the four guys who could walk out with the strap Sunday:

Roman Reigns

Reigns was a first-team All-ACC defensive end at Georgia Tech who had a cup of coffee with the Vikings and Jaguars before settling in with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. He left football and started training to be a wrestler, which was in his blood -- he's the son of Sika of the Wild Samoans, and part of one of the biggest family trees in the wrestling world. (He's "related" to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson by virtue of their grandfathers being blood brothers.) He debuted on WWE television in 2012 as a member of The Shield, a trio of blue-chippers who would spearhead a new generation in WWE, and despite his inexperience, Reigns was arguably the group's standout, getting huge crowd reactions for his power moves and quiet charisma. Which all adds up to him being the perfect new face of WWE, right? Well, not exactly. This is where reality comes in.

Reigns was chosen by the WWE decision-makers to be their new star last year at this time, but the fans weren't having it. When it became clear he was being slotted for the main event at WrestleMania, the loudest set of superfans -- still reeling from years under the monotonous reign of Cena -- revolted. They booed him relentlessly, culminating in one of the most ignominious Royal Rumble wins of all time, where The Rock showed up to help out and even the most popular wrestler in the world couldn't steer the crowd in Reigns's favor. Reigns got the 'Mania slot against Lesnar, but Rollins was tapped to run in and cash in his "Money In the Bank" title shot and swipe the title. Reigns then embarked on a six-month-long journey of earning the "smart" crowd's respect. To a large extent, he has accomplished it, and he's the odds-on favorite to leave Atlanta on Sunday with the belt.

But if WWE has learned their lesson from the Reigns debacle of 2014, they'll realize that a Reigns loss will increase his value much more than a win. The crowd might be happy if he wins, sure, but keeping them wanting him winning is a much more potent force. Take it from Dusty Rhodes.

Dean Ambrose

Ambrose was the third member of The Shield. At the outset, he looked like a sure-thing star, and unholy combination of Roddy Piper and Steve Austin. But after the respective ascensions of Rollins and Reigns, Ambrose was sort of left in the dust. He's every bit as talented as them, though, and has more than the two of his former compadres combined in the "indefinable charisma" department. He paid his dues as a bloodletter on the indie wrestling scene but charms the kiddies in the WWE crowd as persuasively as he did the die-hard rabble in his minor league days. (He wrestles in jeans and a tank top the way that a reformed punk rocker might wear combat boots with his business suit.) The future is bright for Ambrose, especially now with Rollins sidelined. One of these guys is going to take Rollins' place as the champ, but if one of them is going to take his literal place it's Ambrose, who has been conspicuously affable with Reigns of late. In wrestling, that kind of bromance usually leads to a breakup, and if WWE is intent on staying the course, Ambrose could slide into Rollins's slot as turncoat heel du jour.

Alberto Del Rio

How's this for a real-life storyline? Del Rio came to WWE as a ready-made megastar, the son of a Mexican legend with wrestling in his blood and a potential for international crossover appeal that made McMahon's eyes pop out in cartoon dollar signs. But after being hamstrung by a cartoony rich foreigner gimmick and topping out as a middling foil in the main-event scene, he was fired last fall after he reportedly slapped a WWE employee who had made a racist joke. After leaving the company, he wandered the indie scene and spoke openly about the institutional backstage racism in WWE, seemingly sealing his permanent exile from the company. But last month at the Hell In a Cell PPV, Del Rio made a surprise return, accompanied by his onetime foe, the jingoistic manager Zeb Colter. He beat Cena clean for the U.S. championship and immediately reinserted himself as a major player in the company. It may be too soon to figure him into the main event, especially since he's holding a belt already, although such assumptions could play right into WWE's hands as they reorganize in Rollins' absence.

Kevin Owens

If there's anybody in the final four who has earned their spot in the purest pro wrestling way, it's Owens. He started wrestling in Canada when he was 16, and worked his way up from "pudgy kid who would never amount to anything" to "pudgy indie wrestling god who WWE will never be smart enough to hire" in a 15-year odyssey through high school gyms and National Guard armories. Last year, though, WWE surprised everyone by offering him a developmental contract, and then surprised fans even further by hot-shotting him onto the main roster and into a months-long feud with Cena, the company's standard-bearer. He has since captured the Intercontinental title, and though a combination of hypnotic grousing and surprising-for-his-size ringwork, he has captured the attention of the broader WWE audience. In storyline, Reigns is an underdog who's being held down by The Authority -- the faction name for Triple H's evil executive party -- but in reality, Owens is the real underdog, the guy who was never supposed to make it because he doesn't look the part. Owens defied the odds because he's the real-life version of Reigns. They can book him as a villain (even Owens's son was torn between his dad and Cena during their feud) but he has got a reality-based allure that the statuesque Reigns can't match. Maybe that's why the crowd has erupted with glee when the two have faced off over the last month. And that reaction is what counts: No matter how improbable, Owens is on a beeline path to stardom.

So who wins?

This is the beauty of pro wrestling. There are no stats to crunch, no numbers to run. There's only the expectation of a story half-told. My guess is that a bad guy will leave with the title Sunday. They've gone hard with Triple H trying to recruit guys to his side, and be it Owens or Del Rio formally aligning with The Authority, or Reigns or Ambrose turning heel, I think WWE will let a heel carry the title through WrestleMania, just as (I assume) they had planned for Rollins to do.

(There's one other option: Sheamus, the Irish historical reenactor, has the MITB briefcase --the same contrivance that got Rollins his title shot at Wrestlemania 31 in March -- and he could technically cash it in Sunday, too. He was eliminated in the first round of the tournament after a ringside altercation with English soccer star Wayne Rooney, but that's beside the point. He may be a wild card, but even though he wouldn't have earned the belt as straightforwardly as the others, he's equally as viable.)

Rollins was a stunningly great champion, a ready-made baby face who excelled at being a crybaby heel, and brought the main event ranks a sort of legitimate, acrobatic athleticism that neatly counterbalanced the bleak bulldozing style of Brock Lesnar, who was the real star of WWE's last year, championship belt or no. (If you still have any doubt that pro wrestling is a legitimate athletic endeavor, just watch the highlights of Rollins versus Lesnar and consider that Rollins blew out his knee on the same surface he's being repeatedly suplexed onto.) It's arguable that Sunday's playoffs are less for the gold and more for the ignominy of being brutalized by Lesnar, whenever he decides to return. Regardless, whomever wins is in for a championship reign of constant physical masochism punctuated by media appearances. It's just like any "real" sport, except in wrestling, winning the title is only the beginning of being a champion, and being a champion is a grueling -- and dangerous -- job.

On this past Monday's Raw, all four competitors wrestled in quarterfinal bouts to get to the Survivor Series showdown. All four matches were excellent -- especially Ambrose's match against the always-game Ziggler, and Reigns's brutal symphony with Cesaro, the company's undervalued workhorse. All four of them wrestled a hundred-plus matches already this year, and they've all been broken and bloodied for their profession, and they've all got the crowd responding to them in real, primal ways. All four of them are going into Sunday looking to be the top dog in a new WWE. Whomever wins will have earned it, and they'll keep earning it until they lose, or until real life intervenes.