It wasn't long ago that it seemed like wrestling fans were doomed to a never-ending future of John Cena and Randy Orton championship runs. It goes without saying that when CM Punk cut his infamous worked-shoot promo last June, it was exalted not just because Punk was a meta-fan favorite and the promo itself was incredible, but because WWE let it happen. For years, there had been grumblings about Vince McMahon wanting to create stars — a new generation of Shawn Michaelses and Bret Harts or Rocks and Foleys — but so far there had been little evidence that WWE was committed to pulling off such a renovation. When Punk was given the proverbial ball and he took off sprinting, everything changed. It created not just the Reality Era but a new WWE ethos wherein innovation was not just acceptable but mandatory.
It has been about a year and a half since the worked shoot, and in that time WWE fans got Punk as champion — as of Monday night, he's been champ for an entire year. We got indie darling Daniel Bryan as a mainstream headliner. We got main-event time given to British newcomer Wade Barrett and an epic push for luchador standout Sin Cara. Even recently, we've seen young wrestlers like Justin Gabriel, Tyson Kidd, Darren Young, and Titus O'Neil given significant camera time in tag-team bouts. Hell, WWE has even found a valuable place for Heath Slater, the most insufferable wrestling personality this side of Harvey Wippleman.
Sunday night, at the finale of the Punk-Cena-Ryback triple-threat match for the WWE championship, just as Ryback appeared poised for the win, he was taken out by a trio of black-clad newcomers, three guys whom the average wrestling fan has never seen before but who've been on the radar for some time: Seth Rollins, a pretty-boy five-tool guy,1 a Bryce Harper of the pro wrestling set who's so good it's hard not to resent him; Dean Ambrose, who's often considered the second coming of Brian Pillman, a natural talker and an understated but brilliant in-ring performer; and Roman Reigns, a Greek statue of a guy and a Samoan wrestler who is shockingly being presented as a post-racial character. This triple debut caps off a year for WWE in which elevating new talent was as central as promoting the main-event story line.
Let's not get too carried away here. The Rock will be wrestling at the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, Brock Lesnar will probably be back, and Punk and Cena aren't going anywhere. But the elevation of Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns at the tail end of a particularly fruitful year of developing talent makes this a perfect opportunity to gauge WWE's handling of its young wrestlers and to set expectations for the rookies.
The biggest debuts so far this year have been "The Funkasaurus" Brodus Clay, Ryback, Antonio Cesaro, and Damien Sandow.2
- The Funkasaurus — After months of teasing Clay's return as a brawling blubbery badass in the mold of the One Man Gang, Clay — Snoop Dogg's former real-life bodyguard — made a shocking return in January as The Funkasaurus, a dancing, funk-loving epiphany. If it sounds stupid, I mean, yes, it was absolutely stupid, but it was such a breath of fresh air, and the way Clay committed to the role was downright amazing. The music, the disco ball lighting, the pair of dancer-valets (eventually known as the Funkadactyls) — it all added up to a truly special wrestling experience. But despite starting off hot, the gimmick is on the verge of devolving into a hollow reflection of its former self, like a drunk guy at a party who starts dancing and cracks everybody up until he grows overconfident and refuses to stop grinding awkwardly on random women. Funny begets monotony. (Or, as with this bizarro Snoop Dogg Hot Pockets video in which Brodus briefly appears, irony begets commerce.) The real problem is that WWE took what made The Funkasaurus awesome — the balance of his ridiculous entrance with his in-ring dominance — and decided to focus solely on the comedic half. When Clay brawls with big guys like Tensai, I'm reminded of wrestling's halcyon days, when half-man half-leviathans like Vader and Bam Bam Bigelow were revered, but when Clay teams up with diminutive talents like Hornswoggle or Santino Marella, I feel like I am seeing that last, sad, gassed-out, 4 a.m. dance at '80s night. Grade: C
- Ryback — Listen, it's impossible to call the Ryback experiment anything but a success. He's wildly popular with fans and he looked believable in the ring next to Punk and Cena on Sunday, which says a lot. But, largely because WWE inserted him into the title picture while Cena was injured, there's a feeling that Ryback's main-event status came too fast and too easy.3 If WWE can allow him to improve as a wrestler and a character without undermining his heat, they could be building one of their biggest stars in ages. I'm not the world's biggest Ryback fan, and I'm guessing that many of my readers aren't in his demographic either. Yet anytime I sense WWE forcing a cardboard muscle freak upon me, I try to remember that it's possible for even the most one-dimensional characters to evolve. People compare him to Goldberg ceaselessly, but Ryback's model going forward should be Batista, who proved that a wrestler can start as a bland Supermannequin and develop into a complete performer. Grade: B
- Antonio Cesaro — Known for years in the indie world as Claudio Castagnoli, Cesaro debuted right after WrestleMania this year and was promptly elevated to the midcard, where he's been holding court ever since. This is a good thing! Cesaro's United States Championship reign — coupled with the recent Intercontinental title feud between The Miz and Kofi Kingston — has solidified a renewed emphasis toward the wrestlers on the WWE roster who aren't main eventers.4 Of all this year's rookies, Cesaro is almost the ideal balance of character and ring skills. He can be a grating, multilingual, rugby-playing, man-purse-carrying foreigner while still being an old-fashioned badass in the ring. WWE needs guys like Cesaro as much as it needs stars, guys who can establish legitimacy and intriguing secondary story lines on the undercard. Not only do Cesaro and his ilk fill out the show, but more importantly they fill out the WWE universe. Committing to developing wrestlers like Cesaro — their characters and their careers — is WWE's way of making sure fans care about the outcome of every bout. Grade: B
- Damien Sandow — Previously (briefly) known to WWE viewers as Idol Stevens, Sandow was a typical developmental guy, a mediocre "WWE body" who wandered in and out of WWE employ for the last decade. Then, somehow, he found an amazing second act in his career by borrowing a gimmick from Lanny Poffo and a name from Golden Age wrestling promoter Billy Sandow (who had borrowed it from Prussian strongman Eugen Sandow). As WWE's "intellectual savior," Damien has been so delightfully loathesome — with pink-and-purple tights and Latin names for his moves — that he elevated himself almost instantly into the limelight. His recent feud alongside partner Cody Rhodes against tag-team champs Daniel Bryan and Kane has been one of the best parts of WWE television over the past couple months. Even in a losing effort, his match against Sheamus on Monday's Raw legitimized his spot. And best of all? He's Lebanese American and he's not wearing a turban. Grade: A
And what about the three new guys who ambushed Ryback at Survivor Series? What can viewers expect from them? Allow me to speculate.
- Dean Ambrose — In a piece I wrote earlier this year comparing WWE wrestlers to NBA players, I called Ambrose the WWE's Anthony Davis. He's the can't-miss next big thing. At the time, I waffled between him and Cesaro, who had just debuted, but I chose Ambrose because I thought he was on the verge of being called up (whoops!) and because even though Cesaro/Castagnoli had a more decorated indie career, Ambrose (known pre-WWE as Jon Moxley) is a better talker, which means a lot more in WWE than it does in the indies. Ambrose is endlessly compared to Brian Pillman for his maniac style and mic skills. Pillman famously injured his legs in a 1996 car crash, curbing his in-ring abilities just as he was beginning his WWF career, and I think it's fair (if gruesome) to say that if Ambrose were similarly rendered half-immobile, he could still be a major star. He's that good. But let's hope to god that doesn't happen and rejoice in the fact that Ambrose is a good wrestler. There's something about his look that's just so … normal. It halfway tricks me into thinking he's going to be awkward when I watch him wrestle. But once the sweat starts flying, Ambrose is impressive, as his breakthrough bout with a visiting CM Punk and an epic match against Rollins last year in FCW proved.
Best-case projection: Brian Pillman meets Cody Rhodes
Worst-case projection: Raven meets Marcus Alexander Bagwell
- Roman Reigns — His name sounds like it came out of the WWE Super Awesome Name Generator 2000, and he looks like he emerged whole cloth from the Create-A-Player mode in WWE 13. But Reigns — a.k.a. Joe Anoa'i — has potential to be good. And even though he comes from a legitimate sports background — he was an All-ACC defensive tackle at Georgia Tech — he has a wrestling pedigree. Anoa'i is the son of Wild Samoan Sika, which makes him extended family to basically every Samoan who's ever pulled on three-quarter-length spandex pants. Reigns's first couple of years in FCW were unspectacular, but eventually the wrestling gods smiled upon him and he was unfastened from his ethnic heritage. He changed his character's last name from "Leakee" to Reigns and was pushed to the top of FCW, where he beat his new stablemates for a no. 1-contendership in February. (He then lost to champ Leo Kruger.) Since NXT launched, Reigns has appeared twice. His only match was a win (and I'm going to call his one promo a no decision). He may lack the message board credibility of Ambrose and Rollins, but his role in the faction is clear. Just as they give him indie cred, he gives them mainstream cred, because when the trio stands together with no shirts on, Reigns is the guy who looks like what most fans think a WWE superstar looks like.
Best-case projection: Batista meets Haku
- Seth Rollins — At Survivor Series, color commentator JBL said that "if you built a sports entertainer from scratch, it would look like Randy Orton." This led me to joke that even if JBL's imaginary wrestler might look like Orton, he'd certainly wrestle like somebody else, but I can see JBL's point. But if you wanted your wrestling golem to have indie cred, he'd probably look like Seth Rollins. He has acrobatic skills and a WWE look. It didn't take long after his Ring of Honor debut before he was challenging for the title, and it didn't take long after his title win (in an awesome match with Austin Aires) before the snarkier side of the fan base started booing him.5 So, of course, it made sense to have Rollins antagonize the fans and turn heel by threatening to jump to WWE — and of course it was no surprise when WWE actually signed him away. When WWE reformatted its FCW developmental territory into the new iteration of NXT, Rollins was positioned as its first champion, and he was validated in that role by a brief association with none other than Punk.
Rollins still has his detractors. Because he's so good, there's an impulse to reject the hype and think that he's not really that good. And he could totally flop in the major leagues if he's presented as Wrestling Jesus too soon. So let's be cautiously optimistic that Rollins is debuting as part of a faction. Let's take it as a sign that the WWE powers that be won't force him down our throats as the corporate, streamlined version of CM Punk, with attendant Seth Rollins foam fingers and hair-bleaching kits for the little kiddies.
Best-case projection: CM Punk meets Jeff Hardy
Worst-case projection: CM Punk meets Jeff Hardy as imagined by a 13-year-old girl
Despite the fact that announcer Michael Cole blithely referred to Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns as "NXT competitors" when they appeared Sunday night, most fans aren't familiar with this crop of NXT wrestlers because NXT isn't even on American television.6 (Also, they're not really "competitors" in the sense that wrestlers on the previous iteration of the show were.) But WWE fans will be familiar with this trio soon enough.
Monday night, when Punk was in the ring celebrating his one-year anniversary as WWE champ, Ryback tried to intervene, but the NXT crew appeared and again put Ryback through an announcers table.7 It's a clever booking move: They're not headlining so soon that people will complain (as some did when Ryback shot straight to the top of the WWE star system). Instead, Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns seem to be dragging Ryback away from the main event, grunting and screaming, which would both certify the newcomers as top-tier characters and correct the Ryback-as-title-contender-while-Cena-heals contretemps. They'll save Ryback from inevitable burnout and, hopefully, save fans from it too. If that works out, these new guys just might work out.
With any luck, these three are harbingers of a fully revived developmental system. Other guys working in NXT could be populating our television screen before long. I'm giddy about the potential for Bray Wyatt, formerly Husky Harris (and son of Mike Rotunda), who's working a creepy nouveau Waylon Mercy act.8 Richie Steamboat — yes, the son of Ricky "The Dragon" — is just about as good as you'd expect him to be and he may be on the next tier of the call-up list. Big E Langston will inevitably get a huge push, just as the Twittering masses will inevitably refer to him as "Ryblack." Kassius Ohno — formerly Cesaro's Ring of Honor tag-team partner — is straight-up incredible if you can overlook his unspectacular physique. And you can read all my high expectations for Paige over on the Grantland fanfic page.
But seriously, for the first time in a while, the WWE future — by which I mean the future past next month's pay-per-view — seems really bright, and it's not just because some of these guys might become all-time greats. The big deal is that WWE really appears to be committed to developing its full roster, when previously the company seemed primarily concerned with finding the three or four megastars who would dominate the championship picture.
You know that moment in a match when the good guy is getting beaten down and he starts to make a comeback and the crowd goes absolutely apeshit? In wrestling lingo, that's called a "hope spot." It works for storytelling, too. When fans feel beaten down by the same monotonous narrative patterns, they'll sit on their hands. But give us a reason to hope, and we're right back into it.