In amongst the responses to my “Royal Stumble” column over the weekend, there was an interesting alternative viewpoint to “why WWE has a dearth of credible championship challengers”, and the answer is simple: they’ve sacrificed everyone in an attempt to build up Roman Reigns. Although WWE did ultimately achieve their end goal of getting the fans to accept Reigns, ironically, it was at last year’s Rumble where the signs were clearly displayed that this was the wrong time to push Reigns.
Take your mind back to last January, when the Royal Rumble ended with Roman Reigns celebrating his win to a shower of boos (in spite of a miffed Rock standing next to him to try and deflect said negativity), as the Philadelphia crowd were audibly annoyed at having seen Daniel Bryan’s Rumble match cut short. Granted, Philadelphia is notorious for going against the desired reactions that the WWE booking team are looking to get (much as New York, and most of Canada), but when the same response is mirrored at arenas around the world, WWE should have changed course. I’m not saying that every time WWE (or indeed, any booker) sees that their plans elicit a reaction that’s the polar opposite of what they want, nor should bookers embrace every Internet darling that they’ve had, but there is indeed a time and a place. Not everyone can be a main event star, or indeed, a star at all, and there are guys on the roster right now whom probably shouldn’t ever break out of the lower card.
While you can never say never, it’s almost a certainty that after years of being treated as a comedy jobber, whether it’s part of the cult favourite group 3MB, or acting as Legends Fodder for the likes of Vader, DDP and Sid, the “One Man Rock Band” Heath Slater is likely never going to even be perceived as a credible midcarder, let alone a main eventer. Similarly, in spite of the hope spots that saw him be the last man thrown out in 2011’s Royal Rumble and be the last man defeated in 2012’s World Heavyweight Championship Elimination Chamber, Santino Marella would never have been a credible choice as a World champion.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at a few examples from the current and recent WWE rosters where fan reactions have been ignored to some degree:
Zack Ryder – the poster child for “what happens when bookers ignore crowd reactions”! There is no way that this guy would have been the next John Cena, but had WWE been more on-board with his rise in popularity in 2011, they might have had a genuine upper mid-card babyface on their hands (who could have been used to feed to top line heels). Unfortunately, we all saw what happened with Ryder: after a groundswell in popularity caused by his “Z! True Long Island Story” YouTube show, he did appear more on TV and actually got pushed, culminating in a run with the United States championship. However, that victory over Dolph Ziggler was a poisoned chalice of sorts, as Ryder saw his character paired with John Cena in a move that could have worked really well, had it been handled better. Unfortunately, a storyline from Ryder’s YouTube show was transposed onto Raw, and ended up being the kiss of death (literally) as Ryder’s romance with Eve Torres ended in humiliation and a low blow. Oh, and ritual destruction by Kane, which led to the rather comical image of Zack in a wheelchair, in a bodycast, left totally helpless after catching his beau with John Cena.
Wrestling history has shown that pretty much every guy who gets turned on by a woman ends up struggling to regain their credibility. Chris Jericho struggled for a while after he was made a fool out of by Trish Stratus at WrestleMania 20. Test treaded water after his wedding to Stephanie ended up being a set-up for the long-running Triple H/Stephanie pairing.
After the Eve Torres storyline, Ryder was slowly shuffled down the card, and found himself back at square one by the end of 2012. Three years of nothingness followed, with 2015 seeing Ryder having one last crack at the big time… in a supposedly babyface tag team in NXT with Mojo Rawley. If you believe WWE’s Breaking Ground reality show, this really is Ryder’s last chance, but as a babyface, you can’t really see the tandem as anything other than cannon fodder on the main roster.
Verdict: Zack was never going to be main event guy, but there was money left on the table here; and the damage done by the company’s treatment of him goes much deeper than one failed push. For all of the patronising talk of Vince McMahon wanting to see guys “grab the brass ring”, there’s a ready made example of why that speech is phoney: Zack Ryder was a going nowhere guy, finding himself on the company’s lower tier shows such as Superstars and NXT (back when that show was more of a comedy effort to introduce new stars, as opposed to the lauded, pseudo-developmental group we have nowadays). With nothing more than free time and a pocket video camera, Ryder created something out of nothing, and cultivated his own following. Regardless of what the truth is, the fans perceived his handling as WWE not wanting to get behind someone unless it was someone whose popularity started with a WWE-created idea.
Fandango – Johnny Curtis’ first run on the WWE roster, with a character whose promos sarcastically spoke in idioms (remember the “don’t cry over spilled milk” promo? I don’t blame you if you don’t!), was easily forgotten, particularly as he spent most of his time on last-generation NXT show involved in a feud with Derrick Bateman (better known as current/former TNA champion EC3). Unfortunately, after his repackaging in late 2012, his new character wasn’t that much better, as four months passed between the initial vignettes and the first appearance of a character known only as Fandango.
Although his debut didn’t come until WrestleMania 29, thanks to an annoying series of walkouts as Fandango “refused to wrestle” unless his name was pronounced correctly, Fandango did get his run off to a flying start, with a win over Chris Jericho at WrestleMania. Just 24 hours later, we reached peak Fandango, thanks to the post-WrestleMania Raw crowd in East Rutherford, New Jersey, as the rowdy fans took to singing along to Fandango’s ballroom dance-inspired theme song. In spite of being a heel, what became known as “Fandangoing” became something of a craze, with the song being played at sports events around the world, and came within a few dozen sales of breaking into the UK Top 40.
Using the Zack Ryder logic, you’d have figured that as the character and song were created by WWE, you’d expect the company to have learned from their mistake and put their entire weight behind him and give the character a push. Well… after losing to Chris Jericho, Fandango went into a feud for the Intercontinental title, and was tipped by several onlookers (including Steve Austin) as a future champion, particularly after Fandango scored a non-title win over the then-holder Bad News Barrett. Unfortunately, a concussion robbed Fandango of his title shot (with his replacement, Curtis Axel, instead winning and getting a mini-push instead).
That concussion spelled the end for Fandango’s push, as by the time he was cleared to return in July, the craze of “Fandangoing” was a distant memory, and the character found itself pushed to the back burner. His elimination at the 2014 Royal Rumble at the hands of El Torito was hardly a career highlight, nor was the brief feud between Santino Marella and Emma (which ended when Santino picked up an injury that ultimately forced his in-ring retirement). Fandango would eventually cycle through replacement “dance partners”, as Summer Rae would be dumped in favour of Layla (remember her?), who would then make way for Rosa Mendes before her pregnancy saw her character quietly shuffled off of TV.
Verdict: Fandango’s concussion in May 2013 was really a case of bad timing as it came right when WWE was looking to start doing what they do best with their flavours of the month – in overexposing the character (see: the handling of New Day in 2015/2016). Although it is true that “Fandangoing” did become a thing again when he appeared in front of UK crowds, the reaction didn’t carry over once WWE returned to the States. Sadly, this is one of those times where perhaps WWE were right not to continue the Fandango push, and as long as the gimmick remains as it is, the character will never get beyond it’s current lower-card ceiling.
Damien Sandow – this is another one which WWE has filed under “lets ignore one crowd’s reaction”; however, instead of filing it away, they’ve somehow managed to forget his extistence entirely. Having debuted in WWE in August 2006 as Aaron “Idol” Stevens, his first run on the main roster barely lasted three months as his tag team with KC James had a brief feud with Paul London and Brian Kendrick, before being taken off of TV after an unsuccessful tag title shot. He would be released almost a year to the day from his WWE debut, and would go on to wrestle in Puerto Rico and on the independent scene before returning to WWE in 2010, debuting on the main roster with a new character in April 2012.
In Damien Sandow, we saw a character that was against all things pop culture, and perhaps firmly stuck with one foot in the past. As a singles act, Sandow’s gimmick was somewhat limited, and it was in a tag team with Cody Rhodes where the act achieved some success, however a series of victories in non-title matches led to them coming up short when it mattered, as the team ended up separating at the start of 2013. Following the split of “Team Rhodes Scholars”, Sandow would go on to be on the losing end of a feud with Sheamus, before surprisingly winning the Money in the Bank ladder match, giving him a guaranteed shot at the World Heavyweight Championship. Of course, Sandow would go on a long losing streak and would fail when he cashed in the briefcase.
It would be an impersonator’s act that would get Sandow back in the spotlight, with an unlikely pairing with The Miz threatening to propel him up the card, particularly as the feud came to a head with the renamed “Mizdow” being the last one out, losing out to the Big Show in WrestleMania 31’s Andre the Giant Battle Royal (despite having the crowd in his corner). In the following weeks, Mizdow would lose to the Miz in a match “for the rights to the Miz brand”, which saw Damien Sandow revert to his old name, and unfortunately, his old position on the card. Sandow would go back to the well once again and reprise the impressionism act, reprising the role of newly-annointed Hall of Famer “Macho Man” Randy Savage; however the team of “Macho Mandow” and Curtis Axel’s “Axelmania” gimmick was destined to never get beyond opening match status, before it was swiftly binned in light of Hulk Hogan’s departure from WWE.
Verdict: this is a tough one to call; in both of his main roster runs, Sandow has never consistently been beyond the midcard. If you take out the slight groundswell he had around the time of WrestleMania 31, Sandow has probably found his level on the card. Does he deserve a crack at something better? Undoubtedly, but unfortunately, both of the gimmicks he’s had in his latest run in WWE (the “holier than thou” snob character, and the impersonation act) are typically long-term death for a career, and unfortunately, this has proven to be the case yet again.
Harry (David Hart) Smith – on the surface, you’d think that WWE would have been licking their lips with the signing of a second-generation wrestler, let alone someone who was the son of one of their biggest international stars of the 1990s. Originally signing with WWE in April 2006, Harry Smith had already amassed international experience before then, having enjoyed tours of the United Kingdom, New Japan Pro Wrestling and others, and had already been wrestling for a decade by that point.
Following eighteen months’ in WWE developmental, Smith debuted on Raw in October 2007, but only had two televised matches before he was handed a somewhat oddly-timed suspension under the company’s Wellness Policy. Thirty days later, Smith found himself available again, but found his television appearances limited to WWE’s Heat show, and was well off the radar in WWE land. A “draft” to SmackDown in June 2008 didn’t yield any further televised appearances, as Smith opted to return to WWE’s developmental program, and it’d be almost a year before he returned to television, this time on the third-tier group, ECW, as a part of the Hart Dynasty group with Tyson Kidd and Natalya.
The Hart group would enjoy some success on SmackDown, then later on Raw, but as was the way with WWE in the late noughties, the tag team had a relatively brief run and was then split up after two tag team title runs. As 2010 came to an end, Smith and Kidd traded wins on WWE Superstars, before WWE’s big idea of repackaging the son of the British Bulldog was… to have him wear a cowboy hat. Shockingly, that a fleeting nod to his Calgary Stampede roots didn’t connect to crowds outside of western Canada, and after months of reportedly being a virtual persona non grata in WWE-land, Smith was released August 2011.
Since then, Smith has made a name for himself in Japan, and has made a name for himself in a tag team with former TNA cult favourite Lance Hoyt (also briefly known in WWE/ECW as Vance Archer), with Smith and the renamed Lance Archer tearing it up in Pro Wrestling NOAH and New Japan Pro Wrestling as the Killer Elite Squad. At the end of 2015, reports suggested that Smith had acquired the trademarks necessary to put the finishing touches to his new ring persona, as Davey Boy Smith Jr could now legally be called the British Bulldog. However, whether we see that translate into anything meaningful in North America remains to be seen, particularly given the supposed bad feeling between Smith and WWE at the time of his departure from the company.
Verdict: Although Smith’s run in WWE wasn’t accompanied by any sizable crowd responses in the same fashion as Zack Ryder or even Damien Sandow, the fact that WWE cut the legs off of Smith before he even had an opportunity at being a singles star.
In the current era of shows being hijacked by fans chanting whatever they want, it’s imperative more than ever that WWE (and any other booker, really) show themselves as not being easily-led. However, there is a difference between being swayed by a crowd, and actually listening to what your fans want. There is clearly a difference between changing plans for a wrestler who has had fans campaigning for and buying merchandise in droves for… and changing plans for a wrestler who has been ironically cheered (or booed) by a crowd wishing to make themselves the centre of attention. It is also the polar opposite to what we have seen in WWE for the past year, where nobody else is given a push as the company focusses on making sure that their golden choice succeeds.
To be successful, a wrestling company’s output should be a mixture of listening to their fans, but also telling their fans, without shoving anything down their throats. Had WWE not left a sour taste with fans in 2016 following the bait and switch with Daniel Bryan at the Royal Rumble, there’s a chance that Reigns could have been “accepted” by the fans a lot earlier than he was. Unfortunately, it seems as if in the attempts to avoid being so predictable, WWE has done the opposite, and by sticking in their ways, have becoming what they were trying to avoid. The end result? A detriment to pretty much every metric that is publicly available in terms of live event attendance and television ratings.