The Ryback Problem
Fresh off the heels of Wrestlemania, the WWE made the dubious decision to do at least two things on the Monday Night Raw after the event that would have been far better off happening at the big event itself.
The first, the cashing of the Money in the Bank briefcase, got us a shiny new champion in Dolph Ziggler and mercifully (we hope) ended the Alberto Del Rio/Jack Swagger storyline that captivated the hearts of absolutely no one. The fundamental truth in this is that Alberto the heel was way more interesting a character than Jack Swagger the insensitive xenophobe, and so there we are.
The second, however, was far more surprising, as the fan favorite Ryback took out John Cena, himself newly minted champion once more. We'll perhaps know more by the time you read this (perhaps due to it being the WWE writing team we are relying on), as this is being written prior to the 4/15 Raw. The way in which it was done left some doubt over whether or not Ryback was turning heel. To which I respond, in all my verbosity, dear God no.
The booking of Ryback has been puzzling at times, not the least of which was his loss in the botchfest versus Mark Henry at Wrestlemania. He's been made to look dominant, from early squash matches through standing up to the villainous CM Punk. We're meant to feel that the heels want nothing to do with Ryback, as the mere strains of his music can cause rulebreakers to cower and run from the ring. Unless, of course, you're wrestling him in a pay-per-view, in which case you'll most assuredly win. Henry joins The Shield and the aforementioned Punk in the not-so-exclusive "I beat Ryback and lived to tell about it" fan club. The way with which the company has chosen to present this is that he's been the victim of unfortunate circumstance, as conspiring forces and underhanded tactics have prevented him from reaching that elusive brass ring. The reality is that the only thing Ryback can really give you right now is the reaction he gets from the fans, particularly young ones.
Ryback is built for merchandising, literally. His hulking frame, colorful outfits, intense move set and "Feed Me More" catchphrase have definitely gotten him way over compared to those painful Skip Sheffield days. This is not a man that will be putting on a wrestling clinic, but he is a man capable of generating emotion and cash, two things that the WWE adores. Giving in to the temptation to turn him heel simply to present a new challenger for Cena's belt is not only silly, but shortsighted.
The fans that support Ryback are likely to be way more forgiving concerning his win/loss record than the staff here at TJR. I am quite content in saying that Ryback is not being marketed at me, and turning him heel won't fix that. There are already a couple of big, dominant monsters to fill that role, namely Big Show and of course Henry himself. That's to say nothing of Big E Langston, who is already showing the same tendencies as he steps out of Dolph's shadow. Simply put, how many brutal behemoths that can't get it done at the big dance do you need?
To me, Ryback's biggest moment (other than silently appearing to scare Punk like some inflated Ghost of Christmas Future after his beatdown of Mick Foley) was when he wasn't even Ryback at all. That of course would be the infamous Nexus angle where he and his fellow NXT also-rans blitzed the ring and took out absolutely everything. It seems ages ago, but Ryback/Sheffield/Ryfield was booked to be a dominant powerhouse. He was the one unleashing the devastating moves, he was the one with the facial expression that even made Michael Tarver look slightly sane, and he was the one who was the furthest removed from his NXT persona.
It was a brilliant way to move on from a character that had zero chance of getting over to one that could do some serious damage. Unfortunately for Ryfield, injuries and poor timing prevented whatever might have been in store for him as the awesome Nexus angle became the mediocre Corre. By the time he had healed up, Punk had assumed leadership of the group and it pretty much died on the table in favor of his far superior story arc. To WWE's credit, they repackaged him and presented Ryback, a Goldberg clone who would fight three to four wrestlers at a time and not come close to breaking a sweat. The promotion is full of huge heel badasses, but lacking in the face badass department. Other than the semi-retired Undertaker, the now-comical Kane and the immobile Great Khali, there's not a lot going on there. Therefore Ryback's reintroduction made sense and the fans bought in.
The point I'm making is simply that we've already seen Ryback as a heel, and the results were decidedly mixed. Who knows what the future would have held had he stayed healthy? As part of a six-to-seven man group, however, the best he would have done is as hired muscle. On his own he has the chance to better his ring work with the fans solidly in his corner. A feud with John Cena is simply not going to help that. A face who acts in mysterious ways is a far better option, but to me it's very simple. Book him like The Ultimate Warrior Lite until he finds his groove.
There are ways to showcase his strengths without sacrificing his character in the process. In my view, he generates his own push to some extent. Turning him heel, on the other hand, would alienate his base at a time when he most needs them, and forces finding a manager capable of delivering an explanation that he, quite frankly, would be unable to do. Nobody is paying their dollars to hear Ryback on the microphone, other than those three short words. This is something the WWE should be working on with him behind the scenes for down the line. Why rush it?
I certainly think the powers that be have foisted "Feed Me More" onto us to some extent, but I'll admit it has caught on. Again, it works because the people are into it and saying it with Ryback, not just because HE says it. That momentum, too, stalls by putting him on the other side of the ledger. Now "Feed Me More" becomes some sort of sadistic mantra? Good luck with that. As much as you might want to get him back into the picture after that big loss, setting him up to fail again against the most popular face in WWE with the kiddie set is cannibalizing yourself. Keep that up long enough and you're the next Tensai. Ryback doesn't have the personality to go down that road, at least as of yet, so some aloofness and uncertainty is a good thing. Everything he does doesn't have to be explained. As a heel, though, you'll need to answer that "Why?" and fast.
Ryback has unfinished business with The Shield, who have been booked very strongly and rightly so. That sets up infinite possibilities with tag partners, including those who can assist with covering up his in-ring deficiencies. Once more, abandoning that storyline and putting him on the same side as The Shield strains credibility in a business where that commodity is in very short supply already.
The WWE has had a lot of success with "gray-area" antiheroes, and I think that's good business. Getting some of the older fans on board makes sense. Ultimately, though, it's in-ring ability that will dictate how far he can go, and that won't be improved or addressed in matches with John Cena. I'm begging you, WWE, don't further ruin a character you've already put through the wringer by making another bad decision.
Having viewed Raw, I can safely say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Ryback promo. That said, I stand by the opinions expressed in this column. Be a "gray area" hero. Go after Cena, who many fans don't like anyway. Build yourself back up into that monster. Stop sounding like you're speaking through a Breathe-Right strip. But don't go full-blown heel. The ending of the show told me, as usual, that the WWE braintrust and myself are not on the same page.
Some quick hits:
*I'm glad to see Fandango's music taking off, and it's cute in a Harlem Shake sort of way. Much like the Harlem Shake, I am hoping that it ends before the shark has jumped. I laud WWE for trying something "different," but let's not kid ourselves. Curtis should be sending Goldust a check every week. Between the "remember my name" bit, the flashy outfits, and the gyrations on the top rope, I'm not convinced that this is exciting new territory. Also, what is with the vocal delivery? I'm not sure that a ballroom dancer can ever be intimidating, but definitely not when sounding like a really bad Christian Bale impression. With Chris Jericho heading back out for a while and being unable to carry the mail, Fandango's next feud will go a long way toward determining whether his character ever catches on. If you think I'm being too dire, remember: Paul Burchill was a pirate.
*The hot and heavy rumor mill speculates that it will be Brock vs. Rock for Wrestlemania 30. I say that's fantastic if true. Having just seen what happens when part-time favorites return and interject themselves in current feuds which will carry on long after they depart again, this type of match would have a special exhibition feel to it that would be perfect for such a huge event. It's also a perfectly smart way to keep Brock Lesnar relevant while dealing with his limited dates schedule, as you can address it at several key moments leading up to next April. Brock vs. Taker would of course also work, but the way Brock's been booked lately there's no way he has any validation for ending the streak.
*Now that the heavy lifting of Dolph Ziggler getting the gold is done, how about some love for Antonio Cesaro? Given that I haven't heard any stories of him harrassing divas or pulling ribs on JBL, I'm stumped as to the absolutely terrible booking decisions being made on this guy. I get that WWE often has a penchant for giving their "homegrown" talent the advantage, but what isn't there to like about AC? He's got a unique look, he's very good on the microphone, and he's got a set of moves that is unlike anything else out there right now. My eternal fear is that he hooks up with Swagger and becomes the 2013 version of Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik. Say it ain't so.
That's all I have for this week. Thanks for reading! As always, feedback is welcome on Twitter @coffeyfan77 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beware of dry ice!