WWE Can Bank on Damien Sandow
World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-views always afford an opportunity for new faces to be presented in exciting and dynamic ways, and the upcoming SummerSlam should be no exception to that rule. One of my personal maxims is that if the powers that be aren't taking some space on each card for someone new to get over or improve on their character, they are risking long-term success for instant ratings gratification. There is no question that the WWE will be investing time in their future with at least one match on the card, as Bray Wyatt will finally wrestle on PPV in his feud with Kane. The build for this match has been typical, by WWE standards: great start, fair to middling middle, and decent recovery. That match will attract the attention, and rightly so, but it's another opportunity for newer talent to shine that I'd like to focus on this week: Money in the Bank winner Damien Sandow taking on his former Rhodes Scholars partner Cody Rhodes.
On paper, the match is a bit simplistic: Sandow and Rhodes went into MITB claiming they would be true to their alliance and watch each other's backs, only for the robed one to double-cross his partner and walk out with the briefcase. Rhodes, emotional over the betrayal, was further pushed over the edge when Sandow began insisting that he had won it fairly. Thus began a series of matches and vignettes that have ultimately resulted in Cody being in possession of the contract itself and Damien desperate to ensure its return. What's great about this feud, though, is that it's given both men something to do while larger storylines play out week to week. When a wrestler wins the MITB briefcase, it historically begins a great deal of hemming and hawing about when and where it's cashed in. Presenting this feud in this way right out of the gate prevents us as fans from paying attention to the briefcase itself for now and focusing instead on the feud between the partners. That's a good thing for Sandow, because he needs some further time to develop and doesn't need to be overshadowed by the other briefcase winner, Randy Orton. As Orton inserts himself into the John Cena/Daniel Bryan clash and questions abound as to what he may do at SummerSlam, Sandow is free to work on his persona without the immediate pressure of the case.
Chalk it up to the wrestling equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock's fabled McGuffin, that being something that mysteriously draws your attention to it while the real action goes on elsewhere. The contract itself is not as important for someone like Sandow as it would be for Randy Orton or his ilk. Whether or not he eventually cashes it in to win a major title is less relevant than the fact that he has it. For someone who relies on comedic timing and heel heat as much as Sandow does, it gives him a much-needed dose of credibility. No matter how often we've seen him befuddled or belittled throughout the past few months, he must be impressive because he has a title shot that he can use at any time. Given his character's demeanor, there's no doubt he won't hesitate to use it when the champion has been battered and abused. This makes him more watchable and interesting while he deals with his present circumstances. Smart thinking by WWE, and a rare case where someone gets the briefcase that doesn't just make sense from a story standpoint, but a logical one as well.
Sandow's trip to the spotlight is an illustration of old-school thinking at its best: Hard and steady work on character development will eventually pay off, but you must bide your time and roll with the punches in order to secure your opportunity. Too many of today's wrestlers come in like a ball of fire and flame out even faster. Their meteoric rise and fall shows clearly that the fickle tastes of today's wrestling fans will change in a heartbeat. You cannot teach athleticism, and that's something Sandow clearly has, which helps his case greatly in the WWE's crowded roster of athletes. But it's the other side of the coin that wrestlers too often miss, and Sandow has that as well: Charisma and personality on the microphone. New main-eventers like Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler are still struggling to find their voice at times, and Sandow already has his loud and clear. Don't underestimate the power of that in the long run. While giants like Ryback and Big E Langston will make you stop what you're doing and pay attention, it's the talkers that get your blood boiling and many times make the entertainment factor front and center.
It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that Sandow has mastered this technique; trained by one of wrestling's all time best villains in Killer Kowalski, he found from the start what it's like to begin your trip to pro wrestling in the unassuming, old-school way. Sandow cut his teeth in Chaotic Wrestling before signing up with WWE's then-breeder program Ohio Valley Wrestling. Christened "Idol Stevens," Sandow ended up landing the Television Championship (and rubbing elbows with CM Punk) before continuing his climb up the ladder onto the main roster. It had taken him about four years in OVW, but he had finally hit the big time. It would not last long. Paired with KC James (James Curtis) under the tutelage of Michelle McCool, the Teacher's Pets were a washout and unceremoniously left the wrestling consciousness following an injury to McCool. Sandow went back to OVW and enjoyed quite a bit of success on the upper card there, eventually capturing the Heavyweight Championship. It did not, however, prevent his release from the company a short while later.
Life in the minor leagues is difficult in any sport, but in professional wrestling it's brutal. Tons of talented workers are too different, too old, or too injury-prone to ever get even one opportunity at the WWE. It's a sad fact that many of the best people in the ring are people I as a fan may never see, even watching local, national, and international wrestling. The cream does not always rise to the top for a variety of reasons. Had the story of Stevens/Sandow ended here, it might not be surprising. Rather than allowing that setback to wreck his psyche, though, Sandow did what the successful guys in the business do and put his nose to the grindstone. Following some stints in the independents, Stevens returned to OVW and won the Championship again. Less than half a year later, he found the glass ceiling still in place and was sent packing once more, this time to the World Wrestling Council (WWC). Stevens was there, primarily in tag team competition, for over a year until the call came in to head back to the WWE system for a third time.
Upon arrival in Florida Championship Wrestling (which replaced OVW as the farm system for WWE), Stevens became Sandow, ostensibly a throwback to the early days of wrestling. That original gimmick was eventually changed to the Lanny Poffo-esque intellectual we are treated to every week, and that's when it finally clicked for Sandow. Sandow's build was notable due to its immediate ability to generate heel heat. Upon his arrival back in the WWE (with fortunately no mention of the past appearance), Sandow routinely refused to wrestle his opponents due to them being beneath his ability. If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. Cue Fandango's insistence to say his name correctly before wrestling or Ryback's blow-off of Mark Henry on Raw yesterday. Between his disdain for everything blue-collar and his failure to wrestle in any way besides sneak attacks, the stage was set for his big moment. That would come on the 1,000th (sort of) episode of Raw, when Degeneration X laid him out to the entertainment of everyone. A star was most definitely (re)born that day.
The next question was where to go with a gimmick that could potentially be far more comedic than serious. Sandow's ability to make the fans hate him was not in question; whether they would hate him in a higher profile match was another story. Sandow's feud with Brodus Clay is an illustration of how far he's come already. Clay's character is similarly mired in comedic banter more than match quality, but he's frankly not ever getting out of that rut. Sandow brutalized and attacked Clay over and over to illustrate the lengths he will go to in order to gain the upper hand on his opponents. Despite his boasts of cerebral superiority, it's the dirty tactics he unleashes that cements his status as the ultimate hypocrite. Following that, Sandow was paired with Rhodes (the duo were already familiar with each other due to their time in OVW; this technique has paid major dividends for the WWE of late with The Shield and Daniel Bryan) and they were in instant competition for the Tag Team Titles. Despite a lengthy feud with Bryan & Kane (Hell No), they never won the belts.
Where the genius of Sandow (literally) comes in is managing to stay relevant no matter what is thrown his way. Already experiencing enough false starts and pitfalls over his career to derail nearly anyone, Sandow again had to regroup when Rhodes was injured in the middle of this storyline. Rather than fading away, Sandow began his extremely entertaining apprentice search, quizzing the audience and using his stellar talent on the microphone to enrage and amuse simultaneously. I am convinced that it was during this period that Sandow demonstrated his staying power and ability to hold an audience, regardless of championship status. Putting a belt on a mid-level talent with great talking skills can do wonders for them (hello, Honky Tonk Man); having an upper-level talent who can keep your interest without some gold is far rarer indeed. It was clear that Sandow could shine alone, and his team with Rhodes was destined for breakup. That would occur as part of the aforementioned Money In the Bank plotline, and to say it was the classic heel move you could see coming a mile away would be an understatement. That did not lessen its potency, nor its entertainment value. Sandow's classless gloating and Cody's defeated and confused look were the highlight of a night that had quite a few of them.
In the weeks since, Sandow has continued doing what he does best; that is to say, appearing in the funniest segments of the night while wrestling some darn good matches along the way. This feud with Rhodes will hopefully be a springboard for both of them. Between the two, though, it's Sandow who is primed for a main event run. All of that history and toiling have given him the edge to take the ball and run with it, and his character is as fleshed out and well-rounded as any in the promotion. The largest concern will be the fans' ability to take him seriously (said with a straight face while realizing that Sandow was asked to be The Easter Bunny on WWE TV) while he doesn't necessarily take himself as seriously, and he absolutely nails it. Sandow has the mannerisms and ability to generate heat of a heel champion already, and doesn't need a manager or a partner to lean on, but can utilize either if the need presents itself. He has taken the best aspects of the Genius and the Attitude-era Bob Backlund and rolled them into one, and he can actually back it up in the ring.
All of these are reasons why we as fans should bank on Sandow's ability to deliver, a fact we'll see in a matter of weeks at SummerSlam. I fully expect his match with Rhodes to be excellent, and look forward to discovering how and when he cashes in the briefcase. There are very few wrestlers out there who you can say might fare equally well whether that bid is successful or not, but Sandow is one. His journey through difficulties has been arduous, but he has not let it distract him from the ultimate goal of anybody in the business, being in the main event. This is the same formula that propelled Dolph Ziggler to the cusp of greatness earlier this year. An athletic look and solid repertoire of moves are important, but far more important is one's ability to connect with the audience and steal the show. Sandow has it, and he's shown it. His journey should be an inspiring one to wrestlers toiling away in the indies right now that it can be done. It may not be the first gimmick that's thrown at you and it might take some twists and turns along the way, but excellence will out. It has here. As for letting you know now that you're making the right decision banking on Sandow for a tremendous future with the company? You're welcome.
*I found Raw to be decent again this week, which is not surprising as I assume they are saving several arrows in the quiver for next week's go-home episode. The highlight for me was the physical confrontation that finally occurred between Punk and Brock Lesnar, with supplementary appearances by Curtis Axel and Paul Heyman. This segment and build has been everything that's right with the business. As much as I may criticize the WWE, they have gotten just about every element of this right, and it goes to show what happens when the right people are involved. Lesnar's absence from television just makes us want to see him that much more, and the look on people's faces when his music hits and he appears on the ramp is perfect. The actual confrontation was well done, with both guys getting their shots in in realistic ways. I also loved the backstage interview where Lesnar told Heyman to "say something stupid." Get a Slammy ready for that right now, people! You can tell it was clearly ad-libbed and getting your money's worth from Brock is something the company should have been doing from the beginning. It also further played up the angle of Punk not getting his hands on Heyman, and giving Axel a chance to do his part well, as he has from the outset. This will be epic.
*To the recent news of Kurt Angle's latest brush with addiction, I'd feel remiss not to mention it so that I can add my heartfelt best wishes to him as he does his best to recover from something that ends all too many lives. It's easy to disregard the very real struggles of pro athletes when it comes to addiction, but it's a big mistake. Anyone with any care for their fellow humans can understand all too well when something that powerful takes over the life of someone you care for, whether you know them or not. Nobody questions Kurt's talent, and I can only hope that he, like Jeff Hardy before him, uses this opportunity of embarrassment on a national scale for get better for himself and the people in his life. The perils of successful rehabilitation are all too clear with the work DDP and his guys have done with Jake Roberts, Scott Hall, and others. Quite frankly, Kurt needs to get himself better before we can even worry about him appearing in a ring again. As a big fan of his, I am sure he will do just that.
*Thoroughly captivated by the McMahon family storyline? I didn't think so. Having wasted enough e-ink on this topic in recent months, I can only say that having backstage segments with the family feuding and then layering in the pointless general manager squabbling is reaching critical mass. As the Divas show ratings continue to plummet (I'm shocked that the vacuous Bellas are equally vacuous on the show), the WWE may be in the market for a new show idea. Might I suggest reviving that dormant "Wrestlers living in a house" idea and putting Booker T, Teddy Long, Vickie, Brad Maddox, the McMahons, and the anonymous general manager computer in a competition where someone is voted off the island every week? It might be a blatant ripoff, but that's never stopped wrestling promoters before. Whoever is left standing can run the show, in as much as any of them actually do. Until then, the only thing that would satisfy this fan is a Stephanie McMahon heel turn followed by her running things for a while. Forget about a corporate makeover. This needs a plot makeover.
*News that the Miz will be hosting SummerSlam was met with a collective yawn. It's actually a perfect role for him, as it will keep his painful attempts at humor confined to the outskirts of the event for a change. Far more concerning is the fact that as of this writing, no member of The Shield has an opponent yet. While Reigns & Rollins acquitted themselves marvelously on the preshow for Money In the Bank, putting them in that position two PPVs in a row would be insulting and wrong. As for Ambrose, we're used to devaluing the titles by this point but several PPVs without a title defense just screams of laziness at best and incompetence at worst. Regardless of rumors about behind-the-scenes issues, these guys are too good to be settling for secondary roles. Find something for them to do, and quickly. I really don't want to have to settle for Shield vs. Henry and a returning Big Show, but I'm desperate at this point. Justin Gabriel seems like a good apprentice for RVD. Doesn't take much thinking.
That's all I have for this week. I'd like to thank you for taking time from your day to read it, and encourage you to post your thoughts, exhortations, and bashings below. I'd also like to happily announce that I will be writing headlines each Friday for TJR from this point on (starting this week!) so if you've not had enough of my banter that's where to get even more. Until then, as always, I can be reached on Twitter @coffeyfan77 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Mike Holland signing off. Have a great week, everyone!