WWE’s Annual Spring Slump: Who needs to step up (part one)

Every February/March, during the build up to WrestleMania, a special kind of adrenaline sweeps across the WWE universe. No one is immune: Casual fans become regular watchers, regular watchers become diehard fanatics, diehard fanatics plunk down thousands of dollars on the trip to the annual supershow. Not only do the fans get a little more into it, but the competitors and the creative department step up their game and give the more-passionate audience a little extra something.

Well it’s May and that’s all done with.

Raw’s ratings are back down to late-2013 levels, fans are growing more bored with the product, storylines seem to be either stalling or dragging or both, three hours of Raw seems like an eternity whereas just a couple months ago it was a breeze. This is the lull period between WrestleMania and SummerSlam; it used to be shorter back in the days when the King of the Ring was a major PPV event—the tournament would begin in late May and carry through June—but since that show has sadly withered away, we’re left with a slump from May until July, when the run-up to SummerSlam will begin.

This year it might be a bit shorter since the Money in the Bank event is scheduled for late June, but that still leaves two months to deal with. Two months means eight 3-hour RAWs; 24 hours of Monday night wrestling. If the first Raw of May was any indication it’s going to be a long two months. In the meantime there are some guys who could certainly help keep the energy up in the typically down time. At the same time there are some guys who could probably stand to back away a little from the spotlight for the good of the product.

This week, we’re taking a look at who needs to step up and who needs to step back. Today, let’s notice three guys who need to step up and help the many hours of TV wrestling every week feel less like a chore. In fairness, we’re not going to be looking at guys who have a lot of potential but aren’t getting used the way they should be (that comes later). Instead we’re looking at the guys who have regularly been given the ball (for a decade, for half a decade and for less than a year) but have not made the most of it.

Sheamus

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The Celtic Warrior is no stranger to the spotlight. In his first year as part of the main roster he defeated John Cena to win the WWE championship (albeit by way of a tables match and not a clean pinfall). His first WrestleMania featured–similar to Bray Wyatt and John Cena’s clash of old and new–a match with Triple H, won by the veteran. Sheamus did win the following month at Extreme Rules (much like Wyatt over Cena). His meteoric rise did not end there as Sheamus reclaimed the WWE title in the Spring of 2010 and would be in and out of the title picture for much of the year.

The problem with Sheamus was never his ability to go in the ring, the Irishman has always been solid and has improved every year. Sheamus’ problem was his character. As an early heel, despite being pushed to the moon, his on-screen persona was still very green (no pun intended). He came off as very bland, despite his unique look, and was unable to establish a connection with the WWE audience the way other heel champions had done.

2011 saw Sheamus slide down the card and compete for the number 2 title on the number 2 show. By the middle of 2011 he had turned face and was being groomed as a future World Heavyweight Champion. Unfortunately fate intervened and though he won the championship at WrestleMania 28, he won it against Daniel Bryan in 18 seconds. The hardcore fanbase turned hard against him and Sheamus never found the personality or mic skills to win them back.

Since then he floated around feud after feud, barely gaining any traction and never commanding the audience’s attention in a way befitting the amount of support that has been given him by WWE Creative. He’s a remarkable talent in the ring but his character desperately needs an overhaul. A heel turn might be the best thing for him; it might–as it did with Randy Orton in late 2013–give him some new dimensions to explore that he wasn’t able to as a rookie heel in 2010 or a bland babyface in 2011-2013.  His recapturing the US title might seem like a step down the way it did in 2011, but this might be the perfect opportunity for him to step up and reinvent himself. He has the in-ring chops and has proven chemistry with plenty of top superstars; with the right character he could be a legit title challenger in late-2014.

Rusev

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Formerly “the Bulgarian Brute” and formerly “Alexander Rusev,” the new Russian-claiming superstar, now known only as “Rusev” has been given the “monster push” that has gone to such past superstars as Ryback, Vladimir Kozlov, Great Khali, Umaga, Brock Lesnar, Kane and Yokozuna. Some of those managed to turn their push into championship feuds (Ryback, Umaga, Kozlov), some into legendary championship runs (Yokozuna, Lesnar). Some turned them into Hall-of-Fame careers (Kane) or simply long-standing jobs (Khali). But they all had the monster push. They all debuted with an impact, beat up on jobbers, moved up the card (sometimes prematurely) and challenged for a top title and occasionally won it in order to validate the time and effort put into the push.

It’s far too premature to think he could be a future world champ, but Rusev could the next Umaga. Unfortunately he could also be the next Kozlov. Those are the two he is most-often compared with. He has he character of Kozlov (with the added advantage of Lana in his corner) but the ferocity of Umaga in the ring. It’s seems like a good combination, but such characters rarely have staying power. Yokozuna was a product of the times. Guys like Lesnar and Kane managed to thrive beyond their initial monster push but only because of extenuating circumstances; Kane constantly reinvented himself, Lesnar left while still fresh and at the top of his game.

Kane and Lesnar (and to a lesser extent, Ryback) also had an advantage that the rest of the monsters mentioned (including Rusev) did not: They are American (technically Kane was born in Spain, but to American parents). Even though Kane spent most of his career behind a mask and Lesnar can barely string two sentences together, being American naturally relates them to the WWE’s primary audience. Even though he has a mouthpiece, Lana still speaks with that very thick Russian accent. It’s a wonderful character but ultimately will be a limiting one.

In order for Rusev to thrive where guys like Kozlov, Umaga and Khali fell short, he will need to step up his game. His body of work in the ring will have to carry him and that gives him an instant advantage over Kozlov and Khali. Umaga, like Rusev, was a solid in-ring worker and were it not for wellness policy violations (and an untimely death) he would have continued to be a featured attraction in the midcard and perhaps might have carried a world title or two.

Umaga got over on account of a great mouthpiece and fan-connecting ring work. That’s the model for Rusev to follow. In order to do that he needs to take advantage of the time afforded to him. He needs to develop a repertoire of moves that highlight his agility. Right now his signature mid-match move is his fallaway slam. It’s impressive, yes, but ultimately has been seen countless times. Every time he leaps over a superstar, however, he causes eyebrows to leap with him. If he emphasizes his agility and continues to develop a deep arsenal of athletic moves, the fans will respond to him as strongly as they have to his lovely manager. There’s nothing the modern fan hates more than a worker who can’t go in the ring. It’s the reason Cesaro got over despite horrible gimmicks forced upon him early in his career. This is the era of workrate and fortunately for Rusev he has the potential. He just needs to showcase it more.

John Cena

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You might think Cena belongs in the “step back” segment. Ever since WrestleMania, Cena has been grating on the nerves of many in the WWE universe, particularly the older, more jaded fans. It’s a shame too, because Cena had been slowly winning over a large chunk of that segment of the fanbase, starting with his clean job to Daniel Bryan and relinquishing most of the prime spots on RAW (mostly the opening and closing segments) to the bearded sensation. In the lead up to WrestleMania, a lot of fans were excited about the possibility of Cena putting Bray Wyatt over on the biggest stage, but instead he won clean. Whether its fair to blame that on Cena is not the discussion. Right or wrong, Cena is back to being public enemy #1 with many fans.

Though many have called for Cena to take time off, past injuries have shown that Cena always comes back as though he never left, same character, look, attitude, everything. Time away will only hurt Raw’s ratings (like him or not he brings in eyeballs with children and a segment of casual fans) and give fans only a short reprieve of his very stale character.

No, what Cena needs is not time off, it’s time better spent. This isn’t even about a true heel turn; just a slight shift in character focus. Cut the horrible joking promos, the no-selling, the near-burying of opponents characters (and in the case of Wyatt, henchmen). Showing some vulnerability while at the same time showing that he takes his current opponent seriously (without overacting and coming off as hammy…though that may be impossible) would go a long way to winning back some of his detractors.

WWE is doing right keeping Cena out of the title picture. This isn’t 2007 anymore. Cena is a full-time legend and thus his championship matches need to be rare so that they can be hyped up and capitalized on. The problem is not Cena’s placement on the card, it’s that they are trying to have their cake and eat it too with him. They want him building up new stars but they keep letting him get the better of them. He beats Wyatt clean, loses the rematch after “all but winning” about eight different times and only loses in the most asinine way possible. Does anyone think Wyatt will get the better of Cena at the end of the feud?

Just once I’d like to see Cena lose a feud. It rarely ever happens. That’s why his character is so stale. When someone loses—really losses—they are forced to reevaluate themselves. In the WWE its exciting because it means the character has to grow in order to survive. He has to tweak this or change that in order to rise back up to where he once was. Cena never really loses, so he’s never grown. He’s been the same fun-loving, no-more-hard edge, fruity pebbles guy he has been since coming back from injury at the 2008 Rumble. Six years of staleness has gotten fans fed up.

Grow John. Step up and do something fresh for a change.

> Part #2: Who needs to step back

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