Of all the possible heroes emerging from WWE’s Hell in a Cell last weekend, perhaps the most unlikely going in would have been Alberto Del Rio. Rumored to be on his way back to the promotion since his untimely dismissal in the latter stages of 2014, Del Rio was busy to say the least, popping up all over the map from AAA (where he captured their heavyweight championship, which he currently holds) to a television set near year in the first season of Lucha Underground. To a certain extent, as is often the case in matters inside and outside the squared circle, timing was everything. Del Rio longed for the opportunity (and schedule) making an arrangement with his former employer would bring, and Titan Tower desperately needed a presence in the vacuum created by the departure of Rey Mysterio to say nothing of the opportunity to land a solid player who could work on whatever side of the fence that the situation called for. The only thing that remained, then, was the best way to present the ADR character back to WWE’s viewing audience.
The fact that whoever challenged United States champion John Cena at HIAC would be walking out with the gold was a spoiler well-known to anyone who follows wrestling’s rumor mill. Cena is due to be out of action for a couple of months fulfilling various other commitments, and if there’s anything the WWE likes even more than a hero pushing merchandise, it’s a hero pushing merch while appearing in other forms of media. Plenty of folks could have gotten that opportunity to elevate themselves rather immediately into the stratosphere, but given the crash and burn that heralded Kevin Owens’s landing in the big time, that might be a bit of armchair quarterbacking. The current regime of WWE repackages and represents established stars far better than it creates new ones, a problem not unique to them and tracing back to the territorial days. Most of the wrestlers you and I remember as being famous for Stamford in the eighties had already made quite a reputation for themselves working elsewhere, and the Monday Night Wars are still recalled fondly as being the time when Ted Turner’s open checkbook allowed Eric Bischoff to run amok through the roster of the WWE and make away with their absconded personnel fortunes. By the time World Championship Wrestling figured out that it was their building up of Bill Goldberg that would ultimately serve far more importance in the long run, that long run had become a short jog to the unemployment line.
To the victor went the spoils, and the post-WCW-acquisition era wore off faster than that Christmas present you dearly wanted that you lost interest in by New Year’s. Whether WWE has learned from the very history they consistently bellow through their Network filter is a question for the ages, but the truth of the matter is that all reads lead to Vince McMahon himself. Wrestling’s ratings boom period has ended, and whether you believe it’s an improvement in comparable entertainment, a detriment of their own creative ability, or all of the above, it’s not getting better anytime soon. One need only scan the desperate overtures being bandied all over Ronda Rousey to get a feel for the current state of affairs. If reports are to be believed, Vince has planted himself firmly in the belly of the beast in an effort to get the ship righted. If common sense is to be believed, he never really left it. I’ve never met Vince and probably never will (certainly not if my columns continue in this vein), but I’d hazard a guess that he’s never lost some of the qualities that allowed him to expand the empire he inherited exponentially. That would include getting his hands dirty as well as a stubbornness at handing over the reins. While Triple H and friends have driven time and resources into NXT (with largely positive results), what to do about that obese gorilla in the room falls to the same guy it’s always fallen to. C’est la vie.
Cena’s title drop of course opens the door for his eventual return, and utilizing Del Rio as that foil makes logical sense. Pairing ADR with the long-sidelined Zeb Colter is a bit of a head-scratcher (though I’ll never complain due to Dutch Mantel usage), but Del Rio is at his best when someone else is doing some of the talking anyway. Perhaps, as Jim Ross has suggested, it allows for an eventual walk-back if the decision comes to turn him face. Del Rio wasted no time showing WWE audiences that he’s in great form, following up his very good match against Cena with a couple of solid performances on Monday’s Raw, qualifying for a four-way dance in a spirited affair against the always impressive Neville before acquitting himself well in said match before watching Roman Reigns land number one contender status. If any of us watching thought Del Rio would be next to go against champ Seth Rollins, well, let’s just say it’s bordering on dementia. Much like the aforementioned Rollins and the still-sidelined Daniel Bryan, Del Rio allows the WWE an opportunity to book him in multiple matches against a variety of opposition and know that they will be getting sound results.
Del Rio has been no stranger to being on top of WWE’s scrap heap, being a four-time titleholder already, not to mention landing Royal Rumble and Money In The Bank victories in the same calendar year. (A fact WWE’s announcing team has had no shortage of mentioning; ironic that a predetermined outcome can be utilized in an attempt to add credibility.) At the end of the day, Del Rio joins Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, Sting, and others as the type of special attraction that makes sense for a promotion less concerned with lengthy storylines and PPV builds courtesy of their pay-as-you-go business model than they are with making a splash and getting you to care. Until they have reason to do otherwise, this is what we can grow to expect with Titan Tower these days, a byproduct of an instantaneous, social media conscious audience as well as the comforting knowledge that they remain the biggest game in town by a large margin indeed.
Should the WWE follow the oft-rumored path of setting Seth Rollins down the road of fan favorite, they will need a solid counterbalance. That’s proven challenging for them to date, as their biggest heel literally and figuratively is a guy who can’t be expected to propel storylines courtesy of his part-time status. Randy Orton’s a solid hand who’s been stuck in neutral idling about for some time now with his seventeenth heel/face turn, current MITB briefcase holder Sheamus is so irrelevant to the main story that he’s now in a tag team with King Barrett (quite alright if you weren’t aware, as they weren’t either), and the Owens arrival party was shortchanged almost before it even began due to the company’s seesaw booking. If you’re wondering why the WWE has stuck with Rollins as their champion for such a while now, it’s frankly a self-imposed lack of options. The WWE has thought highly enough of Del Rio’s persona and capability to let him claim top honors in the past, so there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again, eventually. Del Rio’s current hybrid character brings the ego of the past, with the Million Dollar Muchacho gimmick toned down considerably. He can simply show up and bring with him an aura of irritation, which is catnip for creative. Del Rio is so comfortable in his own skin by this point that he’s able to play the sort of cultural chameleon the WWE adores, able to shoehorn himself into a variety of situations without much need for adjustment. Del Rio does as he does because he thinks he’s better than everyone. Sense enough in the wrestling world, and very easy to sell.
In the long run, though, Del Rio represents an opportunity for the company. Or at least it should. Fans united behind Mysterio for a multitude of reasons, from his underdog status to his high-flying style to his infectious ring presentation, but a gigantic part of it was familiarity. Anyone with a casual glance at pro wrestling had likely already spotted the colorful grappler long before he graced a WWE ring. Since those salad days, WWE has done a giant backslide when it comes to the presentation of talent from outside North America. Two such teams have felt this wrath most recently, with the Lucha Dragons arriving with smoke and thunder from NXT just to find themselves pretty much exactly where they started in the paunchy midriff of WWE’s bloated tag team division corpse. Ditto Primo and Epico, written off television for a while so that the writers can allow the taste to be washed from our mouths that they were performing an old Tito Santana routine differentiated only by the presence of a midget dressed in a Mantaur Halloween costume. Oh, dear. I wouldn’t expect Carlito to be rushing right back. If you’re noting a trend of complete and utter lack of character development, you’re not alone. The only guy to get such an exploration is Rusev, who’s fared well in his Street Fighter garb overall but been saddled with a long line of pointless romantic entanglements. When the most interesting thing about someone is who they’re dating, it doesn’t bode well for their career light. All of that is to be placed squarely at the feet of the parent company, who have the most to be gained (and lost) by failure to get representation for a multitude of cultures. At a time when the concept of a “Universe” is being pushed to a ridiculous degree, how odd that such an insular approach would be taken. They aren’t even out of the solar system yet.
There is, perhaps, the less than small matter of the concept that someone’s ethnicity or culture doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) the main rationale behind their presentation. Surely we can’t be so backward that we can only identify with the silly caricatures of the past. Complex characters are something the WWE should shoot for, even when they don’t always work. Two of their more popular current talents, Cesaro and Dean Ambrose, succeed in spite of the odd way they’ve sometimes been presented. I’d argue a good chunk of that is due to the same logic I applied previously to Mysterio, namely previous familiarity with their body of work outside of the confines of the WWE. The rest of it is due to their own gravitas and ability to bring the best out of whatever odd thing they’re asked to wrangle through while they await their own possible opportunity at the top. The fact that WWE’s brass are so confused as to what to do with a couple of guys sporting major fan support is perhaps even less surprising than their lack of taking any sort of advantage of a softball. Did you see them both at HIAC? Only if you watched the preshow. Maybe it’s that apparent lack of faith that’s given the fanbase even more faith in their characters. What’s a better tale to tell than a coming-of-age saga? In the meantime, it’s a steady diet of Roman Reigns, like it or not, until you grudgingly admit it tastes delightful or choke to death. Wrestling’s version of Brussels sprouts.
ADR’s return, then, comes at a crossroads of sorts, not just for him and his wrestling persona but for the company he once more calls home. This particular reappearance, though, has major consequences for both. One would hope that whatever issues caused Del Rio’s exodus in the first place have been resolved. I would sincerely hope that both sides can commit to utilizing this opportunity to break through the one-dimensional wall and head into a new era of multi-faceted character development. And, in the meantime, some damn good wrestling. It’s not a challenging equation.
Four Quick Thoughts
*Due to his profile being moved to the website’s Alumni section and his complete and utter absence from any WWE programming aside from a random Steve Austin podcast appearance, it is widely assumed that Christian has been officially retired. One of wrestling’s most decorated names, Christian presumably finishes his storied career as half of one of the most popular tag teams ever in the WWE as well as an extremely underrated singles competitor in his own right. What strikes me most about Christian aside from his distinguished efforts and obvious ability to entertain is that he’s a perfect example of someone who never took his spot for granted. In a business that can often favor the status quo, Christian found success in every iteration he attempted, from Brood member to goofy tag team competitor to rueful villain to champion. Christian and his former partner Edge remain incredibly popular with wrestling fans, as evidenced by his frequent reunions with his partner to this day. An excellent microphone worker, I would hope the decision is made to get him more involved in the weekly goings-on. Selfishly, I’d want that to be in an on-camera capacity, whether it’s as an announcer or some type of William Regal role. In reality, any contribution he makes to the WWE is a solid one. I will definitely miss Christian’s in-ring days. Count me among the Peeps.
*WWE’s latest aberrant attempt at presenting a Divas division involved Paige sitting down with Michael Cole to discuss why she turned on her former partners, Becky Lynch and Charlotte, moments after reuniting with them on Monday’s Raw. Cole’s weekly scripted sitdowns are starting to become as painful as the unending “Anonymous General Manager” skits that once plagued my Monday nights. The reality and hilarity of the matter is that what Paige did made complete sense, because it’s the only character trait she possesses. Paige befriends random female wrestlers and then attacks them, sometimes ingratiating herself with them before doing it all over again. For any wrestler to trust Paige given her presentation at this point strains credulity to a point where even pro wrestling dare not dwell. I’ll waste no more words in this space decrying the random way the ladies are being booked at this point, but simply use the bridge to announce the following: Should reigning NXT Women’s Champion Bayley be headed to the main roster, I’d recommend she take a long detour before going. Given the lack of push or traction of any kind up and down the former NXT women’s roster, from Charlotte and Becky themselves to Sasha Banks, it’s a road paved with gold but wrecked by poor maintenance and upkeep. Difficult to make much of the very real efforts to elevate this side of things with NXT main events when the end result is more of the same nonsense.
*Speaking of NXT, the streak continues of a solid effort at initial presentation of their former talents when being elevated to the main roster, if nothing else. The latest is Tyler Breeze, paired with a manager that makes sense (Summer Rae, also nodding back to their shared past) and an opponent that makes even more sense in Dolph Ziggler. Breeze’s gimmick has been one of the bigger joys to watch in NXT, as he’s taken elements of Shawn Michaels and Rick Martel and brought them into a modern time full of selfie sticks. It doesn’t hurt that Breeze is a solid hand in the ring as well, and that’s a major reason why the battles with Ziggler should be epic. Breeze has been ready for prime time for quite a bit, and his character is solid enough that it should work given the right time and energy. We’ve been down this road before, though.
*The main event of HIAC was a solid enough job by two guys that are expected to step up their game for prime time, and how much of the bloodletting was in the pages or not is less the crux of the matter than Lesnar tossing the doctor aside while he was attempting to administer aid. Rumors have spread that Vince McMahon wasn’t happy with that, and there are concerns both physical and financial here that he needs to be wary of, but to me he should have been thrilled. Wrestling is a physical sport, and part of that physicality is the very real possibility that damage will be done, particularly when the stakes are so high. Blood can be used without being overused, but more importantly, Lesnar’s disregard for the doc is precisely the sort of animal aggression WWE has tried to bottle for him. It felt real because it was real, and that’s to be celebrated. I haven’t agreed with everything Lesnar’s done since his return, but I won’t argue that he’s quite difficult to look away from, even when you want to. His victory over Taker was well done and didn’t diminish the effort of either man. It also wasn’t marred with interference or trick endings, a decision that the WWE doesn’t employ often enough. Had we left on that note, I’d have been a happy man AND a happy fan.