wrestling / Columns

Rusev: In Service to Deserve the Mountaintop

June 29, 2018 | Posted by Len Archibald
Rusev WWE Smackdown Aiden English

Barring some overwhelming, miraculous circumstance, Rusev will probably never be WWE Champion. It is an unfair and unjust world because he has worked hard enough on both his in-ring and character work to be viewed as a credible, believable threat as champion. It scars the heart of wrestling fans knowing that Jinder Mahal will go down in the history books as champion, while Rusev Day may never be celebrated.

This has been one of those debates among wrestling fans that has circled since the dawn of the smart fan. Wrestlers who are perceived as “deserving” against those who have no right having a push. There was a small backlash over Hogan becoming the superman face of the WWF after workhorses like Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund won over purists. Hogan drew the same criticism when he arrived in WCW and instantly shadowed Ric Flair and Sting.

The love/hate relationship we as fans have with specific performers is fascinating. We, as smart fans sometimes vehemently deny ourselves as “marks” – as fans who acknowledge the action is scripted and pre-determined and that we can view the art form objectively, with a sharp critical eye that focuses on how talent and story are being used within the bubble and context of what is “acceptable” in a wrestling universe. But, the fact is we are all marks, there are one or two specific talents that we all gravitate to and when they aren’t showcased in the way we believe they should be, we take offense. There is nothing wrong with that – we all like something and we all like for the world to see through our eyes and accept what we believe to be right. It is the struggle of wrestling fans since the 1970s…trying to convince the rest of the world that the art form is worth exploring – or better yet, not worth ridicule.

Isn’t it absolutely insane that Ted DiBiase will never be known as one of those otherworldly talents who wore the WWF Heavyweight Title? He had everything – a great heel character that would have warranted a beautiful chase for a babyface contender to prove that money doesn’t mean everything, a proficient technical wrestler who could grapple and scrap with the best of them, a wonderful promo who got the entire planet to hate him. Most of us are aware of the scenario behind DiBiase not winning the title at WrestleMania IV as planned when The Honky Tonk Man essentially took the Intercontinental Title hostage because he didn’t want to job to Randy Savage, which rocketed Savage to the WWF Title instead (funny how that works.) DiBiase never became world champion, but was given the gimmick of being the Million Dollar Champion with his own title. I believe that wound up giving DiBiase more heat than being WWF Champion as the audacity to create his own title was staggering. DiBiase is viewed as someone who “deserved” to be champion, but circumstances denied him the opportunity.

Was Magnum TA the man who could become the NWA’s answer to Hulk Hogan? It is a debate that is still heard today and one we will never get the answer to as Magnum’s promising career was cut incredibly short because of a car accident. The master of the Belly-to-Belly Suplex and one half of one of the greatest “I Quit” matches, Magnum was a hero to fans who believe he was being groomed to be “The Man”. Magnum debuted for Jim Crockett Promotions in 1984. Do you know who else made a major (re)debut for a wrestling promotion? Hulk Hogan. There is a debate that perhaps JCP and the NWA was too slow to pull the trigger on Magnum as World Champion; he was arguably the hottest star in the promotion with a legion of fans that would literally would put themselves in harm’s way if someone tried to harm him in the street. That is a legit babyface. Would things have been different if Magnum chased after Ric Flair instead of Wahoo McDaniel?

On the other side of the coin, we have wrestlers that are perceived as “undeserving”. Those talents who show minimal, or no in-ring prowess, cannot promo to save their lives and may just be unengaging. Let’s get a couple of elephants in the room out right away: David Arquette did NOT want to be given the WCW Title. He has gone on record dozens of times that he outright refused out of respect of the lineage of the title itself, but Vince Russo insisted. Arquette not deserving the title had nothing to do with him acquiring it. That was a decision out of his control despite not wanting it.

The other elephant…Jinder Mahal. When Mahal returned to WWE after his release years ago, it was obvious there was something different about him. The transformation of his physical appearance was astounding. He looked like he was chiseled out of granite, but he was also viewed as someone who cheated his way back into the company by unsavory means and using performance enhancing drugs. We read and heard reports about Mahal’s backstage attitude greatly impressing Vince McMahon and the possibility of Mahal being used as a catalyst in WWE’s outreach to India. Throughout all this, Mahal never showed any real fire in the ring – in fact, some believed that his in ring game actually regressed from when he was part of 3MB. In one of his first performances back to the company, he concussed Finn Balor. He was already deemed unsafe.

Mahal’s arrival to SmackDown was not met with any fanfare. He seemed to arrive as just another body, perhaps someone that would roam around the midcard, perceived as a minor threat to the U.S. Title. When he challenged Randy Orton for the WWE Title, the only word I can use to describe the fan base, was astounded. Maybe dumbfounded. What did Mahal ever do to “deserve” a shot at the WWE Title? We were back to the idea that “the look” and not in-ring talent is what elevates a performer. It is a disheartening thought for fans that embrace and equate professional wrestling as, well…wrestling. Jinder Mahal seemed to represent the antithesis of that belief. Mahal became the 50th WWF/E Champion to rabid social media protests and promises to never engage in the WWE product again. Mahal did not do anything to “deserve” the honor.

What constitutes the belief that we, as helpless, hapless fanatics of wrestling as an art form that we get to decide who deserves what kind of success we deem is acceptable? As much as we rave about the backstage gossip, unless a talent comes right out and confesses it, we really don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. Is it possible that a talent that we like and wish had more success is a general prick in the locker room? At the same time, if that was the case – how do we explain Alberto Del Rio’s or Shawn Michaels’ success in their major runs with the company. Michaels was BOTH a smaller sized performer and drug addict…how did he get away with so much, while the good natured, honorable and uber babyface Bret Hart get cast aside (that was my opinion back in 1995-1997)?

By some, The Miz was deemed unworthy to hold the WWE Title and main event WrestleMania 27, but now those same detractors are begging for a Miz/Daniel Bryan title match at WrestleMania 35. And what of Daniel Bryan? The “YES” Movement was born from the desire to see a talent that was undeniably the best in the world be rewarded for that even though the company he worked for clearly did not see that. Bryan’s journey was ours. How many people work jobs where they put their every effort to be recognized, perhaps in hopes of a promotion so they can be better providers for their family…to be passed over for a kiss ass, or someone from the outside who knows nothing about the industry. We all know that feeling – and we tend to project those very real frustrations from the outside world on the wrestlers we are, admittedly, marks for.

I’ve made it no secret that CM Punk is my favorite wrestler. Yes, he is an asshole. But, so am I. Yes, he has a chip on his shoulder after clawing to the top of his profession and being denied a nearly every turn until he had to put his destiny in his own hands. I clearly relate to this in my efforts running a film festival and trying to gain more input as a movie critic. Like him, I know what it is like to be embarrassed in a very public setting and have it seen as a black mark against me. I am straight edge like him. It is only natural that I gravitate to him and project my successes and failures onto him. Punk’s “pipe bomb” is everything I would have said in his situation – most of his promo style, his diction, his venom, his passion, is precisely how I view the world. When he won the WWE Title at Money in the Bank, I felt vindication because my favorite performer was finally viewed as a top guy, and it vindicated my own personal belief system. When he held that title for 434 days, it was a great time to me.

And I was frustrated when he was not treated as the guy the company should revolve around – because John Cena did not “deserve” that. John Cena and The Rock did not “deserve” to main event WrestleMania 29 as they did not put the work in. That was CM Punk, and there was a ready-made story for him to put his title streak against The Undertaker’s WM Undefeated streak. It wrote itself. When WWE didn’t go in that direction, I was PISSED. How dare they disrespect MY favorite wrestler in such a manner. I reacted as an inverted mark…instead of marking for the success of a wrestler, I marked against that performer being wronged in some way. I still follow CM Punk, despite his detractors, despite the fact he has been obliterated in the UFC twice, despite the trial. He is my favorite, and it would take a heinous act for me to abandon my fandom of him.

Retroactively, did Chris Benoit deserve to main event WrestleMania XX? It is one of the most difficult topics to explore because there seemed to be a connection between Benoit and fans the same as my description of CM Punk. He clawed his way for 18 years to finally become king of the mountain, in the main event of WrestleMania, at the most famous arena in the world, against two of the greatest to lace their boots – one of them perhaps the greatest of all time. Isn’t that enough? Is there a better way to culminate a journey? An embrace in the ring with the very best friend in his life. Isn’t that enough? What more could one accomplish and what more can any fan say they “deserve”? Does the act of murdering wife, child and self erase that concept of what is deserved?

A conversation I had with a fellow fan brought up this hypothetical: If we knew then what Benoit would end up doing, would we still accept him as the representation of an uncrowned champion for the art of WRESTLING? He claimed that he would never had Benoit main event retroactively because someone who is chosen as champion should be able to shoulder the burden not only when they are champion, but when they are no longer champion. It does seem that Benoit at times had trouble finding his place after losing the World Heavyweight Title from Randy Orton. Was that him, or WWE? Did he deserve to lose the title? Did Orton deserve to win it to eclipse Brock Lesnar’s claim as the youngest WWE(World Heavyweight) Champion ever?

When Eddie Guererro defeated Brock Lesnar for the WWE Title at No Way Out 2004, it felt a long time coming; as much as I was a Benoit mark at the time, I gravitated more towards Eddie because of his comeback from addiction. A man who dug himself out of one of the darkest pits one could live in and completed his journey to become the face of the company. It was something I felt was “deserved”, even more than Benoit’s 18 year journey. That final image of WreslteMania XX was significant as it was a vindication to fans that, yes – wrestling and WRESTLERS still mattered in WWE. Is that how we define what is “deserved” – persevering through personal hardship to reach the apex organically?

That brings us to our current plight: Roman Reigns. Reigns is WWE’s #1 heel. WWE and Reigns is even beginning to voice that. Even though he is being presented as a man of honor and/or goodwill, Reigns is a villain. He is the entitled pretty boy who believes that just showing up is good enough to be declared the best. The perception is that Reigns’ lineage and look is what brought him to the dance, not anything that is viewed as a traditional path to reach the top through hard work. While Seth Rollins attempts to kill himself every week to prove that he is perhaps WWE’s in ring MVP in 2018, Reigns stands there, calling out Brock Lesnar every other week and declaring himself the uncrowned WWE Universal Champion. How delicious is it that Reigns – a man who fans believe do not deserve to be the face of WWE is groomed to face another who fans believe is not deserving to be champion because he is never around to defend his title. Are we being played? Is this one of the more elaborate jokes on the wrestling fan base?

What is the definition of “deserve”? How does one crystallize the concept? Should a wrestler deserve success based on work rate, not just in the ring, but in an attempt to improve in every possible way? Is it about knowing how to politic and move up the ladder, should those who know how to talk their way to the top deserve success? If you are an asshole, but more talented than everyone else, does that justify your position at the top? If you are a wholly charitable person, a great in-ring talent, but humble, does that mean you’re not aggressive enough to even sniff the pre-show? For some, Triple H does not deserve to be seen in WWE history as one of the greatest of all time, but his politicking bloomed NXT, a more serious cruiserweight, women’s and UK Division – should his success now be measured by his behind the scenes work and are we collectively admitting that he deserves his role at the top of WWE?

I don’t have an answer. What one “deserves” is an abstract concept that is up to the individual to decide and one only that fan, with their own walk in life, their struggles and victories, would be able to materialize. I feel that Rusev deserves to be WWE Champion. I believe he has done everything possible to reach that mountain. He played his role as a monster champion well, performed in a very good match at WrestleMania against one of the greatest of all time, was able to survive midcard hell and nearly being made as a non-entity within the company, changed up his character and got over to the point where he has organically become a legitimate babyface. It is a roundabout way, but Rusev has taken the wrestler’s “hero’s journey” to reach the top. At the same token, I like Rusev, so his success is really more of a vindication of myself and what I enjoy as a fan.

And that is what it comes down to for all of us, right? We are fans of what we like. Sometimes, what we like are recognized by the world and sometimes, what we like is our own little joy, a secret that only we understand. Maybe that is one of those things we need to do a better job of embracing – maybe what we feel a performer deserves doesn’t belong to the world – if they don’t see it, we do. And sometimes, that is not what a wrestler deserves, but what they need.

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Miro, WWE, Len Archibald