While John Cena and CM Punk are still clearly the driving forces behind the WWE's success, a new top-tier star has emerged over the past couple months in the form of Ryback. His meteoric rise hasn't necessarily impacted the WWE tangibly yet in terms of television ratings, but it can if utilized correctly.
If not for elbow surgery that kept Cena out of action for seven weeks, Ryback likely wouldn't be in the position that he's in right now. He went from squashing jobbers like Jinder Mahal to feuding with the WWE Champion in a matter of weeks, and while it seemed like it might not work on the surface, the fans have eaten it up thus far.
The biggest things preventing Ryback from reaching the same level as guys like Cena and Punk are his lack of mic skills, lack of variation in his actual wrestling and an overall lack of experience in comparison to the other main-event talents. Those shortcomings would seem to suggest that Ryback is destined to fail, but the WWE has found a way to circumvent them to this point.
The WWE is so confident in Ryback's ability to draw, in fact, that a triple-threat match between Ryback, Cena and Punk for the WWE Championship was announced for Survivor Series. Ryback was initially set to take part in a traditional Survivor Series elimination match, but the WWE seemed to call an audible at the last minute by putting him in a title match instead.
Perhaps the change was a result of Cena not being cleared to compete until sometime over the past week, but there's no way of knowing for sure. Whatever the case, the WWE considers Ryback to be on par with the likes of Cena and Punk right now when it comes to the audience's reaction, and the company is trying to milk everything it can out of it.
While Ryback's feud with Punk has been interesting, particularly in light of referee Brad Maddox helping Punk defeat Ryback at Hell in a Cell, the real money to be made lies in a potential rivalry between Ryback and Cena. I realize that both of them are face at the moment, but everyone wants to see if "Super Cena" can overcome the beast that is Ryback.
The seeds may already be planted as Ryback and Cena teamed to defeat Punk and Dolph Ziggler on RAW. Ryback scored the pinfall win over the WWE Champion, and while Cena appeared to want to congratulate Ryback, the Big Hungry stared down the leader of the Cenation and continuously repeated his signature catchphrase of "feed me more."
While both Ryback and Cena have a chance to win at Survivor Series, I anticipate Punk retaining the title and eclipsing the one-year mark as champion. That would create an interesting situation as Punk would still have to defend his title one more time before facing The Rock at Royal Rumble. Punk would need an opponent for TLC with Cena and Ryback being the only real options.
I suppose the WWE could use a cop-out strategy and have a battle royal to determine the No. 1 contender, but the smart move would be to put Cena against Ryback to determine the challenger for the title. This could be announced for an episode of RAW between Survivor Series and TLC, and with a full week of hype it would undoubtedly draw in viewers and elevate ratings in a noticeable way.
Cena and Ryback are obviously unique superstars, but I would liken a potential match between them to what fans saw at WrestleMania VI when Hulk Hogan faced The Ultimate Warrior. Cena would play the role of Hogan as he is the unquestioned face of the WWE, while Ryback would be similar to Warrior in that he is a fast-rising star.
The Ultimate Warrior won that match, but I don't expect history to repeat itself this time if Cena and Ryback do lock horns. Nobody believes that Ryback could possibly face The Rock at Royal Rumble, so putting him in the title match at TLC would be silly. That match has to be Punk vs. Cena, so perhaps Brock Lesnar can interfere in the Cena vs. Ryback match on Punk's behalf so that Punk doesn't have to face Ryback in a singles match again.
Although I don't believe Ryback is ready to be a world champion and I'm not a big fan of him personally, the WWE definitely has a valuable commodity that it needs to capitalize on. Ratings have dipped for RAW over the past several weeks due to Monday Night Football, a presidential debate and other factors, so something big is needed to reverse the negative momentum.
Ryback vs. Cena feuding on RAW for a couple weeks and ultimately having a match to determine the No. 1 contender for the WWE Championship would be the perfect medicine to cure what ills the WWE currently.