The model pro wrestling main event push is born of pouncing on and maximizing blooming popularity.
In sports, stars are mostly on their own when crawling upward to championships, MVP awards and the fame that follows success. In pro wrestling, a rise to stardom is a collaboration.
The wrestler, the audience and the promoter converge to elevate an unknown performer into a headliner. Talent is not enough, nor is opportunity. The right story has to be told to draw fans in, to have them accept a new hero or villain as a viable marquee star.
WWE recently bungled Daniel Bryan's main event push, the company unable to capitalize on a wrestler who elicited thunderous reactions wherever he went. Ryback, too, is a case of a failed push. A promising powerhouse is now a cautionary tale of faulty booking.
What then does a successful push look like? It begins with a wrestler's ability followed by sparks of fan interest popping up from the house.
The first step to turning those sparks into flame is simulating the rise through the ranks that is at the core of sports drama.
The fans watching WCW Nitro back on Sept. 22 1997 had no idea who the large, imposing man standing opposite Hugh Morrus was. Bill Goldberg would soon become one of the company's top stars, but first he had to emerge from obscurity, which he did charging like a rhino.
His debut match was short, but it began the lore that would soon surround Goldberg.
Morrus landed a moonsault that he called "No Laughing Matter." Morrus' 250-plus pounds came crashing down on Goldberg, but the rookie kicked out.
That moment, punctuated by Morrus' shocked expression, began to plant the idea that Goldberg wasn't just another wrestler—he was a beast among men. WCW then had Goldberg dominate a string of foes including Barbarian and Perry Saturn.
Fans knew that the outcomes of Goldberg's matches were predetermined, but seeing him tear through enough of his opponents, one began to believe in his invincibility. His undefeated streak worked to build him as a contender, but it also gave him a chance to inch his way up the WCW ladder.
After dispatching of men like Morrus and Disco Inferno, Goldberg won the United States Heavyweight Championship from Raven en route to a clash with Hulk Hogan for the more prestigious World Heavyweight Championship.
This angle allowed enough time for Goldberg's buzz to grow and for fans to get increasingly excited about which wrestler he would take out next. WWE tried a similar approach with Ryback, but his journey was too fast.
Goldberg had left an inordinate amount of victims in his wake by the time he battled Hogan, while Ryback was hurried into the main event scene, taking on CM Punk for the WWE title just six months after clobbering his first jobber.
What WCW accomplished with Goldberg can also be done over a longer period of time with blemishes accompanying increasingly important wins.
That's how Bret Hart went from being a tag team specialist to the biggest star of the company. WWE built Hart up over time, having the audience slowly buy into his toughness and ability to contend with the company's best.
"The Hitman" began as the more technically sound member of The Hart Foundation.
He spent about seven years teaming with Jim Neidhart, whom he won the Tag Team Championships with twice. Fans got to see Hart's mat wrestling and in-ring storytelling excellence for years. Slowly, his popularity began to match his talent level.
During his tag team run, he bolstered his resume with a number of notable accomplishments.
At WrestleMania II, he was the second to last man standing in the 20-man Battle Royal, eventually losing to Andre the Giant. He did the same thing at WrestleMania IV, lasting until the end in a Battle Royal, this time losing out to Bad News Brown in the end.
Hart was the final man to be eliminated in his tag match at Survivor Series 1990 and lasted over 20 minutes in the 1991 Royal Rumble.
WWE was planting the idea in the audience's mind that Hart was a warrior.
He then won the Intercontinental Championship in 1991, defeating Mr. Perfect before winning that year's King of the Ring tournament. These are all of course accomplishments made possible by the writing team, but after seeing enough of them, fans could be convinced that Hart was ready for the next step—the WWE Championship.
"The Excellence of Execution" held that title from October 1992 to April 1993 and was among the company's biggest stars for much of the early '90s.
The slow build to get to that point made it feel as if Hart had earned his spot, strengthening his fanbase along the way.
As a wrestler makes that climb, from being a face in the crowd to a top star, the right narrative is essential.
Punk reinvigorated many fans' passion for wrestling in the summer of 2011. Like Hart, Punk had been adding to his resume over the course of his WWE career, taking control of The Nexus, feuding with The Undertaker and twice winning the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania.
Story then pushed him to the very highest rungs of the company.
Punk told the audience that his WWE contract was set to expire after the 2011 Money in the Bank pay-per-view. That announcement pricked ears up because he was the No. 1 contender for the WWE Championship.
He famously began to rally against both his opponent, John Cena, and the WWE system itself. On June 27, 2011, Punk criticized how the company was run and the man in charge of it in a speech that earned him a storyline suspension.
The combination of Punk's rebellious attitude, the frustrations about seeing his freedom of speech taken away and Punk seemingly tapping into the thoughts of many fans' feeling about how WWE was run made for the story of the year and helped Punk become a megastar.
WWE used Punk's machete-like tongue to catapult him forward.
When Punk defeated Cena for the WWE title that July, it was more than a championship changing hands; it was the culmination of a narrative that had hooked fans, that had effectively sold Punk as a main event star.
Steve Austin traversed a similar path to the main event in the late '90s.
Austin had always been talented, but he didn't make it as a marquee star when he was a Hollywood Blond alongside Brian Pillman or as The Ringmaster with Ted DiBiase as his manager. It was only when WWE had him be the ultimate badass clashing with a corporate villain that he became a main eventer.
Vince McMahon represented injustice; Austin represented defiance and independence, as he played the fist-swinging, take-no-prisoners renegade that so many fans wished they could be.
Would Austin have been the marketable star, the ratings king that he was had he been in a feud with the pig-farming Godwinns? Would "Stone Cold" have stomped his way into the Hall of Fame had his biggest angle been an amorous relationship with a senior citizen that resulted in the birth of a hand?
This is partly where WWE stumbled with Bryan. His feud with Triple H and Randy Orton too often resulted in him being thrashed and not often of him doing the thrashing. Punk was bettered by defeating Cena and outsmarting McMahon, while Austin was made to look like a destructive force as he tore through McMahon's goons.
Bryan's story was that of failure, of being told he wasn't good enough and not getting a true shot to prove his doubters wrong.
Trophy on the Wall
A star is so often created by having him devour another star.
Austin toppled the owner of the company, Punk defeated WWE's most famous face, Goldberg defeated an icon. Ric Flair said it best, "To be the man, you have to beat the man."
When WWE wanted a new main event star after Hogan's lengthy run at the top, Hogan himself became the launching pad. In 1987, Ultimate Warrior went on a tear, defeating the company's bottom-feeders.
In the process of climbing up the WWE ladder, he won the Intercontinental Championship in just 27 seconds, pinned Andre the Giant and was the sole survivor of his elimination bout at the 1988 Survivor Series.
All of this led to a showdown at WrestleMania VI against Hogan. Being pitted against a man as famous and successful as Hogan was enough to give someone a rub, but to beat him at WWE's premier event with no cheating, no interference and no controversy gave Ultimate Warrior a significant and special addition to his resume.
It was the equivalent of beating Mike Tyson during his prime, acquiring the crown by way of toppling the king.
Edge completed his journey from tag team partner to main eventer in similar fashion.
The fact that it was Cena whom he cashed in his Money in the Bank contract on in 2006 made the moment bigger and elevated Edge's star power. There wasn't a bigger kill at the time in WWE than Cena.
Despite the fact that WWE officials decide how these battles turn out, the sight of a top star being dethroned bolsters the audience's perception of the one doing the dethroning. Chris Jericho benefited in the same way from beating The Rock and Austin on the same night.
Ryback earned a push, but it didn't come with a prize at the end.
He lost to Punk and Cena both. His trophy case remained empty.
This is what WWE must avoid as it looks to push its next main event star, whether it is Damien Sandow, Cody Rhodes, Roman Reigns or Big E Langston. Give each man the time to move up the WWE totem pole, give him a compelling story and allow him to take down a prominent alpha male.
His chances are then better to be more Austin than Bryan, more Goldberg than Ryback.
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