The word "destiny" is something we've heard WWE World Heavyweight champion Alberto Del Rio say ever since the videos promoting his WWE debut started airing in 2010. Once he made his mark on the main roster, he was a heel character who bragged about his big houses, his extravagant cars and how much better he was than the average person.
When he talked about his destiny we assumed that meant winning championships as the aristocrat he was portraying. While he accomplished a lot in 2011 by winning the Royal Rumble, a Money in the Bank briefcase and two WWE Championship reigns, I didn't believe that he had fulfilled his destiny.
After losing the WWE Championship to CM Punk at Survivor Series 2011, Del Rio spent much of 2012 at a level below the very top guys, but above the talent we like to label as the midcard. He had credibility as a former WWE champion whom the fans booed based on his actions.
His main feud in 2012 was with Sheamus and it wasn't that great. I don't blame the performers necessarily. Both guys are very good. It's just that the feud lasted three months, Sheamus won every time and I don't think the fans bought into the idea of Del Rio winning the World title during their feud despite many attempts to stack the deck against Sheamus. If the fans don't believe in somebody, whether it's a face or heel, then it's time to try something different.
A New Role
Toward the end of 2012, Del Rio changed. It was a sudden turn that happened at the TLC pay-per-view when he saved his ring announcer (and best friend) Ricardo Rodriguez after Ricardo saved the Spanish announce team from the "dreaded" 3MB group. Just like that, Del Rio became a good guy by participating in a tag match later in the show. As long as you forget that silly Christmas Eve edition of Raw where Del Rio "ran over" Santa Claus with his car, he's been a good guy ever since.
When Del Rio changed his behavior, the immediate question became: Was it the right move? I thought it was for two reasons.
1. My immediate thought was that it may take some time, but in the long run he'll be successful because he's a guy that comes from a wrestling family that has helped to shape him as a performer. In other words, he knows what he's doing. As fans we need to realize these guys have reached the level they're at because of how awesome they are.
2. The other reason simply was because his heel act had gone as far as it could go and I wanted to see something new from him. Losing to Sheamus at three consecutive pay-per-views wasn't a good thing for him. Instead of staying in the same role as a guy that fans don't believe in, it would benefit him to change things.
He needed something to elevate him a little bit more to reach that next level of stardom.
The Breakthrough Moment
Fast forward to the January 11th edition of SmackDown as Alberto Del Rio challenged Big Show for the World Heavyweight title in Miami. I loved that Last Man Standing match. As I'm sure you know, Del Rio won the match to become the World Heavyweight champion. Both guys performed exceptionally and they gave us one of the best matches in the history of SmackDown.
Del Rio has the kind of heart you want in a babyface. He took everything Big Show had, he outsmarted him (getting to his feet outside the ring to break a count) and he found a creative way to beat him by turning the announce table onto the giant. If you listen to the crowd reaction to the match, you can tell it was heavily invested in the outcome. It was a party when Del Rio was in the ring. Everybody who was at that show has a memory he can keep forever.
Big Show was terrific in the World title match as well. The audience knows how dominant he's been as the champion, so when Del Rio beat him, it meant something. That's why you have to portray characters as strong as Big Show was. He beat a tough challenger in Sheamus multiple times. He also had a series of short matches on television to portray the idea that he's going to be a difficult man to beat. When he got beat by Del Rio, that added to the celebration that took place that night.
The fans were excited, Rodriguez was as happy as I've ever seen him and Del Rio did a wonderful job of showing how excited he was to be in that moment in the city of Miami. It was genuine.
His Character Has Credibility
When I watch Del Rio in the ring I notice he's one of the best performers in WWE in terms of doing everything right. There are few holes in his game, if you want to call it that. His timing in the ring is perfect, his ability to make his opponents look good is among the best and the moves in offensive repertoire have a lot of credibility. His Cross Armbreaker finisher is something the audience reacts to favorably. I absolutely love his running enziguri kick to the head of an opponent that's propped up in the corner. He throws the best German suplex of anybody in the company right now. There's more to his in-ring work than just his signature moves, though. It's the psychology, the timing and the ability to captivate the audience that causes people to pay to watch him wrestle.
What impresses me about Del Rio is that when he's in the ring, it always seems like he's in the right place at the right time. His understanding of the business has been ingrained in him since he was a child. You can teach a lot of things to a lot of people, but some guys have that innate ability to just know things others don't. The best way I can say it is some guys just look the part and he's one of those guys.
I think this year will be big in terms of where Del Rio's standing relative to WWE history. If you look at some of the best wrestlers in the history of the business, they all had great runs as heroes and as villains as well. The truly elite in the business like The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock, Bret Hart, Chris Jericho, CM Punk and guys of that caliber have had success in both roles.
I'm not saying Del Rio is at that all-time great level yet. However, the opportunity is now there for him to prove just how good he can be. He has all the tools to get there.
The other aspect of the Del Rio character that I love is the involvement of his personal ring announcer (and best friend) Ricardo Rodriguez. He does such a good job of making Del Rio feel like a big deal with the way he introduces him before his matches. When Del Rio was a villain, fans hated Rodriguez, but now in this new role he comes across as one of the most likable guys on the show because of how happy he is for his friend. It also helps that Rodriguez is an accomplished wrestler that has some of the best facial expressions in the business.
The Best Is Yet To Come
I fully expect Del Rio to defeat Big Show on Sunday to retain his World title at the Royal Rumble. Where does he go from there? I'm not sure exactly, but I'm excited about possible feuds with rising stars like Dolph Ziggler, Antonio Cesaro, Damien Sandow, Cody Rhodes and many others. All of them will benefit from working with a guy like Del Rio because he's a ring general that has seen it all.
I think WWE is smart to market Del Rio as a "star for the Latino market." It's not shy about saying that, is it? Nor should it be.
For as much as I have enjoyed watching Rey Mysterio, he's in his late 30s with a number of serious knee injuries in his career and he's been regular on wrestling shows for over 15 years. Trust me when I tell you he was my favorite guy to watch in WCW when the cruiserweights were the highlight of Nitro on a regular basis. I'm not saying Mysterio is done. He's not. All I mean is that Del Rio has a lot of momentum in this new role and it's wise of WWE to capitalize on that.
A big part of the wrestling business is moving on and thinking about the future. A company like WWE has to find that next guy (or group of guys) it can build around. It's important to put them in positions to succeed and to trust them to make others better. Del Rio may be billed as somebody to cater to the Latino market, but he's also somebody that will be a star for any true wrestling fan because of how good he is.
I think 2013 will be a very big year for Del Rio, who turns 36 in May. For a lot of wrestlers, the mid 30s are the prime of their career because sometimes that's how long it takes to really figure out how to reach the top of the ladder. Four months ago I wasn't sure what his future was. Now it's clear. The way the crowd has already shown its support for him and rallied behind him has been a lot of fun to watch. I enjoyed the title win in Miami as well as the fiesta from SmackDown in San Antonio a week later.
I'm excited about the Royal Rumble match and then seeing who his next rival will be. While I don't expect Del Rio get to that level where The Rock or John Cena are (few reach that point), he'll get close to that and he'll be a valuable performer for WWE in the years to come.
I think Alberto Del Rio is poised to have the best year of his career as a hero the fans can look up to.
After all, that's his destiny.
John Canton is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can read more of his work at his website TJRWrestling.com along with his talented staff of writers. He also writes at LayfieldReport.com. You can follow John on Twitter @johnreport, too.