A new tradition has sprung up on recent WWE shows. Two small, skinny local wrestlers come to the center of the ring, insult the crowd, behave obnoxiously, and then are shocked and shaken but the sudden onset of loud, metallic music. Out comes Ryback, a 6’3, 290 pound monster who looks like Brock Lesnar if Bill Goldberg’s face was pasted onto his body, he upped the “Cell-Tech” doses to 11, and brought all of the intensity, energy, and yelling of the Ultimate Warrior circa 1989. Within seconds of hitting the ring, Ryback proceeds to flat out destroy both men with a combination of clotheslines, power bombs, and, well, whatever it’s called when someone picks up one man and throws him ten feet into another man. The fans aren’t in love with the character or the tradition yet, but there’s something very traditionally WWE about it, and the level of applause seems to increase a little bit each week.
Meanwhile, in Florida Championship Wrestling – basically the WWE’s minor leagues – Dean Ambrose has broken out as one of the most popular performers in the tiny promotion’s short history. Ambrose is tall, but he looks more like a soccer player than someone ripped straight out of the protein-fueled dreams of Vince McMahon. What sets him apart, though, are his promos. With a righteous anger, creepiness, and intensity reminiscent of a cross between Heath Ledger’s Joker and a Rage Against the Machine Song, Ambrose has already become something of an icon among the more hardcore WWE fans, and has even had feuds with legends such as Mick Foley and William Regal. Ambrose hasn’t appeared on WWE television yet, but he’s rumored to be debuting soon, and he’s already being talked about as a potential star.
What’s the difference between these two performers? Obviously, one is about a hundred pounds heavier, so there’s that. But what might be even more important is the approach taken by the WWE as far as presenting the two wrestlers, and what it tells you about the disconnect between what the hardcore fans want, the casual fans want, and what the WWE’s relationship with both audiences.
Ryback isn’t a very skilled or even safe wrestler, but he’s huge and comes across as a star. The fans mockingly chant “GOLDBERG” at him, but he’s begun to get light applause, and to his credit, he seems to legitimately love wrestling and understand just what makes it fun to watch (an extremely underrated quality, as a shocking number of professional wrestlers are ex-football players, bodyguards, or models who had at most limited intereste in wrestling before signing their first contract). There are plenty of similar bodybuilders and football players who haven’t panned out, but the wrestlers who have made the WWE the most money – not only Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and Triple H, but also guys like Batista, Lesnar, Ultimate Warrior, and even Sheamus – have had cartoonish physiques, with their relative level of success usually coming down to their ability to cut good promos, work watchable matches, and successfully navigate the backstage politics that have always been a huge part of professional wrestling.
Oh, but what about less muscular guys, like Bret Hart? Shawn Michaels? CM Punk? Dean Ambrose is every bit the talker each was, at least at this point in his career. He’s not as athletic or good-looking as Hart, Michaels, or Punk, but he’s a technically sound wrestler who doesn’t look like a wimp, and should continue to improve his body as he gets older (at 26 and having spent a few years living in what was most-likely poverty while wrestling independently, Ambrose probably hasn’t reached his full potential as far as swoleness is concerned). Hardcore fans already love him, too, just like they love Hart, Michaels and Punk.
So which wrestler has the brighter future? The Ryback types tend to appeal to the casual fans and/or children, and that’s the audience that the WWE cares about the most, so the short-term money is on Ryback. The hardcore fans who are the natural audience for Ambrose are going to watch the shows regardless, so the WWE doesn’t need to cater to them - while Hart and Michaels are among the most popular stars of all time, they never quite drew money the way Hogan, Triple H, The Rock, etc. did. If the recent history of less flamboyantly muscular indie legends like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan tells us anything, it’s that Ambrose will initially be placed into mid-card feuds, lose quite a bit, and eventually become more prominently featured once the casual fans are more familiar with him, at which point his talent will either shine through and connect with the fans or else he’ll be misused a la Raven after he left ECW and languish in the mid-card, eventually leaving the WWE to go back to the indies or Japan. Ryback’s career path will probably be the same, but sped up and without many losses at first – he’ll likely win a minor title or two, the WWE will see if he clicks with fans, and then he’ll either wind up in the vicinity of the top of the card or else he’ll be out of a job faster than you can say “Mason Ryan.”
It will be interesting to see where Dean Ambrose and Ryback’s careers go. While Ambrose likely lacks the look to become the WWE’s next breakout star, he’s talented and the company is aware of it, so he’ll probably be all-right. Ryback? Flip a coin. Heads he spends 2015 as a World Heavyweight Champion, tails he spends it as a bouncer at a Tampa dive bar.