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Where’s Ryback?

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Following the Payback pay-per-view, Ryback, who lost for the second consecutive month on the kickoff show of an event to Kalisto, is reportedly off WWE programming due to a contract dispute. According to a message he posted on Tumblr, there’s money and booking differences, which might lead to him deciding not to renew his deal when his contract expires in a few months. It’s not exactly surprising, considering that during the overseas tour after Wrestlemania, Ryback commented in an interview that he was frustrated with his spot on the card at the biggest event of the year.

Not many might realize this, but Ryback has been a part of the company for 12 years, originally known as Ryan Reeves during the tough enough competition in 2004. On the surface, the powerful grappler looks like the prototypical WWE recruit, which is probably why he remained under contract in some form or fashion for several years. After being eliminated from Tough Enough, Reeves was signed to a deal and over the next six years, he bounced around every developmental territory in existence at the time. He spent time training in Deep South, Ohio Valley Wrestling, and Florida Championship Wrestling. At one point in FCW, he was known as Skip Sheffield and had a cowboy gimmick before he eventually made his television debut in 2010.

Early that year, still under the Sheffield name, Reeves appeared as one of the rookies on the initial season of NXT, which replaced the ECW time slot on Sci-Fi after the project flopped. As history showed, the NXT invasion angle that started off with a major buzz when they stormed the ring just created opponents to feed to John Cena and it fizzled out by Summer Slam. Shortly after that, Reeves suffered an ankle injury and spent an extended amount of time on the sidelines.

In mid-2012, Ryback debuted with a new look and intense persona, and it seemed as though the WWE finally found a successful formula for him to become a star on WWE TV. Ryback smashed through jobbers with brutal and often dangerous offense. Sure, it borrowed some of the elements that made Goldberg work, but at the time, it was different enough for Reeves to make it his own. The booking was simple, the matches were kept relatively short, and camouflaged his weaknesses while the “feed me more” catch phrase allowed the crowd to rally behind him. After about six months on the roster, Ryback was one of the most over stars on WWE TV and was booked in a title match against CM Punk. Despite Punk being in the mist of a record-setting reign, if the WWE was going to give Ryback a title run, that would’ve been the time to do it. He was as over and he wasn’t going to get over any further so that appeared to be the peak of his WWE run. Reeves deserves credit for portraying the character in a way that connected with the crowd and doing extremely well with the role.

After his brief main event spot, things had been up and down for Ryback, as the WWE seemed to alternate between deciding to push him or use him to try to get others over. He had a short run alongside Paul Heyman, but in many ways, that was only an attempt to further the CM Punk/Heyman feud. There was also the Ryback and Curtis Axel duo that was a textbook example of the booking team making a pair of two random competitors that they didn’t have any angles for on the show. Ironically, during the time that Ryback started a bully character, he did well with it and could’ve been used as a more effective heel. Granted, he still had limitations in some of his ring work, but the persona had the potential to be used to give him a fresh run after his initial push fizzled out. After another injury, the Ryback/Axel team disbanded late in 2014.

Last year yielded mixed results for Ryback again when he was booked with his original baby face character and won the IC title, but had a staph infection that interrupted his run while he received medical treatment. After a few months as IC champion, he dropped the belt and hasn’t done much other than working the mid card. In 2016, the flip-flop booking of Ryback continued as he turned heel again, but has really only been used to help get Kalisto over as a credible US champion. That being said, it makes sense to try to establish Kalisto since he has the skills to take the role of the “Mysterio spot” in the WWE. Granted, there’s only one Rey, but the point being, there are similarities and the company is always looking for the next major Latino star to target the Hispanic audience. While someone the statue of Ryback doing the job to a cruiser weight doesn’t exactly add credibility to his “Big Guy” persona, it’s more of a matter of potential in the future than anything. Basically, there’s more of an upside to establishing Kalisto as a possible main star in the future than trying to reset Ryback after his relatively short time frame of success. As mentioned, Ryback peaked in terms of being over with the audience in 2012 and considering his limited style, is the investment of more TV time going to draw more money?

Speaking of Reeves’ limited style, he was the subject of much controversy during the past few years with some calming that he was dangerous in the ring. PWinsider reported that he was responsible for one of Dolph Ziggler’s concussions a few years ago. There was also the infamous CM Punk interview on the Art of Wrestling podcast where he claimed that Ryback injured him several times during their series of matches. However, there are others, including Chris Jericho, that have defended Ryback and said working with him was fine. Obviously, pro wrestling is a risky genre and if Ryback is actually dangerous or not is probably just a matter of perspective, but it’s doubtful any incidents were intentional neglect.

The resolution to the Ryback-WWE rift remains to be seen, but both sides of the argument appear to have validity. For Reeves, he’s done more with his character and career than most thought possible. The grueling WWE schedule can be tough with the extensive traveling, which could be one of the reasons that he’s attempting to get more money on his next contract. At the same time, Reeves has been in the WWE system for 12 years and with his style, how much further is he really going to progress as a performer? Again, would investing more TV time be worth it? Keep in mind, Ryback was over with the audience when his push was a priority and he was booked very carefully to hide some of his weaknesses. Depending on how he’s booked, Ryback can get a crowd reaction, but the argument could be made that he was successful because the WWE protected how he was presented. As said previously, Ryback is the prototypical WWE draft pick, and there’s an entire performance center with younger stars of similar statue so it would be relatively easy to book a replacement. Don’t get me wrong, Reeves deserves a lot of credit for the progress he made, especially considering there’s a laundry list of wrestlers that got his type of push and flopped, but what options are there? If he wants more money, he’s not going to sign a TNA deal and he doesn’t seem technical enough to work full-time in Japan. A departure from the WWE could be an exit from the wrestling business for Reeves. All that being said, Ryback has probably progressed as far as he’s going to go and seems to have plateaued in his career so even if it leads to an exit, the WWE made the right decision to establish other stars.

-Jim LaMotta

@jimlamotta

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