How does it really happen?
We are a few days away from the Royal Rumble, and as always we are speculating as to who could and who should win. And with that comes the topic of elevation; that is, the idea that the Rumble could/should be used to elevate someone new to the main event level, despite the fact that it has never been used for that purpose. You want to guess a Rumble winner look to past winners, people who have main evented recently or are being presented as if they will be soon. Expanding your field beyond that is asking for disappointment, but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing it. A while back I wrote about how fans unwillingness to accept certain roles for certain people has made things a lot harder for everyone (check that out here), and a part of that is the idea that people in the midcard or lower can raise their station with by winning a big match like the Rumble or by beating someone who’s already on top.
While it’s pretty common to see the topic of elevating people up the card, it always begs the question of just who does the elevating? Is it just done by the booker? Is it up to one trying to move up? Do the people already at the top have a role? You can be put in a match with one of the top people, they can give a bunch of offense, maybe even do the job for you, and it still not matter. In 2018 Roman Reigns did a clean job to Bobby Lashley at Extreme Rules and it didn’t help him one bit. The next year Buddy Murphy got a clean win over Daniel Bryan a week after taking Reigns to the limit, and a year a half later he’s still a guy who does well in the ring but no one cares about beyond hardcore workrate marks. And that’s after working alongside Seth Rollins for much of 2020. Looking good against or even beating the top people just doesn’t do what you think it does in the grand scheme of things.
On the flip side Bryan got wiped out in 18 seconds by Sheamus at WrestleMania 28 and it didn’t stop him; in fact he didn’t win so much as one singles match on a pay per view between that loss and his victory over John Cena at SummerSlam 2013. Stone Cold Steve Austin did a series of pay per view jobs during his ascension in 1997. The Rock didn’t have a win over anyone who was a big deal at the time before his first title win; in less than six months he went from tapping out to Ken Shamrock to WWF Champion. Cena’s rise towards winning his first major title at WrestleMania 20 was peppered with losses to various top level people for two years. Just getting wins over top people isn’t enough. If you can’t get people invested in your character and see you as a main eventer then just getting wins over top people won’t do it. And that is a conundrum, because in this era a lot of hardcore fans see wins over top people and championships as rewards and not parts of your career story, while seeing losses as burials and messages that the boss doesn’t love you. I’m not saying big wins over top people don’t matter; they absolutely do and the booker can crap the bed if they miss the boat when it’s time for one. But those wins are the cart and not the horse. The horse is getting to that level in the first place. Nine times out of ten getting to that level brings the big wins, not the other way around.
Think I’m wrong? Answer me this. Who was Hogan’s biggest win over before he won the WWF Title? Who did he beat that made people see him in the light that would spawn Hulkamania? If that’s too far back for you (the answer is nobody) then what about Austin? The Rock? The Undertaker? HHH? John Cena? Roman Reigns? Bret Hart? Shawn Michaels? Randy Savage? Daniel Bryan? Who was the person any of them beat that convinced everyone that they could be a World Champion, before they won the title? What big name person did Ric Flair beat before he won the NWA World Title the first time? What convinces the audience is not beating a top person, it’s a combination of the character and how they perform along the way, a way is usually littered with defeats , even during the final climb. If that can be derailed with one loss then there wasn’t much there to start with. AJ Styles ate a WrestleMania loss to Chris Jericho then back to back pay per view losses to Roman Reigns; two months afterwards he was beating John Cena at Summerslam then winning the WWE World title at Backlash. Three straight losses did not derail him because he showed how good he was. He didn’t need a charity win over Reigns to become worthy of beating Cena.
The word you’re looking for is……
Opportunity. If there’s someone you’re hoping moves up the ladder then what you want them to get are opportunities. Opportunities to work with the top people, be they current champions/main eventers or people with that kind of legacy (think Rey Mysterio, Jr or Randy Orton, and now Styles) and perform like a star. But remember that they’re not just performing for you and your circle of twitter friends who nitpick everything to death and believe that personal career journeys and movesets matter more than anything else. They’re performing for people who don’t have twitter accounts and judge things entirely differently from you, people who don’t care how many years people worked on the indies and don’t dig up old matches of theirs in different companies or whatever. They may like people you think don’t are very good, and may not be sold on some that you think should in a big spot right now. And they’re not going to be swayed simply by a win over a top person on the roster; they may shrug or even be perplexed as to why that person you think deserves it beat one of the top guys or gals. Can a top star help them? Yeah but that’s not enough.
In that opportunity the onus is still on them to win people over, and if they’ve got ‘it’ then they can do that even in defeat. My cover photo, from the first ever Clash of the Champions, was just that. Sting was a holdover from Jim Crockett’s purchase of the UWF in 1987; he was promising but most of us did not expect him to be a big threat for a while. Then out of the blue (for us) he got thrust into challenging Ric Flair for the title, culminating in this match where he got his first real showcase on national TV. Sting did not win this match or any other one he had against Flair that year, and yet he came out this a big star.
So what happened? Ric sold like crazy for him, but that’s what Ric did for everyone. This also wasn’t the first time Ric had a great title match on TV that went to a draw (he had one a year earlier with Barry Windham). Sting even admits now that Ric basically led him through all the spots in the match because he was still green. But Sting brought fire and energy, had personality and had a look that other guys who’d been in that spot did not have. So he was able to turn that opportunity into a great career as a main eventer in ways that Windham and say, Brad Armstrong could not. Sting himself was the difference, not the match or even Ric Flair. There was nothing there that a charity win would have made any better. Considering that he is still on TV now and can still move merchandise at 61 years old, I think it’s safe to say that he may have had just a little more to do with it himself than a charity win in 1988 would have.
Is charity win a bit harsh? I don’t think so. Top guys/gals don’t regularly lose to people not on their level, and definitely not straight up. What Daniel Bryan has been doing on Smackdown should not be assumed to be the norm, and needs to be looked at in the context of a man who is closer to the end than the beginning or even the middle of his career. You would not expect Roman to do that kind of thing now because that’s not his role and it’s not his responsibility. Drew McIntyre shouldn’t lose clean to Ricochet because Ricochet sure could use a big win right now. It would feel good in the moment for some of you guys but then they still have to figure out how to get the people that don’t see him as world championship material because of his size or how he talks, to see him that way. And there are more people like that than you think.
No, being in the ring with a top guy/gal and not getting squashed is about the extent of what you can expect someone on a lower level to be given. Beyond that it’s up to them to convey something to the audience at large that says they themselves are a main eventer. Sting did that, so did Cena and many others. And sometimes if they know you got it from day one you don’t have to wait for an opportunity, you get it out of the gate. Like Mr. Reigns and his two Shield compatriots. They showed they were a big deal before they so much as got one win over anyone. Hell they spent more of their first three months doing run ins and beatdowns than actual matches.
And what made the difference? Did that many people really give a damn (or even know for that matter) that Seth Rollins was a former ROH World Champion as Tyler Black, or that Dean Ambrose as Jon Moxley was a big death match guy on the indies? Unless you followed them in those companies the answer is no. Reigns who spent zero days on the indies gave off big star energy from day one, and his partners had to level up in real time in a way that most indie guys just cannot, otherwise they would have dumped in six months. They got the opportunity but they made it what it became, and in turn got to run through everyone without ever needing a charity win to show they were deserving of it.
If you want an example from another world, let’s look at the Avengers. Who got to kill Thanos? Was it Ant-Man, or Rocket or Groot? No, it was Iron Man, who had been a focal point and main character over a decade and 20 plus movies. If it wasn’t him it would have been Thor or Captain America. They spent ten years telling us they were the most important characters and they weren’t gonna break from that so that Paul Rudd could be rewarded for years of being a good actor playing a side character. Did some other people get licks in? Yes, but they ultimately got slapped by the big boss down by hook or by crook before the man they told us was number one beat him.
In closing let me reiterate what I’ve said said before (most recently here). You don’t get a big spot because you jumped through certain hoops, you get one because the booker thinks putting you in one will make them more money. And no, it’s not a fair process. But if and when an opportunity comes, your personal backstory or the number of moves you can do or even beating the person you’re in there with aren’t enough to win people over. You have to do it, you have to make people see a main eventer when they look at you not just somebody who is technically proficient or has a sympathetic real life story. Getting a charity win does not do that, and hoping that it will is a fools errand. All you can hope for as a fan is that your favorites get opportunities, and that they’re able to use those opportunities to reach that level. Period, end of story.