Since the early 80's, when the World Wrestling Federation first began its aggressive expansion away from territorial wrestling promotions, the WWE has employed hundreds of men and women. Since then, fans have been treated to numerous gimmicks, some bizarre, some entertaining, and thousands of storylines, some compelling, others nonsensical. Wrestlers came and went, some barely making a splash, others settling for average. Then there were the select few who achieved super stardom and etched their name into the WWE's history books, ensuring their legacy will never be forgotten. What was it that separated these superstars from the pack? It could be argued that a popular wrestler is the result of savvy booking and the support of the powers that be. While this approach is fairly accurate, it is not foolproof. It isn't a promise of enduring popularity. The wrestler himself has to possess certain attributes that will guarantee that he is a cornerstone in the company for the majority of his career.
Wrestling skills, of course, are a necessity. Anyone can name drop superstars of the past thirty years who still whip the crowd into a frenzy with just the opening notes of their theme music: Flair, Piper, Snuka, Steamboat. Though each of them boasted a different wrestling style and gimmick, every last one of them knew their craft and used it well. Their matches are still being used as film examples by wrestling hopefuls, independent performers, and probably more men on the current WWE roster than many fans would assume. Knowledge of how to properly work a microphone and deliver a thunderous promo is a skill that is often overlooked, particularly by the younger or more casual fan, but one that is indispensable and highly appreciated by longtime fans. A wrestler's physique, work ethic, and charisma are the three remaining primary characteristics that help determine whether someone's career will be a record-breaking, longterm success, or peak at the outset and then fizzle into mediocrity. Men like Triple H, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho and CM Punk are prime examples of wrestlers in the modern era who are wildly successful and memorable, and who possess those five main assets in droves. Particularly for Triple H and Undertaker, who are both in the twilight of their storied careers, simply mentioning their names is enough. They have reached a level of respect in wrestling where their achievements are recognized by young and old alike. In certain cases, such as with John Cena, his physique and charisma outweigh his wrestling skills, and his success has been driven by his indomitable, undeniably strong work ethic. Jeff Hardy is another exception. Unlike Cena, he is not known for his work ethic or his mic skills, but Hardy's charisma and ability to connect with fans is off the charts. His daredevil, breathtaking wrestling style has earned him world championships in both televised promotions he's been employed by. His career has spanned over a decade, during which he has destroyed his body to make up for his shortcomings elsewhere. Jeff Hardy will go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, high flyer of all time.
In the past few months, we have seen the premature emergence of Ryback as a main eventer. The former Skip Sheffield returned from injury with a vengeance, shedding all former allegiances in the process. Indeed, upon his return, it was nearly impossible to recognize him as the cowboy hat wearing Sheffield from the Nexus. His physique now resembling a living, breathing action figure, fans saw Ryback decimate local talent, sometimes two at a time, week after week. After a couple of months, however, the destruction of smaller, inexperienced wrestlers was starting to become stale. Fans greeted Ryback each week with chants of "Goldberg." Though he had coined a catchphrase which ended up catching on like wildfire, he had yet to cut a promo. The WWE seemed content to let Ryback stew in his terminator gimmick for awhile, until an unexpected injury to John Cena suddenly left CM Punk without an opponent at Hell in a Cell. Due to Ryback's speedy surge in popularity, he was thrust into the pay-per-view's main event over the heads of many other wrestlers who were more talented and deserving. Many fans rightly felt that it was too soon. Certainly Punk needed an opponent, but there were other options.
After his abrupt push into main event status, Ryback's popularity has skyrocketed. He already has his own T-shirt; Antonio Cesaro, the U.S. Champion, does not. Fans chant his catchphrase in matches he's not even featured in. Ryback's current popularity is due to the savvy booking and support mentioned earlier, as well as his incredible physique. But is this enough to maintain his career?
Ryback's work ethic has yet to be proven. Though he did return from a devastating ankle injury that required three surgeries to repair, which in itself is a commendable feat, his motivation and desire will only be revealed with time. While his wrestling style mostly consists of powerful strikes and displays of strength, he doesn't seem to have improved on his technique since he first appeared on television last spring. His offense consists of the same three to four moves. As of this writing, Ryback has only cut two promos and appeared in a handful of backstage segments where the only words he spoke were "feed me more" or "feed me Punk." While the silent destroyer gimmick is interesting to a point, in order for Ryback's career to be more than a flash in the pan, he needs to connect with the fans on a level above his catchphrases. Unfortunately, Ryback does not have someone to speak for him as Brock Lesnar does. However, Ryback shows much more speaking potential in his two promos than Lesnar ever did, and this is something that he needs to continue to improve upon in 2013. So many times in the past, fans have seen absolute behemoths, intimidating physical specimens, open their mouths and lose all of their mystique due to their inability to work a microphone. Matt Morgan. Bobby Lashley. Nathan Jones. Ezekiel Jackson. Each of them with all the physical potential in the world; each of them inscribing a mediocre WWE career at best. If Ryback is to pull away from the pack and avoid being labeled as yet another big man who can't talk, he needs to push to be given time to speak and practice. Backstage segments, houseshows, post-match interviews, any opportunity.
Though he rarely speaks, Ryback is not entirely lacking in charisma, though this mostly stems from his physical appearance and months of destroying local talent. He doesn't have the "it" factor of a Dean Ambrose, which oozes out of his pores every time the camera lays lens on him. The fact that Ryback is now embroiled in a very violent rivalry with The Shield - who have yet to reveal why they are attacking him - is a positive. It is keeping him relevant to fans now that his time for squash matches is over. After all, squash matches should only be used as introductions, and not as a basis to build careers. The Shield's attacks on Ryback helped peel away some of Ryback's terminator persona, making him look beatable, and, in the minds of some fans, more likable, relatable.
2013 will be a very revealing year for Ryback and his career. Will he choose to improve his in-ring and microphone skills, or will he be content with his current status? Will he exhibit responsible decision-making, or will he make a costly error in judgment and serve his first suspension for disobeying the Wellness Program? Obviously, he will not achieve long-lasting success in just twelve months, but he can begin to lay the foundation for a lengthy WWE tenure. It will be interesting to see which path Ryback chooses to travel. Does he have the potential to be a superstar? Does he want to have a long, decorated career, does he WANT to be a superstar? Perhaps he will win championships, or the Money in the Bank contract at WrestleMania. Perhaps he will be pitted against someone who is his physical equal, like Brock Lesnar. Whatever 2013 may bring, Ryback's goals should be to continue to improve so that he may enjoy a storied career for years to come.