Previous Methods That Established WWE Superstars in the Audience's Mind
One common complaint emanating from the WWE Universe is the overwhelming feeling that some new or returning wrestlers are forced upon the audience as a "top guy" even if the majority of fans have very little interest in their character or wrestling style.
For more proof of this, look no further than Alberto Del Rio, who possesses a Hall of Fame résumé—two-time WWE champion, Royal Rumble winner 2011 and Money in the Bank winner 2011—but who has failed to become the dominant figure in the company.
Looking back through the history of the most popular superstars of the past 20 years, three notable sources of advancement can be highlighted.
This article examines whether these previously used methods could be more successful in introducing and establishing wrestlers now, and looks for possible reasons why these plans have been discarded.
Moving Between Organizations
One option that was extraordinarily successful in the 1990s was switching between the two major companies. Often, a wrestler would work hard in one company and make themselves, only to be stopped from progressing to a championship spot by a senior wrestler who did not want to relinquish their spot.
Swapping to the other company often saw the wrestler’s stock rise and they were given both a better place on the card and more opportunities to rise up the ranks.
Stone Cold Steve Austin famously moved to the WWE after a long run with WCW and a short stop off with ECW. Austin, along with tag-partner Brian Pillman, were two of the must-watch competitors on WCW’s show, yet they were eventually lost in the shuffle and Austin was released.
His rise to become "The Rattlesnake" was not smooth, but it was the name he made for himself and the potential that he showed in the other company that left Vince open to Austin having a second shot at success after the failure of the Ringmaster gimmick. The rest, as they say, is history.
More immediate success via the switching of brands could be seen in the later 90s, where the likes of Chris Jericho and The Radicalz were thrust straight into the spotlight. Such a rise would cause dismay if the worker was unknown, but the reputation built elsewhere allowed these superstars to be accepted.
The problem now is the lack of competition for WWE.
TNA are working hard as the second company, but their stars do not have the crossover potential that the WCW ones did. Christian has seen World Heavyweight gold since returning from TNA, but this was a unique situation due to Edge’s sudden retirement and the two men’s previous relationship, which is not likely to be repeated. So a TNA star's appearance on Raw would not have the shock factor required to become an immediate star.
The one possibility could be an MMA fighter such as Chael Sonnen making an appearance on the show, as their ratings could be considered high enough for this to be a coup. The chances of that being successful more than a couple times is unlikely, so the onus must be on other options.
Learning as Part of a Faction
This second possibility is allowing young or unknown talent to work at the top level under the guise of a lackey or secondary figure in a faction. In fact, four of the most successful superstars from the past 20 years started out in this position.
The Rock may be best known for his time as the figurehead of The Corporation, but he made his initial splash as the understudy to Ron Simmons in the Nation of Domination. Triple H was second in command to Shawn Michaels when DX originally formed, and the development of Randy Orton and Dave Batista into stars was the whole point of the faction known as Evolution.
As hinted at by the number of stars utilizing this method, being introduced to the WWE Universe in this manner appears to have many advantages.
One of the main benefits appears to be the chance to learn on the main show. The slow exposure to the WWE fanbase allows the wrestler to be accepted into the fold, while mistakes in the limelight are not so important as an experienced partner can step in if problems occur.
Spending time with more experienced stars who are already comfortable with their very public image also seems to help. Perhaps these less experienced wrestlers learn to display themselves as champions, or simply the connection to a great name in the business increases their worth.
The final conflict between the teacher and his pupil may also be a key element, as the young star is guaranteed at least one great feud against a top name to add to their résumé before striking out on their own.
All in all, it looks like using factions to build new names is a foolproof and proven plan in elevating young wrestlers to the top of the business.
Yet the last three major factions have all failed to create a star that has been elevated into WWE or World Heavyweight title contention. CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society rampaged across Smackdown, but neither Luke Gallows nor Serena are still with the company.
Most of the Nexus—and the New Nexus afterthought—are still with WWE, but few have made a major splash. Daniel Bryan has been the World Heavyweight champion, but he left Nexus after a single week while Wade Barrett was the leader of the group, so they cannot be considered wrestlers who were lifted by being secondary figures in the group.
Ryback was technically in Nexus, but a complete change of character rather dismisses any link between cause and effect, and the rest are jobbers bumbling around WWE’s tag team division.
Most surprising of all is the failure of Legacy to produce a star. Considering all the members were second- or third-generation talents, their failure to make the step into WWE or World Heavyweight title contention is a real blow. This group, more than any other, may be the reason for the WWE’s current reluctance to use factions as a source of promoting new talent in the company.
A counter-argument could be that two leaders of these factions—CM Punk and Wade Barrett—were not established enough names at the time to give the talent under them the rub they needed to become stars. Orton continually undermined his understudies during the run of Legacy, and he then came out on top in their encounter at WrestleMania, halting the momentum of Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase.
Whether factions can still be used to promote talent will only be discovered when that option is tried once again.
Being the Dominant Tag Team Partner
The final option is advancement via being the stronger partner of a well-known tag team. Shawn Michaels, Edge and even The Miz have all become prominent in that way, and the achievements of these men suggests that it could be the most successful way to make new champions.
These athletes have already shown themselves to be better than one other wrestler who was given an identical opportunity, so their confidence is sky high. Coincidentally, these are often the competitors who go on to make their names in gimmick matches, as they look to take something further than anyone else has in history.
Jeff Hardy took the idea of a gimmick-strewn championship run to the limits of acceptability, as more than 75 percent of his WWE title matches and opportunities were not traditional one-on-one matchups.
Another trend coming from stars who originated from tag-team competition is their size; notably, these men are often smaller than a typical WWE champion. This means their success is often blessed by the fans, as otherwise they would not have reached such a prominent position.
Such overt positivity starts to wain when consideration is given to the small number of tag teams that have emerged in recent years and the relatively high number of those that have disappeared without making an impression. This is partly the WWE’s fault for not giving tag-team action enough televised time, yet the truly great teams will find a way to make themselves indispensable to the company.
Probably the best example in recent years is Miz and John Morrison’s run as tag team champions. They were featured on almost every broadcast of Raw and Smackdown, despite the lack of competition.
In fact, most tag team champions over the past five years have been teams comprised of two former singles champions who haven’t been assigned a feud for some time and creative needed somewhere to put them until a fresh story for them comes along.
This really stifles the chance of anyone making their way to the top through being the better tag-team partner, as newly formed teams play second fiddle to those comprised of better-known individuals.
The one real advantage of the neglect of the WWE tag-team division is the few high-profile failures that have happened. Possibly the only really disappointing lost opportunity over the past few years was the excitement surrounding David Hart Smith—mainly because he is the son of the late "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith—but his lack of charisma ended any hope of that relatively quickly.
Until the tag-team division becomes part of the development system once again, few stars will emerge this way, either.
Sadly, it does appear that the older methods used to introduce and build a wrestler into a superstar have been lost, unless major changes happen within the WWE or to the industry as a whole.
TNA or another wrestling company would have to become far more prominent for the movement of talent to be enough to propel someone into the big time. The tag-team division would need to be released from the grip of mid-tier talent, and a faction is only likely to work when a big enough talent is made the leader.
Yet this does not solve the unsatisfactory way stars are being introduced at the moment (through a series of squash matches), nor the problems of connecting with stars who have had little introduction, so it would appear that something else needs to be implemented.
Which new methods are introduced to help the integration of new talent onto the main roster will be key to WWE’s future success.