In 2012, it was CM Punk who went from one of the WWE’s top babyfaces to its unquestioned No. 1 heel.
In 2013, it just might be Ryback who surprisingly follows in his footsteps.
According to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (via WrestlingInc.com), there is talk within the WWE that Ryback could be headed for a heel turn and a possible post-WrestleMania feud with John Cena.
It seems as if the story behind Ryback’s possible heel turn would be a simple one: Frustration. Over the last several months, he has lost big match after match, so it would at least make some sense if the mounting losses resulted in him becoming a villain.
Then again, there are many who question whether or not Ryback can be a successful heel, and rightfully so.
The three biggest heel turns that took place in 2012 involved Daniel Bryan, Big Show and Punk, and all three superstars used those turns to ignite great heel runs, two of which are still going on today. The common link between Show, Punk and Bryan was that they all proved to be very good to great mic workers as villains.
You can’t say that about Ryback. Although he’s only had limited time on the microphone so far, he hasn’t proven to be an elite speaker like the guys mentioned above have.
Unfortunately for Ryback, that’s almost become a requirement of the WWE’s best heels these days. Punk, Show, Dolph Ziggler, Wade Barrett, Antonio Cesaro, Damien Sandow, Cody Rhodes and others all thrive in large part because of their abilities as talkers. Even Mark Henry is a guy who lets his intimidating presence do most of his talking, but can cut a good promo when he has to.
Can Ryback truly become a well-rounded heel like so many of the WWE’s other villains? I’m not sure.
As we all know, some turns work and some don’t. Just over the last few months, we’ve seen Alberto Del Rio’s face turn work damn near perfectly while The Miz is still struggling mightily to truly get over as a good guy.
There’s really no telling which way Ryback’s heel turn would go because whether it succeeds or fails depends largely upon how the creative team books him. Of course, it also depends on how he performs.
Ryback has done well for himself as a babyface so far. He’s obviously gotten over, he’s done a solid job in the big matches he’s been in, and he’s remained popular despite some very questionable booking on the part of the creative team.
The problem is that most of Ryback’s appeal will be killed if and when he does turn heel.
Right now, he’s one of the WWE’s top stars because he (for the most part) destroys his heel opponents and has a catchphrase that’s become one of the most popular in the entire WWE. A heel turn takes that all away.
While it’s easy for the fans to get behind Ryback as a babyface, it’s going to prove to be much more difficult for him to get over as a villain. With most of Ryback’s appeal gone and his limited speaking abilities, he is likely going to evolve into a “monster heel” who simply destroys his opponents without saying a whole lot.
Here’s the thing, though: We’ve already got two “monster heels” in Big Show and Henry, and at this stage in their careers, they are probably still better overall performers than Ryback is.
Ryback may be more athletic and agile than either Henry or Show, but both of those guys have a ton of experience working as a heel and doing so at the top of the card. Say what you want about either guy, but they both know how to work a major match as a heel and do so successfully.
That’s not the case with Ryback. He could develop into a great heel one day, but at this point, he’d be a bit of a wild card in that role.
After all, just look at most of the major matches he’s had. It’s not a coincidence that he has been in WWE Championship matches with guys like Cena and Punk or that he’s faced the likes of Ziggler and Cesaro in many of his TV matches.
Those guys have a ton of experience and have proven capable of working with a wide variety of opponents, especially superstars who may not be able to put on a good match with just anyone. That’s why they’ve been the ones who have worked with Ryback in the limited number of singles matches he's had.
What should the WWE do with Ryback?
Simply put, Ryback isn’t ready to get in the ring with just anybody at this point, and that’d be even truer if he were a heel. Generally speaking, the heels are the ones who control the match, and there’s certainly no guarantee that Ryback would be able to do that just yet.
He’s delivered some pretty solid performances as a singles star so far, but keep in mind that his quality singles matches have come against Punk, Cesaro and Ziggler, who are widely considered to be among the best in-ring performers in the business.
Should Ryback turn heel, things are going to be much different for him. He isn’t going to be able to stay over because of a catchphrase or the “it factor” that he undoubtedly has—he’s going to have to evolve into a well-rounded performer who can work the mic and put on a good match with anyone.
Ryback is still young enough to get there one day, but right now, there’s no real reason to risk turning him heel and having the fans crap all over it.
If Ryback were stale and had been stuck in his babyface role for far too long (a la Cena or Orton) then it might be worth trying to change things up. However, he hasn’t even been on the main roster for a year, and turning him heel would take away most of the things that made him rise to the top of the WWE in the first place.
Although Ryback may have a future as a heel, that shouldn’t happen until way down the road.
He’s simply not ready to be a villain. Not yet.
Drake Oz is a WWE Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.