As the final matches are put in place for WrestleMania 29, it has finally been established that Ryback will be working a program with Mark Henry rather than The Shield. April 7 will mark the 366th day since Ryan Reeves first wrestled under the name "Ryback" on WWE television. That puts his WresteMania match against the World's Strongest Man right at the one-year mile marker.
In early January, B/R reader Chris Masters asked me what I thought it would take for Ryback to get over. Over two months later, as WrestleMania quickly approaches, I thought we'd take a look at Ryback's upcoming match with Mark Henry to help answer that question. Is this the sort of program Ryback needs to get over?
In today's professional wrestling world, you can't promote wrestlers the way you did in the Hogan era. In the early 90's, anyone pushed as a face was embraced by the vast majority of WWF fans; anyone pushed as a heel was jeered. The same guys that cheered for Hulk Hogan also cheered for the Dynamite Kid and also cheered for the Red Rooster.
The Attitude Era changed that by introducing us to the anti-hero and the "tweener." Steve Austin was being cheered for drinking on the job, flipping the bird and attacking his boss. Fans loved The Rock's trash-talking, whether he was attacking the heel Faarooq or the face Ken Shamrock.
Today, John Cena, the biggest cash-cow in the company, is hated by almost as many fans as those that love him. CM Punk, a full-fledged heel, is still beloved by many of the fans, despite recent programs against such major faces as Cena, The Rock and now The Undertaker.
You can no longer simply push someone as a heel or face. A specific demographic has to be in mind when you're trying to sell a new gimmick. Ryback was never meant for fans of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan or Dean Ambrose. He was meant for fans of guys like John Cena, Sheamus and Triple H.
The initial push was handled just right. Sure, the "smarks" who have been around the last ten years or so couldn't resist the "Goldberg" chants. But the fans who adhere to the mantra of "Hustle, Loyalty, Respect" bought into the undefeated streak. It didn't matter that most of his opponents were complete jobbers. He was built like a He-Man, his persona was high-octane and his offense was explosive.
The ideas behind the introduction of Ryback weren't especially innovative, but it was working.
Fools Rush In
After five months of squashing jobbers (and the occasional mid-carder), things were going just fine. The IWC still couldn't stand the guy, but "Feed Me More" was becoming one of the most popular chants at any live event.
Still undefeated as "Ryback," a non-title win over Intercontinental Champion The Miz confirmed that WWE was still high on Ryback. After another year or so of working programs around the mid-card titles, assuming his momentum continued, Ryback would be ready to start working the main event.
Then, WWE Creative felt trapped. With the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view approaching, and Cena due for surgery, they didn't have anyone to face CM Punk for the WWE Championship. Rather than trying to hash out a program with someone who had already been established as a bona fide headliner, they decided to move Ryback up to the top of the food chain.
And that is where Ryback's momentum would hit its first wall.
Ryback's undefeated streak ended at Hell in a Cell. Nevermind the fact that it took a low-blow from Punk and a fast count by referee Brad Maddox; the streak was over. Rather than an undefeated monster, Ryback was just one more monster among many others.
After two more unsuccessful attempts at taking Punk's title, the implied message was clear: Ryback was not unstoppable. He was still a beast, he was still intense, but it was clear now that he had a weakness.
His program with Punk lead him directly to a feud with The Shield. This would be the second major blow to Ryback's momentum.
Just as he failed to capture the WWE Championship three times, Ryback's attempts to defeat The Shield were thwarted thrice, with a different pair of superstars at his side each time. Not only had Ryback been unable to defeat the WWE Champion; he was unable to defeat a band of vigilante rookies.
Lost in the Mix
After two programs and six defeats, Ryback was clearly not the mega-star he had originally been billed to be. They wanted us to believe that he would be an unstoppable wrecking machine, like Brock Lesnar or Bill Goldberg. It looked like he may be the next superstar that would overcome insurmountable odds, much like Hogan or Austin or Cena.
It turns out he's just another juiced-up mound of muscles. Now that it is clear that he can be stopped, what makes him stand apart from any other superstar with impressive feats of strength?
Who should Ryback be facing at WrestleMania?
The Big Show is the "largest athlete in the world." Mark Henry is the "World's Strongest Man." Big E. Langston is said to hold all sorts of lifting records. Antonio Cesaro has uncanny strength for his size, often billed as "pound-for-pound" the strongest man in the company. And let's not forget guys like Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Sheamus and Triple H who all regularly pull off ridiculous displays of power.
In light of all those big names, what's left that makes Ryback any different than someone like Ezekiel Jackson or Mason Ryan?
Mark Henry at WrestleMania
WWE wanted something big out of Ryback, but due to some unfortunate situations the booking team found themselves in, his development didn't go quite as planned. He went from plowing through jobbers to working the main event, only to come up short in two different feuds.
Now, they're putting him in the ring with Mark Henry.
Had he been booked properly up to this point, a match with Mark Henry at WrestleMania would be exactly what he needed. After tearing through all of the jobbers and then through the mid-card, taking the U.S. or Intercontinental Championship along the way, he would finally be getting his chance to get in the ring with a main event competitor at the Showcase of the Immortals.
In that alternate reality, a win over Mark Henry as the undefeated Intercontinental Champion would show that 2013 would be his year to start headlining shows.
But in actual reality, when you're coming off of six losses from two main event programs, is a match against Mark Henry really what you need? Should they have left Ryback in the six-man tag match against The Shield? Should they have gone a different direction completely?
What would be the best WrestleMania move for Ryback's career?
I don't think leaving him in the match against The Shield would have been a good idea. Even if The Shield is finally defeated, the real credit would go to Orton, the only one of the three that hasn't already lost to The Shield on multiple occasions. Ryback would technically have his win over The Shield, but it still wouldn't make him look all that strong.
Were there options other than Mark Henry? Neither the Intercontinental nor the United States Championships have matches set for April 7 yet. Putting an end to Cesaro's boast that no American can defeat him for the title would be a noteworthy feather in Ryback's cap. Although it wouldn't do any favors for Barrett's career, having Ryback annihilate the former bare-knuckle boxer would also serve as a sign of big things to come.
But having so recently been so close to capturing the WWE Championship on more than one occasion, capturing a mid-card title right away may be seen as a step back, further evidence to everyone that he was pushed to the main event before he was ready.
Coming off of the losing end of two main event programs, what Ryback's career needs right now is a program in which he comes out the winner over somebody with some credentials. For a WrestleMania moment, it wouldn't hurt if Ryback looked especially impressive when delivering his finisher.
In that sense, Mark Henry is the perfect opponent for Ryback. It will give Ryback the chance to show that he can match strength with the World's Strongest Man. A victory would mean a win over a solid veteran, a former World Heavyweight Champion.
And can you imagine how it will look if Ryback hoists Henry up to be Shell Shocked?
If they want to build Ryback to a status anywhere near what they had initially hoped for, they're going to have to take their time. Ryback is currently in the midst of a slump. A clean win over Mark Henry at WrestleMania will be a clear signal that things are turning around.
For a couple of weeks after East Rutherford, let him go back to squashing guys like JTG and Michael McGillicutty. Assuming Fandango has finally started wrestling and has a string of wins, let Ryback hand him his first defeat at Extreme Rules.
Then set up a program with Ryback for either the United States or Intercontinental Championship. If Cesaro and Barrett still hold those titles, either feud would work. Ryback captures the gold and remains champion until at least SummerSlam or Survivor Series, defending the title on a regular basis, working programs with guys who can really sell his matches.
Once he's spent some time establishing himself at the very top of the mid-card, he'll finally be ready for the main event. Maybe he still holds a grudge against The Shield and CM Punk for putting a stop to him early on. If the goal is to get Ryback over, let him get individual wins over the members of The Shield; maybe even let him win a Gauntlet Match against them.
Assuming Punk isn't involved with the WWE Championship at that time, let Ryback work a program with Punk, eventually getting a clean win as retribution for his unsuccessful attempts at taking the title from Punk in 2012.
There are a lot of directions you could go, but I believe the key will simply be taking it slow to push Ryback into the main event spotlight again.
So, in the end, if the question is about getting Ryback over, I do think that a win against Mark Henry at WrestleMania would be a good place to start. I think they've made plenty of mistakes with Ryback so far, but given the circumstances, the match he's been booked for at Mania seems to be as good of a choice as any other.
After that, it will be about establishing himself as unstoppable once again. He's not the strongest guy in the company. He's not the biggest. He's not the newest. In a land of monsters, Ryback needs to be seen as unstoppable once again, or he'll easily get lost in the mix, another victim of poor booking.