Ryback comes up short at WrestleMania 29.
In WWE Pushed to Punished, I analyze the controversial careers of past and present WWE Superstars that were once in the good graces of management but ultimately met their downfall for one reason or another. Arguably, there was no Superstar who has fallen farther in the last year than Ryback.
Once known as Skip Sheffield, Ryan Reeves showed a tremendous amount of potential during his days as an NXT rookie and member of the Nexus. It wasn't until his untimely injury in the summer of 2010 that an opportunity arrived for Reeves to reinvent himself as Ryback.
Ryback was brought back to the main roster in April 2012, demolishing everyone in his path of destruction. Over time, he built up an impressive undefeated streak in singles competition as well as a large fan following that saw him elevated to the top of the card in a matter of months.
However, for one reason or another, Ryback's once-red-hot momentum died down at a rapid pace going into 2013, causing him to lose any popularity he had as a babyface. His impromptu heel turn flopped following WrestleMania 29, and he hasn't done anything of note since.
Here, I'll break down every rise and fall in the career of Ryback in an attempt to discover where exactly he went wrong.
In February 2010, it was announced that WWE's ECW brand would be replaced by an all-new, innovative program called NXT. It would see the stars of Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE's developmental territory, compete in competitions and challenges in front of a worldwide audience to determine the company's next breakout star.
Among the cast of rookies was Ryan Reeves, who went by the name of Skip Sheffield at the time. Reeves previously participated on the fourth season of Tough Enough, but was unsuccessful.
As Skip Sheffield, he wore a cowboy hat and coined the catchphrase, "Yup yup yup, what it do?" His mentor, William Regal, was none too pleased, often showing disgust for Ryback and his childish ways.
Sure, it was a goofy gimmick, but it was apparently over down in FCW, so officials probably thought it would work just as well on the main roster. Well, it didn't, and Sheffield was seen as nothing more than a joke for most of the season.
On the May 11 edition of NXT, Sheffield was the first competitor to be voted off the show (Daniel Bryan and Michael Tarver were eliminated by officials for not having confidence in themselves). Upon his elimination, Sheffield vowed to the WWE Universe that he would be back, but hopefully under different circumstances.
On the Viewer's Choice edition of Raw that June, Sheffield resurfaced on WWE TV alongside the other rookies of NXT Season 1. Through the crowd, they made a beeline toward the ring and destroyed everything in sight.
From John Cena to Matt Striker to even Justin Roberts, no one was safe from their violent rampage. Carnage surrounded the ring once their vicious ambush concluded, and thus, The Nexus was born.
The following week, each member of The Nexus took time to address the WWE Universe. During his promo, Sheffield immediately put the silly catchphrase behind him and adopted a monster heel persona that would see him serve as the group's heavy for the next few months.
Over the course of the summer of 2010, Sheffield showed an immense amount of potential as a ruthless heel when attacking the likes of Cena, Mark Henry, John Morrison and others. Although he still had a terrible in-ring name, his dominance in the squared circle spoke for itself and proved that he could have very well been one of the breakout stars of the stable.
The Nexus competed in the main event of that year's SummerSlam event against eight members of Team WWE in an elimination tag team match. Sheffield eliminated both Morrison and R-Truth by himself before being taken out by Edge shortly thereafter.
Sheffield was sidelined with an ankle injury in mid-August and was abruptly written off TV, effectively removing him from The Nexus in the process. He underwent a total of three surgeries and was out longer than anyone ever expected him to be.
During his time off, a report surfaced online indicating that Vince McMahon was very high on Sheffield's abilities and saw him as a possible No. 2 babyface in the company someday. I, among many others, initially laughed off the notion of Sheffield being a top star one day, especially as a babyface, but it would be Vince, the mastermind himself, getting the last laugh less than two years later.
Ryan Reeves, now going by the name of Ryback, returned to the ring after a 16-month absence at a Raw house show on December 3, 2011. His new gimmick saw him as a Terminator rip-off, something similar to what he did down in FCW prior to becoming Skip Sheffield.
It wasn't the ideal gimmick for him, of course, but anything was better than the happy-go-lucky cowboy that he was portraying before.
Despite working as a heel at house shows, Ryback re-debuted as a face on the April 6 edition of SmackDown. He made quick work of his opponent (a local athlete), with the commentators making no mention of his past aside from the fact that he once took part in the first season of NXT.
In the weeks that followed, Ryback defeated local athlete after local athlete, establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with on Friday nights. He soon started competing in two-on-one handicap matches, still surviving and emerging victorious without breaking a sweat.
By the time the summer season arrived, it became apparent to everyone that it was time for Ryback to move on to facing contracted Superstars and engaging in an actual feud. Although victories over the likes of Curt Hawkins, Tyler Reks, Jinder Mahal and JTG were a step in the right direction, he was still in desperate need of a notable name to work with.
Meanwhile, Ryback built a fan following week by week by uttering the words, "Feed Me More" before, during and after his matches. The chant caught on with crowds, and Ryback was slowly starting to see himself get over with audiences.
On the September 24 edition of Raw, Ryback came to the aid of Mick Foley backstage after he was assaulted by CM Punk. So, after months of squashing the heroes of WWE Superstars, Ryback was abruptly thrown into a feud with the WWE champion.
The question was, why?
At the time, John Cena was out of action with an arm injury, so the Raw brand was short on a top babyface. Apparently, officials felt there would be no better time to start pushing Ryback to the top of the card than here, so they replaced Cena with Ryback in the WWE title picture for the time being.
To WWE's credit, they built Ryback up strong going into the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, where he would contend for the WWE Championship against Punk. Cena endorsed Ryback on a number of occasions and strongly supported him on his quest to become champion.
As over as he was, it was still too soon to put the belt on Ryback. This was in addition to the fact that Punk needed to be the title holder going into the Royal Rumble (where he would face The Rock) and dropping the strap only to regain it shortly thereafter would do damage to his credibility.
So, in other words, WWE's Creative Team painted themselves into a corner at Hell in a Cell, as neither Superstar could afford the loss. However, it was safer for Ryback to take his first singles loss and rebuild him back up immediately afterward, than to have Punk's reign come to an end.
At the event, referee Brad Maddox cost Ryback the matchup and his undefeated streak, ensuring that Punk remained the champion. Following the contest, Ryback pummeled Maddox and delivered a Shell Shocked to Punk atop the cell, which was surely a sight to behold.
The next night, Ryback was still very much over with the audience, so no damage had been done... yet. He came up short in winning the title the next two times he contended for it at Survivor Series and on the premiere episode of Raw in 2013.
As previously noted, it was far too soon for Ryback to be taking the title from CM Punk, but feuding with The Shield was the next best thing. The Shield made their shocking debut in the main event of Survivor Series, costing Ryback the WWE Championship and immediately getting his attention.
Unfortunately for Ryback, officials felt it was safer to have The Shield remain undefeated than to have Ryback get his retribution. This resulted in Ryback losing to The Shield in various six-man tag team matches at WWE TLC, Elimination Chamber and on the February 18 edition of Raw.
Not only that, but Ryback was made to look inferior to The Shield at every turn and was beaten down by them more often than not. He was originally slated to take them on in a six-man tag team bout at WrestleMania 29 alongside Randy Orton and Sheamus, but he was ultimately replaced by Big Show.
Instead, Ryback shifted his focus to Mark Henry, who was questioning whether Ryback could really live up the hype he was given up to that point. A match pitting the irresistible force against the immovable object was made for The Show of Shows.
Having not won a match on pay-per-view since 2012's Money in the Bank event, this gave Ryback the opportunity to finally get that "big win" he was looking for, and where else than on The Grandest Stage of Them All?
Ultimately, the match itself between Ryback and Henry was a massive disappointment. Henry won the bout by falling on top of Ryback as he attempted the Shell Shocked on The World's Largest Athlete.
Regardless, Ryback hit the Shell Shocked on Henry following the bout's conclusion, but at what cost? The feud could have continued and built to the point where The Big Guy was finally able to hit his finisher on Henry, but no such luck.
Needless to say, Ryback's latest loss at 'Mania was the final nail in the coffin of his babyface run.
One night removed from WrestleMania 29, Ryback saved John Cena from an attack at the hands of Mark Henry. He and Cena briefly celebrated with the electric New Jersey crowd before Ryback shockingly nailed Cena with a Meat Hook clothesline and a Shell Shocked to boot.
Of course, the Izod Center came unglued as Ryback turned heel on Cena, but it would be the last time that Ryback would ever receive such a raucous reaction. The next week on Raw, Ryback explained his actions by claiming that Cena was never there for them when he needed him most and that he was the biggest threat to his WWE Championship reign.
That same night, Ryback ditched his signature "Feed Me More" catchphrase, the same three words that got him insanely over in the first place, in favor of "Ryback Rules." Gone were the days of Ryback being a silent, yet resilient monster, as he was now nothing more than a constant complainer.
His feud with Cena did nothing to help boost his momentum, coming up short of winning the gold at both Extreme Rules and WWE Payback. Sure, he was headlining pay-per-views again, but fans still didn't see him as a legitimate threat to the title.
Once his feud with John Cena concluded, Ryback ditched his complainer persona to become "Cryback" instead. This came about when Ryback had to forfeit a match against The Miz on the July 1 edition of Raw after suffering an apparent injury, which Jericho called him out on and encouraged the crowd to chant "Cryback" at him.
Obviously, Ryback's feud with Jericho also did him no favors. They met in a match at the Money in the Bank event, where Ryback beat Y2J with a roll-up to score his first victory on pay-per-view in almost a year.
Even with that win, Ryback was no more over than he was before his rivalry with Jericho, who he pummeled on the July 19 edition of SmackDown in Y2J's last appearance with the company. Ryback would go on to lose to the likes of Cena and Daniel Bryan on Raw in the weeks that followed.
Without anyone to work with, Ryback was once again repacked, this time as a bully. He picked on people in backstage segments, in catering and, oddly enough, in the showers, to which nobody did anything about for some reason.
For the second straight year, Ryback was without a match at SummerSlam, instead appearing in a backstage segment bullying some guy in catering. He wasn't even wrestling on a regular basis at this point, so what was the "heat" that he was supposedly garnering any good for?
At Night Champions, Ryback made a surprising appearance by helping Paul Heyman defeat CM Punk in a no disqualification elimination handicap match (also involving Curtis Axel). The next night on Raw, the ECW founder announced that Ryback was the newest "Paul Heyman Guy".
Initially, adding Ryback to Heyman's coalition was brilliant. He was finally being given something concrete to do and was garnering an immense amount of heat in the process due to being associated with Heyman. It was the best incarnation of his heel character to date.
However, any momentum he received from becoming a "Paul Heyman Guy" was quickly obliterated when he lost to Punk at the inaugural Battleground pay-per-view. He was granted a rematch with Punk inside Hell in a Cell at the event of the same name in late October (one year removed from their prior encounter inside Satan's structure), but he was once again decisively defeated by the former WWE champion.
To make matters worse, Punk disposed of Ryback in a matter of minutes the next night on Raw in a Street Fight, effectively concluding the feud. The Big Guy was also without a manager, as Heyman unceremoniously "dumped" Ryback on the November 11 edition of Raw.
Following his separation from Paul Heyman, Ryback formed a tandem with fellow ex-"Heyman Guy" Curtis Axel and joined the tag team ranks. The reasoning behind this pairing was left unclear, as it had been established on many occasions that Ryback had no desire to team with Axel.
Although they own victories over the likes of Tons of Funk, The Miz and Kofi Kingston and WWE Tag Team Champions Cody Rhodes and Goldust, they have had very little success as a team. They were unsuccessful in winning the tag team titles at TLC in a Fatal 4-Way match.
Neither of them have much direction as singles competitors, so I guess officials thought it would be best to pair them together. However, their lack of chemistry prohibits them from being anything more than a random makeshift tag team.
As of Old School Raw, it appears Ryback is headed toward a pending program with Intercontinental champion Big E Langston, which has the potential to be fun. Although I don't foresee Ryback winning the title any time soon, at least it will give him something to do for the Road to WrestleMania.
However, the fact Ryback accidentally concussed Dolph Ziggler this past week in addition to his recent rampage on Twitter ensures that he undoubtedly has heat with backstage officials. Due to that, don't expect to see Ryback pushed by management any time soon.
Of course, Ryback is digging his own grave at this point, but let's not forget the fact that it was WWE who initially dropped the ball on him and his push. He was massively over with audiences, yet WWE refused to give him any big wins on pay-per-view, which ultimately led to his demise.
They had a fresh face on their hands and could have capitalized on his monstrous momentum, but instead opted to turn him heel and he hasn't been the same since. There is still hope for the Ryback character, though, as turning him back face and having him go back to saying "Feed Me More" might help him regain popularity with the fans.
Even then, it is unlikely that Ryback would be able to reclaim the same top spot he had before his downfall, but it is worth a shot.
Thanks for reading and be sure to drop a comment below with your thoughts on how Ryback has been utilized over the course of his career. Also, include any potential Superstars or Divas you would like to see featured in upcoming editions of Pushed to Punished.
Read every archived edition of Pushed to Punished here.
Graham Mirmina, a.k.a. Graham "GSM" Matthews, is a journalism major at Endicott College. Visit his website at Next Era Wrestling and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.