Alberto Del Rio has dropped as quickly from the WWE main event picture as a bird with severed wings would plunge toward the ground.
The unification of the world titles and the crowded scene at the top of the card has pushed Del Rio down. WWE seems unsure of where to stick him in its violent theater, so in some cases, it has just left him off the stage completely.
There was a time when Del Rio was at or near the main event of just about every WWE show.
From Night of Champions 2011 to TLC 2011, he was battling for a world championship in five straight pay-per-views. His match was the main event three times in that span.
Fast forward to today, and Del Rio is several time zones away from contending for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
There have been no reports of some backstage blowup. He didn't tear any ligaments. His skill level didn't diminish. Then, what happened?
Randy Orton defeated John Cena at TLC 2013, for a start. That match unified both the WWE title and the World Heavyweight Championship. WWE chose two of the most prominent stars of the past 10 years to be the ones to take part in this moment.
Del Rio had to step aside.
The switch to one world title instantly made the midcard belts more prestigious, but took away a path for stars just below the top tier to still be a main eventer of sorts. That title was once Del Rio's pathway to the spotlight.
"Mexico's Greatest Export" held the World Heavyweight Championship for much of 2013. His first reign lasted from January to April. He won it back in June and didn't let go of the gold until meeting Cena at Hell in a Cell in October.
Del Rio battled for that championship against Edge at WrestleMania 27 and defended it against Jack Swagger at WrestleMania 29.
Now, the WWE title is the only world championship in town. The competition for that strap is greater. Orton, Batista, Triple H, Kane, Cena and Brock Lesnar have all been in contention for it or will likely be there in the near future.
Del Rio isn't just on a tier below those men, though. He's fallen further than that.
After his rematch with Cena at Survivor Series last year, WWE has used "The Pride of Mexico" sparingly on its biggest shows. The list of his pay-per-view appearances since then is a far cry from Del Rio's peak.
- TLC 2013: no match
- Royal Rumble 2014: 30-Man Battle Royal
- Elimination Chamber 2014: vs. Batista
- WrestleMania 30: Andre the Giant Battle Royal
- Extreme Rules 2014: no match
There's no way that Cena or Orton would be used like this. Fans bemoaned the fact that Daniel Bryan was being "buried" last fall when he continually failed to win the world title from Orton. At this point, Del Rio would be more than happy to be in that role—losing in the marquee match for three straight pay-per-views.
Even some of the opportunities Del Rio did get highlight the shift in his position on the card.
At the Royal Rumble, he lasted just under three minutes, per The History of WWE. That was just two years removed from winning the largest Rumble ever.
A bout against the returning Batista sounds high-profile, but Del Rio was essentially fish being fed to to an orca. His job was to make Batista look good, warming him up for WrestleMania. Del Rio was the prey, not the star.
Cesaro, an emerging talent, is one of the five men who earned the right to step into the Elimination Chamber to win Orton's title. Bryan, an increasingly red-hot commodity, the ever-prominent Cena, Sheamus and Christian got the other spots. Del Rio served as Batista's welcoming mat instead.
He has since been asked to take on everyone from Big E to Sin Cara.
His matches aren't the least bit prominent, though. The Shield, Bryan and The Wyatt Family have been headlining WWE's weekly programming. Del Rio's more often been asked to perform on Main Event.
He now heads toward Payback, likely to be left off the card for the second straight pay-per-view.
Del Rio has no rival at the moment and is not involved in any story. In fact, he's not even getting on TV in some cases. The former world champ did not compete on the May 12 Raw or the SmackDown from May 9.
One might brush that off as just some blip in the schedule, but there's more evidence that WWE has devalued Del Rio.
In the tournament to crown the new No. 1 contender for the Intercontinental Championship, Del Rio didn't make it out of the first round. Rob Van Dam pinned him to move on.
The other men to suffer Del Rio's fate in the tourney, Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger and Mark Henry, are all former world champs who have occupied the midcard or lower lately. Notice that Big Show, who was challenging for the WWE title as late as Survivor Series, wasn't even in the tournament.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter, via Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc., theorized that was "probably because he wasn't going to win and they didn't want to pin him or cheaply disqualify him."
Del Rio didn't get that same treatment. It doesn't mean that WWE won't bring him back to the spotlight at some point, but his place on the company hierarchy is currently surprisingly low.
A look at WWE.com's power rankings from May 10 will be maddening for Del Rio fans. These rankings aren't a perfect indication where a Superstar is positioned, but it does show who the company thinks is hot and who it wants to focus on.
Fandango is No. 21, Los Matadores occupy the No. 17 spot and newbie Rusev comes in at No. 15. Del Rio is not even on the list.
That's hard to fathom for a man who was world champ as recently as last October. With Bryan's emergence, men like Cesaro charging up the ladder and Lesnar reportedly set to come back for SummerSlam and Night of Champions, there just isn't room for Del Rio on the top anymore.
His new path is one that winds far from the marquee, darkened by obscurity.
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