According to F4WOnline.com and a number of other sites, last night at the WWE house show in his (actual) hometown of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Santino Marella (real name Anthony Carelli) announced his retirement as a professional wrestler. Carelli recently suffered his third major neck injury, but he had clearly been planning on retirement for a while, having recently taken an extended leave of absence to open his Battle Arts Academy mixed martial arts school.
His path to WWE is one of the strangest ones in recent memory. Using the name Johnny Geo Basco at the time, Carelli was a non-contract student at Ohio Valley Wrestling when they were a WWE developmental territory. It was common for the students to be used as planted fans to make sure they got favorable reactions to matches and angles, and a couple weeks after he started, he was a plant when The Boogeyman made his OVW debut.
OVW booker Jim Cornette had built up The Boogeyman as a serious threat, a real life psychopath...and then he came to the ring wearing a pair of antlers he found somewhere. Carelli was supposed to flee in fear, but he laughed on camera, which is somewhat understandable since The Boogeyman wearing antlers was unexpected, to say the least. When he got backstage, Cornette was furious at him for laughing and slapped him. Repeatedly.
Cornette was fired, obviously. At the time, Bryan Alvarez wrote the following in Figure Four Weekly (F4WOnline.com subscribers-only link):
Cornette went nuts and slapped him at least a dozen times, right in front of everyone. I don’t think I talked to one person who thought his actions were justified. Basco called the office to issue a complaint and the rest is history.
Nowadays, everyone who gets called up to the main roster has been fine-tuning their gimmick in the developmental program for months. That's actually a fairly recent development, though. For Santino, when he was in Ohio Valley Wrestling on a developmental contract, then-booker Paul Heyman played off his judo background by making him Boris Alexiev, a Russian mixed martial artist modeled after Fedor Emelianenko.
Heyman booked Alexiev like he did Taz in ECW, the unstoppable shooter who won short matches. The character didn't seem like it had legs, though, as actual Russian martial artist Oleg Prudius had started on the main roster as Vladimir Kozlov with a similar gimmick. Carelli instead started on the main roster with a completely new gimmick.
At the first ever Raw taping in Italy, Vince McMahon decided to select an opponent for Umaga from the crowd, where he found Carelli as "Santino." After an assist from Bobby Lashley, the fan, who didn't even have a last name yet, won the Intercontinental Championship.
Absent much development, the character didn't really have legs. Crowds turned on him, so he turned heel and began crafting the Santino character that we know and love (or hate, depending on your point of view). As the over-protective boyfriend of Maria Kanellis, he evolved into a conceited, sometimes vaguely effeminate, hilarious caricature and quickly took off.
Santino Marella has become a measuring stick of sorts in WWE. It's common to hear someone's potential success compared to him as if his was the minimum level someone in WWE could aspire to. Whenever the topic of WWE signing an independent wrestler with a comedic style (like, for example, Colt Cabana) comes up, Santino is always part of the discussion. Does WWE have room for another Santino? Even if he's not a comedy wrestler, could he rise past the level of being another Santino?
He was game for whatever skits WWE threw at him. If it was bad, he elevated it with his delivery. If it was good, he made it even better. He was so good that he could team up with Vladimir Kozlov, who did not have the best grasp of English to say the very least, and it was funnier than anything Santino could have done on his own at the time. He had no problem making a fool of himself, and not just on TV: He grew a horrific unibrow to enhance the gimmick and obviously had to look like that in real life, too.
While an incredibly green and limited in-ring wrestler when he first got called up, he improved to the point that he could have made a serious run if he wasn't pigeonholed. He ended up as the last challenger left with Daniel Bryan in the 2012 World Heavyweight Championship Elimination Chamber and gave the performance of his career. It made me wish that at some point he would get a more serious run because the comedy gimmick was getting stale.
That said...I find myself wondering if the Santino role has had a long-term negative effect on WWE. It feels like the reliance on comedy has gotten heavier in the years he's been a regular character. That could be a coincidence with the opposite cause and effect, but for a lot of fans, he's been symptomatic of what they don't like about modern WWE wrestling: The weird attempts at being a variety show at the expense of traditional pro wrestling.
Still, the idea of there being specific comedy undercard roles has gotten wrestlers—who might have otherwise struggled or been released—spots. The Adam Rose experiment may end up a failure, but he's a man in his mid-30s who toiled away in developmental for years. If the Adam Rose gimmick didn't come along, then Leo Kruger could very well have gotten cut. There needs to be a balance, though, and that's not any individual performer's fault.