WWE Pushed to Punished, Edition 42: The Perfect Plummet of Curtis Axel
In WWE Pushed to Punished, I analyze the controversial careers of past and present WWE Superstars who were once in the good graces of management but ultimately met their downfall for one reason or another. Arguably, there is no Superstar who has fallen farther in the last year than Curtis Axel.
Starting out as a "rookie" on the second season of WWE NXT, Axel didn't do much to stand out from the rest of the pack. It wasn't until his days as a member of The New Nexus that he showed the immense amount of potential he possessed.
After being marginalized for several years, Axel finally got his big break in May 2013 as the newest "Paul Heyman Guy." During his push to the top of the card, Axel mixed it up with the likes of John Cena, Chris Jericho and even Triple H.
However, WWE lost its way with the Axel character for the remainder of the year. He embarked on a five-month reign as intercontinental champion and hasn't done anything of note since dropping the belt last November.
From competing in the main event of Raw to headlining WWE Superstars, Axel has experienced quite the demotion in the last year. Say what you will about his lack of charisma, but he and his exceptional in-ring skills deserve better.
Here, I'll break down every peak and valley in the career of Curtis Axel in an attempt to discover where exactly WWE went wrong with him.
Debuting on NXT Season 2
As the son of legendary performer Mr. Perfect, Joe Hennig had a lot of pressure on him. He spent three years in WWE's then-developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling before being called up in 2010 to take part in the second season of NXT.
At the time, NXT was a competition-style show where eight rookies would battle it out for chance to earn a WWE contract. Hennig was paired with Kofi Kingston as his pro and was forced to change his ring name to Michael McGillicutty to the dismay of many.
Despite being an exceptional in-ring talent, the McGillicutty name made it hard for fans to take him seriously as a competitor. He performed admirably well on NXT with Kingston paving the way for him, but it was Kaval who was capturing the WWE Universe's attention.
McGilicutty made it to the final round, where the winner was determined by fan voting, and ultimately came up short to Kaval. The promo he cut after getting eliminated (the infamous "From this moment on..." speech) exposed him as weak on the mic, a trait which became an obstacle he has yet to overcome.
McGillicutty made mention of a "dawning of a new genesis" during his promo. This led to speculation that the rest of the rookies from NXT Season 2 would band together as Nexus 2.0, but nothing ever came of their attack on Kaval.
With the exception of Kaval and Alex Riley, no one from NXT Season 2 resurfaced on WWE TV for several months, including McGillicutty.
Joining the Nexus
At October's Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, John Cena faced Wade Barrett in a match where if Barrett lost, The Nexus would have to break up. However, if Cena lost, he'd be forced to join the stable he fought valiantly to destroy for months.
Before Cena could close in on the victory, two faceless figures (whom the commentators labeled as disgruntled fans) ran to ringside, distracted the referee and knocked out Cena. Barrett capitalized by pinning the motionless body of the Cenation leader for the three-count.
These two mysterious men were later revealed to be Michael McGillicutty and Husky Harris.
They made their respective Raw debuts on the October 18, 2010 episode in a tag team match against John Cena and Randy Orton. If they were to win, they'd be named honorary members of The Nexus.
Despite coming up short against the dynamic duo, McGillicutty and Harris were still enlisted as official Nexus members the following week.
Over the next several months, McGillicutty spent a lot of in-ring time with the likes of Cena, Orton, John Morrison and others. Though he was a background player for his entire tenure in the group, he, Harris and David Otunga were the only Superstars to join the new incarnation of the faction when CM Punk took over in January 2011.
McGillicutty got his first taste of gold in May when he and Otunga knocked off Big Show and Kane to win the WWE Tag Team Championship. However, they did nothing of note with the belts as champions for the next three months before dropping them to Air Boom.
The New Nexus dwindled in numbers as time passed, and CM Punk's departure from the group left them without a leader. The group officially disbanded in August.
Following a few appearances on Raw in early fall, McGillicutty disappeared from WWE TV altogether by the end of the year. It was time for a change.
Returning to NXT
Going into 2012, Michael McGillicutty mainly competed on WWE Superstars but also returned to his roots at NXT. It was a throwaway show by that point (and not yet revamped into what it's become today), but at the very least it was a platform for McGillicutty to hone his craft.
During his time on NXT: Redemption, Axel entered a program with Tyson Kidd, who was also largely marginalized. The series of matches the two had in the spring was stellar and the only thing worth watching about the program in its final months.
Even when NXT became WWE's new developmental system in the summer, McGillicutty remained a regular through the end of the year. He lost to Kidd on the debut episode on June 20.
It was reported by Wrestle Zone around this time that McGillicutty played a major role in training The Rock and Brock Lesnar, respectively, for their matches at WrestleMania. It spoke volumes that these two esteemed legends chose to work with a talent such as McGillicutty over anyone else on the roster, and it did a lot to help boost his stock in the company.
Becoming a 'Paul Heyman Guy'
It was revealed at the start of the May 20, 2013 edition of Raw that Paul Heyman would be revealing his latest client that night. Rumors ran rampant as to who it could be.
A returning Rob Van Dam? Ryback? Drew McIntyre, perhaps?
It was none other than Curtis Axel.
The artist formerly known as Michael McGilicutty entered to crickets, and unsurprisingly so. Heyman acknowledged Axel's family lineage, hence where "Curtis" and "Axel" were derived from.
Although it was a shocking move, it was a bold one. Axel had finally done away with the name that had dragged him down for years and was being paired with one of the best talkers and managers in the business.
What else could one ask for?
Before Axel could speak for himself, Triple H interrupted, belittling Axel at points and challenging him to a match in the main event later in the night. In what was Triple H's first match on Raw in nearly three years, he was rendered unable to continue after "passing out" at ringside, deeming Axel the victor via forfeit.
It wasn't an ideal debut for the third-generation wrestler, but headlining the flagship show with one of the biggest legends in the business was a start. And yes, this came only days after Axel (then known as McGillicutty) lost a match to Sin Cara on WWE Superstars.
What a difference a few days make.
Winning the Intercontinental Championship
One week removed from "defeating" Triple H, Curtis Axel squared off against then-WWE champion John Cena in the main event of the May 27 edition of Raw. Axel emerged victorious via count-out after Cena and Ryback brawled at the top of the stage.
Sure, Axel's wins over various top stars were impressive and all, but how much did they really mean when they were earned in fluky fashion?
Regardless, Axel continued to generate heat with Paul Heyman as his mouthpiece. The new name and catchy entrance music also helped boost his profile in the eyes of fans after years of being overlooked.
When Fandango was deemed unable to compete at Payback, Axel took his place in the Triple Threat Intercontinental Championship match. He defeated Wade Barrett and The Miz at the pay-per-view to win his first singles title in WWE.
Not only did he capture the title his father Mr. Perfect once held, but the historic title win came on Father's Day, coincidentally enough. It was undoubtedly the biggest crowning achievement in Axel's WWE career.
From there, Axel engaged in a mini-feud with Miz, whom he defeated at Money in the Bank. Meanwhile, Heyman shifted his focus to the returning Brock Lesnar during his feud with CM Punk.
During this program, Axel lost several non-title matches to Punk and never once beat him. He was the whopping boy for Punk after Lesnar left, which hurt his credibility as champion.
Speaking of which: He hardly defended the belt in the months that followed. His countless losses to Punk, Kofi Kingston and others did damage to his character and ruined any momentum he had up to that point.
He parted ways with Heyman in November after the founder of ECW was taken off TV due to "injuries" sustained at the hands of Punk at Hell in a Cell. He dropped the Intercontinental Championship to Big E on the November 18 Raw.
Teaming with Ryback
After severing ties with Paul Heyman, Curtis Axel entered the tag team division with Ryback. The two teamed on occasion when they were both connected to Heyman, and since WWE didn't have anything else for them to do, it decided to keep them together as a tandem.
Despite their history as Heyman guys, Axel and Ryback had zero chemistry together. Axel wasn't the best talker, and Ryback wasn't the best worker, not to mention that both characters were dead in the water by this point in time.
JBL jokingly coined them "RybAxel" on an episode of SmackDown one night, and surprisingly it stuck. They contended for the WWE Tag Team Championship a handful of times going into 2014 but came up short each time.
While they lost more often than not, they finally started scoring victories during the summer against Cody Rhodes and Goldust. However, they went right back to losing to them by July when Cody was repackaged as Stardust.
RybAxel disappeared from WWE TV in August when Ryback came down with an injury. Axel was taken off TV a short time later.
Upon Ryback's return to Raw in October, he re-entered singles competition as a babyface. The two mutually parted ways during a backstage segment of WWE Superstars, and Axel has been floundering on the undercard ever since.
There were various reasons why Curtis Axel was never pushed beyond a certain level. His obvious lack of charisma was a factor, but WWE is also to blame for its poor booking of him dating back to his main-roster debut.
Why WWE thought Michael McGillicutty was an appropriate name for him remains a mystery, but the problem was the company marginalized him for so long that fans were conditioned to not care about him. As noted earlier, it's difficult to invest in someone beating Triple H in the main event of Raw after they lost to Sin Cara on WWE Superstars only days earlier.
When he finally started to gain traction last summer, they pulled the rug from underneath him by feeding him to CM Punk week after week. It did nothing to boost his credibility or the prestige of the Intercontinental Championship he was holding at the time.
By this point, it's sad to see his talent wasted each week, but what more can WWE do with him? If he couldn't succeed with Paul Heyman of all people as his mouthpiece, what hope is there left for his future?
Be sure to drop a comment below with your thoughts on how Curtis Axel has been utilized over the course of his WWE 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, aka 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.