Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your weekly look at all things professional wrestling over the past seven days. Well, normally that is what we do here but in all honesty, outside of WWE announcing they will be doing Money in the Bank at their corporate headquarters with the briefcases hanging on the roof, there is precious little to get excited about. As such, I thought we'd do something different. WWE released a large number of competitors last week due to budgetary cuts, so let's have a look at one of the biggest names on that list.
When WWE announced its recent wave of releases, many of the talents featured were performers who have been off TV, underutilised or treading water in WWE for some time. A few names had recently been featured in high-profile roles, such as Gallows and Anderson in what was technically the Wrestlemania main event, but even then it was as supporting players. There were certainly very few names on the list that you would single out as potential main eventers that WWE were not making use of. Lots of solid talent, who if booked correctly could have strong runs in WWE or AEW or elsewhere, but few who you could honestly, genuinely call main event talent without it feeling like a bit of a stretch. Of course, no-one is suggesting that their status makes it ok that they were unceremoniously let go during a period of huge economic uncertainty, just to be clear. However, my point is that among the talents released one name sticks out like a sore thumb, because he was over massively with the WWE audience and frankly is someone who the company should have pulled the trigger on at various points over the past half a decade. That man, as you may have guessed, is Rusev.
The first time I saw Rusev was on NXT in 2013, and he was an interesting sight. He came to the ring in a shabby brown outfit that looked as though it was made from the cheapest of materials, and with a piece of wood that bore the name of his opponent, Dolph Ziggler on it. Although Rusev looked a bit less than the finished article, his match with Ziggler was excellent and it certainly marked him out as someone to watch. His run in NXT continued to captivate me over the coming weeks, where he was first paired up with manager Sylvester LeForte (one of the less memorable stalwarts of early NXT), and weirdly placed in an ill-fitting tag team with Scott Dawson (I believe Dash Wilder was injured during this time, hence Dawson’s status as an available partner), which worked very well in the ring, but aesthetically wasn’t a great fit for either man.
In truth, Rusev was floundering and directionless under the tutelage of LeForte. His character was rough around the edges, and there was enough there that you could see with some finessing that he could be a big deal, but LeForte wasn’t going to get the job done for Rusev’s persona, which at this stage was an animalistic brute. However, the appearance of a blonde, power-suit wearing figure at ringside during his matches felt immediately like something of a change of direction. It’s worth bearing in mind that in 2013, Game of Thrones had just began to take hold as the truly global phenomenon that it would become, and even though the Khal Drogo-Daenerys relationship ended a couple of years earlier with season one, it was still very familiar. As such, having a strong, blonde figure coming to the ring with her “savage” warrior charge was quite the contemporary look, and explains why Lana began speaking a bizarre, Dothraki-esque language at first. However, this quickly morphed into a more Bridget Nielsen-Dolph Lundgren-Rocky 4 type scenario, with Lana being identified as Russian and Rusev moving away from the more barbaric identity, and into a more unstoppable “super athlete”. Was it one-dimensional? Yes. Was it a tried and tested trope of wrestling history? Yes. Did it feel like it was straight out of 1980s cold war propaganda? Absolutely. However, something clicked and Rusev began getting over as a monster heel, squashing lower level “main roster” talent on NXT, before making an appearance in the Royal Rumble. His look morphed away from those original roots, and the “Bulgarian Brute” started to look like a potential player.
Rather than being lost in the shuffle in the run up to Wrestlemania 30, WWE would smartly hold off Rusev to make his full Raw debut after the big event, running vignettes over that period to continue to hype his official arrival. When he did make a splash on the main roster, he would go on an undefeated streak for almost a year, beating the likes of Jack Swagger, Big Show, Mark Henry and Sheamus, picking up the US Title in the process and being booked as an unbreakable monster for the most part. I enjoyed that during this time he was more and more “Russian”, being presented with a medal from the “Russian Federation” and being presented as an adopted red son, with his Bulgarian roots played down. This was, naturally, done to play on the rising tensions between the USA and Russia as Russian President Vladimir Putin made some fairly aggressive moves. Rusev would even go as far as to dedicate his matches to Putin, which in my mind was a stroke of genius. It was a throwback character that gave fans a real reason to boo Rusev and despite its 1980s-esque storytelling it worked a treat. Rusev was over like rover, even getting to share a segment with The Rock at one point. Rusev would be a runner up to Roman Reigns in the Royal Rumble, and would be thoroughly protected even when taking losses of a sort (count outs etc.).
Everything would lead up beautifully to Rusev, the Russian hero taking on his American counterpart, John Cena for the US title at Wrestlemania 31. As I was in attendance at that particular Wrestlemania I have a great fondness for the match, and especially for Rusev’s entrance where he came out in functioning tank, which was an awesome sight, and he looked like a genuine superstar ready to break out after this match. Sadly, this was the first of many false starts for Rusev. By losing in decisive fashion to Cena here, it derailed Rusev’s momentum in a scenario where a victory or even a loss while looking strong would have kept him strong and able to continue in a potential main event role.
However, what came next was a slew of bad booking ideas that wasted Rusev. His break-up with Lana, his feud with Dolph Ziggler dragging him deep into the mid-card waters of irrelevance, before ending up as a lackey for Sheamus in the ill-fated League of Nations faction. Rusev began showing a lot of character development during this period, with comic timing and a quickness of wit that belied the character he was given to work with. In addition, Rusev began getting into great shape physically, dropping a significant amount of weight. Surely another main event run would be just around the corner?
Nope. A feud with Roman Reigns over the US Title, and an alliance with Jinder Mahal, coupled with injury problems would further limit his upward mobility until he was paired with Aiden English. A thrown together mid-card tag team that shouldn’t have yielded anything of note ended up with the two creating one of the most over acts in the company. With English singing the “Rusev Day” song for their entrance, and Rusev showing more and more charisma they turned a plan without direction into something great. In arenas all over the world, they got enormous reactions, and the "Rusev Day" T shirt was seemingly everywhere, Even once they were inevitably split up and English departed the group Rusev still remained over despite having nothing major going on.
A heel turn, perplexing as it was, led to a pairing with Shinsuke Nakamura (presumably because they needed to double up on the stereotypical “evil foreigner” quota). Eventually, Rusev would take a leave of absence, and return as part of a “cuckhold” storyline with Bobby Lashley and Lana and he even managed to make that work. The story was awful, but the fans just got more and more into him. IN addition, Rusev got into the shape of his career, which again made you think he might be on the verge of something big. Yet he would then disappear from TV, and finally got released last week.
Over the past five years, Rusev has developed and matured in front of the audience on TV. His in-ring work has come on leaps and bounds, his appearance has become that of a main eventer, he has connected with the crowd no matter what dross he was given to work with and he has continually got over. Even his merchandise was among the top sellers. I would say at this stage, a Rusev run at the top of the card should have written itself. Yet here we are, and Rusev is no more. It seems incredible that WWE couldn’t make more of this phenomenal talent while they persevered with several less gifted performers in prominent roles. Perhaps Rusev was deemed a troublemaker, having ended his original split storyline with Lana by their real-life announcement that they were engaged being broken by TMZ. One only needs to take a look at Total Divas to see some of the reprimands the pair got for various behaviour over the years. Of course, we should take that with a pinch of salt due to the nature of the show, but still it gives an indication of WWE’s feelings on the couple.
One thing is certainly clear; Rusev AKA Miroslav Barnyashev is clearly one of the hottest free agents in wrestling today. He has all the tools, and let off the WWE leash he could be just as successful, if not more so than Jon Moxley has been since leaving his former employer. Rusev could go to AEW and easily be presented as a main eventer, although for me I would be intrigued to see where he might fit in NWA as a more old school heel, or even in New Japan Pro Wrestling where he could have absolute classics with everyone from Tomohiro Ishii to Kazuchika Okada. Rusev has all the tools, so frankly he has the potential to go pretty much anywhere and be a huge star.
Could he return to WWE? With the company letting a number of talents go during this period it has been rumoured that some performers could return to the company once revenues are back to normal, but given Rusev was already off TV due to a rumoured contract dispute, it seems unlikely. For the sake of his career, I hope Rusev goes elsewhere because frankly, WWE were not aware of what they had on their hands. It might not be Rusev Day any more, but the artists formerly known as Rusev surely will have his day now he free of the shackles of WWE.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with any big news from Raw and Smackdown, NXT, AEW Dynamite, and probably some more general thoughts, as well as touching on any major stories that might break in the next week. In the meantime, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.
All images courtesy of WWE