If your ear isn’t to the ground on all things wrestling, you may not have known that Ryback, AKA Ryan Reeves, walked away from his employer Monday afternoon. His contract with World Wrestling Entertainment expires in the next few months and negotiations have stalled. After WWE’s latest offer, Chairman Vince McMahon (or Executive VP of Talent Triple H, rumors vary) told Reeves if he didn’t like the offer, he could go home. He chose to do just that. If you’ve never seen him, Reeves is one of WWE’s lumbering ‘roid spectacles, a shadow of a time when everyone in the in business was jacked with too many muscles that made them slow and plodding. Today’s wrestling is about agility and athleticism, not who carries the most muscle weight. Still, not the point.
Reeves posted a tirade on his Tumblr page (The BIG GUY is apparently at the FOREFRONT of social media) explaining his departure. It’s lengthy, but certainly worth the read. I won’t post it all here, but he says enough that a small discussion is warranted. His main thesis is that the pay structure of the WWE is too focused on “winners” and “losers” and that everyone should be paid equally. He understands that top merchandise sellers will always have “that perk,” but that doesn’t mean talents’ base pay compensation should be all over the map.
Thinking about it, Ryback’s not entirely wrong. In a “scripted sport,” like the WWE is, every winner needs a loser. It wouldn’t make sense for the New England Patriots to go out and play in the Super Bowl without a team on the opposing sideline. Professional wrestling is more of a symbiosis than you might think. But it’s also more of a typical company’s structure than you might think. A sales-focused business will always try to help their lower-tiered salespeople get to the top (as their growth benefits everybody) but a top earner is going to get preferential treatment. A smart company knows the loss of that type of employee would be difficult to weather. On the flip side, you can always replace a mid-level salesman. So that’s how it is in wrestling, except that for someone to win big, you need someone else to lose big and make the other guy look good while doing it. Some of those “losers” are wrestlers that can make a lengthy living based on making his opponent shine. It’s simply part of the business.
Ryback seems to have a handle on that last part. He knows his role, to borrow a Rock-ism. However, he fails to mention any shortcomings HE might have in regards to this role. He has a reputation (garnered partly through a Colt Cabana podcast with CM Punk) as being once dangerous in the ring. More recently, he injured Luke Harper during a match at February’s Fastlane event. Wrestlers make a living pretending to hurt each other. When one is legitimately hurting his opponents, that’s a drastic red flag. Injuries happen, but when one wrestler is called out as a liability, that can’t help matters. One of the more consistent traits detailed of Reeves over the years is that he has a high opinion of his potential in the industry. He’s not shy about saying he should/can be the next Cena. He’s told management too. He’s of the mind he can be a top draw in the business. This isn’t a bad thing, generally. Any man / woman in the wrestling biz needs to have the confidence that they can be a star. Ryback just makes it more of a point of emphasis than most.
There’s one problem with this: he’s never backed up that confidence as a performer. Ryback’s had time in the main event scene. Fighting for the WWE Championship. He never capitalized off that. He’s not a draw. Part of that is on WWE’s creative department for not booking him properly as a good or bad guy. (He’s played both sides.) The other part of that is definitely on his lack of mic skills and “barely enough to get by” level of charisma. He doesn’t sell merchandise, so why would WWE pay him more? (FYI, wrestlers have a “base pay” and then earn extra money off sales of their various WWE-designed merchandise.)
There’s obviously a “chicken and the egg” aspect to this discussion. Do characters get pushed because their merchandise is selling? Or do characters sell merchandise because they’re getting pushed? Both situations regularly occur. WWE has decided Roman Reigns is a thing, so he’s selling lots of shirts and replica flak jackets. (Not a lie.) The New Day got a small initial push, but it wasn’t until they tweaked their own characters and began selling merch by the ass-ton that they’ve been billed as a premiere group of talents. That continues the cycle of sales, complete with light-up unicorn horns. (Also not a lie.)
Ryback’s feuded with CM Punk, John Cena, Kevin Owens, and Bray Wyatt, some of the top stars in the company. He even fought with those first two AT THE SAME TIME. He was tapped as the CHOSEN ONE to win the Intercontinental Championship once internet darling Daniel Bryan had to relinquish it due to injury. Bryan even publicly endorsed Ryback’s reign, with Bryan’s “YES” chants transferring over for a short time. Ryback has been pushed. Routinely. He just has a short memory about why those pushes never went anywhere. It’s because he’s honestly not that good.
On his best day, Ryback is a monster capable of defeating any superstar on the roster through sheer power. That’s all it is though; a threat of power. He’s Big Show 2.0. On most days, he’s a B-level star without a clear direction who can hold a low-level title for a month or two while creative works out a new storyline. He’s a stop-gap wrestler that needs to work with a better wrestler in order to have even a passable match. His ring work, which has progressed at a snail’s pace, is merely adequate without someone more agile and responsive to help out. The only real crowd reaction (a wrestler’s life force) he elicits these days are when he mocks or steals from CM Punk’s arsenal of charisma. The fans (still upset over Punk’s exit) hate that and he knows it. However, if continuing a dead feud with a popular ex-wrestler is the only way to pull heat, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Ryback’s made his argument to corporate. It’s not about “my money” but about “our money.” Fighting for the locker room, he’s continued the conversation that CM Punk started, ironically enough. His stand won’t be enough to shake things up on its own, but hey, at least he said something. There’s still a chance he returns to a WWE ring in the near future, but that looks less likely with each passing day.
The WWE will easily survive without him. Will he thrive when he’s gone? Maybe. He could wrestle in Japan and be a marketable giant among that country’s talent, or he could hop on the sinking ship that is TNA, an American promotion that can barely pay their wrestlers. The next chapter in this saga is blurry, to say the least. The same could be said for Ryback’s view. He’s not all wrong, but that doesn’t make him all right.