In the middle of a fairly packed and well received episode of WWE Raw last night (October 27), a former main eventer returned to the company's televised product after a couple of months off for an undisclosed medical procedure and recuperation period.
From the cheers of the crowd in San Antonio and internet response, here at Cageside Seats and around social media, you'd think I was talking about CM Punk or Daniel Bryan. But, no, the man given a hero's welcome was Big Hungry, the self-proclaimed meathead, Ryback.
Now, I'm not trying to intentionally be a curmudgeon. I wish Ryan Reeves, the man behind the Ryback character, no ill will. I don't think less of his fans for enjoying his schtick, and, in fact, I find much of it hilarious - even if I'm not always sure the laughs he gets from me are intentional (case in point...did he mean to use "than" instead of "then" on his singlet last night where "Than. Now. 4Life." was airbrushed?).
His Raw Fallout interview with Eden didn't do much to get me fired up, either. Much of what got him over before his hiatus - the goofy humor, the antagonistic attitude towards fans and the establishment - seem to be stripped away in favor of a return to the generic babyface who feuded with The Shield and CM Punk after his initial, local talent squashing debut.
But the main reasons for my trepidation about his return don't have anything to do with him, per se. It's the opportunity cost. Here are the three main reasons that I rolled my eyes while others popped when "Meat on the Table" came on the loud speakers last night:
Losing 2 - 0 in the Intercontinental title match at Hell in a Cell was one thing. The Swiss Superman got to demonstrate his gifts and push Dolph Ziggler to the brink, even in defeat. But then last night, he gets thumped out of the ring like a distraction to clear the stage for a Dean Ambrose/Bray Wyatt promo battle.
You could write a book about how WWE has bungled and botched Cesaro's character and push - this year alone, before even addressing the Teddy Long love triangles and yodeling of 2012 - 2013. But there's no element of Ryback's game that I wouldn't rather see the former United States champion's version of...in ring, on the mic, heel, face...once one of the most talented performers on the roster is established, then bring back the 32 year, WWE-trained Las Vegan.
The thought of watching Ryback in any feud where I could instead be watching the former Claudio Castignoli hurts my soul.
2) Rusev's next move
Bo Dallas had barely been peeled off the canvas before folks were clamoring for a Ryback vs. Rusev hoss fight. To which I say, haven't we seen the Bulgarian Brute carry limited big men to decent matches enough over the last few months? What does Big Hungry bring to the table (pun semi-intended) that Mark Henry or The Big Show didn't, except a less impressive resume of past foes for Lana to boast about her man having indirectly bested?
At this point in his build, Ryback feels like a step backwards for Rusev in a lot of ways. I'd much (MUCH) rather see him step to Sheamus. Not only is the Celtic Warrior a former WWE and World Heavyweight champ, he holds the belt which would open all kinds of storytelling avenues for the Russians. And he's a great wrestler who would push a guy whose athleticism matches his own to new heights.
You don't go from a staredown with The Rock to feuding with the former Skip Sheffield. And it's time to see Rusev do more than sell slams and throw around sacks of potatoes.
3) The Smart Athletic Friends
Former Intercontinental champion Big E has already been Rusev fodder (on multiple occasions), so he doesn't work in Ryback's stead for #2. But in every other way that WWE could use a fresh babyface, E and his Smart, Athletic Friends would fit the bill.
Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston and Big E appeared on one episode each of Raw and Main Event as a loosely defined unit and they've been a hot topic of conversation among wrestling fans ever since. They've been killing it in comedy sketches on social media and the WWE App. There is a demand for what they're doing, even if the powers that be backstage don't get it.
Drop the "Black Power" angle that Creative was hinting at in their televised appearance in favor of the geek chic humor of their other work and you have three babyfaces to use in storylines. One big gap that they'd fill that a solo Ryback doesn't is as new challengers for the current tag champs, Goldust & Stardust. You don't want to see S.A.F. riff off of Dust Brothers promo? Then I'm not sure you and I can be friends.
And if you don't see where placing these three men even semi-prominently in the middle of your product breaks up the monotonous look of your roster and provides fans of color with guys to cheer and identify with, I don't even know what to say to you, Mr. McMahon.
In all seriousness, I hope that Ryback hits it big AND all of the three above things (and more to boot) come to pass in the next year of WWE programming. With five hours of television and two more streaming hours to fill each week, there's plenty of time to make it all happen.
But, in reality, we've all watched the company struggle to launch acts for years. And we've seen them try time and time again with guys who have decent personalities, great physiques and limited in-ring skills. When they have one of the deepest rosters of talent in the history of pro wrestling, forgive me for not getting really excited about another babyface push for The Big Guy.
All right, Cagesiders...tell me why I'm wrong, and why Ryback Rules.