On the final SmackDown of the year, Baron Corbin will face Dolph Ziggler and WWE Champion AJ Styles in a triple threat main event for the title. If you would have guessed in January of 2016 that NXT mid-carder would credibly challenge for the world title, few would believe you. If, around the time of the brand split, you made the same claim, nobody would believe you. Yet here we are. Not only is Baron Corbin believably challenging for the title, they could have him win, and it wouldn't seem that out of place. (He's almost certainly losing, but this is just a theoretical.) To understand where he is now, we need to go back to the time he received the call up to the main roster.
When Corbin was called up to the roster, it was clear he was just filling a body. Sure, he won the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, but that win has never actually translated into any push. True to form, he immediately entered a feud with Dolph Ziggler, who at the time was who you faced when your push needed to die. The feud was 50/50 booking at its worst, designed to make sure Corbin didn't look that special, and so Dolph would continue his spot in mid-card purgatory.
When Corbin was announced for the brand split, he was SmackDown's 7th pick, certainly not somebody you would view as a centerpiece of the roster. If Corbin wanted to advance, he would have to sing for his supper. Sing he did. At Backlash, No Mercy, and TLC, Corbin had 3 well received matches against 3 very different opponents. He bested the powerful and athletic Crews, the technical wrestler in Swagger, and the agile luchador in Kalisto. Now since these matches didn't have a thousand high spots and were more psychology based than stamina based, people like Dave Meltzer only rated them in the mid 2 range. Yet these matches were all well above average, the match with Kalisto being actively good. This wasn't just a case of greater creative freedom giving him a chance to thrive. Corbin got actively better in the ring. He started incorporating his boxing background into his offense. He started using his size better. Most importantly, he used his Deep Six and End of Days as momentum stoppers. At any point in his opponents comeback, Corbin could hit those moves and either kill the momentum or end the match. That little development in psychology had a huge impact on his matches. Having one good match can be looked at as over performing. Having 3 solid to good PPV matches in a row? Perhaps its time to stop looking at you as a bad worker.
Another way in which Corbin elevated his game was through his character and promo work. There was always some potential for Corbin in this area, as was clear in his match with Crews at NXT London. ("Go back to Ring of Honor!") Yet you could still see in his promos around this time a lot of rough edges. He didn't work well with the script handed to him. When he was called up to the main roster, it was more of the same story. His promos were largely forgettable to actively bad.
When he came to SmackDown, we started seeing more of the flashes we saw in NXT. He began displaying a cockiness and arrogance in his walk that wasn't there before. He mercilessly taunted his opposition whenever he got a chance. Most importantly, Talking Smack happened. While The Miz rightly is credited with the best promos for Talking Smack, Corbin has delivered several tremendous performances. He came across as an absolutely entitled bully who had not an ounce of humility. Even worse? He consistently backed it up. When he recently told Daniel Bryan it wasn't a true #1 contender match because he wasn't there, it's tough to argue with him. Whatever scripting they are still doing with Corbin is clearly too much. This guy shines when you allow him to cut his own promo, or most importantly, react to what others are saying.
Perhaps the biggest plus in Corbin's corner right now is confidence. He knows he is doing a good job, and he knows management is high on him. That shows in the way he carries himself. He walks down the aisle knowing he's going to impress his boss backstage, even though said boss can't stand him. He knows his opponent waiting in the ring is likely to get destroyed. The nerves that were there originally are gone, and what's left is a quickly improving wrestler.
With 2016 drawing to a close, one could argue that Corbin has the largest room for growth in 2017. As he begins rising in the card, he's going to face better opponents, who are going to have better matches with him. Back in NXT, not much had changed with Corbin during the time he faced Bull Dempsey and the semi finals of the Dusty Classic in that great match with American Alpha, his true coming out party. It's just that Alpha was a lot better. Not only could they help carry Corbin to a better match, they allowed him to come up with a variety of offensive moves and match situations that weren't possible before. Likewise, he and AJ Styles should do some magic together tomorrow. While it might be a stretch to say he's going to be on top for most of 2017, I could absolutely see him being in the role The Miz is right now, the top mid-card heel who you increasingly rely on to carry more and more of the program.
Tonight he will give us a sneak peak of 2017, and if 2016 is any indication, Big Banter is heading for a breakout year.