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Keep an Eye on Baron Corbin in 2017

As 2016 draws to a close, one SmackDown superstar is really beginning to look like a player.

2016 has been a wild year in professional wrestling. We’ve seen sadness amidst transcendent television with Daniel Bryan’s retirement from in-ring performance. We’ve seen the return of Bill Goldberg, and the stunningly quick recovery of Seth Rollins from his freak injury last year. We also watched Sting say goodbye to the industry, and we witnessed an event that at one time seemed an unthinkable pipe dream...

AJ Styles, WWE World Champion.

But, before we completely close the books on what has been, by any metric, an insane year on this planet, there’s one guy that I’ve been watching for much of the past two years as he’s worked to learn and grow as a performer. When he was called up at Wrestlemania, winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal on his debut night, the future looked bright. And, though it took a few months, this man is on the cusp of stardom.

Baron Corbin came from the world of the NFL, and was booked like an early Goldberg at Full Sail for NXT. At first, the crowd counted each second as if the entire audience was one rhythmic, synchronized clock. His matches weren’t long, and that was the gimmick. Then, at some point, a contingent of the audience turned on him, and he was forced into longer matches, which exposed how green he remained in the ring. At that point, I couldn’t consider myself a fan of his act, because he was still very much a developmental talent.

We weren’t supposed to see Baron Corbin the same way we saw Neville, in much the same way that it was always unfair to expect Dana Brooke to be on the level of Asuka. But, because of the perception of NXT and the extreme hype train the promotion was on at the time, “developmental” became a joke, and everyone was compared on the same level. It wasn’t right, but it was difficult to watch a Takeover card and not recognize the intense differences in quality between the veterans and the rookies.

It wasn’t the easiest of debuts for Corbin after his dream came true at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. He worked with Dolph Ziggler, who certainly wasn’t a bad dance partner from which to learn, but the matches were average at best, and sometimes the length was a problem. The fan investment was low, and as Ziggler’s star had dimmed as a result of a number of factors, it wasn’t clear how exactly THAT guy, in 2016, was going to assist THIS guy, except in helping him take the next step inside the squared circle.

Baron Corbin was drafted to SmackDown, which was a positive, for one very important reason. The numbers game was in his favor. It was impossible to avoid pushing him, because there weren’t many singles stars who had the presence required to ascend past the lower stages of the card without a great deal of care.

He was paired with Kalisto, but long before that was presented as a bully who disrespected anyone smaller than him. Recall the “Go back to Ring of Honor” line that still ranks among my favorite interstitial canvas chatter in recent memory. He was Deke from Saved By the Bell. He was what’s his face from Three O’Clock High. He was the guy you expected to see beating the shit out of the kids playing hacky sack during lunch hour, while smoking whatever brand of cigarette he felt like stealing from 7-11 that morning.

Breaking Ground introduced the world to the voice of Baron Corbin. It’s a soft, understated, direct tone. It gives off a definite “I don’t give a damn about you” vibe, and I instantly loved it for the character. While I’ve read and heard words from supposed experts who claim he can’t talk and he’s boring to listen to, I’ve always seen it as the opposite. In all the time I’ve either watched pro wrestling or the decade I worked in the industry, I was a constant proponent of superstars talking TO me in promos, not AT me.

Whenever someone asked him a question, Baron Corbin simply answered it, usually after an eye roll to indicate what a waste of his time it was to even be bothered to speak. He’s all business. He’s not cracking jokes. I’m not sure the List of Corbin would get over all that well. Yes, he speaks in what can best be described as a quiet, sinister, monotonous register. He doesn’t need to scream, because his eyes tell all within earshot that he’s about to rip his opponent’s face off, and possibly yours if you prove to be an obstacle.

That’s not boring, ladies and gentlemen.

That’s real.

WWE knows Baron Corbin has definite potential. He has the advantage of being tall in a company where the man in charge has always favored the brawn over all else, so he may have been given his opportunity far more quickly than others with more experience. But, he hasn’t rested on his laurels and allowed himself to level off. He’s shown up, punched his time card, and gone to work. Last Tuesday, it all came together.

Paired once again with Ziggler in a number one contender’s match, Baron Corbin looked great. But, it was the commentary and the situation that really sold what might be in store for him. AJ Styles was on commentary, and the story of the match itself was secondary to the story the World Champion told at the announce table. In short, he increasingly feared the possibilities of a match with Baron Corbin. At first, he was mildly impressed, and remarked about the menacing size of Corbin. Then, with each cutoff spot, knockdown during the heat, or nasty power move, Styles grew worried.

Once it was time for the false finishes in the final few minutes of the bout, AJ was all but cheering for Dolph Ziggler to win the match, just because Styles wanted no part of Baron Corbin. This was the first time in ages we’ve seen an honest to god push emanating from an announcer’s microphone. As both JBL and Mauro poked AJ about Corbin’s dominance, Styles sold it beautifully. This entire sequence was fantastic, and with each sentence during this back-and-forth, Corbin looked and most importantly FELT like a force to be reckoned with.

Follow that stroke of genius up with a tremendous main event three nights ago on SmackDown live, where Corbin was able to work with both Ziggler and Styles in a Championship match. I tweeted out before the match that this was a spot where Baron would shine, because the opposition would bump their asses off for him and he could serve as the cutoff maestro with even the most basic of moves. He’d take a few things, or be out of the way for a couple of spots, and then he would behead AJ or Dolph (or both) with a clothesline or a boot to the face. He would cutoff a flying attack with a power move or a slam, and in the process, the story showed him as...

The bully. But this time, he was the bully in the main event.

One thing a young, somewhat limited worker needs is a few moves that look like a million bucks. You can be a “five moves of doom” guy as long as those moves are awesome. Whatever people want to incorrectly say about Roman Reigns. he fits this bill. The Superman Punch often looks incredible, as does the drive by, the splash mountain powerbomb, and the spear. What worries me most about Big Cass is how average his arsenal is upon execution. He hits a corner avalanche, a leaping elbow drop, a big boot, a clothesline, and a side or body slam.

There’s nothing exciting about any of this offense. For him to reach his potential, he has to figure out how to spruce it up, or add something unique to the moves.

Baron Corbin’s Deep Six is among my favorite spots in all of WWE. The End of Days is an above average spot that is often a visual marvel. Yes, he still needs to add to his repertoire, but the foundation is there. He doesn’t need to do 700 moves. He needs a few real high spots, and he needs to tighten up his brawling (which is already much better) and continue to refine his psychology. He’s a good athlete, especially for his size, so he’s ahead of the game on that front.

With what we witnessed over the past two weeks on SmackDown, and even dating back to the surprisingly entertaining chairs match at TLC earlier this month, Baron Corbin has taken observable, objective strides in a very short period of time. Yes, there’s plenty of work left to be done, and there will be mistakes along the way, but even his biggest detractors are starting to pay closer attention to what he’s doing.

Those that buried his career back in May will soon be eating their words, or hoping people forget how rapidly they rushed to judgment.

The 32-year old Kansas native is slowly, but surely improving at a solid rate, and everyone from Jim Ross to Jason Martin are buying in more and more. I was always a quiet fan, became a defender during the summer, but as we stand just one day away from the conclusion of 2016, the Baron Corbin bandwagon (or perhaps the band-cycle) is filling up.

If there’s one guy for whom I feel comfortable in projecting big things in 2017, it’s Baron Corbin. Stay frosty around Big Banter folks.

Mark my words.

Or go back to Ring of Honor.

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