Sunday night, Atlanta, Georgia. It’s Hell in a Cell time, kids. It’s a night of gruesome determinism, a pay-per-view built around a match that takes place in a rough cross between the Thunderdome and an S&M dungeon, and the rules are only incidental to the proceedings. It’s a marathon of pain and violence, the only match in the WWE playbook that advertises actual physical peril: Two men enter, one man leaves. Inside that cage on Sunday will be your WWE champion, CM Punk, but facing him will not be his longtime rival, John Cena, nor will it be Sheamus or Randy Orton or Daniel Bryan or any other opponent vetted with wrestling experience and well-crafted backstories. Instead, his opponent is Ryback, and even though there’s something vaguely familiar about this adversary, if you haven’t been following wrestling closely since WrestleMania, you probably have no idea who that is. So how the hell did Ryback end up in such a big match?
Travel with me, if you will, to the halcyon days of autumn 2004, back when Triple H was the world heavyweight champion instead of a company executive, when JBL was the WWE champion instead of an intrepid mountain climber and sometime color commentator, and when WWE employed Kurt Angle and Tazz. After a couple years off, WWE brought back Tough Enough, their “I wanna be a rassler” reality series, except this time they were broadcasting it in mini segments on SmackDown instead of airing it as a stand-alone show. It was half pro wrestling talent show (“Cut a promo on Big Show! Now!”) and half physical challenge (“Go get that flag on the other side of the ring while this midcard tag team tries to stop you”), interspersed with get-to-know-you vignettes and training footage and Al Snow making fart jokes. It was exactly the wrong combination of reality and unreality. The physical challenges made everyone look bad — history has shown that there’s nothing WWE does worse than real physical competition — and the personality bits were abysmal. If wrestling personalities are larger than life, then these contestants were roughly life divided by four. It felt more like a fraternity field day than a pro wrestling show. Seeing actual twentysomething douchebags auditioning to be wrestlers made it hard for fans to ignore that most wannabe wrestlers are just that — regular old douchebags.
The standouts of that season of Tough Enough1 were Justice Smith, a jokester who would go on to become an American Gladiator, Mike Mizanin, a Real World cast member who would find WWE success (rather shockingly, when you go back and watch the Tough Enough footage) as The Miz, and the eventual winner, Daniel Puder, an MMA fighter whom nobody liked but who was really good at the physical challenges and who almost broke Kurt Angle’s arm in an impromptu for-real wrestling match.
It’s properly called “$1,000,000 Tough Enough,” but most people just call it Tough Enough 4.
The fourth-place finisher was a fairly nondescript guy with a He-Man body and a Castle Grayskull smile named Ryan Reeves. Reeves was known for his appetite — he ate nonstop, anything he could get his hands on. In one vignette, trainer Al Snow said, “He breaks a sweat eating — that’s how much effort and energy he puts into devouring a meal. And not just a meal. Let me tell you something. What he sits down at a dinner table at Bennigan’s and eats could feed a family of four in Afghanistan for a month.” Reeves’s biggest highlight was winning an eating contest that involved a giant bowl of pasta and a quart of milk. Puder was a legit badass, Mike was already a reality star, and Justice was a camera hog. I remember watching Reeves back then and thinking He’s hungry? That’s supposed to make me want to watch this guy wrestle?
In early 2006, “Silverback”2 Ryan Reeves showed up in OVW, the Louisville-based wrestling company that used to serve as WWE’s minor league affiliate. (They’re aligned with TNA Wrestling now.) After Tough Enough, Reeves had done some time in Deep South Wrestling — think of it as Class A ball — and now he was ready for a slightly bigger stage. He tangled with future WWE superstars like Dolph Ziggler (then going by his real name, Nick Nemeth) and Cody Rhodes. His run in OVW stalled out in mid-2006 when he was suspended for violating the WWE Wellness Program — he said that he took some over-the-counter supplements that were later banned, but the suspension stood. When Reeves returned to OVW, he was paired with another suspiciously muscled fellow named Jon Bolen in a tag team called, ahem, High Dosage. In January 2007, WWE dropped several wrestlers’ contracts in advance of their annual year-end earnings report, and Reeves was one of them. In response, he pasted the Internet with his Hotmail account looking for work.
This had been his self-professed nickname on Tough Enough too, but now it was stitched-in-tights official. He supposedly got the name in childhood because he was even then shaped like a gorilla. Because of the strictures of racially charged nicknames in wrestling, he would occasionally refer to himself as “The Vanilla Gorilla” just so as to make sure everyone knew he was white.
About a year later, Reeves was back in OVW, which was no longer part of WWE. His real name and nickname had been amalgamated into “Ryback,” and his gimmick was entirely swiped from The Terminator. (The announcers would really say things like “That ain’t gonna get it done with this terminator, baby.”) He wore long black tights and a leather jacket and used the entire glossary of big-man power finishes — choke slam! Power bomb! F-5! — and he didn’t feel pain. Needless to say, this made him very popular very quickly. In the minor leagues, where fans don’t get to watch hours of interviews and promos and matches to learn a wrestler’s backstory, simple is always better. Ryback quickly won the OVW title, and just as quickly WWE re-signed him and relocated Ryback to its new training circuit in Florida.
There, Ryback briefly formed a team with a wrestler styled as a medieval Irish warrior named Sheamus O’Shaunessy — who would become a full-fledged WWE star as “Sheamus” — but soon the team broke up. Reeves scrapped the Ryback gimmick in favor of a lunatic redneck character called Skip Sheffield, who was sort of an XXL Steve Austin — bigger muscles, thicker accent, same leather vest.
In 2010, WWE launched NXT, a pseudo-reality show where up-and-coming wrestlers with fake names and burgeoning characters competed in promo contests and hammy physical challenges, like the “Rookie Challenge: Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Challenge,” in which contestants engaged in combat with foam pugil sticks over a pit of foam stuffing. If they had been trying to act out a metaphor for the ridiculous side of pro wrestling, they couldn’t have done any better. Skip Sheffield was one of eight contestants — all performers already under WWE contract — who were paired up with established-star “mentors” (Sheffield’s was William Regal) who advised them, occasionally tag-teamed with them, and, at the end of the show, would vote to send one of the contestants home.
Sheffield, now sporting a shaved head, cut a slightly bipolar figure, equal parts musclebound badass and cartoony hayseed, the sort of guy who’d be a demigod at an Ole Miss tailgate party. He punctuated his sentences with chicken-fried inanities like “Yep, yep, yep, what it do.” The show pitted these fake characters against each other in real, silly contests, with the prize being a WWE roster spot even though they all already had developmental contracts. The stakes didn’t seem particularly high, and the format was built to embarrass. And again, I looked at Sheffield and thought, This is supposed to make me want to watch this guy wrestle? He was eliminated midway through the show and nobody much missed him. One couldn’t help but think that getting eliminated at least put Sheffield out of his misery.
After Wade Barrett was announced as the final winner of the show, he brought back his cohorts and formed an insurgent faction called The Nexus that terrorized the WWE (and John Cena in particular) for several months before the plot fizzled, and Sheffield was reduced to working middling tag-team matches with Harvard Law School grad, I Love New York 2 reality-show character, and Jennifer Hudson fiancé David Otunga. In August 2010, Sheffield broke his ankle in one such match and ended up needing three surgeries to get it fixed.
In late 2011, rumors began to swirl on message boards and wrestling dirt sheets that WWE had trademarked the name “Ryback.” It was only at this point that it occurred to me that Ryan Reeves might have a following. In a world where smaller, more agile performers like Chris Jericho and CM Punk seemed to be signaling the departure from the Greek statuary physical standard that was once WWE’s rule of thumb, Ryback was proof that the industry would not be fully transformed. Despite a laughable character and middling ring skills, there was something about this guy that hit a certain swath of the wrestling fan base in the sweet spot: It’s the Pavlovian call of the steroidal physique.
Last April, on an episode of SmackDown, Ryback debuted. No mention was made of Skip Sheffield or Ryan Reeves, and certainly no indication was given that we had ever seen this fellow before. Gone, too, was the Terminator ripoff persona from Ryback’s OVW days. He was all muscle and thunder and antic twitchiness in an airbrushed singlet, a look I once described as “Goldberg meets the Ultimate Warrior meets Rob Van Dam’s tights.”3 He was a throwback to an era when simplicity was resonant, antiheroes were rare, and Zubaz and Gold’s Gym tank tops were backstage fashion staples. Ryback came out and demolished his opponents. Instead of the usual debuting wrestler diet of lower-tier WWE performers, Ryback squared off against real live jobbers, the sorts of guys we hadn’t seen since WWF matches had a Lord Alfred Hayes voice-over. Talk about a throwback — this guy even beat up scrawny ham-and-eggers like our heroes of yore.
Ryback later validated the comparison in the pages of WWE Magazine: “All the Rob Van Dam comparisons are fine with me because we actually have the same airbrush guy.”
Ryback’s formerly lopsided grin was replaced by an unhinged stare and, briefly, one unnaturally reddened eye. He had the crowd behind him from the start. Sure, some of them were chanting “Goooold-berg!” in reference to his bald head, snarl, and undefeated streak, but at least they were chanting. During his matches, the camera would cut to backstage, where the magnitude of Ryback’s awesomeness was reinforced by scenes of actual WWE wrestlers gathered around flat-screens to watch Ryback’s maulings. (It was unclear if they were thinking This guy’s a badass! or Hey! This guy’s getting the push I wanted!) He charged through jobbers as easily as Ryan Reeves once threw back burritos, signaling the end of his matches by yelling, “Finish it!” (this felt like a deliberate reference to Mortal Kombat). After pinning his opponents, he would scream, “Feed me more!” — it was Ryan Reeves’s gluttony turned hypnotically violent — and the crowd was soon yelling along with him. Ryback moved up from jobbers to mid-card opponents and jobber tag teams, and then to mid-card tag teams. (He would sometimes actually pick up both guys at the same time and apply his finisher in duplicate.) When he beat Curt Hawkins and Tyler Reks at Money in the Bank in July, his ritual demolition of the wrestling-world underclass was all but complete.
Last month, Ryback got into a beef with The Miz, then the Intercontinental champ, but the feud didn’t last long. Ryback took only slightly longer to dispatch his old Tough Enough buddy than he needed for his lesser foes. WWE could have parlayed that into an Intercontinental title run for Ryback, but at that point, a minor belt would have been a hindrance. Regardless of his similarities with other acts, Ryback’s ascendance was nothing short of spectacular. Too many other wrestlers have appeared and fizzled to slight his popularity. Ryan Reeves had been booked to the cusp of stardom. The only question now was what to do with him.
The answer came courtesy of another wrestler’s serendipitous anguish: John Cena, penciled in as Punk’s Hell in a Cell opponent, came up gimpy. After an operation to remove bone chips from Cena’s elbow, WWE was hopeful that he might still be able to make the match. WWE was in an odd spot: They needed a substitute wrestler who was popular enough to carry a pay-per-view main event, but also somebody who was insignificant enough to be easily demoted if Cena healed in time. In Ryback, they found a wrestler for whom the crowd went ape but who didn’t even infringe on Cena’s mic time. Cena could dance around the fringes, employing Ryback as his foot soldier and also as a sort of peace offering to WWE fans who felt disappointed about Cena’s injury, as well as those who just couldn’t stand Cena. Both groups had taken a liking to Ryback. It was perfectly timed to capitalize on his meteoric rise. He wasn’t even on the last pay-per-view, but somehow he felt right at home in this one.
To the meta-fan, there is something galling about a wrestler as novice as Ryback feuding with Punk with so little build. But the real shocker is how in the CM Punk era, in a time in which “indie cred” is trading at its peak, a time in which wrestling fans drool over Ring of Honor and All Japan bouts on YouTube, an old-school meathead named Ryback has climbed to the top of WWE in a matter of months while hardly breaking a sweat.4 Partly, Ryback works so well because, despite the cartoonish bent in his act, “Ryback” really is just Ryan Reeves “with the volume turned up” (in the immortal words of Steve Austin). You could see the inklings of Ryback’s monster shtick back on Tough Enough: Ryan Reeves is quiet, uncomplicated, and really fucking hungry.
Well, except for that time he tried to pick up Tensai.
Moreover, though, he appeals to a more naive part of all wrestling fans — the part that once screamed indignity when Hulk Hogan was wronged and that swooned for the Ultimate Warrior. Even for the old, jaded, hardened fans like me, wrestling speaks to a time in our lives when we saw the world in simpler terms. CM Punk can wax nostalgic all he wants, but Ryback is a wrestling fan’s happiest memories come back to life.
Is his act too simple to work in today’s WWE? It’s a valid question. The 1990s and 2000s were full of overmuscled guys whose careers collapsed under the expectations their physiques wrought. If Ryback’s character is the same in six months as it is today, I’ll be here complaining at length about him. But on Sunday night, inside Hell in a Cell, this nobody is going toe-to-toe with CM Punk, and the crowd’s going to go wild.