Baron Corbin: the anti-wrestler
Thomas Pestock started his wrestling career in 2012, and it took him a while before he found his footing. But when the Baron Corbin character was re-packaged and introduced in September of 2014, the NXT Universe really got behind him. His raw animal magnetism, his impressive physical size and his rebellious look earned him an instant following. Fans, especially the female ones, began exploding whenever his entrance music hit.
In the past months, however, a different crowd reaction has become palpably felt. When Corbin enters Full Sail University these days he is greeted with boos of disapproval, punctuated with jeering chants of “you can’t wrestle”. The once loving fans have turned on the tattooed outlaw.
Corbin currently finds himself at a crossroads in terms of character, and signs are beginning to emerge that he (and the company) are making the right moves to advance his progression as a performer.
First of all, what happened?
How did the fans come to turn on Corbin in the first place? What did he do that enraged them so?
The short answer is: nothing. The slightly longer answer is: nothing else.
When Baron Corbin began rolling over jobber after jobber, week after week, using devastating clotheslines, stiff punches and boots, and a heavy-hitting signature move, it was natural for the crowd to cheer him. He was brash, fierce, dangerous and effective. What’s not to love?
The same thing can be seen during Ryback’s initial push in 2012-13, when he made squashing jobbers his signature. He rose so quickly in popularity thanks to his dominating style that it ultimately begat his downfall, first of all being placed in a feud for the WWE Championship far too early in his career, and then followed by a heel turn just as his popularity was peaking. Only now is Ryback regaining the momentum he once had, but it has not been easy.
Unlike Ryan Reeves, WWE has thus far kept Pestock out of the title race, but they are nonetheless keeping him strong. He holds only two losses on NXT television. Both were to former/current champions (Neville and Balor), and both were during tournaments whose winners would enjoy a considerable boost. The company has obviously not wanted to push him too quickly.
In the meantime, Corbin has been continuing to do his thing. Every week he comes out on NXT and squashes another jobber in a matter of seconds with a noticeably stunted array of moves. Either that, or he competes in a battle with someone like Bull Dempsey or Rhyno which, also lengthier, ends up being rather dull.
After a time, the fans began to get the distinct impression that there is much less to Baron Corbin than they once believed.
A competitor like Samoa Joe can squash a jobber too, but he will do it in such a way that leaves you with the idea that he is capable of doing more, that he possesses the ability to do amazing things in the ring. Corbin does not leave such a multi-dimensional impression.
The NXT Universe is hungry for action. They want to be wowed and awed. They do not want boring matches, nor do they encourage boring stars. The promotion has now developed a reputation as an revolutionary force in the wrestling industry, where standards are made and the bar for excellence is set.
The fans have, naturally, identified themselves with being a driving force behind that revolution, and they now demand more from their athletes. They seem immediately adverse to the very idea of wrestlers lacking technical ability, like Baron Corbin or Eva Marie, becoming representatives of “their brand”.
So, what can Corbin do?
The most recent example of the fans turning on a babyface performer occurred during the now infamous and cringe-worthy Royal Rumble match of 2015, when Roman Reigns was booked like a true blue hero and was booed like a dirty heel.
For Reigns, the solution came in quiet perseverance and faith in his ability. When faced with a negative response, he took the high road and acknowledged the public’s freedom of expression. Ultimately, their opinion of him was not going to hinder his desire to prove that he is deserving of everything he has.
The result has been an overwhelming success. Roman’s athleticism, psychology, charisma and booking has made him more popular than he’s ever been – and a million times more credible. For him, staying baby-face was the solution.
A different story from a year earlier, when Batista was met with a similar reaction after winning the Royal Rumble match. The public that he thought would celebrate his return dismissed the victory as BS, and he was noticeably taken aback. Instead of taking Reigns’ baby-face route, he threw the negativity back in everyone’s face, making “Deal with it!” his new catch-phrase.
The public didn’t like it, and part of the reason was because although his turn on the crowd read as heelish, he was still being booked as a face against then-champion Randy Orton. The crowd had no horse in the race, and the whole feud fell flat. The fans could not get Daniel Bryan back into the picture quickly enough.
Baron Corbin could respond very easily to his detractors in a way that would kill his career. He could very easily make the common mistake of not acknowledging the crowd. If he acted as though he was still getting cheers, it would read as amateurish, disconnected, and ignorant. It would make him about as interesting as driftwood.
If, on the other hand, Corbin was to be brave and acknowledge the crowd’s response and incorporate it into his performance, it would show that he is adaptable, flexible, adept and aware. It would show that he is listening and responding, instead of merely going through empty, mechanical motions.
Signs of him doing this have begun to appear.
The birth of the “anti-wrestler”.
Baron Corbin has not stopped rolling over jobbers week after week, just as he did when he was re-debuted last fall. However, he has begun to add tiny differences in how he interacts with the crowd.
As the boos pour over him from the fanatics at Full Sail University, he holds his arms out and appears to soak them up, a cocky smirk creeping in at the corner of his mouth. He turns his nose up at the public, waves them off, and acts generally disdainful.
He doesn’t act bitter, mind you, or hurt. He acts as though he is enjoying it. It is a distinct element that Batista was lacking, and an element that Corbin is making his new gimmick.
Last week on NXT, a vignette was aired. In it, Baron Corbin gave the NXT Universe insight into his past, his accomplishments, and his attitude: “Ninety-nine percent of the population would give anything to accomplish something great. I’ve done it four times, and I’m just getting started.”
He goes on to list his accolades: four-time conference championships in college football (“Not my team, me!”), three-time Golden Gloves winner, national jujitsu champion. Quite the impressive resume.
He continues to devalue the “accomplishments” of fellow professional wrestlers. He calls himself “the real deal”, and rubs in the fact that while some where “creating names for themselves on the internet and in gymnasiums with fifty people in them” and “getting paid in hotdogs and potato chips”, he was making a name in arenas in front of thousands and getting paid in huge paychecks and diamond-encrusted rings.
The message is clear, harsh, and threateningly real: while fans may love an athlete like Sami Zayn or Kevin Owens, they are only stars inside the confines of professional wrestling – which is, like it or not, not considered a legitimate sport by the majority of the mainstream population.
Corbin has tapped into something here, an angle rarely ever conceived and executed, because of the obvious inherent risks of damaging kayfabe. Embracing the negativity thrown by pro wrestling fans, he is now attacking the legitimacy of pro wrestlers themselves. Not since Brock Lesnar, after his return to WWE following a successful run in UFC, has any superstar questioned the legitimacy of wrestling while still competing in the sport.
Corbin ended off the effective vignette by saying: “These fans can hate me all they want. I don’t care. I enjoy it. I relish the fact that they hate me, that I’m destroying their heroes.”
In denying the fans entertainment by performing only the most perfunctory of squash matches, Corbin is building tangible heat from a crowd rabid for excitement and innovation. By refusing to give the fans what they want, he may be getting the most effective heat imaginable from the very least amount of effort.
It’s genius, in a way.
History has shown that you don’t have to be a technical wizard to get the crowds going (just look at what Hulk Hogan accomplished over an entire decade with only five moves). Baron Corbin’s limited ability on the mat will end up a major hindrance to his career only if he allows it. But, if WWE continues to push his new “anti-pro wrestler/anti-pro wrestling fan” gimmick, and book him intelligently, he won’t need a repertoire of moves like Shawn Michaels to achieve top heel status.