10 Wrestlers Who Improved At Something They Were Terrible At
Perhaps there is hope for Jinder Mahal, who may one day learn how to work the first three minutes of any given match without boring us sh*tless with a chinlock, or for Roman Reigns, who may one day realise that the best means of getting fans on side isn't by lashing out at them on Twitter for voicing incredibly reasonable protests.
Perhaps, one day, the otherwise excellent Seth Rollins will perform an actual suicide dive, rather than an airborne high-five.
There is hope for that lot because through hard work, the help of friends you later convince your wife to castrate on television, and the most bizarre and singular example of WWE's main roster thrashing NXT (!), there is famous precedent...
8. Bret Hart - Promos
One of the most bewitching technical storytellers of all time - his work was so captivating that he conditioned an entire generation to sit diligently through 25-minute epics - Bret Hart was a... perfunctory promo in the babyface role. He was presented as the embodiment of a cool customer, with his shades and leather jacket, but when programmed with somebody actually cool, Razor Ramon, the contrast was as clear as Nia Jax's unsuitability to professional wrestling.
Ahead of their King Of The Ring '93 first-round clash, Razor, yes, oozed machismo in the TV build, economically telling "Gene Mean" to "shut up" about a dozen times. Bret, so smooth between the ropes, tripped over his words. "For the, for the longest time I've, I've known that I'm the number one seed," he said, with Shawn Michaels presumably pretending to yawn just out of shot.
This all changed in 1997.
Genuinely frustrated - "Frustrated isn't the godd*mned word for it!" - Hart unleashed a promo game that was at once authentic, cutting, and teeming with unrestrained fury. Hart was a total revelation on the stick, shouting his brilliance from the rooftops, all but grabbing us by the throat to force respect out of his turncoat American public.
Executing a difficult dual babyface and heel role excellently, his babyface game, quite fittingly, ascended when he travelled to the Great White North.
7. Will Ospreay - Selling
Will Ospreay, when first making waves on the BritWres scene, wasn't particularly great at selling or, at the very least, wasn't particularly arsed about showcasing it. He raced through matches that were exhilarating but, without the pretence of real pain, something of an unmemorable sugar rush. Even as he made his name internationally, in that match with Ricochet, Ospreay was slightly too quick to recover from ostensibly major punishment.
Since 2017, the Assassin has improved considerably, reacting with pure fright and agony to moves delivered to his shredded neck as if angrily channelling the mentions to his "When is it International Men's Day?" tweet. An Ospreay match is something genuinely special, moving even, in 2018. His best matches are driven by pathos as well as adrenaline, in which he draws upon (and sells immaculately) his very real neck troubles to elicit emotion from his audience.
Ospreay has also improved his psychology game in general. He once courted those already in thrall to his awesome athleticism by fluttering his eyelashes. During the classic 3 September 2016 PWG six-man, he capped off a stunning sequence by offering the crowd a very bizarre thumbs up with a deranged, cross-eyed accompaniment. Chuck Taylor, hilariously, referred to him as a "d*ckhead" on commentary.
Ospreay was playing babyface.
But Ospreay is a far cooler, more arrogant performer two years later. Mercifully, his d*ckheadedness is limited to his character.
6. Triple H - Self-Owning
Triple H owns the western wrestling world. Since he once ritually owned himself, this is quite the shocking development.
He once put himself in the firing line in the immediate aftermath of the Curtain Call incident. Vince McMahon couldn't punish the WCW-bound Diesel or Razor Ramon, nor his WWF Heavyweight Champion, but the not-over Hunter Hearst Helmsley was hardly in a position requiring protection. Known as one of the chief beneficiaries of the Attitude Era, Trips tripped himself up throughout it before he reinvented himself as an imposing physical specimen, smart in-ring storyteller, and Machiavellian politician - for much of which he owes an immense debt to Mick Foley. Grasping all this, he then underwent a years-long burial spree designed to discredit Foley's role in his legacy.
When Bret Hart surmised that the 'H' in HBK and HHH stood for a homosexual slur, Triple H offered a witless, defensive, and borderline homophobic response.
He also infamously said that he was "bi a lot of things, but lingual ain't one of them". It seemed for a time that he was destined to live in the shadow of both Shawn Michaels' talent and his political nous.
And then, forging a bond with the audience and a certain familial connection, Triple H became adept at owing everything else: Independent promotions spanning oceans, the integrity of midcard talents, and the feature slot of approximately 52% of all WrestleMania events.
5. Jay White - Being A Heel
Jay White hardly projected himself as a heel at Wrestle Kingdom 12, which was almost impressively unimpressive, given that the best pure babyface in wrestling history, Hiroshi Tanahashi, sold selflessly for him. It was elementary stuff. He simply grabbed Tanahashi by the throat and loudly questioned his status as the Ace, while everybody else questioned his instant mega-push. It was a one-dimensional and methodical performance incongruous to the lightning bolt bastardry boasted by the likes of Tetsuya Naito and Kenny Omega.
Jay graduated and became White hot in the summer months.
Crashing Juice Robinson against the guardrail more times than he slammed him to the canvas at G1 Special In San Francisco, before suffocating his opponents underneath the ring apron throughout the G1 proper, White became attuned to the main event environment by unlocking the physical environment around him to legitimately loathsome effect.
4. Braun Strowman - Being Really Dangerous
How Braun Strowman was ever allowed to perform his front chokeslam is, like the Evolution faction - or why WWE felt like they could get away with marketing the all-women's Evolution pay-per-view as the first of its kind - a mystery.
The regular chokeslam is relatively safe because those on the receiving end absorb the brunt of the blow across a large surface area. Before common sense prevailed, Braun used to land a succession of it's-alright-they're-desperate-for-the-exposure enhancement talents plum on their noses with the same recklessness WWE shows to long-term storytelling continuity. It was like a weekly, misjudged homage to Taka Michinoku's infamous Royal Rumble 2000 splat-bump: an involuntarily hilarious move you felt bad for laughing at because the scope for error was brutally vast.
After retiring the move, Strowman grew immeasurably as a performer, one able to elicit excitement and ensure the safety of his performers in spite of his preposterous strength.
Mercifully, the only performer Strowman inadvertently struck with undue force was one Brock Lesnar, who responded in vicious kind with a brain-rattling receipt.
3. Bob Holly - Promos
Bob Holly was a naff promo as Thurman "Sparky" Plugg. "My friends call me Sparky - and you can call me Sparky too!" he infamously said during his pre-debut vignette, despite the fact that, were any unfortunate sh*thead to actually call him "Sparky", he'd have broken their ass in half. In 1995, it was difficult to take "Sparky" seriously as an ass-kicker.
His name was "Sparky".
As with several of his peers in the Attitude Era, the renamed Hardcore Holly, mobilised into improvement by actually being encouraged to improve, grabbed the brass ring. He used it to batter his beleaguered opponents over the head with a gloriously economical promo game. Much like his thudding in-ring arsenal, Holly didn't need much to convey his point.
He once, delightfully, referred to Gangrel as "Dracula" and a "fat b*stard", popping Jerry Lawler on commentary and entering the hearts of young wrestling fans everywhere. Portraying himself as a no-nonsense ass-kicker by poking fun at the nonsense around him, Holly, celebrated as an ornery old-school ar*ehole by those he shared locker rooms with, simply transposed his no-frills essence from behind the curtain.
2. Kevin Kelly - Commentating
If, in 1997, somebody were to tell you that Kevin Kelly would one day become a better commentator than Jim Ross, you'd have had none of it. Jim Ross was insightful, passionate, and endearing. Kelly was a vaguely pleasant voice with nothing to actually say.
Fast forward two decades and Kelly is quite brilliant in his role as an understated play-by-play commentator. Crucial at plugging knowledge gaps and emphasising the incredible athleticism in front of him, it's what Kelly doesn't do that makes him such a welcome and, given New Japan's western expansion, important presence. Kelly doesn't repeat himself. He doesn't sell minor moments as if they're major, thus ruining the power of the real major moments. He doesn't seek to get himself over. He doesn't do the bare minimum, coasting on clichés and his name value alike. He simply adds insight into the product without a telling and desperate hysterical inflexion.
Where he was once a complete nonentity on the level of Todd "Name one thing I've ever said that isn't "It's Christian"" Grisham, Kelly is even performing complementary calls that, like the best of 'em, linger as long in the memory as the moves themselves. His elongated, Italian football-style "Destinoooooooooooo!" call is fast becoming iconic.
Kelly isn't perfect in the role - he often pauses for an age, as if he's taken too many blows to the head, and not the mad b*stards he is paid to watch - but he does have all the tools.
1.Roman Reigns - Commanding An Audience
A crowd chanting "You can't wrestle!" at Roman Reigns in 2022 is borderline unthinkable, given his universal popularity amongst WWE's ticket-buying fanbase, but this was his fate on Raw's 20 June 2016 episode. Stood opposite his more popular, cooler, and (in the audience's eyes) better Shield brother Dean Ambrose, the lagging babyface project's skills were condemned by a consumer base that had long since rejected him.
It was unquestionably a harsh assessment of a green-but-gifted prospect who had already delivered with opponents as diverse as AJ Styles, Big Show, and Bray Wyatt. Nonetheless, Reigns had failed to live up to Vince McMahon's vision of him as a company-carrying Hogan-like - and nothing could sway the vitriol and bile thrown his way.
Little of which was his fault. Roman wasn't yet ready for the spotlight thrust upon him, though this was largely McMahon's doing. Nonetheless, his middling, unconvincing babyface performances were those of a man with no grasp of himself or how to command an audience.
In 2022, this may be his greatest strength.
An indomitable, imposing presence who demands attention from his entrance theme's sting, Reigns has now been in the form of his life for two calendar years. There isn't a person in the arena who isn't hanging by his every movement these days. It's to his credit, too, that even after such a long title run atypical of WWE, there's barely been a hint of fan backlash, despite the toxic swamp that almost drowned him between 2015 and 2020.
All it took was a heel turn and a character Reigns felt comfortable with to complete a stunning weakness-to-strength turnaround.
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