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What Went Wrong With Rusev?

George Geal looks at Rusev’s WWE career so far and wonders why he fell so far down the pecking order after a promising debut.

Standing six feet tall, weighing 304 pounds possessing freakish athleticism and brute strength combined – it makes possibly the perfect WWE superstar, right?

What happened to Rusev to make these attributes void and for him to disappear completely from the landscape of WWE in 2019?

Moving from Bulgaria to USA in the mid-2000’s, Rusev signed with WWE in 2010, originally billed as Alexander Rusev. He made his NXT debut in May 2013 forming a short-lived tag team with Scott Dawson and Sylvester Lefort, with Lefort serving as their manager. Once he turned, it was game time. He adopted his future wife, Lana, as his social ambassador and became the monster we all loved to hate. His tenure in NXT was short lived as he made the leap to the main roster at the Royal Rumble 2014, entering number six and eliminating four superstars. He wasn’t seen for two months and returned to Raw on April 7th squashing Zack Ryder and adopting an anti-American, Russophillic gimmick and shortening his name simply to ‘Rusev’.

Every aspect of this gimmick was fantastic; it was a heel you could legitimately hate, particularly if you’re an American fan. It strapped a rocket to him and sent him to the moon, defeating legendary superstars such as Mark Henry, Big Show and biggest of all, John Cena. During his undefeated streak, he won his first, and to date, only WWE title; the US title from Sheamus. This was his apex – the champion of a country he despised, gaining even more heat from the patriotic audience. He held the title for 146 days, losing to John Cena at Wrestlemania 31, after one of the best entrances in modern WWE history.

After this incredible part of his career he hit a low point and, I argue, this is what went wrong with Rusev’s WWE career. He entered a ‘love square’ with real life girlfriend Lana, Dolph Ziggler and Summer Rae in which Lana effectively turned on Rusev and aligned with Ziggler, with Rusev aligning with Summer Rae. During this angle, TMZ announced that Rusev and Lana were engaged, after an on-screen engagement from Summer Rae. This real-life announcement, which Lana confirmed, seemed to cause a disruption backstage and aggravated Vince McMahon and Creative.

After the storyline with Ziggler and Rae ended, he entered into another storyline which damaged his career, joining the League of Nations and aligning with Wade Barrett, Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio. This group had such promise on paper, but it fell flat on its face. It felt like the group was there to just be there; all four men had no place on the card despite being extremely talented. They became lackeys for Vince McMahon in his feud with Roman Reigns in the build up to the Royal Rumble. The only peak, using that term loosely, was appearing on Wrestlemania 32 defeating the New Day, and then being beaten up by Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley and Stone Cold Steve Austin. The group disbanded on April 28th, after Barrett was exiled and Rusev turned his back on Del Rio and Sheamus.

After the whole awkward downfall, we hoped that this would be the up in Rusev career, but we would have to wait a little longer for that. WWE tried to revive his original gimmick of the anti-American heel. He won the US title again from Kalisto at Extreme Rules 2016 and went on to successfully defend against the likes of Titus O’Neil, Cesaro, Zack Ryder and Mark Henry before he ran into a certain Roman Reigns; when you run into that hurdle, there’s no chance of you beating the WWE’s golden boy… unless you’re Shane McMahon. At Clash of Champions 2016, he lost the US title to Reigns, ending his reign at 126 days. He then bounced to another, somewhat beneath him, feud in which he quarrelled with Enzo and Cass over Enzo being a creep towards Lana. This led to a short-lived team with Jinder Mahal before he got injured and was taken off TV.

He returned April 11th 2017, as a prima donna refusing to wrestle on Smackdown until he got a WWE title shot. Which he didn’t get but he did confront John Cena which set up a flag match at Battleground 2017 in which he lost. It felt like this loss was just routine for Rusev: a fantastic superstar with a great character and a great move-set, and someone who deserved more than what he was receiving. And that… well… that is where Aiden English comes in.

He was the witness after he was given the key to his legitimate hometown, Plovdiv, and dubbed that day ‘Rusev Day’. This was a turning point in his career. Despite being a heel, he was cheered more than some of the biggest babyfaces in the company. With English’s fantastic singing preceding his entrances, and heavy chants of Rusev Day overshadowing not only his matches but others on the card, and being able to shift a tonne of merchandise and back up their gimmick in the ring, WWE had a guaranteed ability to essentially print money with the team.

Despite losses in a feud with Randy Orton, and losses as a tag team alongside English, Rusev gained a US title shot in a fatal four way at Wrestlemania 34. Coming up short as Orton won the match, his momentum continued, competing in Money in the Bank and receiving a WWE title shot at Extreme Rules against AJ Styles. It seemed like this gimmick was the saviour of Rusev’s career, and he finally turned face for the first time ever as he and Rusev Day entered a feud with his long-lost brother (seriously, they are like twins) Andrade (Cien Almas) and Zelina Vega.

It seemed like they were on top of the world, receiving title shots left and right and having entertaining matches. WWE creative or Vince McMahon, however you like to look at it, finally got involved and ruined our lives. English turned on Rusev after he lost a title match against Shinsuke Nakamura for the US title, and after one match… ONE MATCH… into their feud, it was over. WWE ruined the fans’ lives by breaking up Rusev Day, didn’t even give us a lengthy feud, and never told us what happened on that ‘One Night in Milwaukee’ – the last point is the one that really hurts.

After this, it was all going downhill again. However, Rusev did win his third US title from Nakamura on Christmas Day 2018 but did lose it back to Nakamura on the pre-show of the Royal Rumble (anyone else surprised he was on the pre-show? No? Me either). After R Truth, of all people, beat Nakamura two days after the Rumble, Rusev turned heel and created ‘Generic Foreign Heel’ tag team with Nakamura beating down R Truth. Despite the lacklustre tag team that was definitely damaging both men’s careers, they did receive a WWE tag title match at Wrestlemania 35, but lost. Rusev did appear at Super Showdown in the 51 man battle royal in Saudi Arabia but has since been on a sabbatical from WWE, spending time back in Bulgaria.

So, a WWE career spanning six years and counting, three US titles and possibly the most underutilised WWE superstar in recent memory. Rusev was never a strong talker, but that’s why he had Lana and later English. He has charisma, an incredible move-set, a captivating gimmick and the potential to be a WWE champion. Where did it all go wrong? In my opinion, it was his booking. He had two brilliant gimmicks, and both were ruined. He dwelled in the mid-card with no legitimate feuds and became a utility talent when he should’ve been in the main event scene. After recent interviews with former superstars, it feels like Vince just didn’t know how to use him. When we had something good, he cut it short because he felt it wasn’t good enough, despite incredible crowd responses and merchandise selling hand over foot.

 All we can hope for if he does return to WWE after his sabbatical is that he is used correctly, and has a WWE title run in his not-so-distant future.

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You can find the author of this article on Twitter @George_Geal_. Thanks for reading!

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