The chart-topping Tracy Jordan hit “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” means a lot to a lot of different people: young Jews, young werewolves, young werewolf Jews, and anyone else who can find some personal meaning in its chorus of “Boys becoming Men, Men becoming Wolves.” The rising WWE star Dolph Ziggler would surely find something to recognize in those words.
Since obtaining the Money in the Bank—which gives him the chance for an instant match with any champion at any time, including immediately after that champion’s most recent match, which would all but ensuring an instant title—he has gradually transformed from mid-card avatar to main event door crasher and finally to top-of-the-card prospect.
Like age curves for baseball players, there are a number of different paths that performers follow on their to way to the promised land of top-tier money and championships, which essentially become performance bonuses. Most are based upon the usual milestones, with the time between each varying according to the wrestler and the relative speed of his narrative track. That makes it sound more complicated than it is, maybe: gold and mid-card individual championships help to establish performers with audiences in a way that allows them to, at the very least, exist in the minds of the fans. Belts give matches inherent importance, allowing making them showcases for up-and-coming talent. You get all this.
With a belt, the performer is placed against those others who have held it; this is as opposed to being a Money in the Bank winner now or a Royal Rumble or King of the Ring winner in previous generations. There’s prestige inherent in a WWE belt—wrestling history is full of living proof of this —but ultimately belts remain while their champions can fade into obscurity if they never advance past them.
Benchmarks work in much the same way but instead of moving you into the arena of fan awareness, they move you up the ladder towards the bright lights of the marquee. That's because, rather than existing as tangible things that can be challenged and taken away, they are things that are in at specific moments in time that lead to opportunities down the road, a semiotic means to a narrative end. Before Money in the Bank became the push-du-jour, King of the Ring competed with the Royal Rumble for the role of most prestigious ticket to wrestling’s upper class.
The King of the Ring was—and may once again be, if former KOTR Triple H decides to continue his nostalgia trip—a single-elimination tournament designed to prove the obvious. This often took place over a month with most preliminary matches for what culminated in a 8-man one-night PPV popping up, seemingly at random, on weekend shows like Superstars or Livewire; the marquee preliminary matchups, almost always involving the eventual winner, were shown on Raw. Feuds for the non-tournament matches on the KOTR PPV often sprung up from incidents that happened during these matches, a byproduct—as has been covered before in The Vault—of a sparse PPV schedule that required feuds to be built around the events as opposed to the contemporary model, which is basically the inverse.
Because of this, and because of the implicit nature of the title shot given to the victor—along with the crown, scepter and eventual heel turn—the King of the Ring didn’t have nearly the staying power of the Royal Rumble and Money in the Bank events, which gave their winners the instant gratification of guaranteed title shots. No one misses it all that much.
But that’s not to say that it was an event without magical moments unique to itself. King of the Ring helped launch the careers of some of the greatest superstars of in the sport, with Triple H, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar and Edge all wearing the crown. The 1997 edition featured catalyst for the most successful era in the history of the industry, with the genesis of the public presence of the Stone Cold character and Austin 3:16 catch phrase occurring during an interview following Stunning Steve’s victory over Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the finals.
Still, the problems with the King of the Ring concept, and how it relates to the pushing of superstars—beyond the inherent awkwardness of having an adult man wear a crown and spandex underpants while at the same time trying to appear regal and tough—could be found in the very first one, all the way back in 1993.
Aside from former Baltimore Colt/Adventures of Pete and Pete star Art Donovan’s hilariously inept appearance on commentary through much of the tournament, what should be the most memorable thing about the first King of the Ring PPV is Bret Hart’s brilliant performance. Yet Hart’s work is, somehow, not really all that central to the show’s narrative. That is to say, although Hart ran through three of the premier performers in the history of the business in Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall , “Mr. Perfect” Curt Henig, and Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow, using three different finishing moves in three high engaging matches, which was great; it was overshadowed by the feud initiated by Jerry “The King” Lawler’s attack on the Hitman during his coronation at the end of the night. So: problems.
Hart’s role as King of the Ring did not really do anything to help his placement in the company, either—it took him a full nine months to reach the title match, and only after also winning the Royal Rumble. It didn’t help that the world title match on the night of Hart’s run was so corny—Hulk Hogan lost to sumo wrestler Yokozuna because he had been “blinded” by a photographer’s flashbang.
The lackluster title match, and the equally lackluster feud between Hart and Lawler, meant that all possible momentum to be gained from Hart’s remarkable one-night run was lost. With no fixed or floating title opportunity in his hands, Hart was stuck with a next-big-thing title he couldn’t redeem, and no sense of when “next” would be called.
The same has happened for the Royal Rumble, though to a much smaller extent. Because of the fixed timeframe (from the end of January to the end of March) for establishing a feud between the winner and his opponent at Wrestlemania, the event has become less of a showcase of up-and-coming stars and more of a showcase/launching pad for various feuds. Sheamus’s makeshift “feud” with Daniel Bryan before squashing him in 18-seconds in the first match of this year’s Wrestlemania being the most recent low-point in what was an already a marked decline.
So, there are problems, here. Dolph Ziggler, though, may be something like a solution.
Dolph, who is as gifted at easily making things look good as any of his predecessors, has spent most of his career trying to make a name for himself. Literally. For much of his first few months on WWE television, Ziggler would introduce himself by saying “Hi, I’m Dolph Ziggler” to literally anyone he met backstage, at least while he was on camera. (Otherwise ... creepy).
Despite the relative success—relative to no-success-at-all, at least—of this in getting him over, audiences weren’t taken with him the way they did others with comparable talent. There was a logjam at the top of the card in terms of name recognition, for one thing, and Ziggler’s “great worker in the land of giants” role was already taken by more famous indie-types such as Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. That all didn’t help, and Ziggler’s smaller individual deficiencies—notably his obnoxious gyrations at the top of the ramp, which make him seem dorkily excited just to be there—really didn’t help. His ring-work is often over-the-top his good; the rest not so much (albeit better than average).
But, when Ziggler won the Money in the Bank contract at this year’s titular event, it wiped away the macro issues—holders of the briefcase and the Money In The Bank contract within automatically become players in the main event; consider this the wrestling equivalent of golden ticket holders in a WWE films remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It also allowed him to physically spend time lurking in the main event without people wondering what he was doing there, whether he was working security, and so on. Some performers seem to shoot to the top overnight, and Brock Lesnar actually did shoot to the top overnight, but becoming a main event star in the WWE is a long journey. Ziggler’s briefcase simply won him access to an express lane out of the mid-card wilderness.
In this sense, then, the system works. It is through benchmarks, like the King of the Ring, the Royal Rumble and now, the Money in the Bank contract, that men can prove that they have survive on their own, that they deserve a place atop the card. Which is where Ziggler will likely find himself after he likely defeats John Cena at this month’s Tables, Ladders and Chairs PPV. Ziggler will still need to do the work, but he’ll no longer have to make sure everyone knows his name, or flog self-bestowed nicknames like “Show-Off.” He’ll just be there, up where he belongs, as a three-dimensional man in a two-dimensional universe. It will only look like it happened on a full moon.