By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
It feels like it. Or, well, at worst, it feels like it’s almost over. At best, it feels like the world is 100 percent back to normal. Which, again, as a reminder, it’s not. There have been nearly 600,000 deaths in the United States alone due to this thing. Vaccinations are up and cases are down, which is good. But even if it feels like we’re close, the finish line is still ahead of us.
That said, WWE took the wrestling world a step forward toward whatever “normal” was last week when it became the final major wrestling company to announce that it will start running shows consistently in front of fans. The tour is set to kick off July 16 in Houston for Smackdown, and will then head to Money In The Bank in Fort Worth on July 18.
The most surprising thing about it wasn’t that WWE is going on tour again; rather, it was the fact that other companies announced their intentions to do the same thing first. Still, what the decision does do is in effect mark the official wind-down of the pandemic era of modern professional wrestling. If all these companies hit the road in July, and nobody has to shut down as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks … well, it looks like all systems go from now on, right?
So, while considering that, I also considered the age-old impossible debate between fans and wrestlers alike: Who’s on the Mount Rushmore of the pandemic era of modern professional wresting? You’ll disagree with it, but that’s what it’s for. It considers all companies, males and females and begins on March 11, 2020, when NXT ran the first COVID-19-effected show from WWE’s Performance Center. AEW’s Dynamite followed suit on March 18, and it hasn’t been the same since.
So, who’s on my pandemic-era Mount Rushmore?
If you would have asked me this three months ago, he might not be on this list, and make no mistake about it: I’m hesitant to have him here if only because he opted out for the first four to five months of the pandemic.
But once he returned at SummerSlam on August 23, 2020 — and then subsequently aligned himself with Paul Heyman on the next edition of Smackdown — we weren’t just cooking with gas; we were cooking with explosives. Quickly establishing himself as the best feel in WWE, he put the company’s most important brand on his back and has been at the center of the only good hours of television WWE puts out from its main roster each week.
It came at a time when Reigns needed it the most, and what goes ignored is the idea that perhaps his reinvention had to come in front of no fans in order for him to fully find his footing as the Tribal Chief. It’s hard to go from A-list babyface to A-list heel on a dime, and one of the blind spots of his successful formula might just have been the ability to do so at his own pace.
Whatever it is, it’s worked. His will they/won’t they relationship with the Usos (especially now that Jimmy is back) has been some of the most compelling stuff WWE has done in years. The way he demeans his cousins makes you want to slap him, while the way he sneers through promos makes you want to kick him in a very sensitive place. Heyman, as expected, has been brilliant, but this isn’t the Brock Lesnar formula where Heyman is oftentimes a bigger star of the show with his antics and oration. No. Instead, Reigns shines like the star he’s always been, dominating the ring, the television screen and the narrative.
And then there’s the in-ring work. He held his own with Cesaro at “WrestleMania Backlash” and the two put on a hell of a traditional, smart wrestling match, something Reigns isn’t known for doing. The triple threat at WrestleMania was a spectacle and his work with Daniel Bryan has been very good to great. Which, of course, brings us to the secret sauce of Reigns’ incredible pandemic-era run: WWE decided to pair him with great workers, perhaps in an attempt to establish him as a credible in-ring performer for those of us who have never quite been sold on his buckle-to-buckle abilities.
If it’s not perfection, it’s awfully close.
That said, wait a minute. What about those first four to five months of the pandemic?
It’s almost like a Greek tragedy. A guy who works through adversity. Starts. Stops. Fails. Has to rebuild. Has to refocus. Scratches his way back. Gets back. Begins scratching his way to the top. Gets to the top, and … the world shuts down.
Yet despite that hard luck, nobody should forget this period of Drew McIntyre’s career. When the pandemic began, boy, it felt like WWE was hurting for something — anything — to put on television that was interesting (lest we forget, this was how Retribution was born). Brock Lesnar was heading home, Roman Reigns wasn’t leaving home and things like Swamp Matches existed. Through it all, Drew McIntyre stood tall, beating people like Seth Rollins at Money In The Bank, and Bobby Lashley, who’s now a beast, at Backlash.
McIntyre was the smiling face, the one presence on WWE television that incited warmth into our scared, bored-as-hell, sitting-at-home souls. His story was inspirational, he’s become very easy to root for, be it if you’re a casual fan or one of the “smart” ones, and he’s a hell of a wrestler. In short, he checked all the boxes — so much so that when he was diagnosed with COVID-19, he was the only one to get a segment on WWE television to address it out loud.
And let us not forget what I still consider to be one of the most disappointing pro-wrestling realities through all this mess: A few weeks before WrestleMania, where it felt like McIntyre was slated to become champion, they had to move the show from a stadium with tens of thousands of fans into a gym with a big ceiling fan. McIntyre never got to hear the admiration he deserved to hear, he never got his ‘Mania moment. We never heard the crowd countdown to the Claymore Kick. He never got the pyro.
Through it all, he’s taken it like a champ, which is a testament to his patience, his growth, his all-around like-ability. But speaking of champs.
It’s kind of hard not to have a guy who owns three different companies’ world titles on this list, even if he only came into those titles in the last six months. December 2, actually, was when he beat Jon Moxley for the AEW World Title. Then, in April, he beat Rich Swann at Impact’s “Rebellion” to win the Impact World Title. This, of course, all came after he had been the AAA Mega Champion, at this point now, for about a year and a half.
Widely thought of as one of, if not the, best wrestlers in the world, Omega’s in-ring work has never been in question. But now that he’s able to unleash the personality that AEW didn’t see much of in its first year of existence, Omega, with Don Callis, continues to establish himself as one of the most can’t-miss characters in the game. Love him or hate him, you have to watch him.
And when it comes to watching him, he makes it pretty easy on the eyes with his innovative, constantly evolving arsenal of moves. Case in point: Remember the first Stadium Stampede, when he hit that One-Winged Angel on Sammy Guevara off a tunnel in a football stadium last year? Goodness, gracious that should be replayed at the beginning of everything AEW does, crash pad or not.
Plus, let’s not forget that for the first seven months of the pandemic, Omega was a tag-team champion, along with Hangman Page. And it wasn’t like they lost the titles in a nothing-happening forgettable match; rather, they lost them to one of the best teams on the planet, FTR, and in the meantime, kept a story going between one another that ultimately resulted in one of the best matches on a great card filled with best matches, November’s “Full Gear.”
Between being arguably the best wrestler in the world and a guy who owns three belts from three different companies, you can’t leave him off this list. As for who my fourth pick is … well, there’s a lot of gold involved there, too.
The longest-running SmackDown Women’s Champion in history, Bayley was and is the only consistently entertaining entity on any WWE show throughout this entire pandemic. I was as skeptical as anyone about her heel turn — yes, I understood the fun-loving Bayley of old was getting stale, but who could have thunk she had all this in her? — and I was wrong. Very wrong, actually, as through the pandemic, Bayley became must-see TV.
Bayley is hilarious when they allow her to talk. Her heel tendencies are done with such smarm and there’s almost always this cocky grin on her face that oozes “I’m better than you,” maybe even more than MJF. In the ring, she’s a pest, with pest antics, cheating to get any tiny edge she can get, and even when she loses, she’s mastered the art of getting her heat right back with a two-minute promo.
Plus, for quite a while in this era … well, she had about as many belts as she could have, winning the WWE Women’s Tag-Team Titles with Sasha Banks all the while holding onto her Smackdown Women’s Title. Then, she went and mocked the most popular wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch, by crowning herself “Bayley Dos Straps.” At this point, she’s so good at being a heel, I can’t imagine a babyface turn. That’s a hell of a transformation.
Which then, of course, begs the same question I asked for Roman Reigns: Could Bayley have evolved like this if she wasn’t presented with the circumstances the last year provided? Becky Lynch was gone, so the title of “Star Of The Women’s Division” was out there, Raw, Smackdown, NXT, whatever, and Bayley seized that opportunity. Then, as she was refining her role as a “role model,” she was able to do so in an empty gym and something called a ThunderDome, which inherently allows you to take more chances than you might with 10,000 people in the building.
In short, she took chicken sh– and made chicken salad. The result is one of the best runs I think anyone has had in the women’s division in the last five years of WWE. The only other one that comes to mind is Becky Lynch. Maybe you could put Asuka there, if you include her undefeated streak. Ronda Rousey came in for a cup of coffee, but she was already a star and playing on a different level to begin with.
Actually, before I go too far into “Let’s list people” mode, I should stop so, well, we can list people. More people.
BEST OF THE REST
Mount Rushmore is reserved for four heads. That’s the fun of any Mount Rushmore conversation anyone has about anything. The Mount Rushmore of chefs. The Mount Rushmore of basketball players. The Mount Rushmore of hip-hop artists. It’s all endless and all entirely right yet entirely wrong. So, who did I leave out?
I could understand an argument for Chris Jericho. Without Jericho, AEW is hardly half of what it is today, and, I mean, hell. He flew off the top of a cage. You deserve something for that, at the very least. Also, don’t forget how he put over Orange Cassidy and MJF through all this. If his job was and is to make other younger wrestlers, he’s doing a damn good job of that, between the matches and the Inner Circle popularity.
With AEW in mind, a sleeper pick for me is Dr. Brit Baker, who had what I think is going to go down as one of the five most legendary women’s matches ever against Thunder Rosa. And define legendary however you want, but there’s no denying how iconic that visual of her bleeding is and will forever be. Plus, like Bayley, she’s just so damn entertaining. They are similar heels in their obnoxiousness, but their obnoxiousness is infectious. Plus, she’s as popular as she is without the luxury of a title belt around her waist, and that’s rare these days.
Finn Balor is another one that’s criminally overlooked. He singlehandedly carried NXT on his back for longer than anyone thought he would at this point, and that included the entirety of the pandemic era. Two of his opponents throughout all of it, Adam Cole and Karrion Kross, could be considered, but Cole seems to be used sparingly and Kross was injured for a good chunk of time over the last year.
For the NJPW heads … well, New Japan took a break for a bit, while these American companies trucked on in one way or another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I’m just saying this is Mount Rushmore. It’s not the hall of fame. The same goes with the bulk of the smaller American companies, like Ring of Honor and MLW, etc. They did their best to keep everyone safe, and they should be commended for it.
Besides. When it’s all said and done, this is just one person’s opinion. Which, of course, then leads me to ask: Who’s on your Mount Rushmore for the pandemic era in modern day professional wrestling?
Remember. You only get four … .