By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Cody’s story, of course, is still being debated after he lost to Roman Reigns at WrestleMania and is now (presumably) set to wrap up his program with Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam in a couple weeks. Should WWE have pulled the trigger on a Cody title run back in April, when it felt so natural and crowds near and far clamored for it? If the plan is for the American Nightmare to eventually win the thing, will that time come after he reached the apex of his popularity? Welp. Here we are at the end of July, and those crowds are still singing “Whoa!” as loud as they ever have. So time, as we often say, will tell, but for now, he seems to be doing OK.
But the second guy I talked about three weeks ago – that’s who I’ve been thinking about more lately. LA Knight (Yeah!). What’s his ceiling? Is WWE maximizing its booking potential for the guy? Has his popularity began its journey back down toward the middle of the earth? What’s wrong? What’s right? Can we already conclude any of these things one way or the other?
Earlier this summer, I spent a long weekend visiting family in Orlando and I somehow found myself embedded with a group of wrestling fans. The plan for the night was to attend an Orlando FC MLS match and while that’s what we did, I couldn’t help but notice a strong (and loud) handful of those people constantly performing the LA Knight-Yeah! schtick. Tailgating before the game, that’s all you heard. On the walk to the stadium, it broke out every 20 or 30 seconds. Even after the match started, there would be sporadic LA Knight tributes.
Maybe it was because I tend to opt against being around large groups of people at my old age, or maybe it was because I hadn’t been to a live WWE event in ages, but the sheer joy these people had in emulating one of WWE’s biggest stars stuck with me. This wasn’t a stray Saturday afternoon where Knight was ironically being remembered; this was a routine that felt like it would stick around for months to come, regardless of where Knight lands on any given card (if he even lands on a card at all).
Since May, I’ve been watching WWE programming more intently than I have in a long while because I’m tasked with reviewing Smackdown on Friday nights. And it feels like each time I sit down for those two hours, I’m half-waiting to see if A) LA Knight will show up, and B) If he does, will the crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, react to him like a crowd in New York City would react? The answers are always yes. That popularity doesn’t appear to be waning and his reactions are most always the loudest of the night.
So begins the curious case of LA Knight. Because on the other side of those cheers and that adulation is a heavy-handed group of detractors. Some call him a rip-off, a third-rate Rock giving birth to a fifth-rate Stone Cold impersonator. Then there are the rumblings and reports that trickle out regarding his popularity backstage. “He’s not well-liked,” some have said, only to be countered by other reports that claim wrestlers say he’s great to work with (as an aside, we all gotta know by that now that if you have influencers, newsletters, and websites speculating on your reputation backstage, rest assured you’re doing something right no matter what anyone says).
The truth on both ends of those issues is subjective, so there’s no use wading in those waters here. A guy can be both a rip-off and entertaining while coworkers’ perceptions are tricky no matter what the workplace is and no matter who’s working where. Still, I can’t help but view Knight with a contradictory eye. Do I think he’s an entertaining talker? Yes. But does his in-ring work match up to the heights his promo abilities exude? Not really. Then again, does that matter? Doubtful – nobody ever accused The Rock of being able to produce a mat classic, but his pro wrestling career turned out just fine.
Here’s where those ups and downs evolve into deeper waters, though: Is LA Knight’s popularity with the fans predicated on a strong interpersonal connection? Or is that popularity a novelty, little more than an act that is a function of people yearning for something lighter in an era when the top part of the card features a decidedly darker story in the Bloodline?
I ask because, here’s something I haven’t yet heard said out loud: Since he was thrust into the tag-title picture with his best friend, can someone tell me what happened to Sami Zayn? Part of what made his inclusion in the Bloodline work was the charm that came along with his role in the story, and Zayn, to his credit, knew precisely how to exude a specific level of fluff that counteracted the hard-hitting fabric of the overall story. At each turn, crowds fell more and more in love with him, and while we sit here months later, still arguing about if Cody should have won the Undisputed WWE Universal Title at WrestleMania, who’s to say Zayn couldn’t have had a hell of a run if he wasn’t relegated to the tag-team title picture?
That’s not to say Zayn isn’t a popular wrestler in his own right these days; it’s just to say that you’re lying if you’re telling me you hear the same decibel level from crowds when his music hits today than you did back in February when he was challenging Roman Reigns for his beloved titles. Zayn’s rise in popularity was a product of his hard work, commitment, and willingness to do anything the company asked him to try – but in my mind, it was also a product of the pro wrestling show simply needing some levity every now and then. It was absurd to see this long-haired, red-headed nonconformist be pals with the calm, cool, suave collective that is the Bloodline. That’s what made it work. More so, that’s why people cared. The audience could see themselves in Zayn and they saw him being manipulated and bullied by the faction’s Head of the Table. It didn’t just stop at entertainment; Zayn was pitch-perfect as someone who deserved sympathy.
Where’s Knight’s version of that? Currently, all we really see is a cocky (supposed to be?) heel who knows how to deliver zingers. Maybe some fans are attracted to his confidence, but beyond that, where’s the personal issue? What’s missing in the discourse about LA Knight is his staying power. Think about the history. Every so often, crowds decide to get behind a wrestler and through sheer will, push a guy or girl up the card. In WWE Land, it’s more pronounced because more casual fans are likely to tune in to that product. Therefore, you get a Daniel Bryan or a Sami Zayn, who are natural underdogs, receiving the brunt of that kind of support.
The thing is, LA Knight isn’t positioned as an underdog. Perhaps that’s the story WWE wants to tell as Knight keeps racking up losses, never making his way into any substantial title match, but even if that’s where we’re going, both the company and the wrestler have a long way to go to get there. Check out Knight’s NXT clips. Shoot, look up Knight’s time when he worked as Eli Drake in TNA or NWA. This isn’t a guy who tears at your heartstrings. This is a guy who loves him some him. That can be endearing to a certain point – hello, again, The Rock – but unless you’re a once-in-a-lifetime talent, I’m not exactly sure how large of a shelf life you have if you can’t find a strong shared connection with a crowd as an organic fan-favorite. Humility is a virtue and it’s one that could be the missing piece to the Knight puzzle if both he and WWE want to capitalize on this groundswell in popularity.
But lest we be reminded that capitalization isn’t always necessarily in the plans for WWE and its talent that find a way to get over with live crowds despite the lack of help from any creative forces behind it. At this point, you’d like to think that all the decision-makers know there’s something worthwhile in LA Knight’s momentum right now – and perhaps there’s a long game that will unfold in the most rewarding ways possible – but that’s not always guaranteed in WWE. Karrion Kross was a menace in NXT … and then someone gave him a used BDSM outfit to wear to the ring and he’s never recovered. Johnny Gargano went from Johnny Wrestling to Johnny Where The Hell Are You. They’re examples in the hierarchy of this company – and recent ones at that – that serve as reminders that these things don’t always work out, no matter how much fans and critics alike think they should.
For now, all we can do is be entertained by the few minutes Knight gets each week on the Blue Brand and continue to wonder when (or if) the minds behind the booking will give him a path further up the card. Only when things start moving in that direction will we be able to tell if Knight has the longevity of those legends he kind of/sort of emulates, and only then will we know if he is merely a product of a fanbase that needs a break in the clouds every so often, or if he is someone they truly feel themselves connecting with on a significantly personal level.
“Let me talk to ya!” Knight has been known to say every now and then. We’re letting you, my dude. Now please just make sure you say something ultimately worth hearing.