By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer
And so, there it was. From Maximum Male Models to Crown Jewel main event. From an extra in a Triple H workout video to being in a program with a generation’s top star. From the set of NWA Powerrrrrrrrrrrr to selling out arenas. From Eli Drake to LA Knight.
The man born Shaun Ricker – once billed from Hagerstown, Maryland, where they drop a big, inflated donut into a big, inflated cup of coffee at about 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to mark the impending new year (the city wants to keep the party family-friendly) – made it. He tried everything. Been everywhere. Team-played his way into the good graces of those around him. Kept his physique in tip-top shape. A guy even Eddie Kingston said in an interview last week he roots for. The 41-year-old did it.
He got over in WWE.
If you didn’t catch Crown Jewel on Saturday (I don’t blame you because that show dragged like “The Irishman” in a movie theater), here’s what happened: LA Knight stepped into the ring with who’s probably going to be recognized as the most dominant champion in the history of at least the modern era of WWE, Roman Reigns, and, predictably, lost a match for the WWE Undisputed Universal Championship. I say “predictably” only because we all knew Knight’s ascent was too quick for the company to mortgage all the currency it earned with Reigns as its top guy on someone who one year ago could barely find his way onto WWE Main Event. No disrespect, of course. Just facts.
But my, oh my, the difference a year can make. Call him an Attitude Era ripoff or call him just a guy who got lucky, there’s no denying that he managed to figure out how to connect with the WWE fanbase in the year 2023. His rise has been a joy to watch, and if you tell me that there was never a point through any of it that you actually felt yourself root for him, then I’m going to tell you that you’re a liar. Even if it was for only one segment, one week or one match, Knight’s jump from the bottom, all the way to the tippy-top has been as infectious as anything else in pro wrestling all year.
Better yet, he proved his worth as an in-ring worker over the weekend. Knight has (rightfully) had his detractors over the months – including, to be fair, myself, if you check out any of my Smackdown live reviews from week to week – but somehow, someway, it all came together for his match against Roman Reigns. Perhaps it was Reigns’s slower pace that helped. Perhaps – gasp! – Reigns is a better worker than any of us give him credit for and he led Knight to a great outing. Or, perhaps, it was just the latest chapter in the stars aligning for Knight’s unprecedented run. Whichever it was, Knight held his own against the Tribal Chief in Saudi Arabia and despite the predictable outcome, he was one-half of a very worthy main event. The only thing lingering …
I was the guest on the Pro Wrestling Boom podcast last week, and among the options Jason Powell floated out there was the notion that Knight ends up being the guy to take the United States Championship off Logan Paul at WrestleMania. Of all the fantasy bookings/armchair predictions to be made, that’s the one that I can get behind the most. If memory serves, the two did have a slight interaction or two over the months, so the seeds are already there. Plus, remember: This isn’t pro wrestling that WWE serves up; it’s sports entertainment. And you can’t get much more sports entertainment than those two working a program together.
As for the immediate future, it kind of/sort of feels like Knight will move on to Jimmy Uso, if only because Jimmy was the Designated Bloodline Member to inevitably interfere in Knight’s match against Reigns at Crown Jewel. With reports stating that Reigns will be off WWE programing until at least 2024, it’s not like Knight’s going to get an immediate rematch … or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe. So, allow the guy to get his momentum back by taking his frustrations out on Jimmy and then see where things go from there.
All those things seem fine and well and good and OK and somewhat expected. If any of that happens, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s cool, too – as long as there’s a plan in place for the guy who took matters into his own hands and raised his profile with the help of practically nobody in WWE. The operative phrase there?
“As long as there’s a plan in place.”
Through all of this – up to and including Saturday afternoon – I can’t help but look a few miles down the road and wonder what this means for LA Knight in the long-term. You could be forgiven if you don’t have the utmost trust in WWE to know how to handle someone like this after giving him the requisite taste of a championship shot – a shot that was put into place almost solely to settle the fans down. The company has its obvious slate of hits – The Rock, Stone Cold, the list goes on – but it also has its share of fumbles.
Remember when Chad Gable won the hearts of fans a couple months ago and we were ready to finally believe he’d be taken seriously as a contender … only to have him shoooosh his way back to irrelevancy? Hell, look at how stubborn the company was with Daniel Bryan before his rise became impossible to suppress. How about Dean Ambrose being so fed up with the vision the company had for him that he said he was heading out the door one way or another when his contract ended? Kofi Kingston losing in the blink of an eye to Brock Lesnar and being sent back to New Day mid-card land? This tangent doesn’t have to stop here.
Anyway, LA Knight has tangible momentum behind him and you can’t convince me a loss to Roman Reigns is going to affect that in any consequential way. WWE has done an incredible job building Reigns as an attraction – even more so than its top champ – and as such, a loss to Reigns can be shaken off with a few “Yeahs!” and a couple “Let me talk to ya’s!” Still, it’s not as though Knight is heading to the ring with the ability to satisfy the worker fans on a consistent basis, and while I know the shelf-life for wrestlers has dramatically increased through generations, it’s not like being 41 years old is going to do him any favors in a world like this.
And so the question must be asked: Will Crown Jewel go down as the apex of the LA Knight wave?
There are always two parts of any story where the most work is done. The first part is the part that pushes an issue through into the land of relevance. A lot of work has to go into that and so often, it seems like an impossible task, but if you can do it, and you can make people look at you and celebrate you for what you do best, that part is indicative of the grind one has within him or herself. Will you just not give up and will you just keep doing your best? If the answers are yes, you’ll always have a shot.
The second part of that story is more tricky. It’s what happens after you reach the top of that mountain you’ve been grinding to get to the top of for all those years. Is a brush with the best enough validation to make it all seem complete? Or is the point to get there, stay there, evolve, reinvent, adapt and figure out a way to be something more than a footnote in the larger story being told? That part isn’t dictated via the grind; it’s cemented with talent, imagination and both a willingness and an ability to evolve.
Or, I suppose, in other words, can LA Knight be more than just the “Yeah!” guy? He’s thrown out some fun insults every now and then. He’s certainly got a look down with the sunglasses and the vest and the boots. But he feeds the flame of detractors when he sets up his Special Elbow in 85 percent of the way The Rock set up his Special Elbow and the Blunt Force Trauma never seems to hit the way a finisher should hit.
Look, I root for him. I do. I think we all should – it’s a great pro wrestling story and one that feels as organic as any could feel in WWE these days. I just worry that neither he nor the company know quite what to do now that he’s achieved the goal of getting in the ring to compete for the brand’s biggest prize against the brand’s biggest name. A secondary title like the U.S. Title isn’t the worst thing in the world, but if they wait until WrestleMania to pull the trigger on that, will Knight’s act be stale? Will it ever be stale? Is it almost stale now?
Those are questions that will only be answered in the coming weeks now that Knight had his moment under the brightest spotlight with the most shiny guy. Don’t forget about the “What?” era of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or the decidedly more goofy side of The Rock. WWE’s biggest stars always knew when to pivot, and those changes granted them not only longevity, but also credibility within the context of their larger legacy. Will LA Knight be able to tap into that? I hope so, if it’s only to prove that with enough determination behind a person, fun and natural things can still happen in the weird world that is pro wrestling.
As for now, cheers to a guy who never quit, a guy who never took no for an answer and a guy who proved that there’s still a little magic left in the pro wrestling world, even if it seems so divided so often these days. There’s a lot of distance between Max Dupri and LA Knight; here’s hoping the road that Shaun Ricker travels next is one that carries just as much fruit as the ones he’s already managed to navigate.