On March 29, 2015, Rusev came into WrestleMania 31 as the United States champion. He rode in on a damn tank.
On April 15, 2020, Rusev was released by WWE as part of the company’s coronavirus pandemic clear-out.
Those two moments happened roughly five years apart, and, together, they are the best way to approach how badly WWE has mismanaged one of the best, most engaging, and most popular wrestlers that the promotion has developed in recent memory. WWE’s treatment of Rusev over the years is a waste in its own right, but it’s also perfectly in line with how the world’s biggest wrestling company has operated for the better part of a decade. Anyone who has ever wondered why the biggest wrestling promotion on earth leaves so much talent rotting away on the sidelines can find the answer in how WWE botched Rusev’s seemingly inevitable rise to stardom.
The general in-ring quality in WWE as a whole has skyrocketed thanks in large part to the rise of NXT as the promotion’s developmental brand/indie superstar staging ground; this leap forward started in late 2013, more or less. For all the ways that NXT has helped, though, its ability to pump out WWE-ready talent has had the effect of bloating the main promotion’s roster to an unmanageable degree. To put it another way, although WWE released about 20 wrestlers in that April 15 bloodbath, there are still a myriad of talented performers with no space on its cards. That’s because WWE has signed wrestlers either to push them as a shiny new thing or, more disappointingly, to keep them away from the promotion’s nascent indie competitors.
You could argue that these wrestlers should have known better than to sign on to the bloated carcass of WWE, but the decision isn’t quite as simple as that. Realistically, few pro wrestlers would or could afford to pass on the financial security that the company can provide. Blaming the workers is not the answer, and that’s doubly true where someone like Rusev is concerned—a wrestler who was trained in WWE, thrived in response to every challenge the company threw at him, got over with crowds, and then promptly got shunted off to the side in favor of the new indie signing or, for some reason, the slew of part-timers that came back to soak up TV time and headline matches.
It’s baffling to consider in retrospect. Rusev went from an unstoppable beast who only lost to John Cena in that aforementioned WrestleMania 31, to being thrown into a stupid romance angle involving his real life wife Lana, the charisma-vacuum Dolph Ziggler, and the talented-but-underused character actress Summer Rae. It was dumb in the ways that only WWE can be dumb, and somehow Rusev still made gold out of it. I mean, if there’s a funnier line reading in recent WWE history than “take the fish,” I haven’t heard it.
Following that, Rusev was thrown into the Eurocentric League of Nations stable, which was seemingly formed only to job—lose emphatically, in other words—to the “good guys.” The stable didn’t really accomplish much for anyone involved, and so Rusev was shunted off yet again. It must be repeated that all this was just one year after he rode into WrestleMania on a damn tank.
The following year would see Rusev capture the United States championship once again, though he lost it to Roman Reigns in what would be his last program with a bonafide main eventer. WWE made the decision to embarrass the so-called Bulgarian Brute once more, this time throwing him into yet another romance angle with his wife and noted horrible person Enzo Amore. It was bleak, not only because WWE has no idea how to run romance angles, but because it was such a clear waste of two talented performers…and also Enzo Amore.
The last surge of popularity for Rusev was, like every one of his big surges, an organic one. Despite being a heel at the time, his “Rusev Day” gimmick with the singing Aiden English became one of the best-received gimmicks in the company; Rusev would claim every day is “Rusev Day,” and English fired up his over-exaggerated operatic voice to sing him into the ring. It was silly, sure, but it worked for the same simple reason that most gimmicks work: fans wanted to see more of it.
(You won’t believe this, but WWE eventually pulled the plug on Rusev Day by…having English turn on Rusev and say that he had an affair with Lana.)
The extent to which Rusev’s career path has been so defined by his real-life wife is both demoralizing and a shame on its own merits; instead of letting Rusev do the many things he does so well, the company found different ways to create tension between him and his wife, again and again, for the sake of sadistic payoffs funny only to one Vincent Kennedy McMahon. It’s perfect that Rusev’s final storyline in WWE was yet another romance angle; in this one, Lana accused Rusev of being a controlling sex addict, divorced him on camera, and later married his rival at the time, Bobby Lashley. It was a fantastic waste of time and effort that benefited no one and that was hated by pretty much everyone.
It’s a shame, too, because Rusev is a complete package in a way that few wrestlers are, even those at the top of WWE’s card. He’s not the best wrestler in WWE history, nor the best talker, but he was able to mix and match his talents to play a variety of characters and play them well.
It’s not just about wasted talent, either. Few performers understand WWE’s style of wrestling better than Rusev. He can be a silent killer, as he was after his debut, but he can also be dryly hilarious, and even charming. He also understood that wrestling works best when it feels real, a nebulous but unmistakable attribute that makes sense when you see it and leaves an instantly identifiable deficit when you don’t. Rusev was one of the few wrestlers in the company that “sold on offense,” meaning that he made sure whatever punishment he took in a match affected how he attacked his opponents. He also had a great sense of timing, both in terms of when to hit his big moves and when to make his opponents’ moves look like death. He should have been an asset for years to come, and in a promotion that worked better than this one, he still would be.
Instead, he’s now free from a creative team that either never understood how to use him properly or understood that he was so good that they could feed him garbage and he would, at some point, still get over with fans again through his natural talent. He’s not the first wrestler seemingly punished by WWE for becoming popular on his own merits; the aforementioned Cesaro has seen his momentum stall despite connecting with fans for nearly a decade; perhaps most famously, Zack Ryder was punished for daring to get popular on his own YouTube show at the start of the last decade.
So where does Rusev go from here? He could go to New Japan Pro Wrestling for a number of highly-anticipated matches; a personal dream match would be Rusev against Shingo Takagi, two pitbulls smashing each other to bits. For all his talents, though, Rusev is probably not quite a good enough wrestler to keep up with Japan’s elite performers, although the same could probably have been said of Jon Moxley before last year’s stellar G1 performance. Rusev could also reinvent himself by working the independent scene once the coronavirus pandemic is over. (It’s especially brutal that WWE released all these wrestlers at a time when they can’t capitalize on their notoriety by going straight into the indies.)
Or Rusev could do the most logical thing—join All Elite Wrestling, the second-biggest American promotion and the only one in years that has put an actual dent in WWE’s ratings. There, Rusev would be among the familiar faces of other WWE wrestlers who were under-used and discarded before finding a home in a less backwards and backed-up promotion; Cody Rhodes, Moxley, and Brodie Lee could all sell him on the creative freedom that comes with AEW. More than that, there’s a job opening: AEW is also lacking a big foreign heel at the moment, an archetype that wrestling has had since even before the Reagan-era heyday of The Large Orange Man leg-dropping villains for America.
Wherever Rusev goes, however, one can only hope that his next company understands his appeal and turns him loose to let him use his impressive physique and understated mic work to their best advantage. WWE either never quite seemed to get that Rusev’s sustained run of fan support wasn’t attributed to whatever embarrassing romance angle or generic foreigner stable they threw him into or resented how little they had to do with his success. Getting laid off during a pandemic isn’t any more fun for wrestlers than it is for anyone else, but on the other side of this Rusev will have more career options than ever. Torpedoed by bad creative and a bloated roster at the biggest promotion on earth, he was only able to get over on his own merits. In Vince McMahon’s WWE, that was the biggest crime of all. Now that he’s a free man, wrestling fans can only hope some promotion, somewhere, will give Rusev the damn ball.
Correction, 2:27 p.m. – This article previously said Cesaro was in the League of Nations; that is incorrect and has been fixed.