Friday, September 10, 2021

Poacher's Delight, Case Number One: Baron Corbin

Corbin, All Elite? Not as shocking as you think
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All Out was the best mainstream American wrestling pay-per-view of all-time even without the shock of all the debuts into All Elite Wrestling. However, those debuts, namely, Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, have opened a lot of minds to the possibility of big names from WWE leaving the company and signing with AEW not because they've been jettisoned from their deals in cost-cutting measures (the way FTR and Ruby Soho were), but because they now had choices for places of employ. WWE wanted to keep Danielson and Cole, and they couldn't because they refused to offer them things they wanted. Now, other wrestlers may have that option on the table.

All the same bullshit cryptic Twitter "news" accounts are saying the same things, that there will be an exodus to AEW and that it'll be more surprising to see who STAYS with WWE when their contracts are up. Kevin Steen has already teased a reunion with his Pro Wrestling Guerrilla Rushmore stablemates, Cole and the Young Bucks, and according to the new face of pro wrestling news, Sean Ross Sapp, his contract with WWE, where he wrestles as Kevin Owens, is up in January 2022. His buddy Remi Sebei, aka Sami Zayn, has his contract up even earlier. Those guys are no-brainers to make the jump to AEW, which is PWG on a national stage.

But what about the other wrestlers, the ones who seem like WWE lifers or folks who may not seem like fits for a promotion as tailored to the kind of fan AEW courts, at least in the front of one's mind? Truth be told, AEW wants the same fan WWE wants; they're just going about it a whole different way. The question should be, can these wrestlers work in that different way AEW provides? In this series, I will explore some intriguing cases and examine whether they would be good fits in AEW.

First up, Baron Corbin.

The Case For: AEW has a lot of great wrestlers who are able to produce in the ring, and the number of people who scorch the earth on the microphone is a lot higher than some haters will give them credit for. What they don't have are a lot of characters. More accurately, they don't have a lot of character building in the way that people who have been fed on wrestling starting in 1996 are used to. AEW is a wrestling promotion down to the idea that nothing that is shown on camera is done so without tacit admission that the people in the shot know a camera is there except for when it's explicitly stated beforehand that the footage was obtained with a hidden camera.

WWE has poisoned people to think the only way you can build fleshed-out characters is through these pantomimed cinematic skits that clearly everyone in the arena and watching at home can see. I think there's a third way, one that AEW has used to highlight backstage brawls only, or for the odd Inner Circle exposition piece, like Le Dinner Debonair. You don't need to film these situations with the people in the actual situation ignorant of the camera. But you can flesh out characters more than just with superficial gimmicks. In a way, they've done this with Orange Cassidy. Wrestling characters don't need to be that deep, yes, but they shouldn't just be faces in a crowd who have to wait until they main event to have depth.

That's where Corbin comes in. He, in many ways, is the poster child for what WWE wants vs. what fans of wrestling want, but it's not really earned. He told Apollo Crews "GO BACK TO ROH" in a random NXT Takeover match, and suddenly, Fed sycophants used that not as great heeling but as a rallying cry for the invasion of "vanilla midgets" into their good and pure body guy factory. He became a tension point in The Discourse™, when all he was was a former football player who made it through the rigors of his training and navigated NXT as a classic WWE body guy in an era where the push to make it Paul Levesque's boutique super indie was in full thrust.

Still, whatever he was asked to do on the main roster, he did with his whole ass. He was asked to be an administrative assistant to the general manager, and he wrestled in business wear. He was King of the Ring, so he made his entire shtick about royalty. Vince McMahon gave him a trademark, mock-the-heel cruelty gimmick, this time making fun of the poor, and the work he did getting that over was some of the best character work in years. It's that drive that could make him a resonant character in AEW.

The Case Against: AEW has done fine having a dearth of three-dimensional characters, as the goal of wrestling isn't to create lasting art the same way Martin Scorsese does, but to create connections with the crowd to react in the moment and perhaps leave them with a mark that lasts for years. You don't need to make the wrestling equivalent of Raging Bull to do that. Most of the emotion and nuance can be gleaned in the ring anyway. AEW has done an incredible job of cultivating a roster of wrestlers who do that without giving them prolonged exposition on their gimmicks or elaborate, out-of-arena vignettes that explore their motivations. In order to get over in AEW, you need to be able to connect with the crowd either with a microphone in your hand or in the ring.

The question to ask is, can Corbin do that? I'm not convinced he's someone who can thrive in that sort of environment, which would make him jumping from WWE, where he can be supported by creative and management, to AEW, where he wouldn't have the same structures, make sense. Tony Khan has made few signings that don't make sense for him. I'm sure you can have arguments about a few individual cases, but the way AEW has functioned like a well-oiled machine for the two-plus years it has been in existence shows how good their chemistry is. Corbin might be an extraneous ingredient that might end up being destructive.

The Final Word: Is Corbin the square peg that would not fit through AEW's round hole? Or could he be the key to unlocking new and exciting possibilities for Dynamite each week (not Rampage, that show at one hour should stauy focused on the formula)? You won't know unless you try him out, and I feel like he'd be a signing that if he didn't feel loyalty to McMahon and WWE would be worth the spin, as long as Khan and his EVPs knew how to accentuate what he was good at. I wouldn't hate him taking a spin for the Jacksonville territory, as much as it would've shocked me to say that even one year ago.