Thomas Pestock started his wrestling career in 2012, and it took him a while before he found his footing. But when the Baron Corbin character was re-packaged and introduced in September of 2014, the NXT Universe really got behind him. His raw animal magnetism, his impressive physical size and his rebellious look earned him an instant following. Fans, especially female ones, began to explode whenever his entrance music hit.
In the past months, however, a different crowd reaction has become palpably felt. When Corbin enters Full Sail University these days he is greeted with boos of disapproval, punctuated with jeering chants of “Corbin sucks” and “you can’t wrestle”. The once loving fans have turned on the tattooed outlaw.
Corbin currently finds himself at a crossroads in terms of character, but signs are beginning to emerge that he (and the creative department) are making the right moves to advance his progression as a performer.
First of all, what happened?
How did the fans come to turn on Corbin in the first place? What did he do that enraged them so?
The short answer is: nothing. The slightly longer answer is: nothing else.
When Baron Corbin began rolling over jobber after jobber, week after week, using devastating clotheslines, stiff punches and boots, and a heavy-hitting signature move, it was natural for the crowd to cheer him. He was brash, fierce, dangerous and effective. A rebel without a care. A wrecking ball with a denim vest and a handsome smirk. What’s not to love?
A similar situation occurred during Ryback’s initial push in 2012-13, when he made squashing jobbers his signature. He rose quickly in popularity thanks to his dominating style, but ultimately suffered from booking choices. First of all being placed in a feud for the WWE Championship far too early in his career, and then followed by a heel turn just at the peak of his popularity, the Ryback character floundered with fans.
Only now is he regaining the momentum he once had, but it has not been an easy time.
Unlike Ryan Reeves, WWE has thus far kept Pestock out of the title race, but they are nonetheless booking him strong. He holds only two losses on NXT television. Both were to former/current champions (Neville and Balor), and both were during tournaments whose winners would enjoy a considerable boost. The company has obviously not wanted to push him too quickly, and perhaps repeat mistakes of the past.
In the meantime, Corbin has been continuing to do his thing. Every week he comes out on NXT and squashes another jobber in a matter of seconds with a noticeably stunted array of moves. Either that, or he competes in a battle with someone like Bull Dempsey or Rhyno which, also lengthier, ends up being rather dull.
After a time, the fans began to get the distinct impression that there is much less to Baron Corbin than they once believed.
A competitor like Samoa Joe can squash a jobber too, but he will do it in such a way that leaves you with the idea that he is capable of doing more, that he possesses the ability to do amazing things in the ring. Corbin does not leave such a multi-dimensional impression.
The NXT Universe is hungry for action. They want to be wowed and awed. They do not want boring matches, nor do they encourage boring stars. The promotion has now developed a reputation as an revolutionary force in the wrestling industry, where standards are made and the bar for excellence is set.
The fans have, naturally, identified themselves with being a driving force behind that revolution, and they now demand more from their athletes. They seem immediately adverse to the very idea of wrestlers lacking technical ability, like Baron Corbin or Eva Marie, becoming representatives of “their brand”.
So, what can Corbin do?
The most recent example of the fans turning on a babyface performer occurred during the now infamous and cringe-worthy Royal Rumble match of 2015, when Roman Reigns was booked like a true blue hero and was booed like a dirty heel.
For Reigns, the solution came in quiet perseverance and faith in his ability. When faced with a negative response, he took the high road and acknowledged the public’s freedom of expression. Ultimately, their opinion of him was not going to hinder his desire to prove that he is deserving of everything he has.
The result has been an overwhelming success. Roman’s athleticism, psychology, charisma and booking has made him more popular than he’s ever been – and a million times more credible. For him, staying baby-face was the solution.
A different story from a year earlier, when Batista was met with a similar reaction after winning the Royal Rumble match. The public that he thought would celebrate his return dismissed the victory as BS, and he was noticeably taken aback. Instead of taking Reigns’ baby-face route, he threw the negativity back in everyone’s face, making “Deal with it!” his new catch-phrase.
The public didn’t like it, and part of the reason was because although his turn on the crowd read as heelish, he was still being booked as a face against then-champion Randy Orton. The crowd had no horse in the race, and the whole feud fell flat. The fans could not get Daniel Bryan back into the picture quickly enough.
Baron Corbin could respond very easily to his detractors in a way that would kill his career. He could very easily make the common mistake of not acknowledging the crowd. If he ignored the negativity. behaving as though he was still getting cheers, it would read as amateurish, disconnected, and ignorant. It would make him about as interesting as driftwood.
If, on the other hand, Corbin was to be brave and acknowledge the crowd’s response and incorporate it into his performance, it would show that he is adaptable, flexible, adept and aware. It would show that he is listening and responding, instead of merely going through empty, mechanical motions.
Signs of him doing this have begun to appear.
The birth of the “anti-wrestler”.
Baron Corbin has not stopped rolling over jobbers week after week, just as he did when he was re-debuted last fall. However, he has begun to add tiny differences in how he interacts with the crowd.
As the boos pour over him from the fanatics at Full Sail University, he holds his arms out and appears to soak them up, a cocky smirk creeping in at the corner of his mouth. He turns his nose up at the public, waves them off, and acts generally disdainful.