Back in 2008, I was very intrigued by a new Superstar that had emerged on WWE's Friday Night SmackDown program. Vladimir Kozlov, nicknamed "The Moscow Mauler", was an absolutely unstoppable wrecking machine on SmackDown for a number of months and quickly became a main event Superstar. At one point, "The Ruthless Russian" was involved in the WWE Championship title scene and was competing against the likes of Triple H, Jeff Hardy, and The Undertaker.
For his first few months, Kozlov seemed to be doing an excellent job. Between his vicious onslaught of Martial Arts maneuvers and his cold, merciless demeanor, I honestly thought that WWE had finally found their next Brock Lesnar/Bill Goldberg/Bobby Lashley/Dave Batista type of star. However, in late 2008, the news broke out through the wrestling dirt sheets that WWE officials, including WWE Chairman Vince McMahon himself, had decided that the Kozlov experiment was a failure. Kozlov was then moved to WWE's ECW brand for a short time until that brand was discontinued in February of 2010. From then on, Kozlov spent time on WWE's Monday Night Raw roster doing a comedy storyline with Santino Marella. Kozlov was released from his WWE contract in August of 2011.
Ever since Kozlov's release, whenever I see or hear anything about him or when I go back and watch some of his work from 2008, I often wonder what went wrong with Kozlov and how far he could have gotten if WWE officials didn't decide to pull the plug on him so quickly.
Fast forward to 2013, I started to hear things about a character in WWE's NXT developmental territory. I heard about some developmental talent named Alexander Rusev. The first thought that immediately popped into my head was that he probably had a Russian shootfighter gimmick similar to Vladimir Kozlov. As it turns out, I wasn't too far off. However, I soon found out that Rusev was actually from Bulgaria and not Russia. I felt silly for stereotyping Rusev just by his name and his physical appearance.
So I started to take a slight interest in this Bulgarian NXT talent by the name of Alexander Rusev. I was intrigued by his physical appearance and I started to read more about him on WWE's website. If nothing else, I figured that maybe this guy could be another impressive big man that might be entertaining to watch. I did watch a match or two that he had in NXT and I thought he looked decent but I hadn't heard too much about WWE officials being extremely eager to call him up so I didn't pay too much attention to him.
Much to my surprise, NXT's Alexander Rusev made an appearance in the 2014 WWE Royal Rumble Match and had a fairly impressive showing. I immediately became a fan and I was looking forward to seeing when he would debut on Raw and SmackDown. After the Royal Rumble, WWE started to show vignettes of Rusev and his manager Lana, who I had barely even seen or heard of. But again, I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the idea that Rusev and Lana were a little bit like the characters Ivan Drago and his wife Ludmilla Drago from the movie Rocky IV. I also liked the fact that Lana seemed to have decent microphone skills.
Ever since Rusev officially started competing on Raw and SmackDown, he has shown flashes of excellence. As is typical, he started out winning some easy squash matches to help introduce him and his style to the WWE fans. He has also found himself in a feud against former WWE United States Champion R-Truth and Truth's tag team partner, Xavier Woods. However, WWE recently made some alterations to Rusev's character.
At the Extreme Rules pay-per-view, Lana revealed that "The Bulgarian Brute" has now relocated to Russia and is loyal to Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin. WWE also made the decision to make Alexander Rusev yet another WWE Superstar with only one name, much like Batista, Christian, Sheamus, Cesaro, Big E., etc. Alexander Rusev is now officially known as simply Rusev and is officially billed as being from Russia...even though he is from Bulgaria.
His gimmick itself and his in-ring style have not changed, but it seems to me that WWE has, if I can make up a word, "overgimmicked" Rusev. To sum it up, it's cheap heat. It's easy to stereotype him and label him as being from Russia in an attempt to somehow make him seem like more of a villain to the WWE Universe. Much like how wrestlers from the Middle East are usually presented as heels, wrestlers from Russia are usually made out to be villains as well. It's a classic and time-tested pro wrestling trick to get a reaction from the fans, but I personally felt that it was unnecessary and a bit over-the-top.
WWE Chief Operating Officer Triple H recently proclaimed that WWE is in a "Reality Era". Why then would a Bulgarian be labeled as being from Russia in order to get cheap heat from the WWE fans? This is 2014, not 1984. Another issue I have is that Lana is being presented as being not just the brains of their operation, but Rusev quite literally seems to obey her every command, as though he is in the military and Lana is his commanding officer. It almost makes me wonder who WWE is trying to get over with the fans: Rusev or Lana.
But be that as it may, I am still intrigued by both Rusev and Lana and I'm curious to see how far WWE might allow them to go. Could Rusev end up being a main eventer some day? Will Rusev one day capture the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and headline WrestleMania with Lana at his side? Or will WWE do what they ALWAYS seem to do with their monster characters, and that is to water them down and eventually turn them into dancing comedy characters. In this case, I hope not.
I personally have been impressed with Rusev's in-ring performances, even though they have been very limited. He seems to possess some exceptional athletic ability and I like his stiff, hard-hitting offense. But then again, I thought the same thing about Vladimir Kozlov in 2008, but towards the end of his tenure with WWE, I was no longer a fan of his. I hope that this will not be the case with Rusev.
Wrestling fans, much like horror movie fans, love their dominant and destructive monsters. I can't say that I know for sure that Rusev will become a huge star in WWE, but I would like to think that there is definitely some potential in him. And one major advantage that Rusev does have over other monster characters, including Vladimir Kozlov, is that Rusev has "The Ravishing Russian" Lana in his corner. Lana seems to be getting over with the WWE Universe, perhaps even more so than Rusev right now. I'd like to see Rusev show more of what he's capable of. I would hate to think that Rusev might end up becoming another Vladimir Kozlov or another Ezekiel Jackson or Mason Ryan. I would like to see Rusev succeed.
Can Rusev and Lana go on to become WWE's next power couple? Only time will tell.