I'm Always Right, Except When I'm Wrong: What My Initial Thoughts Were on Tensai and Rusev While on the WWE Creative Team
During my three-year stint on the WWE creative team, differing opinions within the team and with management regarding story lines and characters were the norm. It made for some spirited debates, with Vince McMahon being the ultimate decider.
This is the first entry in an occasional series in which I will discuss specific creative decisions and whether I believe my opinion on them at the time was eventually proved right or wrong.
I WAS RIGHT ABOUT TENSAI
It was either late 2011 or early 2012 when Triple H announced in a booking meeting that we had signed Matt Bloom, who had previously performed under the names Albert and A-Train in WWE. It was obvious from his demeanor that Triple H thought this was kind of a big deal.
I was skeptical right from the start. Bloom had impressive size but I always thought he lacked the "it factor" that was necessary for a talent to connect with the audience.
In fact, when I interviewed for a position on the creative team in 2001 (I ended up not being offered a job at that time), I was asked by then-creative team member Paul Heyman to name a performer on the roster who I thought had turn-the-channel heat. My answer was Albert.
Heyman then asked me what I would do to get Albert over. My response was that when a guy has the look and size of Albert, you have two choices: either make him a monster you think you can make money with or make him a comedy act, and I thought he was better-suited for the latter.
When Bloom returned to WWE a few years ago, the intention was to make him a main-event-level monster heel, and the creative team was assigned to come up with a character for him. Among the pitches for Bloom were for him to be a masked mauler, an ex-prisoner in an orange jumpsuit and an American samurai.
I was of the belief that the best option was to give him a cool-looking mask with black ring attire that showed the tattoos on his upper body but covered his ample midsection. The more we hide his identity, I thought, the less chance the crowd will be chanting "Albert" at him. I also thought he needed a mouthpiece, and my suggestion was to hire James Mitchell as his manager.
The samurai character was my least favorite. Of course, that's the one we went with. And instead of a manager, he was given a follower who never spoke English named Sakamoto.
The story line played off of Bloom's real-life experience of failing to make it big in WWE and then going to Japan and finding success there. The idea was that he embraced the samurai culture while in Japan and was now coming back to America to wreak havoc in the place where he was rejected years prior, WWE.
A bunch of names were tossed around for the character, with Tensai emerging as the winner. Then the discussion was whether to go with Lord Tensai or Master Tensai.
I thought Master sounded more badass. Of course, we went with Lord.
When I got a look at Tensai backstage just before he was about to walk through the curtain and make his debut that April, I thought he looked ridiculous in the samurai garb. I didn't think the red trunks were flattering either. The whole presentation, including him spitting green mist and using a claw hold as his finisher, was just bad.
The idea was to strap a rocket to him and have him main event SummerSlam against John Cena. In an effort to get Tensai over at that level, he was given pinfall victories over top babyfaces Cena and CM Punk on TV.
Cena was all for doing a program with him, telling us that he welcomed the opportunity to get in the ring with "a big man who can work," but I told some of my colleagues that I didn't believe there was any chance that proposed SummerSlam match would take place.
The audience immediately rejected Tensai and took to chanting "Albert" when he was in the ring. It quickly became evident to everyone that the character wasn't working, so a series of changes were made.
He lost the samurai garb. He lost the "Lord" from his name. He lost the green mist. He lost Sakamoto.
None if it mattered, and the next thing he began losing was matches. A lot of them.
Not only was I right about Tensai not main-eventing SummerSlam against Cena, but Tensai ended up not even being on the card at SummerSlam.
Eventually, Tensai was turned into a lower-card comedy act.
I WAS WRONG ABOUT RUSEV
When the creative team was shown clips of Rusev matches and promos from NXT so that we could start working on ideas for him when he was called up to the main roster, I and several other members of the team burst out laughing.
With his loincloth-type ring attire, over-the-top facial expressions, wild hair and primal screams, the guy was unintentionally hilarious. This was a heel character straight out of the 1970's that would never work today, I thought.
We started coming up with pitches for him as a comedy act, but we were told that Triple H envisioned Rusev as a monster heel so we had better forget about the character being played for laughs.
I said Rusev would end up being Tensai 2.0. But at least Tensai had intimidating size, whereas Rusev had a thick build but was no more than 6-feet-tall at the most.
He reminded me of a less-muscular Ted Arcidi. There was no way this guy could be a believable monster heel when he'd be looking up at guys like Sheamus and John Cena.
What Rusev did have that Tensai lacked, however, was Lana as his mouthpiece. Still, I figured a beauty-and-the-beast act would probably get Lana over while Rusev would end up as Marc Mero to Lana's Sable.
It turned out that some people above my pay grade saw some of the same flaws with Rusev's presentation that I and others on the creative team did. Before Rusev made his WWE debut, his ring attire was changed and he was instructed to tone down the facial expressions and screaming and to wet his hair so that it didn't look look so wild.
While the changes were for the better, I remained steadfast in my opinion that Rusev would never get over to the level that Triple H was expecting.
During that time, Vince McMahon also questioned whether Lana should remain part of the act or if Rusev was better off going it alone. I didn't think Rusev had a great chance of being a success even with Lana by his side, but without her he had zero chance.
Fortunately, McMahon decided to keep Lana with Rusev, and it wasn't long before "The Ravishing Russian" became one of McMahon's favorite characters (go figure).
Just like Tensai, Rusev was given a huge push from the start with the intention of having him work on top against Cena. The plan was for Rusev to be Cena's opponent at WrestleMania.
After Rusev began appearing regularly on Raw and SmackDown, I still wasn't sold on him making it as a top guy, but it did become apparent that my initial thought that he would suffer the same fate as Tensai was wrong.
Before long, I realized that Rusev was everything that Triple H thought he would be.