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The Acute Angle: Rusev

The Bulgarian Brute’s menace has thawed as a new Cold War has heated up. Is this the end of the foreign heel as we know it?

WWE/Ringer illustration

It’s hard to quantify a WWE superstar’s worth. The company is notoriously opaque about whatever proprietary formula determines who puts asses in seats, and its preferences are discernible—“Bring me an army of Dwayne Johnsons!” one can imagine Vince McMahon saying—but they’re often at odds with what the most vocal fans root for. And to the extent that “worth” is dictated by the fans—WWE’s nightly test market—there’s sometimes a chasm between the average tuner-in and the diehards who chant on live TV. That makes it awfully hard to second (or first) guess how individual performers are booked from week to week. Not that this stops fans and the commentariat from offering theories and criticism, which in turn only motors round-the-clock interest in the product.

So in an attempt to figure out what’s really going on with these larger-than-life figures—what the real story line that we should be paying attention to is—we’re taking a deep dive into some of WWE’s top (and bottom) performers, one at a time, in a new semi-regular series. Each installment will focus on a particularly compelling superstar’s current essentialness, and how their role foreshadows something specific about WWE’s future. Welcome to “the Acute Angle.”

To that end, we take a closer look this week at a bulging Bulgarian whose tenuous Russian sympathies and blurred heel and babyface tendencies underscore the uncertain future of wrestling’s foreign-baddie trope.

The Superstar: Rusev
Years Active on WWE Roster: Four and a half years as of late June 2018
Number of WWE Titles Held: Two
Finishing Move: The Accolade; The Machka Kick
Signature Catchphrase(s): “Rusev … crush!”; “It’s Rusev Day!”

What’s the Angle? Is Rusev the Last of the Old-Fashioned Foreign Baddies?

First, a Little Background … Like so many WWE superstars before and since, the man they call simply Rusev was once introduced by both his first and surname. Specifically, he was Alexander Rusev, a hairy-chested human tank from Bulgaria by way of NXT, escorted to the ring by “Ravishing Russian”—and eventual real-life wife—Lana (a.k.a singer/dancer/actress C.J. Perry, formerly of unfortunately named pop group No Means Yes and scattered film and TV roles). But prior to popping his pro-wrestling cherry, Rusev was known to friends and family by his given name, Miroslav Barnyashev (but we’ll stick with Rusev for our purposes). Growing up in newly post-Communist Bulgaria, Rusev absorbed wrestling and Western culture from an early age, eventually making it to the U.S. via an exchange-student program. While toiling at odd jobs in California, he enrolled in wrestling school—trained by Rikishi and Gangrel, no less—and after a brief spell on the independents performing, ironically, under his real first name, was snatched up by WWE developmental and repackaged roughly as we know him today.

Since Arriving in WWE, Rusev has epitomized the veritable sine wave of an enduring pro wrestling career. He debuted as auspiciously as one can, appearing as the sixth entrant in 2014’s Royal Rumble and, despite failing to win that 30-man contest, embarked on a 146-day undefeated streak. Despite his documented Bulgarian roots, Rusev’s gimmick was rejiggered slightly to ally him more explicitly with Lana’s beloved Russia, making him an unambiguous adversary for earnest patriots like John Cena and Jack Swagger (the latter of whom had only recently portrayed a survivalist xenophobe, but whatever). It was all fun and games for Rusev and Lana during their early roll (including a smug, token turn with the U.S. Championship belt), as they scandalized exactly no one by broadly offering praise to Vladimir Putin (which was, if Lana is to be taken at face value, reciprocated by Putin’s awarding Rusev a medal) while snickering at then-President Barack Obama’s perceived ineffectualness.

But as WWE Hall of Famer (ugh) and McMahon-clan pal Donald Trump ascended to the nation’s highest office (and McMahon matriarch Linda was ultimately appointed as his Small Business Administrator), Rusev’s Russian fervor conspicuously waned. Now absent his Red-sympathizer menace, he would soon teeter on the brink of jobsolescence© (i.e., jobber obsolescence). There were the requisite breakups and makeups with Lana (a rollercoaster alternately halted and hastened by conflicts between on-screen storytelling and mainstream gossip about their off-screen romance), and aimless associations with Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio, and Wade Barrett (collectively known as League of Nations), not to mention former enhancement-talent extraordinaire Jinder Mahal, who got the rub from Rusev, only to have the roles reversed months later.

Still, Rusev’s return to relevance didn’t really take root until a one-off comedy segment paired him with songbird ex-Vaudevillian Aiden English and birthed a virtually Yes! Movement-level phenomenon (at least in its theatricality, and maybe its popularity, too) forever known as Rusev Day. The once-and-again Bulgarian brute, having only glanced his potential as a humorless foreign heel, has found fame (if not measurable success in terms of major in-ring victories) as a hugely charismatic attraction who—much like Miroslav Barnyashev, child of the ‘90s—probably never got what all the Cold War fuss was about anyway.

His Signature Moment: Some might say it was in inadvertent service of Kofi Kingston after being eliminated in that Royal Rumble in 2014. Or merely sharing the same air (again in defeat) as the Undertaker in their recent casket match. His entrance for his WrestleMania 31 clash against Cena while riding a tank to the ring at Levi’s Stadium is an in-house favorite. (He lost that match, sure, but neither of his U.S. title wins was particularly iconic.) His signature run is the current Rusev Day era, but his signature moment may still be yet to come. Of course, that could be either a vote of confidence or condemnation. We may not find out until Trump (and, ipso facto, Linda McMahon) is out of office.

All Things Considered—There’s a long tradition of cookie-cutter villains from the former USSR—Boris Malenko, Ivan and Nikita Koloff, and Nikolai Volkoff. (That the latter was paired in the WWF’s ‘80s heyday with the Iron Sheik of Iran speaks volumes about the hazy expendability of the foreign threat.) Sometimes in wrestling, geopolitics is enough, but the payoff is usually fleeting. In this modern era, a superstar’s imagination (if not their statistical success) is often the only ceiling for efforts to break stereotypes and set the tone for how WWE can truly globalize rather than marginalize.

From that point of view, Rusev represents a sea change when it comes to one of the business’s most bankable archetypes. He is a tremendous athlete—a “super-athlete,” if you will, in an unconventionally imposing body—and has been very upfront about transcending the foreign-nemesis niche. Or as he put it to The Independent, “I was more than just ‘the foreign guy.’” This is very much the onset of what he’s had in mind since crossing the ocean from southern Europe and bulldozing his way through NXT. And while there’s been plenty of smarky consternation over whether he was forced to ditch the Kremlin-menace gimmick, the fans have had a hand in this, too. Once we got a whiff of Rusev’s playful side flipping burgers and flexing his pecs on Total Divas, the poker-faced Ivan Drago shtick being served up on Raw and SmackDown scanned as not only thankless and inauthentic, but a missed opportunity for mutual catharsis. Rusev could show the world (and has) that bloc jocks just want to have fun, and we in turn could feel reassured that our ancient enemies—be they of the high-school-tormentor ilk or from parts unknown—haven’t stayed stuck in time.

Sure, guys like Rusev and former tag partner Mahal (a native Canadian of Punjabi descent) will still function to some degree as the unsubtle other, complete with nationalist entrance music and states of dress. But we’re also witnessing a transformation by way of upstarts like former NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas, who’s somewhat beholden to familiar ethnic trappings but is defined less in opposition to American-ness than by being cool and from Mexico. Rusev, upon reflection, may not have always crushed, but he certainly broke ground.

The Finish: Is Rusev the Last of the Old-Fashioned Foreign Sympathizers?

Probably not. This is pro wrestling after all. But is he the last useful one? Possibly so.