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Bank Runs: How Austin Theory May Change the Future of Money in the Bank Failures

After losing to Seth Rollins in a doomed cash-in for the U.S. title, Austin Theory’s post–Money in the Bank feels more like a great turning point for the up-and-comer

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MISTERRRRR Kennedy. John Cena. Damien Sandow. Baron Corbin. Braun Strowman. Otis. Austin Theory.

No, this isn’t the saddest possible call sheet for The Marine 7. It’s everyone “unlucky” enough to have won a Money in the Bank Ladder match, along with its iconic briefcase and the “book an instant championship match at literally any time during any show, present or future” contract stipulation and then, for whatever reason, not win the championship that opportunity all but guarantees.

And even among lists of notable failures, this is one you absolutely do not want to be on.

Which is odd, as WWE often rewards those willing to lose high-profile matches in order to further story lines. For instance, until Austin Theory joined the club, the number of performers who had failed their Money in the Bank cash-in was the same as the door who had won the Royal Rumble and didn’t leave with the WWF title at that year’s WrestleMania between 1993, when the “main-event WrestleMania” stipulation was introduced, and 2002, when the Brand Split largely turned the chance to “main-event WrestleMania” into “you will get a title match at WrestleMania.”

Those performers—Yokozuna (’93), Lex Luger (’94), Shawn Michaels (’95), ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin (’97), Mr. McMahon (’99), and the Rock (’00)—all left their respective WrestleManias empty-handed (or never made it to them at all) after winning the Royal Rumble earlier that year, then all went on to win world titles (or, you know, continue to own the company). On the other hand, every Money in the Bank failure (outside of Cena) saw a massive, career-altering drop-off from their positioning and perception in the company before and after failing their cash-ins. Even Cena won only four of his 16 world titles in the aftermath, though I am sure no one wept for him.

Heck, more than twice as many folks have lost every WrestleMania main event they’ve been a part of—Rowdy Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, King Kong Bundy, Andre the Giant, Sgt. Slaughter, Bam Bam Bigelow, Sid Vicious/Sycho Sid, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Edge, Randy Orton, Charlotte Flair, Ronda Rousey, Sasha Banks, and Kevin Owens—and to a person, all of these performers will be (or already are) WWE Hall of Famers, save a Bam or two. By contrast, some of the folks who have failed their cash-in wouldn’t get an invite to the Hall of Fame, let alone an induction.

To be clear, though, it’s not like the Money in the Bank contract is some kind of accursed wrestling object that brings sadness and misfortune to all who possess it. Edge, CM Punk, and Daniel Bryan saw their careers jump to a Hall of Fame–level post-cash-in, and even less notable MITBers(?) like Alberto del Rio, Jack Swagger, and Dolph Ziggler certainly have had successful professional wrestling careers that would have been objectively less successful without the opportunity they earned with the Money in the Bank contract.

But botching your Money in the Bank contract cash-in appears to do damage to one’s career that stretches far beyond any other gimmick in WWE history. There are varying degrees to which one can fail after getting their hands on the briefcase, though, and how you fail to cash-in (or losing the opportunity to do so) can serve as a massive signal as to where the company thinks you could or should be headed.

Before Theory, it was our boy Otis who had come up short most recently, who lost his briefcase to the Miz at Hell in a Cell—who then cashed in on Drew McIntyre after an Elimination Chamber match (and subsequent Lashley beatdown), only to lose the championship to Lashley the following week—in a feud over the briefcase that felt as though it was the plan all along (at least in the “Otis is a placeholder” sense).

Otis’s win was, of course, part of the “Climb the Corporate Ladder” Money in the Bank match that took place in 2020 at WWE’s actual Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters during the beginning of the pandemic. The former Pan-American Games bronze medalist and his opponents made their way to the roof of Titan Tower—perhaps most famous to wrestling fans before that as the backdrop of one of Raw’s earliest title sequences—where they then entered a ring, climbed a ladder placed in the ring, and attempted to get control of the titular briefcase.

The entire show was as Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad dumb and disposable as it was fun and fancy-free, which made Otis holding the briefcase feel like a fun twist at the end of a good show. By extension, however, his win made the whole thing feel significantly less like a superstar’s ascendance to a pantheon than the scene in a Slobs vs. Snobs movie where the lovable character named BEEF wins a wet T-shirt contest.

This is why (outside of the fundamentals of their fates) the first performer to fail, Mr. Kennedy, could not have come to the opportunity or lost it from a more disparate angle than Otis. A largely forgotten figure in WWE history, the brash character performed by Ken Anderson (and blessed in name by Vincent Kennedy McMahon) was, at the time of his MITB win, considered an excellent promo and serviceable worker with a money gimmick if he could ever stay healthy.

His win, which happened in one of the OG WrestleMania MITB ladder matches in 2007, was not particularly surprising and the MITB conceit fit perfectly with his career-long gimmick of “total dickhead who talks like his body is filled entirely with bratwurst.” The circumstances surrounding the switch—Kennedy suffered a triceps tear either before or during the match with Edge in which he lost the briefcase, which made any follow-up essentially impossible—were (and still are) a bit difficult to parse, so what Kennedy would have been otherwise is basically impossible to figure out.

It is safe to say, though, that Edge cashing in the briefcase just days after winning it from Kennedy was probably not a great sign in terms of “why” they took it off Kennedy in the first place, and it’s essentially indisputable that both Otis and Kennedy saw their trajectories pushed downward as a result of their failure. Though to be “fair” to both men, Otis certainly seems to be enjoying his time with Chad Gable in the Alpha Academy (a unit that showcases his near-perfect-for-professional-wrestling alchemy of good and goofy); and Kennedy’s departure, albeit acrimonious, seems to have had far more to do with backstage issues (whether or not they were his fault) and an almost preternatural inability to stay healthy than whatever happened to him in the aftermath of losing the contract.

So while having your MITB opportunity taken away before you ever have a chance to use it isn’t fun, there’s not exactly a great deal of evidence that it’s significantly worse, at least in terms of long-term damage to your prospects, than calling your shot and striking out the way Strowman and Cena did. Both used the briefcase to book a World Championship match in advance, with the former challenging Roman Reigns in a Hell in a Cell match that ended in a no-contest, while the latter attempted to end CM Punk’s quasi-historic run on an episode of Raw, only to have the Big Show ruin everything (as is his wont).

Obviously, with Cena, the failed attempt added minimal drag on his career—he’d go on to main-event WrestleMania the next year (after having main-evented [and lost both of] the previous two) and the four more world championships he’s won since the failure were enough to tie Ric Flair for the most ever (as recognized by WWE)—and it definitely doesn’t feel like a coincidence that he was the first to not bring home the belt after cashing in the contract. There was literally no doubt that Cena would be able to survive whatever reputation hit that came with the failure and the loss was a creative decision explicitly made to deepen the desperation he had following his loss to the Rock earlier that year (in the aforementioned WrestleMania main event).

Cena was chosen to fail in an attempt to prove how mentally strong he was. Strowman’s failure was also meant to send a message about the company’s feelings toward him, but it said something very different.

Because, although the then–Monster Among Men would eventually win the Universal Championship at a WrestleMania, he’d do so under the worst win conditions in modern wrestling history: two weeks into a pandemic, against Goldberg, in a squash match, where he was an almost explicit downgrade from Roman Reigns (who had been booked into the match but opted to take a sabbatical from the company over concerns regarding COVID protocols). This worked as an echo of his original cash-in, when, after over 20 minutes of fighting, the HellCell in which he and Reigns found themselves was broken into by Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman, who proceeded to incapacitate both men by chemical and physical means.

Both the win and the loss posited a kind of “but for Roman” status for Strowman, with the failed cash-in representing not necessarily a defeat but a definitive statement that Braun would not be placed on Roman’s level in a fair fight when anything significant was on the line, no matter the circumstances (or even whether the goal was to make Braun look good or bad, it was just a thing that existed). Strowman’s problem was, in kayfabe at least, he didn’t recognize the MITB briefcase and contract for what it was: the magic object that lets you win the end-game boss fight.

For those somehow unfamiliar with the concept, which has appeared in TV and film but is best known for its role in video games since time immemorial, “boss fights”—or as TVTropes refers to them, “Boss Battles”—are those points in a story or interactive narrative experience when a character must overcome a symbolic or special obstacle in order to, literally, reach another level of/part of their journey or end the game/complete their story.

In most of these challenges, there is a technique or specific in-game object that can either render the boss entirely ineffective or, at the very least, soften their blows enough to make them withstandable in a protracted battle of wills. Along these lines, for WWE, the MITB contract is like a really big fucking sword you get to chop a big demon’s head off with (or whatever happens past the first village in Elden Ring).

Because the most important thing to understand about the MITB contract from an audience perspective is that it’s not about who is getting the title, but who they are beating to do so. We spoke earlier about lists of significant losers in WWE history and there is perhaps no greater example than the roster of folks who were cashed in on (in descending order of times they’ve been challenged): Cena, Charlotte Flair, Seth Rollins, Reigns, Punk, del Rio, Show, Lashley, Lesnar, Chris Jericho, Bryan, McIntyre, Edge, Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio, Nia Jax, the Undertaker, Ronda Rousey, and, in the interest of being a completist, Jinder Mahal.

The relationship Cena, in particular, has with the briefcase is also of great historical significance. He was the (losing) target of the first two cash-ins: The first, by Edge, happened after an Elimination Chamber match Cena had won, while Rob Van Dam forged the path later taken by Strowman and Cena, using the briefcase to challenge the West Newbury native to a WWE Championship match at the legendary One Night Stand PPV in NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom. In doing so, he would become the only briefcase holder to win the title via this method of using the briefcase to secure a match at a later date.

The Doctor of Thuganomics was also directly responsible for the other two totally failed cash-ins before last Monday’s Raw, defeating Damien Sandow after he attacked during a promo and preventing Baron Corbin from beating Mahal during his cash-in, sending both men’s careers into tailspins.

Cena’s centrality to the Money in the Bank narrative, of course, makes the most sense possible: John Cena is the biggest boss of them all, literally the Face That Runs the Place and a performer who is almost exclusively presented as the most resilient in the company’s history. That Sandow would attempt to cash in on him unexpectedly (as opposed to challenging him ahead of time) actually showcased that character’s “genius” side, as well as his fatal flaw of hubris.

Instead of waiting for the most opportune time possible, he thought simply roughing up Big Match John beforehand would be both necessary and sufficient in terms of title acquisition. He was hella wrong, and although he’d find some success with Miz as part of Mizdow before eventually being released by the company, the character lost almost all credibility with the failure, largely relegating him to comedy bits until he was wished well in his future endeavors.

As for Corbin, while his considerable size and conniving character seem like it was a match made in heaven with the MITB contract and his attempt to cash in on Jinder was an inspired one—the Modern Day Maharaja was perhaps the most vulnerable champion of the last 10 years—his deeply ingrained lack of patience (why not just wait for Cena to beat Mahal and then cash in, among other nits to pick) and tact made his failure a kind of Greek tragedy.

It also offers a point-source solution for how he’s ended up establishing permanent residence in the MizZone: There has never been a professional wrestler in the history of professional wrestling more likely to get in their own way than Happy Baron Bumass Corbin, and it makes a great deal of sense he’d have (to that point, at least) the dumbest cash-in ever. (Seriously—how are you out here picking a fight with Gorr the God Butcher John Cena at the exact time you are trying to win the world championship?)

Corbin’s cash-in remained the dumbest ever (and honestly, the only one that actively seemed like a bad idea while it was happening) until last week, when Austin Theory entered the chat. His attempt, for the United States championship, which had just been offered up for an open challenge, in real time immediately surpassed Corbin’s when it became clear what was happening.

Once he lost, however, it became what may have been the single dumbest use of any gimmick by any performer in the history of professional wrestling: Our resident Ringer wrestling encyclopedia, Phil Schneider, could think only of Bill Dundee managing to lose his wife’s hair in a hair vs. hair match as comparable hoisting by one’s own petard (outside of, of course, Onita’s tendency to literally be hoisted by his own petards during his exploding death matches). And if Phil can’t think of something dumber, something dumber simply doesn’t exist.

It was truly a tour de force of petulance, but, in a way not seen outside of Cena’s failure, a misstep that seemed intentionally designed to, if not garner sympathy for him, at least change the conversation around Austin Theory and propel his story forward.

On the November 14 Raw (just a week after his cash-in), we saw a new Theory, not just aesthetically, but in terms of the foundational aspects of his character. He’s stopped showing up with his iPhone to the ring, and, somewhat shockingly, he had a real, adult conversation with Cathy Kelley about his decision to cash in, what led him to choose Rollins, and the ways in which, if not for interference from Bobby Lashley, he wasn’t completely ridiculous to have attempted to do so.

What he said was, of course, mostly hogwash: While the Bloodline—which Theory cited explicitly, along with Tyson Fury and Brock Lesnar, as the reason he’d been unable to cash in on Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns and, subsequently, led him to Seth Rollins—has certainly made it more difficult to take the title from Roman, there was still over eight months’ time before the contract expired.

In fact, waiting until literally the day of next year’s Money in the Bank PPV had been floated as a potential plan for Theory’s cash-in, but Austin saw the briefcase as (in his words) “an anchor” that was preventing him from reaching his full potential. But even after losing the anchor, Theory still doesn’t feel totally free from the burden of his time with the briefcase. This is, likely, where the frustration he displayed in his destruction of Dolph Ziggler, one of his most frequent antagonists, came from and it’s certainly what drove him to attack Seth Rollins following the Visionary’s U.S. Championship match against Finn Bálor to close out the show.

Because, while what’s inside the briefcase is a contract with a promise to make your dreams come true, what’s inside any performer’s Money in the Bank contract cash-in is who they are at their core as a character the moment it happens. Theory doesn’t seem to have liked or respected that version of himself, and it seems highly probable that this failure will serve as a turning point in his career as well as a launching pad for future success.

At the very least, it looks like he’ll manage to avoid the curse of the Money in the Bank failure. Which is nice to hear, because while he may be young, good-looking, and have a bit of a funny accent, Austin Theory is no Kennedy.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.