When 24-year-old Theory dispensed Riddle and seized the Money in the Bank briefcase, the crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena fell silent. They had already seen a lot of the young wrestler during the night, watching him throughout the 25-minute men’s Money in the Bank match and earlier that evening, during the 11-minute WWE United States Championship match in which Bobby Lashley defeated him. Now they were going to have to watch him a bit longer, as he basked in his moment of unexpected triumph.
This was a lot to see of anyone, even incredibly popular performers such as Cody Rhodes and Seth Rollins, but that was precisely the point. The mere announcement by Adam Pearce that Theory would be competing in the Money in the Bank ladder match was met with immediate bewilderment. Why this guy, many seemed to be wondering, and why now?
There are several reasons. For starters, Theory can work. No less a critic than Jim Cornette remarked that Theory looked like a 10-year veteran when assessing his late-January WWE Raw match against AJ Styles. But plenty of people can work, and not all of them get the sort of rocket-launcher push that Theory has received since he found himself in possession of Cleopatra’s Egg after last year’s Survivor Series and won the patronage of Mr. McMahon for his trouble.
The second reason, which is intimately connected to Mr. McMahon’s backing, is that the WWE is promoting Theory because it can. In his prime, few could incense a crowd like in-character Vince McMahon, and the company surely understands it’s much easier to make fans loathe a wrestler who has overwhelming management support (of course, the visceral reaction to good-guy John Cena’s unwaning WWE support became the stuff of great later story lines).
The third reason—the reason that makes it worth putting this particular Theory to the test—is that the payoff could be a superstar the fans love to hate. The 26-year-old MJF has manufactured this sort of top-tier acclaim over the course of three heat-seeking years in AEW, but recently appears to have hit some roadblocks in his relationship with that company. Theory, meanwhile, is bigger and stronger, has been wrestling incessantly against the best in the world since the end of high school, and has evolved on the mic from an arrogant, slightly-befuddled kid in NXT to a confident jerk.
If Theory passes the test (he has said that puns like this are why he stuck with the “Theory” name after initially choosing it because he thought it rhymed with “Fury”), then the WWE could have another “Ravishing” Rick Rude on its hands. If he in fact aces that test, he could turn out to be a Rude-by-way-of-John-Cena hybrid—a “physique heel” who raises the bar for this brand of villainy even further thanks to tunnel vision and a second-to-none work ethic.
The physique heel is a specific strain of bad guy, with its origins in some combination of pioneering 1950s superstar Gorgeous George’s pomposity and early 1960s NWA world heavyweight champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers’s ripped-for-his-era cockiness and menace. This isn’t a precise origin, since the trunk of the Gorgeous George family tree includes Adrian Street, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, and Goldust, while Buddy Rogers’s direct heirs can be more reasonably said to be longtime American Wrestling Association champion Nick Bockwinkel, fellow “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and Shawn Michaels.
Somewhere amid the post-Woodstock haze of the 1970s, emerging from an era awash in steroids and tie-dyed T-shirts, the prototype of the physique heel appeared in the massive form of “Superstar” Billy Graham. A refugee from failed bids as a professional football player and boxer as well as one of the world’s first legitimate 600-pound bench pressers, Graham’s unique look and singular way with words were key to his dethroning of longtime WWWF (the forerunner of today’s WWE) champion Bruno Sammartino in 1977 and enjoying nearly a year-long run with the title before dropping it to Bob Backlund in early 1978.
This title run was an eternity for a bad guy champion in the nation’s premier promotion, which always used good guys as long-term titleholders. Along the way, Graham spawned a host of imitators in the late 1970s. Hulk Hogan became the most famous, though his greatest glory came as a good guy who still used “heel” offense such as eye rakes and back rakes, and WWE Hall of Famer Jesse “the Body” Ventura was surely the best talker and most committed to the bit. “Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol, who still sometimes turns up as a manager or mouthpiece, brought that same energy to promotions in the South after radically reshaping his body in 1978.
It was Minneapolis native Rick Rude who would refine all of these precedents into an innovative, streamlined package. Billy Graham, Jesse Ventura, and Austin Idol were all big powerhouses, men who even when ripped resembled champion powerlifters. Rude’s lean frame, however, consisted of muscle on bone; he was ripped to shreds. More than that, he cut his teeth in the Southern wrestling territories, learning how to work in Memphis, Dallas, and Charlotte before arriving in the WWF in 1987. There, he debuted an elaborate disrobing routine likely borrowed from Austin Idol’s repertoire, as well as hips-swiveling, Chippendales-style posing.
But what really set Rude apart was his ability to generate not just heat but hate. While feuding with Jake “the Snake” Roberts in 1988, he wore a pair of tights with Roberts’s wife Cheryl’s face emblazoned on them (Roberts hit the ring to strip Rude to his thong underwear, but the damage was done—and Rude would pull a similar stunt in his match against the Junkyard Dog at the first SummerSlam, further antagonizing Roberts). Over the course of subsequent feuds with Roddy Piper, Big Boss Man, and the Ultimate Warrior—swapping the (then) WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight championship with the Warrior at WrestleMania V and the 1989 installment of SummerSlam, then leading the Warrior to a World Heavyweight championship—Rude incorporated plenty of posing, but he also cut his hair short and became increasingly vicious and technical in the ring. The most notable face to grace Rude’s tights during this period, and the one immortalized on the tights of his “Legends Collection” action figure, is his own.
During Rude’s final three years as an active competitor (1992 to 1994), he was a fully-established main event player for WCW, the unquestioned star of Paul Heyman’s Dangerous Alliance stable that also included Steve Austin, Arn Anderson, and Bobby Eaton. He held the WCW United States Heavyweight Championship and eventually the newly-created WCW International World Heavyweight Championship—the latter launched after the company ceased using the NWA World Heavyweight Championship as its top belt—and headlined most of the company’s major pay-per-view events during this period.
The points of comparison between Rude and Theory are many. Like Rude, who was working high on territorial cards by his mid-20s and whose only real athletic endeavors prior to wrestling were arm wrestling and bar bouncing, Theory only had a bodybuilding competition to his name outside of wrestling and started young in that sport—even younger than Rude, in fact. Theory, whose real name is Austin White, won the 2015 NPC Georgia Bodybuilding Championships in the Teen Men category at age 17, doing so because it represented what he saw as a necessary step on the way to a wrestling career he had been training for since his backyard wrestling days. In an interview, Theory explained how his singular focus on the sport led to an awkward moment at a high school counseling session, during which the other students discussed the college they would be attending while the would-be wrestler said he planned to go directly into pro wrestling.
And he did exactly that. Theory went straight from high school to the indies, wrestling many of today’s big names and rising stars—Keith Lee, Trent Beretta, Ethan Page, Matt Riddle, Darby Allin—as well as past stars like former muscle monster “the Masterpiece” Chris Masters. From the outset, Theory had his signature physique, a middle ground between John Cena’s dense musculature and Rick Rude’s sinewy definition. Also from the outset, he moved extremely well, able to do high-impact, high-elevation maneuvers or standing moonsaults and forward rolls without the clumsiness that accompanies the typical bodybuilder’s efforts to do the same (a comparison with heavily-muscled Brian Cage is instructive here, as the “Swoleverine” can do many of these same things but in a far less graceful manner).
Theory also proved he could sell anyone’s offense, whether that person is Zack Sabre Jr. systematically working joint locks or Brock Lesnar administering a wild F5 from the top of the Elimination Chamber cell at this year’s pay-per-view in February. He demonstrated that ability in spades after moving from the WWE-affiliated (now wholly absorbed) independent promotion EVOLVE to NXT in 2020, when a brief early push that saw him showing up on Raw and at WrestleMania 36 gave way to his incorporation in Johnny Gargano’s heel faction the Way, where he mostly got squashed against wrestlers who ended up disappearing from the NXT roster—literally in the case of his matches with Bronson Reed, which often involved the bigger man simply falling on him.
It was this willingness to take his lumps that made Theory’s sudden ascent following his surprising return of Cleopatra’s Egg (a bizarre MacGuffin tied to the Rock’s Red Notice film that appeared at the 2021 Survivor Series in lieu of the movie star himself) seem so jarring. In retrospect, the evolution of his character makes sense. Theory was initially quite nervous around Mr. McMahon, unprepared for the authority figure’s slaps out of nowhere or other mind games, but as he was inserted into more marquee matches with the likes of Big E, Finn Bálor, Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, and Kevin Owens, his demeanor changed. Although he lost most of those matches, the work itself has been exceptional and he’s found ways to win when it counts, as with his eventual defeat of Bálor to become the youngest United States Champion in history and his reappearance at Money in the Bank to seize the coveted briefcase after a back-and-forth bout with Bobby Lashley in which Theory sold some of the Almighty’s most impressive offense in ages, including a forward roll that culminated in Lashley gorilla-pressing Theory.
The Lashley feud will continue into SummerSlam and seems likely to follow the same pattern as Theory’s eventual conquest of Bálor after repeated losses. Thus far, it has hit all the right notes for a physique-versus-physique feud, including the sort of crowd-infuriating posedown session that surely pleased the bodybuilding-obsessed McMahon and recalled Rick Rude’s similar efforts against the Ultimate Warrior—down to the bad guy losing their cool in each exchange. (Lashley, who has a legit combat sports background more closely akin to Brock Lesnar’s, has the mass and the posing pedigree, but the smaller Mr. Teen Georgia’s poses—hit in an individual performance the next week—were much smoother and more natural.)
Despite these successes, questions remain. Can he go from being hated by the crowd for many of the wrong reasons to lovingly booed for all the right ones, as was the case with the Rock during his transition from his earlier run as the over-pushed, entitled babyface Rocky Maivia? Can he keep improving on the microphone, becoming more confidently unlikable? Recent interactions with the likes of his childhood idol John Cena, in which he commands the spotlight, indicate this is indeed happening, with the “McMahon’s protégé” story line offering a compelling reason for his transformation back into the cocky heel character that powered his success in EVOLVE. His attention to the craft of wrestling, modeled on Cena’s own scheduled-to-the-minute obsessiveness, indicates that this still-unproven Theory possesses a high degree of validity.