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How Riddle Avoided the Barbershop Window

Or how Riddle was still able to find success in the WWE without being double-crossed by his tag team partner Randy Orton (yet)

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You can buy an RK-Bro 4:20 shirt on WWE Shop.

How we got there is a bit hazy, but we know it involves Riddle (a neighborhood stoner and MMA bro) and Randy Orton (canonical murdererarsonist) running roughshod over the Raw tag team division for a year, a bleary-eyed snake, Randy Orton being able to quickly convert ounces to grams in his head, and RKOs coming from everywhere, including higher planes of existence.

(OK, I think I got all the dad-grade pot jokes out of my system.)

The whole thing also makes me think of the Barbershop Window incident that led to the dissolution of the Rockers—specifically when Bobby Heenan finishes, saying “One without the other isn’t any good” to Gorilla Monsoon at the exact moment Shawn Michaels’s boot meets his (now former) tag team partner Marty Jannetty’s chin, and about 10 seconds before Jannetty gets thrown halfway through the titular window by Michaels. All of this happened, of course, as sole proprietor Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake watched in horror.

The most important part of the first line, at least for the team here at Kayfabe HQ, is that it happens about 15 seconds before the Brain claims, “Jannetty tried to drive through the window to escape” the now-bleeding (and also now-former) Rocker, and then calls his sudden trip through the plate glass “an act of [sic] cowardism” like the call-it-down-the-middle broadcast journalist Bobby always was. Sure, the segment is probably more important to, say, the history of wrestling because of the way it’s hung over tag team wrestling like a black cloud for the last 30 years, but Heenan’s thing is definitely funnier.

That black cloud isn’t the fault of the performers or the writers, but the trope it birthed as the Barbershop Window incident has become a victim of its own success. The turn worked so perfectly and set up such clearly defined short-term story arcs and long-term character implications, that it became the template for the next 30 years of tag team wrestling. It also made us all bloodthirsty monsters who pray for a Jannetty-esque sacrifice nearly every time a tag team splits. (Let’s just say that we’re holding candlelight vigils for Luchasaurus in the hopes he can avoid the BrontoBurger treatment after his inevitable feud with Jungle Boy.)

Michaels may have been blamed for the breakup, but he made it clear very quickly that he made the best decision for both of them, even if he made sure he was the only one who cashed in on the opportunity that was created in the aftermath. Fans helped Michaels ride a massive wave of heat all the way to an Intercontinental Championship reign starting in the fall, and a WWF Championship match at the 1992 Survivor Series. Jannetty, on the other hand, became a target of Michaels backstage and quickly crashed out of the WWF multiple times over the next few years.

What, though, do we do if no one is to blame for the apparent end (and indefinite suspension) of a prominent tag team? Or if, as seems to be the case with RK-Bro, an injury stops us from getting anywhere close to the expected timeline? How can our thirst for denouement be satiated without something even resembling a “fitting” end?

The lack of fisticuffs-based closure has been especially odd for a Randy Orton relationship, as he is best known for being a habitual line stepper and face punter in his personal and business dealings. This is a man who has, on multiple occasions, attempted to murder people with whom he used to be extremely friendly. More often than not, he does these things around the same time as when he’s performing one of his signature moves on their significant otherand in some cases, managing to go way, way over that line. Things never end well with Randy by your side, and almost always do so with an RKO out of nowhere.

For Riddle’s part, however, not only has he managed to thus far largely avoid the RKO, he’s even adopted the move (with Randy’s blessing) as his own. Coming out of the entire experience unscathed, and maybe even ahead on the whole deal, might be the single most impressive thing Riddle has done since moving up to the main roster. This success has carried over, even after Randy’s exit following their tag title unification defeat.

Riddle’s only losses in those last 20 or so matches have come in title matches against both parts of the Bloodline—a meaningless battle royale—and the Money in the Bank match. (Oh, and he got beat in under four minutes in a Money in the Bank qualifier to Omos who, for whatever reason, annihilates Riddle every time they work together.) None of this momentum has put a championship back around his waist, of course. But his recent wave of success does find Riddle in an important SummerSlam program with Seth Rollins, and on the outside of title contention in a post-Roman world. And most importantly, for our purposes, no. 7 on the WWE Power Board.

But the numbers don’t (totally) explain why the future for Riddle still seems a bit cloudy, or even why WWE so often looks for a violent, schismatic end to teams that shock the systems of both performers and the audience’s expectations of them. At least not completely. To understand the big picture that affects both of these things you need to, like I often do, spend some time thinking about weird patterns in wrestling minutiae.

Like, “Why do sibling tag teams seem to last for so long?”

As has been the case since time immemorial, modern-day tag team title scenes are lousy with brother tag teams like the Young Bucks, the Creed Brothers, and the Usos. But the genre’s legacy stretches back far past its most famous examples from the recent past, like the Steiners and the Hardys. The nature of what is presumably a positive enough sibling relationship that you’d be willing to work with them full-time is an opportunity to fill in any number of potential logical loopholes that can sink a tag team’s long-term story arc. And that is a godsend for a writer, especially when you’re one working on a TV show that films live 50 times or so a year.

Concepts like, “Why is neither member of this team particularly interested in singles success?” can be explained by deep-rooted values instilled in them as youngsters. Or, it can be as simple as “I like beating other dudes up with my brother.” I mean, who amongst us? As a bonus, this same undercurrent is also why it often feels like such a profound betrayal when one of them decides to venture out on their own.

With incredibly high stakes for their usually unlikely breakups, brother tag teams provide a balance in the sports entertainment universe for the kind of “Can they co-exist” tag teams which, while it’s difficult to argue now is the case, were precisely what RK-Bro presented as when first introduced to us. But Randy and Riddle aren’t an odd couple, and that’s a good thing.

Conflict in odd-couple relationships is presupposed (and largely predetermined), and teams constructed under these conditions can catch the bad kind of “will-they-or-won’t-they” vibes. The never-ending tension can corrode the connective wiring and short-circuit a team (as well as whatever following they might have hoped to build) before they ever have a chance to get rolling. Getting the chemistry down in a situation like this is the wrestling equivalent of riding the edge of a lightning bolt, and while we do not expect performers to apologize for that, the result is that the entire enterprise often has a better-to-burn-out feel to it.

Speaking of which, RK-Bro is found between these two poles—way less odd a couple than a “big quiet guy–small loud guy” tag team, but also slightly less familial than the cousins Anderson—in a situation which could best be described as a “kindred spirits” tag team. While not a traditional example of the genre like the Rockers, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Midnight Express(es), New Day, and FTR, to name a few, the “off-the-court” proclivities of both men and the fluid nature of their physical performances put them on far closer wavelengths in the ring and on the mic than teams that have been together twice as long.

Which led to pretty positive results for RK-Bro, especially early on. Their natural chemistry while working a match—along with Orton’s considerable gravitational pull, making sure the action keeps spinning on its axis—and drunken-master compatibility outside of the ring led them to winning the Raw Tag Team Championships at SummerSlam 2021, after only seven (7!) matches together. They then managed to defend the championships 20 times (including thrice on TV and twice on pay-per-view, as well as a champions vs. champions victory against the Usos at Survivor Series) over the next few months.

Following a brief hiccup against Alpha Academy, they regained the Raw Tag Team Championship and held it through a championship unification match they lost to the Usos at the end of May (and just over a year into their remarkable run). At least in our rankings, however, this firecracker start (perhaps significantly) slowed Riddle’s growth in the company.

This, despite having technically worked the second-most matches behind Drew—holding that Bianca Belair’s incredible tally of 140 matches is at least half a step above Riddle’s, as a full 40 percent of his 149 matches since the beginning of 2021 have been with Orton. And, while it’s certainly not fair to say that performers in tag teams do “half” the work of their single counterparts, it’s definitely accurate to state that, by and large, they do receive half as much credit for their achievements as someone working alone.

So how, then, does someone like Riddle get ahead in a world like ours?

For a start, working as many nights as he does helps immensely, even with 60-plus tag team matches. The entire WWE incentive system is structured on working as much as possible, unless you’re Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar. Appearances at live events improve merch sales for performers, get newer Superstars comfortable performing in front of live crowds, and help fans forge the kind of emotional connection that forces them to cheer or boo a performer that can only come from seeing them in person.

Being advertised as a tag team, however, for someone like Riddle—the significantly less famous member of a thrown-together tag team, who exists in some way to shoulder the load in terms of working and in terms of losing—is going to get him, at best, half of the momentum from whatever success they are currently having. Any win in a match that has Randy Orton in it is going to be assumed to be a result of the Apex Predator’s exertion of his will (or willingness to let others share in his kill) and not whatever (or whoever) else is happening in the ring.

And our numbers are designed to reflect that—not just for Orton, but all tag team performers. Once again we find ourselves on the edge of the Kayfabemetrics weeds. Still, we promise that the math in this section will be brief and relatively harmless: Individual competitors, meaning those tracked and listed in our system as singles wrestlers, received a 50 percent reduction in their “score” when competing in a two-on-two tag match (this gets complicated in ways that don’t feel necessary to discuss at the moment). We also level out the scale by working in the complete opposite way for established tag teams, treating them, essentially, as individual performers—though this is the case only for matches in which they appear as a tag team (including six-and-eight-person tags).

Beyond what’s mentioned above—and given that our system is an attempt to reflect how the company sees you, not the actual quality of your work—there are several reasons why this is done. Most notably is that, without it, someone like (bless his heart) Otis might find himself atop our list based on the sheer number of matches tag teams work relative to their solo counterparts. We have love for Otis, but not “writing 75 words of copy every week about the exploits of the more egg-shaped half of Alpha Academy” kind of love.

It’s not all bad news, though. For a performer like Riddle (from the perspective of our system), some of the things that “hurt” him when winning matches with RK-Bro also protect him when things go wrong. In the laboratories at the Institute of Kayfabemetrics, our code of ethics prevents us from letting our tracking negatively affect a performer in any other way than losing too short of a match. Lose a match in less than 10 minutes, though, and we will give your ass a demerit, the size of which escalates as matches get shorter.

In the case of some superstars, like Sonya Deville (the only performer in our system with a negative POP score), this can completely wipe out whatever gains they may get from literally all other aspects of their work. With tag teams, this penalty is reduced in half and is performer-agnostic. This means that a young fan watching Riddle take the pin in a quick tag team loss may forever think less of him, but our system won’t tell anyone they’re disappointed in Riddle (no matter how disappointed he may potentially be outside the ring.)

On the other end, having someone like Randy Orton on your tag team is almost exactly the same as having LeBron James on your roster, in the sense that outside of very specific examples, you are equally likely to win a championship/play in an almost unfathomable amount of postseason games or get traded so one of their friends can get a title instead. As for the latter instance, Riddle is somewhat safe, as Orton has publicly stated (repeatedly) that he has never had any friends other than the King of Bros.

And the championship (along with the resultant title matches) are, even with the score reduction, a major piece of the puzzle explaining how we get Riddle jumping from 13th to seventh. Being booked alongside a 14-time world champion gets you in rooms and on shows that you’d almost certainly never have a chance to work without him definitely helps raise your profile.

It also prevents overexposure. Riddle wrestling 149 matches in 19 months is a lot, especially for someone who isn’t meaningfully challenging for world titles on a consistent basis. But, the rough equivalent of 100-120 matches with a heaping helping of RKOs thrown in seems much more palatable, which ultimately may be why Riddle agreed to take a “standard-issue United States Champion” level of credit for his work, despite being a world titleholder. In fact, because we don’t use solo matches when analyzing tag teams, we only counted about 60 of Riddle’s total matches for our on-show-percentage metric. It was as though he had a secret relationship with the fans on house shows, but it’s only now been made public to the world at-large.

By preempting the kind of backlash that comes with working a match almost every other day while simultaneously hitching his wagon to one of the most popular (albeit aging) performers on the roster, Riddle has used his situation—which also included serving as the team’s stand-in for singles matches against tag team rivals—to get damn near to the top of the company while doing, for all intents and purposes, half the heavy lifting. All this without the company ever having to put a singles title on him we’d grow tired of watching him have, or making him a contender who routinely squanders his opportunities, like Dolph Ziggler. Adding the sheer number of nights worked by Riddle to his run at the top of a division with Randy Orton is how you end up where Riddle has.

Though, it’s this equation that has the (potentially temporary) end of RK-Bro making us feel somewhat uneasy. What, exactly, did Randy Orton get out of all this? Sure, he made a friend—and in real life, significantly reduced the number of bumps he’s taking at a point in his career where that’s going to become a compounding issue for him—but he also pulled himself almost completely out of singles title competition. The Raw Tag Team titles were nice, but not a first for him and, at the end of that pursuit, he was taken out by an injury that reportedly has him on the shelf for the foreseeable future.

And worst of all, Orton was almost certainly forced—many, many times—to listen to Riddle tell the same story literally every time they smoke a particular strain. That kind of thing can drive a man insane.

Which brings us back to the Barbershop Window. The truth is, if and/or when an RK-Bro breakup actually happens, it almost certainly won’t involve anyone getting thrown through a piece of glass. There are believability concerns but, more importantly, there’s just been no equivalent to that set’s window since Chris Jericho Jannetty’d Michaels through the Jeritron during a 2008 edition of the Highlight Reel.

But if, say, this kind of show suddenly came back, that is precisely the type of place I’d stay away from for the time being if I were Riddle. Tradition, fan’s thirst, and the wrestling gods dictate that there must be closure to the relationship between WWE’s two favorite stoner buddies. And it’s unfortunately possible that RK-Bro’s abrupt and unplanned ending will be all we get from this story if Orton’s injuries are as bad as they are made out to be.

However, if the most dangerous man in wrestling’s past is any indication, when Randy does return, Riddle may want to start remembering where the fire exits are in combustible buildings going forward (which shouldn’t be hard, as they are usually right next to the No Smoking signs.)

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