Baron Corbin took very little time becoming one of the most polarizing figures in the WWE.
The former Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman has been a pet project of the company since making his re-debut in NXT in late 2014, but with that lofty future planned out for him also came a plethora of criticism from his mic work, to how his work rate leaves much to be desired, that he has no character and so on. At the time, when he was about two years into developmental, these complaints weren't particularly unjustified, so when he was called up to the main roster and scored a win at WrestleMania 32's Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, the criticism only got louder. Too many wrestlers got the big push too soon, and most of them would be happy to fight on the bottom of an indie card these days.
Yet Corbin has been proving himself night in and night out. Almost a year later, it's getting harder to criticize the Lone Wolf of SmackDown Live; his improvement since joining the big leagues has been obvious to anybody watching, and his star is only on the rise from here.
If there was ever a bigger venue to prove himself, just look at Tuesday night's blue show main event, which pitted Corbin against John Cena in his first match since returning from being a part-timer (a.k.a. filming a reality show). Although Corbin didn't pick up the W, the match showed why he has been given a spotlight since the brand split to make a name for himself. He portrayed his character perfectly, right down to insulting and taunting AJ Styles, who was at ringside on commentary; Corbin doesn't need any help, not even a fellow heel with a bone to pick against Cena. Corbin also showed that he can go toe-to-toe with a guy who has held the world championship belt almost more times than any other wrestler ever to deliver a decent main event on the weekly show, the staple of a rising star. That the match with Cena followed up the genuinely excellent triple threat he had with Styles and Dolph Ziggler last month just puts an exclamation point on his development.
So how did we get here? How did boring ass Baron Corbin of the 10 second squash matches in NXT (matches so boring and short that the crowd would start counting upon the ringing of the bell and not stop until the match was over) turn into one of the hottest prospects in the WWE?
You have to go back to NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, where Samoa Joe guided the big rook to his first "good" match, a showing that truly signaled the arrival of the Lone Wolf. But if you're looking for the real moment that many will look back on as the first sign that he was comfortable being inside of a ring, look at his match with the debuting Apollo Crews from NXT Takeover: London.
"Go back to Ring of Honor!"
With those six words, Corbin solidified himself as Big Banter, a heel so cocky and out of touch that he would yell that at Apollo Crews...who...never wrestled in Ring of Honor. It didn't matter whether Corbin planned that line beforehand or whether he botched it in the ring, it was so funny and so dickish that it got over instantly with the so-called Internet Wrestling Community (IWC). It also helped throw the spotlight on Corbin's in-ring chatter over his promo skills, which are definitely lacking. Yet while he seems to lock up when a mic is in his hands, his smooth workrate and fast wit inside the squared circle showed the potential that seems to finally be put together on SmackDown Live.
Although his aforementioned main event with Cena was solid but didn't exactly blow any minds, it showed something perhaps more important than that: Corbin can be an organic asset for the blue brand. He doesn't need to be a referendum on former football players turned wrestlers with every match, he can just function as a big strong guy who can anchor a match around better performers. He'll always have three big "wow factors" in his favor (his agility moving in and out of the ring, his ability to banter while fighting and his Deep Six, which is one of the most gorgeous-looking signatures in the company), so if he can put that together with better match pacing and a few more moves, Corbin could rocket to the top sooner than later. And if his Talking Smack appearances are to be believed, there IS a good talker in there somewhere who just needs to find his promo character to flourish. Once that happens, this mammoth of a heel will be in main events for years to come, and it'll be the End of Days for Baron Corbin's haters.