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Wrestling’s Greatest Gatekeepers

Chris Jericho AEW. Wrestling Gatekeepers column

“If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” is the stereotypical, go-to phrase for just about any bouncer or gatekeepers you’ll ever encounter. Whether you like it or not, these terrifying slabs of humanity have got the final say on if you’re getting into the nightclub/bar/afterparty of your dreams or if your evening is destined to finish the same way it always does: watching New Girl while you cry into another bowl of day-old Minstrels (stop judging me).

Wrestling has a long and storied history of producing bouncer-like figures who act as a buffer between the chancers that want to be main-eventers and the talent that genuinely needs to be at the top of the mountain for the good of everyone in the industry.

They themselves are destined to permanently hover between the upper-midcard and the main-event, depending on what their particular organisation needs at that moment in time.

The Unseen Gatekeepers

Two perfect examples of gatekeepers in the current climate are The Miz and Dolph Ziggler.

Both former world champions have been called upon time and time again to perform the daunting task of preparing new talent for a big push (see Ziggler vs Nakamura, when the latter made his main roster debut) or helping a floundering worker buy some time while creative scrambles to find something to do with them (something The Miz has done multiple times over the last three years for Braun Strowman).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Dolph Ziggler’s COVID-era career has been helping to establish Drew McIntyre as a dominant and marketable world champion. The footage of Ziggler selling a straight jab from McIntyre like he’d been hit in the face with a sledgehammer is some of the best footage WWE has produced all year.

Mike Mizanin, on the other hand, now serves the dual purpose of working with singles competitors who need something to do, while also functioning as a reliable pillar of the tag team division with John Morrison.

The Best In The World At What He Does

AEW established its brand with the shock acquisition of wrestling’s longest-serving (and perhaps greatest ever) wrestling gatekeeper Chris Jericho. Never quite THE man, Jericho had made a name for himself by enhancing the main event credentials of Triple H, Kurt Angle, Edge, Batista and John Cena, as well as briefly reigniting Rey Mysterio’s run at the top of the card and giving an ageing Shawn Michaels arguably the best feud of his second run with WWE.

For the first six months of AEW’s existence, Jericho was the focal point of AEW’s television output, as well as being front and centre for the majority of the organisation’s marketing material. It was a wise decision; as talented and recognisable as The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and Cody Rhodes are, their drawing power with casual TV viewers is distinctly small-time when compared to Jericho’s.

Thus, the decision to put the company’s top championship on the then 48-year-old Jericho, and have him successfully defend it against many of AEW’s young stars, was the right one for the new brand. As was having him drop the title to Jon Moxley. Moxley is the next most recognisable face in AEW and, at just 34, has potentially 10 good years of main-event matches left in him.

That Jericho has wrestled the likes of Orange Cassidy, Darby Allin, and Jungle Boy is proof that AEW now sees Jericho as their main event gatekeeper. Those workers are almost certainly in AEW’s mid to long-term main event plans, and can now rightfully claim to have a higher profile thanks to working with such a well-known figure.

If the company were to turn Jericho face, the list of intriguing matches is just as long. Having MJF, for example, be Jericho’s last main event program with the organisation would undoubtedly increase his drawing power. “I retired Chris Jericho” would be the perfect boast for the masterful MJF to use to garner heat.

After that, Y2J could either retire comfortably or, most likely, earn a spot in WWE’s Hall of Fame and perform on a part-time basis while potentially portraying an on-air authority figure. Another tried and tested method of getting young talent over is by having them work with and defeat a semi-retired legend (also known as the Mick Foley Technique), Jericho would be perfect for this.

The Entry Level Gatekeeper

AEW continued to acquire gatekeeper talent when they signed Matt “Zack Ryder” Cardona to a long-term deal. After the disaster that was his mini-feud with Kane (that was little more than a set-up for John Cena’s involvement), Ryder retreated back down the card and spent a number of years helping developmental call-ups find their feet on the main roster by expertly guiding them through straightforward house show matches.

In a recent trip down memory lane style video for his YouTube channel, ToBeMiroTv, the superstar formerly known as “Rusev” describes his first loop on the main roster in great detail. During the video Miro mentions being taken under Cesaro’s wing, being in the second or third match on the card every night, and working with Zack Ryder, who Miro describes as,

“Me and Zack Ryder, of course, obviously…Zack Ryder was the gateway to the main roster. Every single person that came from developmental had to work Zack Ryder. He was the gatekeeper, he can give you the thumbs up or the thumbs down.”

This seems to indicate that Zack Ryder was trusted enough by management to supply them with feedback on potential stars of the future. Given that Ryder had been with the company for nearly a decade at that point is also a sign that the WWE likes to hang on to talent that has the ability to work multiple different styles of matches and provide analysis afterwards.

Trust Him

Going further back into wrestling history, one of the best gatekeepers of the 1980s was someone who, at first glance, would seem like an odd choice for the position, but who nonetheless rose to the task every time; Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

Roberts was no technical “Ring General” but had the psychology of a wrestling match down to perfection, and could work a crowd like a master musician plays a Stradivarius. With minimal moves and absolutely no high spots, Roberts was able to captivate any crowd anywhere in the world into either booing him out of the building or relentlessly cheering him on.

This meant that it didn’t matter how unknown or green Roberts’ opponent was, the likelihood was their match was going to have one of the loudest reactions of the night even if it had no build or no storyline reason for taking place. That’s how good Roberts was.

“Ravishing” Rick Rude’s first feud of note in the then WWF was with the snake man, and the heat he generated working with Roberts (in a deeply personal storyline involving Roberts’ then-wife), catapulted him up the card. His ascension was so rapid and well-received that he was the person chosen to relieve the Ultimate Warrior of the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania V.

Roberts also helped elevate midcard acts like Rick Martel and Earthquake, enhanced the main event auras of The Undertaker and The Ultimate Warrior, and gave Andre The Giant one of the most memorable singles feuds of his final few years with the company.

Even when he was struggling with injuries and addiction problems Roberts could make anyone look like a star, and is still pulling the strings today in AEW as the manager and mouthpiece for the resurgent Lance Archer.

Gatekeepers are as old as the wrestling industry itself. If it weren’t for the old-time gatekeepers helping carny promoters fleece local rubes out of their hard-earned drinking money, it’s unlikely there would even be a wrestling industry today.

While some people like to mock workers like The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, and Matt Cardona for being stuck in the same position for years, it’s important to remember that without them the future of the wrestling industry would be very bleak indeed.

If you would like to read more about WCW’s greatest ever gatekeeper: Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, make sure to read my column The Night The Belt Changed Hands in issue 2 of the Inside The Ropes Magazine available online at www.InsideTheRopesMagazine.com