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Bobby Lashley has had one of the strangest careers in wrestling history, one that could have only taken place in the current era. Always pushed and protected from the time he first appeared on WWE television, Lashley felt like the next big star. Fans were waiting for it, and waiting for it…until sometime during his career fans kind of accepted that it wasn’t going to happen and he was merely going to be an upper midcard talent and not the next Brock Lesnar.

When Lashley first was in Ohio Valley Wrestling, the rumor was that OVW’s staff were concerned that Vince McMahon would see his physique and athleticism and call him up too early. Which is exactly what happened; after less than a year of matches in OVW, Lashley was called up to the main roster, put on SmackDown and given a huge push.

A still-green Lashley originally turned heads thanks to his size and athleticism as he worked squash matches on SmackDown, but the longer he was on television it became clear that he wasn’t ready to do more than just win squash matches. Fans rejected him when WWE made him ECW Champion, and despite getting put in a huge angle for WrestleMania 23, as Vince McMahon’s champion in the “Battle of the Billionaires” against Donald Trump and Umaga, Lashley never clicked the way Vince McMahon originally envisioned he would be.

A disillusioned Lashley left WWE in 2008 and ended up in TNA. Like WWE, he was pushed as a top star in TNA but at the same time never pushed as THE top guy. He hung around for a few years, but eventually left the promotion to focus full-time on MMA. At that point, it seemed like Lashley was never going to reach his potential after burning through WWE and TNA. Fans seemed to agree that he still had potential, but it was hard to build on that potential when he kept bouncing around and seemed more focused on MMA than wrestling.

After competing in MMA and wrestling sporadically in Japan and the independents, Lashley resurfaced in TNA in 2014. This time, Lashley felt like a different performer, it was the second run in TNA where felt like he was reaching his potential, as he improved a lot in the ring and as a personality, and found his niche working as a dominant, killer heel as opposed to the Cena-esque babyface that he was originally slated to be in WWE.

It was in TNA/Impact that Lashley started the predecessor to The Hurt Business, forming The Beat Down Clan with MVP and Kenny King. He won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship and had a long title run. Over the next few years, even though TNA/Impact’s place in the hierarchy of wrestling was in decline, it was clear to those that were still paying attention to Impact that Lashley was re-building his stock and was a better performer than ever.

Those years in Impact gave Lashley the kind of developmental skills that he was denied during his first run in WWE. As Impact scaled down, it gave Lashley a chance to develop without being counted on to be the next John Cena or Brock Lesnar, as Impact was happy to have someone with name value and size in its main events. Lashley was finally becoming a complete performer after most people had already written him off.

When Lashley finally came back to WWE, he came in with the momentum that he had gained in Impact. Fans who were still following Impact understood that Lashley had greatly improved since he had first left WWE ten years ago. For fans who were not following Impact, Lashley was a white whale, a guy who was thought to have star potential but washed out of WWE before fans got to see it.

His first few years back in WWE were pretty typical of how WWE handles their roster; Lashley was protected in undercard feuds but was clearly marked at a level below the true top stars in the company, like Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns. At that point it looked like Lashley was filling a valuable, but not exactly interesting, role. He was an upper-mid card talent who had some credibility when facing the big boys, but was never going to get a chance to really run with the world title.

During the pandemic, as some of the part-time stars were unavailable and Reigns had gone heel and drafted to SmackDown, a void was opened for Lashley. He started The Hurt Business with MVP and Shelton Benjamin, later adding Cedric Alexander, and became arguably the most protected guy in the company. Since Backlash last June, when he lost to Drew McIntyre, Lashley has not been pinned in any match. A killer force, Lashley built momentum away from the world title picture and with the backing of The Hurt Business he got the managerial skills of MVP, which gave him the extra kind of personality he needed to get over the hump.

By the time Lashley beat The Miz for the world title, he was easily the hottest act on RAW. Despite the fact that Drew McIntyre was being pushed as the babyface star of RAW, Lashley has seemingly surpassed him and feels like a hotter act heading into their match at WrestleMania. Despite the stage being set for McIntyre to get a big babyface pop to regain his championship, which Lashley effectively stole by coercing The Miz into cashing in his Money in the Bank contract and subsequently squashing The Miz for the title; Lashley appears to be more of a fan favorite than McIntyre.

The interesting thing about Lashley’s past year, and his rise to success in WWE after 15 years of trying, was how simple it was to eventually get him into his current position. The recipe for getting Lashley over was basically just to book him really strong and rarely have him lose or look weak. A key aspect was that Lashley got the better of whoever he was facing, week-to-week. He was never needlessly beaten down, he never was outsmarted by his opponents, he was always protected in ways that don’t show up in the W-L statistic.

The Hurt Business helped; but it wasn’t like The Hurt Business itself is a particularly creative idea. They are just some guys who wear suits, talk about making money, and beat people up. There is not some great ethos that endears The Hurt Business to fans; they are just presented as guys who feel like stars and they are booked to be stars by constantly winning their battles.

The simplicity of Lashley’s rise to the top of WWE is fascinating. It proves that to get over, you don’t need to have a crazy storyline rich with twists and turns; what you need is someone who fans feel like is a badass. Lashley has been a badass since last June and the result is that he is finally, FINALLY, reaching his potential. It has been a long journey for Lashley, but he is now at the top of the wrestling world.

In the latest edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss the end of the WWE Network. Jesse and Jason go over what watching old wrestling was like in the before times, how the WWE Network changed WWE booking patterns, the move to Peacock and concerns about the video archive.

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