Whatever Happened To: Curtis Axel
Popularity in the WWE has always been cyclical. One day you're the WWE Champion, rightfully ripping the belt from the clutches of <name redacted> and the next you find yourself getting booed out of the building after raising your cousin's hand in triumph.
No man or woman is immune from the turning tide of the audience. Although guys like The Rock will likely recover from the absolute horror that was the 2014 Royal Rumble, for some the stigma will stick for years to come.
Fans have used their collective voice for years to inform WWE brass that John Cena's time is up. What began as a few dissenting boos and jeers from a rowdy crowd has evolved into a raucous uproar when his music hits. The evolution of the dislike of John Cena is also cyclical, unintentionally caused by Vince McMahon and the WWE creative team.
Obviously John Cena's momentum and his position on the roster means that, like the Rock, he will recover. Once Cena takes his inevitable leave from WWE, his return to the ring for one off appearances will receive the uproarious reactions that we currently see from most legend appearance.
The stranglehold creative has placed anyone breaking the glass ceiling (Cena-ling?) also shields the future 25 time World Champion from any long term damage. Going down the list of modern men that Cena has laid to rest reveals WWE has no ambition of doing anything that may directly or indirectly tarnish the legacy of John Cena
Owens, Rusev, Stardust, Wyatt just to name a few have fallen to Cena, their growth stunted in the midcard mire. Cena's integrity remains intact and he goes on to crush the dreams of the rest of the roster. Each of the players listed were on fire going into a match with Cena and post loss seemed to have lost their way on the path to stardom.
Alas, for all the hate and vitriol thrown at the Muammar Gaddafi of the CeNation, he is certainly not the only at fault for the burial of so many stars. WWE creative shares much of the blame of halting the ascension of the careers of the four men listed above. However there is another.
I preface the following with this statement; Not everyone in WWE is destined to be a World Champion. That may seem like a bit of a “well duh” thing to say, but WWE fans sometimes seem to forget that this is the nature of wrestling. I make no secret that Adam Rose is my favorite wrestler on the roster under his old gimmick. But is he World Champion material? I sincerely think he could have been if handled right. That statement is also true for one Damien Sandow.
Curtis Axel though is a different story. Grandson of the legendary Larry “The Axe” Henning and son of the one and only “Mr Perfect” Curt Henning, Curtis Axel has the business in his blood. Typically, relatives of immortal Superstars seem to be given preferential treatment, for example being shoehorned into the Wrestlemania main event before holding a single's title belt.
However, unlike one Roman Reigns, Curtis Axel never seemed to be given that preferential treatment. Despite Michael Cole taking every chance to remind views that the man in the ring was related to better wrestlers than he was, viewers would rarely see Axel's hand raised in victory. But why is that? Why would two wrestlers of similar abilities find themselves in two very different paths in the company? Could Curtis Axel have been a World Champion?
At one point in his career Axel seemed to be on the path to stardom. A former Paul Hayman client and Intercontinental Champion, Axel was poised to follow the path laid by his forefathers. Axel had beaten some of the best in the business in defense of his Intercontinental Championship, having originally won the belt from Wade Barrett at the WWE Payback pay per view.
Axel would go on to defeat some impressive names such as Chris Jericho and The Miz, two former world Champions themselves. Jericho would even bestow the “Jericho Curse” on Axel in failing to defeat Axel in his quest for his tenth Intercontinental Championship. But that was then, this is now. In 2013, things were going quite all right for young Curtis Axel, but fast forward two years later and a much different story was being written.
After losing to nearly everyone he faced after being kicked to the curb by former tag team partner, Ryback, Axel would find himself in the middle of the Land Where Dreams Come True: The 2015 Royal Rumble. Entering at lucky number six, Axel appeared to little fanfare. Pumped and ready to go to work, he appeared ready to enter the ring to face Wyatt Family member, Luke Harper... only to be attacked from behind by Erick Rowan, rendering his involvement in the Royal Rumble void.
Although Roman would go on to produce some entertaining wrestling with his family member, Axel's lack of involvement in the match raised a serious break in the continuity of the rules. Since Axel never entered the ropes, couldn't he just waltz in the match after Rowan and try his luck. After all, a shot at the WWE World Heavyweight Title was on the line, guys should be giving their left arm for a chance at greatness. Axel on the other hand, well, he hit the showers. Thankfully for us though, this wouldn't be the last we heard on the matter.
Appearing on later episodes of Raw, Axel declared himself the true winner of the 2015 Royal Rumble as he had never been eliminated from the match. Claiming that he was the rightful claimant to the Title match against then WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Brock Lesnar, Axel would interrupt segments of top draws to promote his cause, using the catch phrase, “Often imitated, never eliminated.”
Although he would typically eat a finisher or two, Axels gimmick worked for so many reasons, the chief among them was that it was truly funny. It's a sad state of affairs when your gimmick relies on the acknowledgement that you are a shitty wrestler and could never stand a chance against Brock Lesnar but you are claiming that you deserve the shot, but it worked.
Adding to the comedy of the gimmick were Axel's outrageous statements regarding the time he spent in the Royal Rumble. Appearing with a running tally that quickly ticked into the weeks and months, Axel would declare himself the best wrestler in the history of the company due to his impossible feat.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the gimmick came after his involvement in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal during the Wrestlemania preshow. After declaring yet again via a live mic that he was the best wrestler of all time, all of the other participants rushed Axel, picking him up as though he were a crowd surfer and throwing him to the outside. On a later episode of Raw, Axel would appear again, stating that it took 29 men to eliminate him from the Battle Royal, proving he was the greatest wrestler of all time.
It was genuinely hilarious and a moment I quickly found myself excited for on WWE television. WWE didn't need another comedy upper midcarder, but they found one, and found one that worked. However, I clearly wasn't the only one that felt this way. As Axel's music would hit, crowds worked into a frenzy, cheering and applauding at the appearance of Axel and joining in with laughter as he would stake his claim. Axel got himself over by cleverly making the best of shitty booking and shitty writing clearly WWE creative needed to step in.
After a few weeks of Axel's boisterous claims, he began employing the hashtag and tag line of “Axelmania,” a clear reference to Hulk Hogan and “Hulkamania,” Eventually going on to don the feather boa and yellow and red outfit, Axel quickly morphed from his current iteration, to a man advertising a bad Spirit Halloween costume.
Meanwhile, fresh off his split from The Miz, Damian Sandow looked to capitalize on his momentum by sliding into a new character as his time as a stunt double had come to a fitting end. Naturally, the obvious decision was to return him to his days of also dressing in a Halloween costume. With Axel dressed as Hulk and Sandow now donning a Macho Man Randy Savage outfit, it seemed only fitting that two of the hottest midcarders would join forces to form a tag team so stupid that not even The American Males themselves could interfere.
As a surprise to absolutely no one, the tag team didn't work. Turns out that doing bad impressions of legends only works when you're twenty years younger and X-Pac and Triple H are doing blackface. If there is an indicator as to the success of The Meta Powers tag team it would be the loss suffered at the hands of The Ascension during their debut match.
Unfortunately for the pair, the unexpected appearance of giant black people and colossal faggots in the life of one Terry Bollea would spell the end of the ill fated tag team. Of course, as is fitting for a break up of a tag team of this magnitude, Axel would take some time off from television competition. He would eventually return to competition losing of course to Braun Strowman.
Where does he go from here though? Where does a career grown from losses finish it's run? How can Axel be taken seriously after so much time in the company and only one title to his name? Axel grew himself to the reactions he received from the crowd and WWE killed it. Axel likely will never have the chance to do that again and that is a absolute shame.
I'll be blunt, although I found the Royal Rumble period of Axel's career entertaining and funny, I wouldn't say that it made me a fan of his work. Like most wrestlers, Axel puts forth an incredible amount of dedication to his craft and maintenance of his physical form. At 5'10 and 187, I can't imagine the struggle he goes through to keep his shape but I don't like him as a wrestler.
Nothing against him personally, but his prior lack of character and lack of depth never kept me entertained as a fan, which is what made the beginning of the Axel Mania gimmick so exciting. The unaware, anti-Chris Jericho figure hadn't been done for quite some time, and Axel was organically growing the character, making it's squash by the WWE brass all the more disappointing.
Axel may not have been a fan favorite, but his treatment is hardly what anyone would call fair. Again, not every one is destined to be champ, but Axel was returning himself to the top of the mountain. I guess this brings us full circle to our question earlier, “Could Curtis Axel have been a World Champion?” We'll likely never find out.