Kevin Wong
Saturday August 20th, 2016

Heath Slater is a loser, and it takes skill and heart to lose as often and as well as he does.

Climbing the respectability ladder in WWE is predicated by winning. Every rookie advances to the midcard by winning. Every midcarder advances to the world title picture by winning. But if someone’s winning, that also means that someone else is losing. And for years, Heath Slater has been that someone. He’s the sturdy, foundational bottom of WWE’s pecking order, supporting the weight of everyone else’s push.

And like the foundation of any building, invisible to the public but doing what it’s supposed to do, Slater has a thankless, unglamorous purpose. Up until this past Tuesday, when he “won” a match against Randy Orton via disqualification, Slater had been on a one-on-one losing streak since February 2016, when he scored a pair of pinfalls against Zack Ryder. That’s a six-month gap. Prior to those two wins, Slater hadn’t won since May 2015, when he pinned Adam Rose. That’s a nine-month gap.

A wide variety of Superstars pinned Slater in that time frame—up-and-comers like Apollo Crews, veterans like AJ Styles, marquee talent like Brock Lesnar and midcarders like Ryback. But Slater is the man for the job, pun intended.

The timeline of Slater’s ritual humiliation began in Summer 2012. Prior to that, Slater showed promise—he was the FCW champion in WWE’s developmental territory. He debuted on the main roster as a member of the Nexus and then the Corre. Slater wrestled main eventers; he even won the WWE Tag Team Championship three ties during this time period.

Then, Slater’s push went horribly, horribly wrong. He was suspended 30 days for violating the WWE Wellness Policy. And when he returned to action, Slater’s new gimmick was to be a punching bag. In the run-up to Raw’s 1000th episode, he was squashed, week after week, by numerous WWE Legends in one-on-one matches. Vader. Sycho Sid. Road Warrior Animal. Bob Backlund. This embarrassing angle culminated at the 1000th Raw episode, when Slater was pinned by a returning Lita. Most observers assumed that Slater would be ‘future endeavored’ by the end of the year.

But something unexpected happened during this period; unlike many wrestlers, who are embittered by their downward trajectory on the card, Slater got in on the joke, and embraced his loser status. What may have started as a backstage punishment had become a signature; today, no one does a job as well or as wonderfully as Slater.

His selling and ringwork is spot-on—not so cartoonish that you can’t take him seriously, and not so realistic that you can’t laugh at his demise. Check out this headstand, and notice JBL’s off-the-cuff reaction.

Slater’s mic work is fair—it’s not good enough to get him over as a main eventer, but it’s more than adequate for the low-stakes feuds he involves himself in. Slater usually works as a heel, and usually, heels who talk trash on Raw do not get their ultimate comeuppance until weeks later on a PPV. In the long run, this is great for building suspense and selling subscriptions, even if it’s a letdown in the short term.

But when Slater comes out on the ramp, fans know that a crowd-pleasing ass kicking will soon follow. Guaranteed. It’s become formula: Slater trash talks, Slater gets called out, Slater gets destroyed. He provides instant gratification on a show that often tests viewers’ patience.

Slater is currently a “free agent.” He is the only active WWE Superstar who was not drafted to Raw or SmackDown—another humiliation in a long line of humiliations. His current angle—fighting top guys to earn his way to a contract— is the highlight of every show he’s a part of. This past Tuesday’s match between Slater and Orton benefited both men. Slater got the best comedy skit of the evening. Orton got to look strong heading into SummerSlam without burying a newcomer in the process. Orton even got to perform his signature Viper taunt, immediately following it with an RKO. Usually, Orton’s opponents scout and block this sequence. Heath Slater didn’t (and never will), and the crowd will always eat it up.

Slater is filling the role that anonymous local talent filled back in the early 90’s. But Slater is superior to the average jobber. Because he’s known to audiences, every loss is richer and more meaningful—another piece in what is now a four-year, running joke. And slowly, his never-ending losing streak has endeared him to fans; there’s more cheers and less boos with every passing month. Here’s to hoping that trend continues, and the “One Man Band” continues to redefine what it means to fail upwards.

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