Regular readers of my work on this website, in particular my coverage of Rebellion, will know that I’m all aboard the “Steve Maclin as Impact Wrestling World Champion” train.
I know he’s seen as very much a JAG (just a guy) to some, but I think his in-ring work is genuinely very good, and his character work (notably his smug heel grin) is improving all the time. He also represents Impact taking a punt on someone and trying to make a guy, something that a promotion in their position and of their size has to do more often.
From the moment of his title win at Rebellion, Impact’s presentation of Maclin has been more or less as good as it could be. The latest installment of that presentation came with his first official title defense on this past week’s TV against Rhino.
At age 47 and with almost 30 years in the business behind him, Rhino isn’t what he once was. He’s still serviceable, but there’s a decided cap on his mobility and what he can still do. As the hot tag in a babyface tag team, for example, he’s fine. Him holding up his end in a singles title match, though? I wasn’t sold.
In the end, I thought Maclin/Rhino rocked because it wasn’t competitive. It wasn’t some nostalgia pandering exercise where the younger guy has to sell for his veteran opponent unrealistically. No, Maclin just beat him up for close to 10 minutes. Sure, Rhino had some hope spots, and the Chicago crowd was behind him, but Maclin focused on his surgically-repaired knee, wore him down, and beat him cleanly. Not with his signature KIA DDT, though. Instead, he left Rhino lying with the Gore.
Winning cleanly is perhaps the thing I’ve liked the most. Making heels in the modern business is probably more challenging than ever, but it’s so refreshing to have one put in front of you that doesn’t thrive solely on clichéd interference or the world’s dumbest referees. God forbid other bookers could do the same. With Maclin, he wins cleanly and then gets his heat afterward.
Take, for example, his title win against KUSHIDA at Rebellion. There were no shenanigans, no fun, and games, just a good back-and-forth match that naturally built to the finish. After the match, Maclin got his heat by attacking Impact president Scott D’Amore and immediately setting up his first ‘big’ title program with the returning Nick Aldis. Simple, A-to-B booking that ticked every box it needed to.
Against Rhino, Impact used different tools to get Maclin heat. Viciously working over a body part during the match? Tick. Beating the beloved babyface with his own move? Tick. Beating the stuffing out of the babyface after the match and attacking their injured body part with a steel chair and then a shovel? Tick.
Maclin against Rhino was an example of getting the maximum possible reward with good booking. Working a big injury write-off angle for Rhino gives Impact a nostalgia return pop for later down the line, opens the door for a teased retirement story with Rhino (he said he thought he’d have to retire when he had that knee operated on last year) and means that when he’s back, him and Heath can go back into the tag title mix without feeling stale.
As for Maclin, the match gave him a dominant first title defense and a bit more organic heel heat. It also gave them the means to make his title match with PCO at Under Siege a No DQ match. While I know I’m sick of matches like that, the plunder will absolutely help make the match better.
You also saw a different edge to Maclin in the match that set up the Rhino a title defense, a trios contest that saw Maclin, Mahabali Shera & Champagne Singh lose to PCO, Heath, and Rhino. Here, you got Maclin, the coward as he took a powder and left Singh and Shera to take the loss. Now, he positions that as him choosing to fight another day in a match where, to him, the result doesn’t matter. To the crowd, though, he’s a coward that’s a bit afraid of the top contender. Basic booking and basic heel heat.
Now, all of what I’ve laid out here isn’t me telling you that Impact has cracked the code with Maclin or that they’re doing anything ground-breaking. I’m also not saying that he’s going to be this top, top heel. What I am saying, though is that they’re doing the best job they can with him. He’s not a lazy, conniving heel. He’s not your wink-wink, nudge-nudge heel that gets cheered. He’s a smug heel who wins matches cleanly and then takes liberties after the final bell has rung.
It doesn’t matter whether he loses the title to Aldis at Slammiversary or to Frankie Kazarian, Alex Shelley, Mike Bailey or someone else further down the line, it doesn’t matter.
So far, the Steve Maclin World Champion experiment is getting maximum returns from the investment Impact have put in.
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