I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling for a long time; crucially, a lot of the formative years of my fandom were spent during my adolescence, which is, typically, a bit of a fraught time in a person’s life. Emotions run high, your entire understanding of the world begins to open, and the passions that will follow you for the rest of your days begin to take shape.

That passion, youthful in its furor, is one that I recognize in the ongoing phenomenon that is L.A. Knight.

If you believe social media and crowd reactions, Knight seems to be one of the biggest rising stars that WWE has both right now, and in a long time. On a weekly basis, fans go absolutely nuts when his music hits, and his manner of speech and catchphrases have caught on wildly. If you look in the comments of any official WWE YouTube video or tweet concerning him (and even some not concerning him), many viewers are wondering why Knight isn’t showing up more on TV, or why he isn’t world champion right now.

However, as I’m constantly recommended more fan videos of “Biggest L.A. Knight Pops” or “Every L.A. Knight ‘Yeah’ Ever,” I keep coming back to how weird it all seems. Sure, Knight is good on the mic, charismatic, attractive, and doesn’t fumble over himself in-ring, but…why him? Why now? Why with this much energy?

It was barely over a year ago that L.A. Knight was “overcoming” the silly gimmick of Max Dupri, the head of Maximum Male Models (personally, I think a lot of meat was left on the bone with Knight playing the role that Upper Management slotted him into). Even more recently, Knight’s biggest main roster feud was his months-long rivalry with Bray Wyatt (in his own way, an L.A. Knight-type figure of the past). Watching him there, his character is virtually the same as it is now, with the same promo style and maybe slightly less emphasis on his ear-worm catchphrases. Knight was positioned firmly as heel against the cult favorite Wyatt, so crowds were not screaming with glee when his music hit. In the talking segments between the two, you can hear a few crowd members punctuate his sentences with his trademark “Yeah,” but it was hardly at the level it is right now (maybe those few still remembered his identical gimmick from Impact Wrestling). The somewhat-infamous Mountain Dew Pitch Black match at the 2023 Royal Rumble didn’t seem to get him over to any greater degree, either.

It also seemed like there was no hurry from the people behind the show to “make” Knight, at least not in a hurry. In March of this year, Knight began a soft campaign to get himself onto the WrestleMania show, one way or another. After all, you can’t have an LA Wrestlemania without L.A. Knight…except they totally did do just that. It was an embarrassing omission and a strange, dropped story, made even stranger by how not notable it was. I forgot he had even said that by the time the curtain closed on Night 2 of WrestleMania and I bet you did, too. Clearly, Knight could be left off major shows with nothing lost.

But, if you rewatch some of his segments on the march to WrestleMania, you can hear the tide begin to turn. Whereas at the end of 2022, Knight’s entrance music would gain faint boos, that March 2023 period saw people begin to pick up what he was putting down. Watching videos from then, you can hear not only more cheers for Knight’s entrance, but people are beginning to respond to his familiar calls of “Lemme talk to ya,” and the three-point chant for his name. It’s not as rapturous as it will be, but something’s happening here.

The real head of steam for L.A. Knight seemed to happen at some point in May, and really, it isn’t so much a singular happening that kicks it off as it is the steady trickle. Amid a go-nowhere feud with the Street Profits (which I guarantee you will forget about by the end of the year), Knight’s presence was the most accepted it has been, with his signature promo sign-off getting big sing-along reactions. Fast forward a month, and Knight is where he is now: Getting the biggest reactions of the night by pointing and talking.

Beyond that, Knight’s online virality is beginning to make dividends, as an off-air segment between he and perennial outcasts Hit Row on WWE’s YouTube managed to hit over a million views over one weekend, all with calls from fans bemoaning how the segment wasn’t on TV. His merchandise has also recently ranked among the top sellers in the entire company, proving that there is a bit of financial clout that Knight can claim to.

For as much as Knight’s sudden launch into popularity feels odd and hard to place, it’s an occurrence that tends to happen once every few years, especially within the biggest wrestling organization in the world. Specifically, a certain figure (usually a male wrestler, but not exclusively) that comes around and, in being themselves, manages to push against the assembly-line nature of many of WWE’s characters. In a company where so many wrestlers and personalities are content to hit their marks and spout out the most unnatural dialogue you’ve ever heard, someone like an L.A. Knight can feel like a breath of fresh air when they speak the lines with confidence and manage to sound authentic in doing so.

Before L.A. Knight, it was Enzo Amore, or Mr. Kennedy, or Zack Ryder, or you could even go back to older characters like Road Dogg in the ’90s, or even just look at brief glimpses in established stars like Becky Lynch’s initial run as “The Man.” All of them characters can manage to grab audiences through a combination of cool, novel, and empowering.

It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks and months if WWE has any interest in making hay while the Knight shines, so to speak. As a company (and at the directive of a certain figurehead), it has been historically reticent to put too much stock into beloved fan favorites unless said favorites checked very particular boxes. In past instances of catchphrase machines and merchandise movers getting over with crowds, there is as much chance of these people being made low as a kind of misguided ego check, as it is to roll with the punches and go where the heat is at. Yes, crowd reaction and popularity does not designate a future champion on its own, but I do wonder what WWE officials make of all this.

It’s not totally known what Knight’s current backstage rep is, although he did admit in an interview this year to there being “residual heat” upon his return in 2021. Poor reputations among co-workers and peers have been the bane of many superstars, even the most popular ones, and can sometimes translate into reduced TV time or importance in the product.

It really seems that wrestling fans are responding to a character whose attitude and manner of speech hearkens back to how things were during the Attitude Era, when speech was far less pre-planned and felt a bit more dangerous. Throughout most of the past decade, Knight has proven that he can talk a blue streak wherever he goes and can project enough bravado to make you want to listen. I know a lot of people can’t overcome the hurdle of how much his promo style and voice are reminiscent of The Rock but, as with so many of our favorite wrestlers throughout the years, there is hardly anything original under the sun anymore. We’ve seen wrestlers either take or be strapped with an ill-fitting template to success, so to see it again here but used in a far more successful way (so far) is proof that talent lies beyond simply aping someone’s else gimmick.

I’ve joked to friends recently that the rise of L.A. Knight in 2023 feels like a psy-op, like a suggestion planted into our sleeping brains that explains the seeming out-of-nowhere ascension of the guy who has been a modeling agent, a Dew spokesperson, and the Million Dollar Champion. Doing the work, however, has shown me that Knight’s popularity has been more organic than some may be willing to admit and, to me, belies two things. One, that fans who watch WWE still crave characters that come across as both bigger-than-life yet real; and two, that as much as The Bloodline story has been constant Twitter talk for the past several years, WWE’s programming still contains pockets of disinterest for many, me included. It’s in these pockets that there can be success stories that exceed the expectations of even the most jaded viewer, but also where a lot of the hard work of being a professional wrestler goes on. It’s tough, it often doesn’t work out, but sometimes, you can make a name for yourself by literally naming yourself.

It’s been L.A. Knight’s game for months; all you have to do is listen.

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