After over four years on the main roster, Apollo Crews finally feels at home. Defending his United States Title at Extreme Rules, Crews returns to the PPV stage, taking on former champion MVP. I’m not sure those words were in any predictions for 2020 but clearly, this match is far from alone in that sense. Nonetheless, Crews finds himself in the midst of a moment that mere months ago, appeared optimistic at best. It’s certainly been a unique path to this point but Crews’ persistence commands respect, especially considering how perilous his trajectory once seemed.
Even after countless cases, NXT call-ups still come with a cloud of uncertainty. They remain an ongoing debate in fact, with NXT’s biggest and brightest stars finding mixed results on the main roster. Interestingly, I’m not sure that Crews is a common name on either list. In many ways, Crews’ struggles were very much anticipated, with his NXT stint simply providing a preview of what would follow. Apollo Crews is an extraordinary athlete, a dynamic in-ring performer that’s capable of simply spectacular feats. However, his time in NXT failed to shape or prepare him for the next step.
In contrast to his physical ability, Crews’ personality isn’t naturally flashy or outward. He’s certainly likable though, with an endearing spirit to match his sincere tone. Unfortunately, not enough time was spent developing that element of Crews. Surrounded by more colorful characters and memorable presentations, Crews’ more understated approach paled in comparison. His story had been told but there was a disconnect, he didn’t seem to fit even if in terms of talent, he clearly belonged. That issue was never really settled and instead, Crews found himself on the main roster after less than a year on NXT TV.
Predictably, it was an ill-fated decision, with Crews quickly floundering as audiences struggled to grasp his appeal. In truth, Crews’ limitations had been heightened by an even lesser creative focus, as he was given very little time to even introduce himself. The NXT vignettes may not have been particularly successful, but they were at least something, providing a backstory and highlighting Crews’ journey to this point. Perhaps it was assumed that the audience had already watched those pieces but either way, Crews’ was a glaringly nondescript character on WWE TV.
That didn’t change much after he landed on SmackDown in 2016’s brand split either, as a brief, forgettable Intercontinental Title programme with The Miz proved to be a rare highlight. That always seemed like a perfect position for Crews to develop from: the secondary title holder that won people over with hard work and skill, producing great matches at every turn. Timing is everything though and clearly, that belt belonged elsewhere in 2016. The following year, Crews found a more consistent focus on RAW, even if in an admittedly preliminary fashion.
Joining Titus O’Neil’s ‘Titus Brand,’ Crews found himself in a promising act that ideally, would bring his personality out in a more overt manner. However, the group was never given enough focus to really explore that element. That’s not to frame them as a potential game changer of course but it does feel like they could’ve been more effective, especially for Crews’ own individual progress. Instead, Crews’ time alongside O’Neil peaked with a tag title match at Elimination Chamber 2018. It had given Crews a surface level identity of sorts but unfortunately, not much more.
As ‘The Titus Brand’ slowly disbanded, Crews began to fall further on WWE’s perceived totem pole, going almost two years without a moment of note. Crews would appear sporadically, usually being trusted to have an enjoyable, compact match in which he lost to a peer currently climbing the ranks. Unfortunately, it seemed that the writing was on the wall, Crews’ ceiling remained intriguing but his importance to the product had only diminished. Granted, his connection with the audience remained flimsy but in fairness, he hadn’t really been given much of a chance to change that.
Instead, Crews had been stalled for four years. He hadn’t failed, he’d just gone so long without any creative focus that steadily, others had passed him by. Crews was the perfect example of WWE’s inability to emphasize their talent’s strengths, sent out in hopes that fleeting filler matches would paper over the cracks they’d failed to fill. Perhaps Crews needed more attention than most, perhaps he couldn’t thrive in a lengthy in-ring talking segment, perhaps a different approach was required. Then again, maybe he just needed an opportunity to wrestle, a genuine chance to steal the show.
Thankfully, that opportunity would arrive the night following this year’s WrestleMania, as Crews took on Aleister Black after being unexpectedly traded to RAW. Going almost half an hour, the match was a much-needed reminder of what Crews can be, performing admirably and making a statement in defeat. That showing provided the foundations for what’s followed, with Crews earning a renewed focus in WWE’s rapidly changing landscape. Before long, Crews was in pursuit of United States Champion Andrade, overcoming a handful of hurdles before taking the title on May 25th.
Crews had waited some time for that moment but remained at ease in his post-match promo, talking with passion but never forcing himself into being something he’s not. Apollo Crews is an authentic, believable athlete, his charm and charisma more than subtle than the norm. At times, I think that’s been viewed as a negative but in truth, I think it can be the opposite. The more outlandish personalities have their audience, but that doesn’t mean Crews can’t have his. It’s all a matter of presentation really, a case of allowing Crews to truly shine elsewhere.
That’s not to say that Crews is headed for next year’s WrestleMania main event, but it does mean that for me at least, he’s a perfect fit as United States Champion. Crews can provide the bell to bell thrills that guide RAW through their weekly runtime, earning the audience’s respect and admiration along the way. He may never wow them with a microphone in his hand but now more than ever, Crews is very much comfortable in his own skin. Now that he’s been allowed to simply embrace his own personality, Crews is increasingly natural, looking confident with the belt around his waist.
At Extreme Rules, Crews seems set to further a conflict that eventually, could very well lead him to Bobby Lashley. Clearly, that’s a matchup for another day but first, Crews must build upon his already ascending reputation. Though it still may be a surprise to some, Apollo Crews is becoming a very valuable part of the RAW roster and in the role he’s currently occupying, there’s no reason for that to change. It may not have been the smoothest ride, but good things come to those who wait and if Crews’ performance suggests anything, it should only get better from here.