After coming up short in three straight opportunities to reclaim the World Heavyweight Championship, Batista must now compete for the No. 1 contender's spot in a Fatal Four Way Match on SmackDown Friday night.
His greatest battle, however, may not have him facing fellow contenders Mark Henry, Kane and Finlay this week. That may be reserved for the casual locker room rumblings that have snowballed into a groundswell of uncertainty—one which questions whether or not The Animal is still a dominant species in WWE.
"I've never felt so beat up," a battle-weary Batista informed WWE.com. "I'm literally dealing with injuries on a day-to-day basis, not knowing how I'll be when I come out of each match."
Merely looking at the chiseled Superstar's 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame, it's in any sensible person's best interest to assume that The Animal belongs atop the SmackDown food chain. Friends of Batista would say his brutish moniker aptly describes not just the explosive temper that simmers beneath an otherwise calm demeanor outside the squared circle, but a troubled childhood while growing up in the roughest part of southeast Washington, D.C. Those who choose simply to measure success by gold needn't look any further than his two World Heavyweight Championships.
Fact is fact, however. And the fact is, recent history has not weighed in Batista's favor.
Despite having what SmackDown announcer JBL described as "the match of his career," Batista felt the physical and emotional disappointment of losing his coveted World Heavyweight Title to Undertaker at WrestleMania 23. No one questioned The Animal's ferociousness in that matchup; it's an uphill battle for anyone, even a champion, to battle a Phenom who is a perfect 15-0 at the greatest spectacle in sports-entertainment.
A source working close to the ringside action claims that Batista's physical well-being became a nagging question mark around Backlash, when he confronted Undertaker in a Last Man Standing Match with a heavily taped right hamstring—the cumulative result of his prior meeting with The Deadman, plus a shillelagh-powered assault by Finlay on SmackDown. Their brutally draining second encounter ended abruptly after Batista speared Undertaker off the Backlash stage, leaving both men surrounded by exploding electrical gear and collapsing steel trusses…and unable to rise to their feet until long after the referee's ten-count.
"Both guys had opportunities to put each other away," the source observed, "but I really think Batista would have been Last Man Standing if he hit that Batista Bomb up on the ramp. The injured leg stopped him from pulling it off."
Two weeks later on SmackDown, the rivalry between The Animal and Undertaker climbed to an even higher level—15 feet, in fact, and inside a steel cage. Unfortunately, this heightened clash of the titans also ended in controversy when officials determined that both Superstars' feet had simultaneously landed on the outside floor.
One could argue that Batista didn't lose these contests, but then you'd have to concede a more important point: he didn't win them, either. As a result, the World Heavyweight Title remained in Undertaker's possession—for about another 10 minutes. Within moments of the grueling Steel Cage Match, plus the returning Mark Henry's vicious ambush, Edge cashed in his Money in the Bank contract and seized The Phenom's championship, like a vulture swooping down to pluck the skin off a carcass.
While it's easy to speculate in hindsight, several locker room dwellers claim that The Animal should have taken Edge's twisted turning of events to make himself the "ultimate opportunist" come Judgment Day. "He was lined up perfectly to get [the title] back," noted one individual. "After coming off all those battles with a juggernaut like Undertaker, his momentum was off the charts going up against Edge. Everybody thought that title would be his again by the end of the night."
WWE Mobile subscribers were inclined to agree. In a Judgment Day poll that asked which challenger was most likely to win a championship at the May 20 pay-per-view, more than 39 percent of the votes placed The Animal at the front of the pack. Batista himself also seemed confident about his chances; days before their World Heavyweight Championship Match, he interrupted Edge's SmackDown inaugural address to warn that he'd be taking back his title.
All signs had pointed to The Animal once again ruling the SmackDown kingdom. That is until his instincts, plus a spinebuster attempt on his bad leg, betrayed him long enough for Edge to steal the victory with a quick rollup. After roaring into St. Louis, Batista would limp away from Judgment Day, once again without the gold that defines his dominance.
When Batista enters the ring this Friday, it won't be as SmackDown's automatic No. 1 contender for the World Heavyweight Championship. If he wants to challenge Edge at One Night Stand a week from Sunday, he'll have to go through a Big Red Monster, a fuming silverback and a fighting-mad Irishman. And so the nagging question resurfaces: Can The Animal fight through his injuries and be the dominant species he once was?
"I'd be a fool to just say yes," Batista admitted. "I think my rivalry with Undertaker may have taken years off my career, if not my life. We went to war three consecutive times, and all in a very short period of time…. Right now, we just have to wait and see how my body's going to hold up."
Don't confuse Batista's admission as one of weakness, however. Calling attention to the fact that a wounded Animal is often the most dangerous kind, he emphatically added, "I'm still here, and I'm still chasing after the World Heavyweight Title."